Archive | July, 2016

Review of Fort Toulouse, French Outpost at the Alabamas on the Coosa, by Daniel Thomas

26 Jul

With an interest in the colonial Gulf South, I finally purchased and read Daniel Thomas’s Fort Toulouse. This short book provides an overview on the French colonial fort established in the early 1700s near present-day Montgomery, Alabama. Originally published as an entire issue of the Alabama Historical Quarterly in 1960, this 1989 version contains an introduction by Gregory Waselkov that provides more information on the subject after archaeological work was done at the site after Thomas’s work was first completed.

Thomas-Fort Toulouse

In seventy pages of text, Thomas uses a host of primary sources to detail the fort’s history from its construction in 1717 to France’s evacuation of the fort in 1763. Thomas discusses all aspects of the fort from its construction, daily life at the post, and the site’s role as a military fort, trading center, and diplomatic post. Established to serve as a counter to English expansion into the area as well as an attempt to build stronger relations with the areas natives, the fort proved to be an overall success. The commanders of the fort, with a garrison never more than fifty, managed to establish trade with the natives and fend off the encroaching English, pushing the boundaries of the colony of Louisiana eastward. France’s eventual departure from the region due to the results of the French and Indian War does not diminish the French success with this establishment. Thomas concludes his story with information on the site’s later years when it became home to Fort Jackson, established by Andrew Jackson at the conclusion of the Creek War and the location of the famous treaty where the Creeks ceded over twenty million acres. As an addition to Thomas’s original thesis, Waselkov provides an introduction that paints a more complete picture of the fort. Archaeological work done in the 1970s and 80s has given us more information on the fort’s layout, construction, and armament along with artifacts left behind from the fort’s garrison such as earthenware.

Fort Toulouse will not win any awards with its narrative, which at times only quotes primary source material, but it remains the primary study of this important colonial fort. It is a wonder there have not been any more recent full-length studies of this fort or at least of all the posts that France established in the region. That this book, nearly fifty years old, remains the definitive study of Fort Toulouse shows a definite need for more colonial scholarship.


Review of America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation, by Kenneth C. Davis

19 Jul

I picked up an audio recording of bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis’s book, America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation hoping to gain some new insight into important chapters in our nation’s past.  What I got instead was a disconnected series of occasionally interesting stories, few of which are forgotten and none of which are hidden. And as for the fighting women, there indeed is one, but she does not seem to merit mention as a key player any more than the others alluded to in the somewhat grandiose subtitle of this book. America’s Hidden History is at times interesting, but in the end a frustrating read because it is one of those unfortunate works of nonfiction without a clear thesis.

Davis Hidden History

Davis is the accomplished author of the bestseller Don’t Know Much About History, and has through that publication acquired a reputation as an entertaining teacher who relates America’s past in compelling and understandable form. I have not read that more famous book, but it has to have a more clear purpose than this effort to allegedly relate some seminal “tales the textbooks left out.” The chapters of Hidden History do individually discuss some admittedly lesser-known events or attempt to strip away layers of legend that distort our understanding of actual events—the odyssey of the early explorer Cabeza de Vaca, the massacre of the French pioneers of America’s first European colonial settlement, the story behind George Washington’s colossal failures in his first military tour of duty during the French and Indian War, the truth about the details of “Paul Revere’s Ride.” But collectively they are simply a collection of essays with no clear unity of purpose.

I suppose that if one is truly and totally unaware of some of the episodes Davis discusses, his narrative will be on some level revealing. I doubt that alone will be satisfactory even for the most casual of readers, however. They, and especially those with any knowledge of American history, will surely be asking one critical question after reading this book and browsing its curiously extensive timelines prefacing each chapter: “What is the point?”


Review of Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, by Alan Pell Crawford

12 Jul

It seems that in modern times the reading public positively disdains uncritical veneration and hagiography in biographies of historical figures. While I applaud this as a good thing, I do sometimes worry that the frequent overt effort to illustrate the unsavory side of our erstwhile heroes is less a genuine effort to present their lives in an unbiased light than a flagrant attempt to discredit them. If authors remove American historical icons from their pedestals by highlighting something scandalous, it only seems to make for an even better story. Crawford

It is in the light of this historiographical trend that I picked up Alan Pell Crawford’s chronicle of the last decade and a half of perhaps our most scandalous founding father, Thomas Jefferson, entitled Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson. In it Crawford attempts to bring the authentic Jefferson to our attention by focusing on his last years, in the process revealing both his ability to inspire his contemporaries and even us today as well as his glaring failings. Even with the attention given to the overall accomplishments of his celebrated life, it is not a flattering portrait that he paints. Crawford gives us a glimpse of a selfish, privileged and impractical man utterly unable to manage a mounting debt because of an unwillingness to live within his means even as he was lauded by many during his day as an oracle of his age.

Crawford begins his narrative with a brief overview of Jefferson’s life before retirement and moves on quickly to his last days at Monticello. Unlike so many other biographers, Crawford chooses to not dwell on the latter-day corresponding relationship between him and John Adams or his long-lasting relationship with his slave, Sally Hemmings. It is just as well, as those topics have been thoroughly examined, and exposed in turn, by other scholars. But Crawford’s narrative is not a particularly powerful or enthralling tale, as it is filled with the lackluster routines of an aging man minding the weather, maintaining his property, battling illness and infirmity, dealing with various family matters, and attempting—unsuccessfully—to manage his finances. Further, the book is written with an uneven pace and focus, dwelling at times on certain events and brushing quickly past others. In sections it seems as much a book about those who surrounded Jefferson as the man himself. All this no doubt lends context, but Jefferson does not necessarily emerge from the pages of this book as a more thoroughly understood character so much as a thoroughly observed one.

Even if dry, the book comes across as honest and does not appear to be a calculated attempt to make us question his place as a legend of America’s founding era. Rather, it is one of dozens of recent biographies of the men who are credited with establishing our nation and its guiding principles that demonstrates just how remarkable it is that such imperfect people could rise above their situation to create a government based on some of the loftiest notions of freedom and equality governments men have ever purported to strive towards. I do believe our myths and legends need to be explored from time to time so that we better understand where we actually came from and how we got to where we are. Similar to learning late in life of the indiscretions of a beloved parent, sometimes the truth that is unearthed will be uncomfortable. But coming to a sober understanding of the basic humanity of our heroes should not lessen their impact in our minds. So it is with Jefferson, revealed in Twilight to be a deeply flawed man who nonetheless managed to transcend his time, place, and even himself in important ways and is still today rightly remembered as an incredibly influential force in our nation’s development.


Ignorance Is Not Bliss

5 Jul

Warning: Angry Blog Ahead!!!

Mike and I have written many blogs concerning basic history/social studies education. Its emphasis in our current educational system declines every year. And yet, we are constantly surrounded by examples of ignorance of basic knowledge. The latest case in point is shirts that were recently placed on sale in the state of Alabama. Targeting either fans of Auburn or Alabama, these shirts feature a design with the state outline in the background. But it is the WRONG STATE!! The outline is of MISSISSIPPI!!!


Mistakes happen and I am mindful of that. But there is no excuse that in the process of the shirts being designed, produced, shipped, unpacked and then placed on the rack for sale, NO ONE NOTICED! How many people saw this item and never noticed a glaring mistake?! Perhaps if the shirt was made in some far off place, some benefit of the doubt could be given. But no excuses for those in Alabama who didn’t stop this embarrassment from being on the shelf!  Unfortunately, the list grows of examples of our nation’s citizens lacking basic fundamental social studies education!

Whew. Please forgive me for this latest rant.