Archive | November, 2013

Review of No Better Thing Under the Sun: Making the First Thanksgiving, by Helen Stringer

27 Nov

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the year. A distinctly American time of family, food, and football, it is a time for us to be thankful for all that we have. The holiday has always been somewhat curious to me, however, rooted as it is in elusive tradition that has somehow become an enduring part of life in the United States despite the fact that the historic events that inspired the first Thanksgiving feast back in the early 1600s are so little understood. Curious to find out a little more, I recently read Helen Stringer’s slim, 100-page investigation of that iconic event, No Better Thing Under the Sun: Making the First Thanksgiving.


The book is a really entertaining and enlightening read. Stringer not only explains the historical circumstances surrounding that first famous feast, but gives remarkable insight into what might have been on the table, how it would presented, and how it would be consumed. It is a crash course in early New England colonial life, with information on such diverse topics as how the Pilgrims interacted with Native Americans, why they did not have forks, who sat where at a dinner table (assuming they had one), and what spices they might have had and how they got them. The short book dispels many myths, provides insight into the daily life of one of the earliest American settlements, and explains what we know and don’t know about the first Thanksgiving. It even includes a few recipes for dishes that might have been on the first Thanksgiving Day menu to boot.



Review of Plague Among the Magnolias, by Deanne Nuwer

25 Nov

After hearing an excellent presentation at a recent teachers’ workshop by author Deanne Nuwer, I read her book Plague Among the Magnolias, The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Mississippi. Although not a topic of which I normally have an interest, I was intrigued by Nuwer’s ability to present this event in the context of Mississippi’s late 19th century history.  Plague Among the Magnolias provides a fascinating look into one of Mississippi’s most horrific events, an event that cost the lives of nearly five percent of its population, but is now often limited to a footnote in the history of the state.

Plague Among the Magnolias

The book contains a plethora of information. It starts with an overview of Reconstruction in the state, and then provides the necessary medical/scientific information concerning yellow fever; a disease that the medical profession did not know the cause of or how to treat. The vast majority of the book gives a detailed examination of the plague’s onslaught across Mississippi, how communities dealt with the pestilence, the state’s ineffective handling of the situation, and relief efforts by outsiders. The scope of the epidemic was tremendous.  Over 16,000 cases were reported, with a 25% mortality rate. Communities were devastated as the casualties mounted. The leadership of entire towns was wiped out as mayors, sheriffs, and other officials died, leaving towns void of anyone capable of managing the crisis.  Nuwer provides an interesting anecdote of how the deaths of all the bank officers in Greenville who knew the bank’s combination left no one who could open the vault. This was just one of many examples of how the plague devastated the day-to-day lives of communities.

Nuwer’s strongest point in the book is state government’s inability to handle this crisis. After “redeeming” the state in the 1870s, Democratic leaders scaled back government activities tremendously, thereby creating a state government unable to cope with such a major catastrophe.  Although a State Board of Health had been created the year before, it was a powerless organization that could only collect statistics and offer suggestions to communities. It had hardly any budget to provide relief and no legislative authority to enforce regulations such as quarantines. If not for the relief provided by groups such as the Howard Association, the epidemic would have been even more calamitous. Nuwer’s tales of relief workers providing comfort to the sick only to come down with the sickness themselves and die is truly heart-wrenching.

This book, only 136 pages of narrative, is a quick read that provides insight into a dark chapter in Mississippi’s history. Yellow fever was one of many diseases whose impact was appalling considering society’s lack of understanding of its causes and cures. The epidemic was a landmark event in the state, not only for the calamity it caused, but for its place in developing a public health consciousness in the region and nation. Plague Among the Magnolias is a must-read for those who wish to understand a key, but forgotten moment in Mississippi’s 19th century history.


196th Anniversary of the Battle of Fowltown

22 Nov

One hundred ninety-six years ago today the first of two battles collectively known as the Battle of Fowltown were fought in extreme southwest Georgia near the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers. The event is largely credited as the official beginning of the First Seminole War. The affair was part of a series of almost continual armed conflicts between the United States and Creeks and Seminoles spanning more than half of the nineteenth century. 

Fowltown marker

To mark this important anniversary, the Historic Chattahoochee Commission and Bainbridge State College welcomed noted Seminole War authority Dr. Joe Knetsch to Bainbridge to discuss the battle. We sat just a few miles away from that obscure battlefield as we learned about the importance of the events that played out on its grounds. I think the event was a success; not because we had over 80 people there (which is great), but because we hopefully drew a little attention to a place and era in our history that both desperately need it.



A Little History Could Go A Long Way

20 Nov

Yesterday several news outlets carried a story about an unfortunate event at a high school football game in Alabama. Apparently, some cheerleaders prepared a banner for their football team to run through as they entered the field to play an opponent whose nickname is the Indians. Written on the banner was the phrase “hey Indians get ready to leave on a Trail of Tears.”  Innocent play on words or not, the insensitivity to Native American heritage was obvious. A public outcry ensued, and the principal of the school issued an apology.

I don’t believe the kids who made the sign intended a slight, and I think people are missing the point of the issue this affair highlights by discussing our seemingly unending ability to become offended by words at every turn. Rather, I believe the event shines light on the glaring ignorance of American history that is engulfing our society and belies the sophistication we claim to have based on our ingenuity in the sciences. To the cheerleaders, “Trail of Tears” is just a phrase they have heard; it carried no real emotional weight, was not connected to real people and a real saga, and had no bearing on their present situation other than providing a way to talk smack to their team’s opponent. It demonstrated how little our schools seem to be doing to educate the next generation about the people, places, and events that shaped us as a country.

The principal of the school was quick, in his public apology, to state that from henceforward, students would receive instruction in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It took a public relations crisis to acknowledge that history has a place in the education of students, I guess. As much as I decry the newfound sensitivities we seem to have that manifest themselves as manufactured outrage at politically incorrect language, I do wonder if such incidents might spark a desire to understand the world around us and how it got that way a little better.


The Gettysburg Address: The Greatest Speech of All Time?

20 Nov

November 19th marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Given at the dedication of the national cemetery a few months after the horrific battle fought the previous July, President Abraham Lincoln gave what was perhaps his greatest speech ever. In fewer than 300 words and lasting less than five minutes, Lincoln powerfully summed up the war and its deeper meaning in phrases that have now become iconic. Phrases like “Four Score and seven years ago”; “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure”; and “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” are expressions that have become synonymous with us as a nation. In these brief words, Lincoln honored the war’s participants, especially those who gave their lives, as deserving our gratitude and respect as they sacrificed all to not only unite the nation, but to create a better one; a nation with the opportunity to live up to the loftier ideas of our nation’s forefathers.

Gettysburg Address

This speech used to be required study in every classroom across the nation as school children memorized verses to repeat to their teachers. It was an exercise befitting the speech’s place in the pantheon of speeches made during our nation’s 200+ year history. And yet sadly, this speech does not appear to be required reading by our children in school. It has been relegated to the side, an afterthought of our educational system.  As with other iconic events in our nation’s history, these moments forged this nation into what it is today and are now quickly being forgotten.

There have been other great speeches made throughout the years, but few resonate with as much power and sincerity in such a way as does the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln made a host of speeches during his political career, speeches that truly marked him as one of our country’s greatest statesmen. Anyone who has followed politics during the past twenty or so years knows there have not been any speeches lately worthy of such remembrance. No one has uttered words that so captured the time or inspired a people as did Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Perhaps this year’s anniversary will bring this great speech back into our nation’s consciousness so we can appreciate its words and meaning once again.

Renowned orator Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours before Lincoln made his remarks, told Lincoln afterward that “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Truer words have never been spoken.


Review of Valley Forge: Traditional Land, Contemporary Vision, by M.J. Ticcino

18 Nov

Although I would not characterize myself as an art enthusiast by any stretch, I am intrigued with art that brings historical events to life. So many of the major moments in American history I research and read about occurred before photography, and so many of those major moments are not recreated in paintings. In short, you more often than not must really use your imagination to envision what a place looked like when a major event took place.

Valley Forge cover Valley Forge cabins Valley Forge deer Valley Forge landscape Valley Forge Washington HQ


On my recent visit to the Philadelphia area, I got a chance to tour Valley Forge National Historical Park, and picked up a copy of a very intriguing book that brought the events the park interprets to life in a unique way. Valley Forge: Traditional Land, Contemporary Vision, by photographer M.J. Ticcino, is  a slim but stunning volume that captures the essence of Washington’s encampment in 1777-78 as effectively as any prose ever could. The book features over two dozen modern photographs, but these are no mere snapshots. Beautifully arranged and enhanced with modern technology, they are haunting, evocative, and even ethereal. They communicate the melancholy of Washington’s army at its lowest point, and the enduring spirit that would propel it towards winning American independence. Ticcino’s work does what we as visitors often wish we could with our photographs—it captures the spirit of an important historical place and the time it is preserved to interpret.


Iconic Moments in Southern History: The Canoe Fight

13 Nov

History is filled with memorable events that have moved into the realm of legend.  The defenders of the Alamo and the suffering troops at Valley Forge are two that quickly come to mind. On this date in 1813, another such event occurred which elevated an obscure American soldier to the status of national military hero. It is worth remembering as emblematic of a place and time in our nation’s past that unfortunately is long lost in our collective memory.

On November 12, 1813, during the height of the Creek War, frontiersman Sam Dale and three other men fought and killed nine Red Stick Warriors in hand-to-hand fighting aboard canoes in the Alabama River. Using the butts of their rifles and paddles, Dale and his comrades won a seemingly small victory that became a major morale boost for the Americans and highlighted the bitter, personal nature of the war which was then raging across the Southern frontier.  The affair became simply known as the Canoe Fight. For generations, the name of Sam Dale was as famous and well-known as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Counties and cities in Alabama and Mississippi are named for him, and there are two large monuments to his legacy that still stand. Andrew Jackson himself proclaimed Dale one of the bravest men he ever met. Unfortunately, Dale ‘s name has become lost to many as the era in American history with which he is associated is no longer taught in schools and largely forgotten by the general public.

Canoe Fight

For us, moments in the past like the Canoe Fight are what make history come alive. Featuring larger-than-life characters and a gripping story more intriguing than any fiction could ever be, they enlighten, entertain, and inspire. In the hands of a skilled historian, they can grab an audience and make them more of a fan of history as they learn. Let us remember, then, the courage of Sam Dale, his compatriots, and his Red Stick foes on this 200th anniversary of the fight on the Alabama, and let us hope that historians will continue to use their deeds to remind us of our rich but complex heritage.


Interpreting Lost Historic Sites

12 Nov

I recently visited Philadelphia and got a chance to see Independence National Historical Park and the many sites it contains that are associated with the formation of our country. It was a great trip and will no doubt be the subject of a few forthcoming entries in this blog. Today I first wanted to mention one thing that particularly struck me about the park: it’s amazing interpretation of historic structures that are no longer standing. The sites where history happened are vitally important to me in appreciating the past, even if those sites sometimes look far different today than they did years ago when important events occurred. Far too often these sites are disregarded as unimportant if the structures that once stood on them are gone.

Independence National Historical Park does as good a job in interpreting lost historic structures as any place I have ever been. Through a combination of creativity, solid interpretation, and both partial and full-scale reconstruction, the park brings to life structures long lost that figure prominently in the story of America’s birth. A few examples:

The home of Benjamin Franklin, that iconic American who did so much to guide the early development of our country, is long lost. Yet a visit to the site is uniquely informative. A full-size outline of the frame of the home stands on the site, and the foundations of the home, as discovered through archaeology, laid bare and on display through plexiglass windows. Interpretive panels help you understand which rooms you are looking at and what is known to have happened in them. All along the floor you walk on are etched in cement quotes from letters between Franklin and his wife referring to specific events that occurred in the house, sometimes even referencing particular rooms.

Franklin House     Franklin House foundation     Franklin House floor

The site of the President’s House, where our nation’s chief executive lived during Philadelphia’s decade as capital (1790-1800), is similarly brought to life through creativity directly across from the Park visitor center. Partial reconstruction of certain exterior and interior walls, fireplaces, and the front doorway allow visitors to “walk into” the long lost home, and plexiglass windows showing the foundation of the home as revealed through archaeology allow a unique understanding of its layout. In this open space are placed several interpretive panels detailing historic events that occurred in each room of the house, such as visits by important diplomats in which treaties were negotiated. In addition, videos playing on protected monitors display reenactments of aspects of daily life among those who lived in the home.

There are several faithfully reconstructed historic buildings located within the park, two of which are especially prominent. One is the “Declaration House” in which Thomas Jefferson actually composed the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Another is the City Tavern, a nerve center of social life in Revolutionary Philadelphia. Reconstructed with painstaking detail, the building is now a restaurant serving authentic dishes from the time using original recipes.

       City Tavern          Declaration House

Kudos to Independence Park and all those involved in bringing to life long-lost structures instead of allowing their important stories to go untold.