Tag Archives: Colonial America

How big is your mental map of colonial America?

A good friend of mine is moving to Los Angeles this weekend.  Last night we had a going-away party for him at a local pizza joint.  I’ve never been to California myself.  The West Coast is about the only major region of the country I have yet to visit.

I’ve never really felt much compulsion to go there, especially when it comes to seeing historic sites.  As a paleophile, I’d love to see the La Brea Tar Pits and do the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal. (One of my more unrealistic bucket list items is to experience all four Jurassic Park water rides before I die; so far I’ve only hit the one in Florida, which leaves Hollywood, Japan, and Singapore, and I doubt I’ll be going to Singapore in the foreseeable future.)  But as a guy who’s into early American history, I think I’ve always had this assumption that there isn’t really anything in California that’s right up my alley, so I haven’t felt the urgency to make it to the West Coast in the same way that I badly wanted to go to New England for many years.

Of course, this attitude of mine is based on misconceptions about colonial America.  Both California in particular and the West in general have an early American history.  It just doesn’t fall within the boundaries of early Anglo-American history.

Mission San Juan Capistrano. By Lordkinbote at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

A lot of us get our sense of the basic contours of history from the introductory classes we take in high school and college.  And in American history surveys, there tends to be a sort of “progression” toward the English colonial experience.  You get your early Iberian explorers, then Columbus, then the conquistadors, then maybe a brief detour up to New Mexico for the Pueblo revolt, then the French, and finally Roanoke and Jamestown, and English-speaking Protestants take center stage from there on out.

This “progression” scheme partly has its roots in chronology.  The English were relative latecomers in establishing New World colonies, so it makes sense to examine their efforts last.  The problem is that we tend to drop the Spanish and French experience altogether once the Englishmen show up.  Yet after the English colonies were well established, there were still French fur traders in the Mississippi River Valley, mestizo ranchers in the southwestern deserts, and friars in California.

Indeed, in the period between Jamestown and the annexation of California, entire populations rose up in the American West under the rule of Catholic monarchs or the government of Mexico.  In 1776, while Washington reeled from Howe’s campaign in New York, Spanish Franciscans were celebrating Mass at San Juan Capistrano.  And by that time there had been Spanish missions in the Sonoran desert of Arizona for nearly a century.

But how many people think of southern Arizona and California as places associated with eighteenth-century American history?  I’ll confess that I generally don’t.  Instead, we think of the “history” of the Far West as something that started in the 1800s, when settlers of mostly British extraction started pushing back the frontier and displacing the Indians.  But the Indians weren’t the only people in the way.  The descendants of the original colonists were still there, too, so the contest wasn’t simply two-sided.

The Euro-American frontier didn’t just move westward from the English-controlled seaboard, but also southward from French Canada and northward from New Spain.  All this was very much a part of early American history, and I’m still trying to get my head around it.

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A pirate looks at 300

The latest issue of Smithsonian has a pretty interesting article on Blackbeard’s last hurrah in colonial North Carolina, with a look at some of the new evidence that’s come to light in the past few years.

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Happy belated 250th, Proclamation of 1763

Monday was the 250th anniversary of the Proclamation of 1763, and I neglected to post anything here to mark the occasion.  But when you think about it, utter disregard is a highly appropriate way to commemorate the Proclamation of 1763; that’s exactly how colonial settlers treated it.

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Defending the Forks

We managed to take in one last historic site on the final day of the trip: Point State Park in Pittsburgh, PA.  Although it’s not as well known as Bunker Hill or Independence Hall, it’s one of the most important pieces of real estate in the history of North America.  The struggle for this triangle of land at the “Forks of the Ohio,” the juncture of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, shaped the destiny of an entire continent.

Control of the Forks meant command of the Ohio River, which also meant command of the continent’s vast interior.  Both France and England acted on this realization about the same time, which is why in 1753 Virginia’s royal governor sent an inexperienced young officer named George Washington to tell the French that the Pennsylvania frontier was British territory.  Unimpressed, the French proceeded to drive away an English crew building a fort at the Forks and then constructed their own outpost at the site, naming it Fort Duquesne.

In 1754, Virginia sent Washington back to the Pennsylvania frontier to kick the French out.  This expedition, of course, culminated in the messy and controversial confrontation at Jumonville Glen and an embarrassing defeat for the inexperienced officer at Ft. Necessity.  These proved to be the opening moves in the French and Indian War, so it was the struggle for the Forks of the Ohio that launched the war which resulted in the transfer of France’s North American mainland empire to Britain.

For the first few years of the French and Indian War, the French managed to hold on to Ft. Duquesne and the Forks.  Gen. Edward Braddock’s 1755 expedition to Duquesne was wiped out before getting a chance to threaten the fort, and another effort faltered in Sept. 1758.  The English finally succeeded in driving the French away from the Forks that November.  They built their own fortification very near the site of Duquesne, naming it “Fort Pitt” after the popular English politician.  This fort—quite a bit larger than its French predecessor—was one of the most substantial defensive works in colonial North America.

When the war ended in 1763, Indians along the Great Lakes and Ohio frontiers revolted against the new English masters of the interior, disgusted at British attempts to restrict trade and gift-giving.  The outbreak of Pontiac’s Rebellion saw Ft. Pitt and other outposts along the frontier under siege by these irate warriors; the fort’s commandant attempted to break the encirclement using smallpox-infected blankets, but the Indians ultimately broke off the siege themselves to intercept a force coming to Pitt’s relief.  The site continued to play an important role as a staging ground for colonial forces in Lord Dunmore’s War, and then for American forces operating in the West during the Revolutionary War and the Whiskey Rebellion.

Of course, there might not have been a Revolutionary War if Britain hadn’t tightened its grip on its American colonies after winning the French and Indian War.  Since it was the cost of that war which prompted Britain to tighten its grip in the first place, it wouldn’t be too vast an oversimplification to say that if England and France hadn’t disputed mastery of the Forks of the Ohio, American independence wouldn’t have happened when and how it did.  It would therefore be pretty hard to overstate the historical significance of this piece of ground at the meeting place of three rivers.

Unfortunately, the forts which once symbolized these nations’ commitments to control the Ohio River Valley are pretty much long gone, but there are still some features worth seeing at the Point.  A brick outline marks the site of Ft. Duquesne, and an outbuilding of Ft. Pitt called the “Blockhouse” is extant and open for tours.  Built in 1764, it’s probably the oldest surviving building west of the Appalachians.

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In addition, one of the bastions of Ft. Pitt has been reconstructed and houses the Fort Pitt Museum, which is run by the John Heinz History Center.

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I highly recommend a visit to the museum.  The exhibits deal with the struggle to control the Forks of the Ohio before and during the French and Indian War, as well as the important role Ft. Pitt played in the Revolution and into the early national period.  There are some fantastic military artifacts to see in the galleries, and the gift shop has a great stock of books on the French and Indian War and the early history of western Pennsylvania.

You can get a beautiful view of the Point—and of Pittsburgh as a whole—by taking one of the historic incline railways up to the heights overlooking the city.  Built in the late 1800’s for immigrant laborers who lived on the mountains above town, there are two of them in operation today.

IMG_1343The fountain in the left center of this photo marks the spot where the rivers flow together into the Ohio, right in front of Heinz Field.

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Now I want to get back up to western Pennsylvania and see Fort Necessity, the Braddock battlefield, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

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A few historic highlights in the Big Apple

We didn’t focus as strictly on historic sites in New York as we did in Boston, but we did manage to do a little heritage touring on our last day in the Big Apple.  We made a point of visiting Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street, site of the nation’s first Capitol and George Washington’s first inauguration.  The original building is gone, but today an impressive classical structure and a statue of Washington mark the spot.

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Inside the building is an exhibit on the trial of colonial printer John Peter Zenger, arrested for publishing articles critical of New York’s royal governor.  Zenger’s 1735 trial for seditious libel in the original Federal Hall—at that time it was New York’s City Hall—proved to be a landmark case in the history of freedom of the press.  His lawyer argued that demonstrably factual statements cannot be considered libelous, the jury agreed, and Zenger walked away a free man.

You’ll also find Washington’s inaugural Bible inside, on loan from St. John’s Lodge…

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…and the stone on which he stood while taking the oath of office.

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After the inaugural ceremony, Washington attended a service at nearby St. Paul’s Chapel.  He continued to worship there while the capital remained in New York, and you can still see his pew, right underneath an oil painting of the Great Seal of the U.S.

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On the east side of the church is a memorial to Gen. Richard Montgomery, killed while leading the attack on Quebec at the end of 1775.  Montgomery’s remains were moved to St. Paul’s with a great deal of fanfare in 1818.

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Unlike its mother church, St. Paul’s Chapel made it through the great New York fire of ’76 and is now the oldest church building in the city.  In fact, surviving catastrophes has been something of a hallmark of St. Paul’s.  It’s right next to the World Trade Center site, but miraculously came through the 9/11 attacks without any major damage.  Visitors left thousands of stuffed animals, flowers, cards, and other memorials around the church after the attacks, and some of these mementoes are on exhibit inside the sanctuary.  (You can see a few of them in the photo of Washington’s pew.)  Emergency personnel working at the WTC site stayed at St. Paul’s during the recovery effort.  And the building is still there, a dozen years after that awful September morning and more than two centuries since Washington stepped inside on the very day American government opened for business.

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My Boston marathon

I’ve been back home long enough to recuperate from two weeks of sightseeing, so it’s time for that most venerable of all end-of-vacation traditions: forcing a captive audience to look at your photos.

We’ll start with some highlights from the Boston Freedom Trail.  As I said a few days ago, it’s a remarkable experience for any enthusiast of early American history.  I don’t think there’s any other place where you can see so many important American Revolution sites in such close proximity to each other, except maybe Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.  (I’ll be posting some stuff about INHP eventually, too; it was a long trip.)

My friend Ryan and I set out on the Freedom Trail about 2:00 in the afternoon.  Because there’s so much to see between the starting point on Boston Common and the end point at Bunker Hill, and because it was already so late in the day, I  had told Ryan that we’d never be able to do the whole thing that afternoon, and that we should plan on picking up where we left off the next day.  Thing is, Ryan played basketball and tennis in high school and has never lost his competitive streak.  Apparently in an effort to set some sort of record, he announced that we were going to stand on Bunker Hill that very day, come hell or high water.

One of the first things you see on the trail relates to the Civil War rather than the Revolutionary one.  It’s one of my favorite works of commemorative sculpture, the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts on Boston Common, right across from the State House.

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Boston seems to be embracing the history of abolitionism pretty enthusiastically.  I’m not familiar enough with abolitionism to know how widespread serious anti-slavery sentiment in the city actually was, but I suppose it’s a handy way to embrace the legacy of the Civil War when most of the actual fighting took place hundreds of miles away.

And speaking of the history of abolitionism, just a stone’s throw from the Shaw Monument is Park Street Church, where William Lloyd Garrison gave his first major anti-slavery speech in 1829.

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Step over to the other side of the church, and you’re also stepping back in time—two hundred years before the outbreak of the Civil War, in fact.  Granary Burying Ground dates all the way back to 1660.  Its age is apparent from the winged skulls carved on some of the tombstones, a very old motif that’s characteristic of early American grave markers.  Again, bear in mind that I’m used to touring regions where “old” means 1790-ish.

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There are more important figures from early American history buried here than you can shake a stick at: Benjamin Franklin’s parents…

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John Hancock…

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James Otis…

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Sam Adams…

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Paul Revere…

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…and the victims of the Boston Massacre.  All in the same graveyard!

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The Old South Meeting House is probably best known as the launching pad for the Boston Tea Party, but that was just one of many highlights in this building’s long history of playing host to protest and dissent.  An exhibit inside the sanctuary details this history, from the imperial controversy to abolitionism, female suffrage, and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

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British troops used the church as a riding stable during the occupation of Boston, but it doesn’t look any worse for wear.

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To me, a big highlight of the trail is the Old State House, seat of government in Massachusetts from 1713 to 1798 and now home to a museum that explores politics and public life in the Bay State from the colonial era through the nineteenth century.

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You can’t beat the Old State House exhibit for fantastic artifacts, including a coat and other items belonging to John Hancock…

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some Stamp Act material…

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…and the cane Preston Brooks used to wallop Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.

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You’ll also find Indian treaty belts, rare documents, and artifacts from Bunker Hill on display here.  Great stuff.  If you’re rushed for time on the Freedom Trail and you’ve only got time to tour one building interior, my personal opinion is that you should do this one.

Right outside the State House is a circle of bricks marking the site of the Boston Massacre.  This seems to be the popular spot for tourists to take their “Look-Ma-we’re-doing-the-Freedom-Trail” photos, with their arms spread wide and big grins on their faces.  I’m not sure how I feel about this; 1770 was a long time ago, but geez, five guys did die here.

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Next stop is Faneuil Hall, a most appropriate place for a statue of Sam Adams.  The marketplace in and around this site is a great place to pick up souvenirs.

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Paul Revere’s house would be a neat thing to see anyway, but it’s of significant architectural interest even without the celebrity name recognition.  Built around 1680 on the site of Increase Mather’s parsonage, it was already old by the time Revere bought it.  It’s pretty small, so the self-guided tour doesn’t take very long.

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Not far from the house is another structure inextricably linked to Revere: Old North Church.

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There are quite a few historic churches on the trail, and in fact I haven’t even included them all here, but I think Old North has the most beautiful interior of all of them.  (Sorry about the lousy picture focus; I was trying not to use a flash.)

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Among those buried in the crypt is Maj. John Pitcairn, who received a mortal wound at Bunker Hill.

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There’s an equestrian statue of Revere in a kind of courtyard outside the church.  I highly recommend making an effort to visit this spot at night, with the courtyard dark and the steeple illuminated behind it.

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The cemetery on Copp’s Hill doesn’t have as many notable residents as Old Granary, but it’s still worth a visit.  Increase and Cotton Mather are both buried here.

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Most of the sites on the trail are in pretty close proximity to each other, but getting to Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill, if you insist on geographical precision) requires a good bit of walking.  I hadn’t been to many urbanized battlefields before this one, and it was hard to orient myself with all the buildings around.  The monument is a lot more impressive in person than I’d expected; you can see it from quite a distance.

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Here’s one final recommendation.  If you’re going to do the Freedom Trail, you should grab something to eat at the Green Dragon Tavern in the North End, not far from Revere’s house.  Despite what their advertising implies, it’s not the same place where Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, and their buddies used to hang out, but the steak tips are still pretty darn good.

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Long story short, you can do the Freedom Trail in half a day, but you’d better be ready to do some serious huffing and puffing.  The Constitution was closed that day, too, so that helped us shave off some time.  There are a number of guidebooks and audio tours available; we used the Freedom Trail Foundation’s official guide, which was excellent.  A lot of the sites along the way are either free or accept donations, but you can get a combination ticket for Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, and Paul Revere’s house at the small visitor center on Boston Common.

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A few thoughts from the end of the Freedom Trail

Walked the Freedom Trail yesterday, and got back to the hotel exhausted but euphoric. The density of Revolution-related sites in Boston is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

Usually, when I take a Rev War road trip, I’ll have two or three things I really want to see, I’ll have to drive quite a few miles to get from one to the other, and I try to read every wayside marker and exhibit label I can find.

Doing Boston is different. Here you can walk a couple of miles and hit more than a dozen sites, and each one of them is a headliner. There’s no way you can thoroughly cover it all. It’s like visiting a buffet where you want to eat everything, so you just pile your plate with as much as it’ll hold and start cramming your face until you’re stuffed.

Another thing that strikes me is the antiquity of what you can see. In my neck of the woods, seeing a building from the early nineteenth century is a treat, and getting to see one from the late eighteenth is worth a two-hour drive. Here, though, running across a material remnant of the seventeenth century isn’t unheard of. Yesterday I saw tombstones that had been sitting there a century before Tennessee became a state.

It’s historic sightseeing of a totally different order. And that’ll have to do it for now; I’m off to Lexington and Concord.

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