Archive for the ‘Colonial America’ Category

Benjamin Banneker, a not-so-famous Founding Father

Monday, February 20th, 2017

One of my hometown’s best claims to fame is its association with Benjamin Banneker, often referred to as “America’s First Black Man of Science.” In 1737, Banneker’s father, a former slave purchased 100 acres of land in what is now considered the western part of Catonsville.Kate Dolan writes about Benjamin Banneker He made his son Benjamin co-owner so that the property could pass to him without any legal requirements. This also helped ensure that his family would maintain their free status in a state where slavery was common.

Banneker was fortunate in being able to attend a small Quaker school during the winter months with a few other local children, both white and black. His grandmother, a former indentured servant from England, had already taught him to read and write and he was known in his student days as a child who would rather read than play. After he was old enough to work full time on the tobacco farm with his father, his former schooling ceased. But he never stopped learning. (more…)

Smallwood’s House is Now a Retreat for Us

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Smallwood’s Retreat sounds like a battle maneuver, but it’s actually the name of the historic house in Charles County. We discovered the house while we were camping in a park named (not surprisingly) Smallwood after the original owner of the property. General William Smallwood was the highest ranking Maryland general during the Revolutionary War. I’d never heard of him.

Kate Dolan describes a visit to Smallwood's Retreat

We came across the red brick house while hiking the “Generals Walk” which was the only real trail in the park. (And when I say “hiking,” I’m making it sound more adventurous than it was, but when you walk two miles on a path that isn’t paved I think you get to call it “hiking” without cheating too badly.) Smallwood’s Retreat is not a large house, but the brickwork is quite handsome. It of course wasn’t open when we walked up. But we asked about it at the park office and were told it might be open on Sunday.

We didn’t get our hopes up. But on Sunday as we were hoisting the canoe onto the car, a member of the park staff drove up to our campsite. We immediately wondered what we’d done wrong. (Actually I didn’t wonder—I was thinking of the empty beer bottles in our screen tent. Maryland State parks don’t allow alcohol and I thought we were busted.) But it turns out we weren’t in trouble after all. (Well, now we will be since I just confessed to a crime.)Smallwood portrait 2 “Are you the ones who wanted to see the Smallwood House?” she asked. “I’ve been driving all over trying to find you. The house is open now.”

Well, that was unexpected service. So the canoe had to wait while we headed over to Smallwood’s Retreat.

General William Smallwood commanded the Maryland battalion during the Revolutionary War. Not long after the war ended, his neighbors elected him Congress and at the same time, the Maryland General Assembly offered him the position of governor. He took the latter job and served for three years before returning to his Retreat to manage his estate and help restore his church.

While he was pretty good at serving his country, he was not so good at managing his finances. Like many southern planters, he mortgaged future crops to fund the current year’s production on the plantation. When he died, he was so heavily in debt that his dwindling estate was sold to pay off the creditors.

Smallwood houseAnd I know this because the reenactor who gave us the tour of the small house also offered to give me a 30-page book on Smallwood when she saw that I was interested enough to ask questions.

What I thought was the most wonderful part of the tour was that at the end we learned that our guide was a collateral descendant of the general.

The other thing that struck me was the general’s portrait. While he was described by teen journalist Sally Wister as “tall…well made” with a “truly martial air,” I don’t think he considered himself attractive by any means. He ordered his portrait artist to “make me look more like George Washington,” the rock star of the day.

Compare this portrait to the one above. I think the artist succeeded in making Smallwood look like commanding officer

Compare this portrait to the one above. I think the artist succeeded in making Smallwood look like commanding officer

Smallwood’s Retreat was rebuilt from ruins in 1958 so the inside is only a conjecture as to layout of the rooms. I liked the “warming room,” which is not often seen in 18th C houses but probably existed in many of them as a place to reheat dishes brought in from the separate kitchen building. And the fact that Debbie Sharek, the woman posing for a picture in the warming room, is related to the original owner was probably the most charming feature of all.

The site advertises itself as being “40 minutes south of Washington,” but I think you’d have to drive in the middle of the night to make it there that fast. While it’s not worth driving hours to see, it was interesting and makes a good side trip while visiting other sites like Mallows Bay and Port Tobacco. Plus, the countryside is so quiet and removed from the congestion of DC that it feels like you’ve traveled to a truly distant place or even another time. Smallwood’s Retreat is still a retreat, but now it’s open to all.

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If you enjoy visiting 18th Century sites and learning about colonial history, check out my book Restitution, which explores some of the feelings and activities associated with the beginning of the Revolution in Maryland. To learn more about the parking and camping options, visit http://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/southern/smallwood.aspx.

 

Domestic Patriotism: Lessons from Abigail Adams

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

On this day in 1775, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, who was in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress. Of course this was long before she knew she would be some day be the First Lady, that the rebellious colonists would succeed in their fight against the British Empire, or even that the 13 colonies would band together to declare their independence. She did know that her own colony of Massachusetts had rebelled and was being punished for it. And she knew that her husband was enmeshed in that rebellion. abigail-adamsIn an offhand way, she mentions that while she might normally feel pity for a woman with no children, perhaps instead she might consider the childless woman in a happier condition since she would be spared the “anxiety every parent must feel for their rising offspring” in such “perilous times.”

Many people today worry that they live in perilous times, but I think truly perilous times have been rare for most residents of the United States, at least within the last 100 years. Today we do not fear that a hostile occupying army could march through at any moment and destroy our livelihood and maybe even our families. We don’t need to worry that an outbreak of smallpox could wipe out our town. Those worries were quite real in Abigail’s time, but she chooses not to dwell on them. Instead, her worries are practical concerns about daily living. Of course she asks her husband to send her a few goods from the big city. But she spends the majority of her letter urging her husband to persuade Congress to tackle some trade issues, taking a wide world view of a narrow problem. She advocates for keeping hard currency—gold and silver—in the colonies rather than allowing so much of it to be spent in the West Indies for molasses, coffee and sugar. She notes that silver currency is becoming rare and worth far more than paper money. “If any trade is allowed to the West Indies,” she suggests, “would it not be better to carry some commodity of our produce in exchange?”

I find this remarkable thinking on the part of a woman concerned with her own family’s shortage of affordable cotton-wool and flax. Personally, I would be inclined to simply complain about inflation and perhaps lament the causes. For me to go so far as to envision a solution and propose it to lawmakers would take far too much effort. Yet that’s exactly what Abigail did in an era when women were not given equal educations or permitted to vote.

The reason she was concerned with the rising cost of cotton-wool was that it was “wrought up with less trouble than any other article of clothing.” She was concerned with the difficulty of making homespun clothes. While we often have it in our minds that all colonial women spun yarn and wove cloth for their families, this was generally not true until the years just before the Revolution, when patriotic motives encouraged home manufacture to avoid importing goods from Britain. Women had their hands full cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, caring for children, assisting their husbands businesses and other domestic duties. They did not have extra hours to spin or the equipment to weave. But they took on these additional chores as a sort of domestic patriotism. Again, I find myself sadly falling behind their example. My sense of patriotism once caused me to spend an hour online looking for an American flag produced in America (but still affordable.) I might occasionally try to “buy American,” but I would not inconvenience myself so much as to actually avoid buying something made somewhere else.

After mentioning that her uncle advised her to “procure another husband” if her current one didn’t come home soon, Abigail closes her letter by admonishing Congress for taking a wishy-washy stance about separation from Britain, a nation she finds to be “so unworthy of us.” She likens the colonies to obedient spaniels, spurned yet still fawning on their masters. “I would rather endure any hardship than submit” she declares.

And thus speaks the fairer, gentler sex at the dawn of the Revolution. Domestic patriotism like that displayed by Abigail, the women of Edenton (see http://katedolan.com/featured/have-we-forgotten) and others in the private sphere fueled the rebellion far more effectively than the carefully crafted documents negotiated by men in their elected assemblies.

I’m not sure we could count on such domestic patriotism today. I hope we don’t have to, because I, for one, don’t think I could pass the test.

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We are fortunate to have Abigail’s letters preserved and easily accessible. I’ve been using The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Frank Shuffelton, (Penguin Books, 2004). Her letter of December 10, 1775 is letter #81.

If you enjoy reading about the different views of patriotism in the days leading up to the War of American Independence, you might like my book Restitution, which is set in Maryland in 1774.  Maryland was a “middle of the road” colony and while leaders wasted little time in raising a militia, most policy makers declared that they were prepared to fight to protect their rights as Englishmen, not to separate from England. The main characters in Restitution may come in contact with the “better sort” who set the policies, but they themselves are on the lower end of the social spectrum, having to concern themselves with the business of day to day living as much as questions of where their allegiance lies.

 

 

Freedom Trail is Best When it’s Not Quite Free

Sunday, September 18th, 2016

I had one day to spend in Boston and had done zero research about the best places to visit. The only outing planned in advance was a trip to Fenway in evening, so that was one landmark we knew we’d see. What to do before that? My husband said I had to follow the Freedom Trail.

It’s like following the Yellow Brick Road, except that the bricks are red and the flying monkeys look more like pigeons.

There is no charge to walk between the landmarks on the Freedom Trail and the route is marked on the sidewalk, but if you want to know what the landmarks actually are, it helps to have a guidebook. So my walk started with the purchase of a $9 guidebook in the visitor’s center on Boston Common. I followed the red brick trail from the visitor’s center to the first landmark. It was a statue. At that point, I was ready to toss the book in the trash. Even to a history nut like me, statues are BORING.Kate Dolan finds a graveyard on the Freedom Trail

The next stop was a church that was locked. But the third stop was a burial ground that advertised more famous skeletons than any other graveyard in America. Things were looking up. Trying to avoid the groups of tourists clustered around costumed tour guides, I decided to focus on the gravestones of un-famous people, figuring they might feel left out. I took pictures of the stones with the best skull-carvings coated with the least amount of bird poop. Only after about ten minutes of this did I see the polite sign asking me to stay off the grass-covered graves. (more…)

The 4th of July wasn’t much fun in 1776

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Americans are getting ready to celebrate the 4th of July with parties, food and fireworks.  This year marks the 240th anniversary of the signing of a document in which we declared ourselves to be an independent nation.  And we will  wave our flags and think that the 4th of July in 1776 must have been a pretty great day.

But it wasn’t. The delegates in Philadelphia actually signed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, but the news didn’t reach George Washington and his army in New York City until July 6. Unfortunately, the British navy had arrived a week before that, throwing the city into a panic.Kate Dolan writes about the 4th of July in 1776  So many ships arrived in such a short period of time that one Pennsylvania soldier said their masts looked like trees in a forest.  The streets of the city were jammed with families trying to leave while militia members from surrounding regions were trying to come to join in the city’s defense.

George Washington could not have been resting easy. Only a few weeks before, he’d learned of a loyalist plot to assassinate him and his officers when the British fleet arrived in New York.  Those arrested for involvement in the plot included the city’s mayor and two members of his Life Guard.  Alarm guns fired frequently in the city, perhaps reminding him that just five of the 120 British ships at anchor carried more firepower than all of the American guns along the shore. And they carried 10,000 troops, with thousands more expected daily.

The announcement that the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence did inspire celebrations in the streets and at least one officer reported that he and his cohorts spent the afternoon “merrily.” And it must have been reassuring to know that the governing members of the colonies were now publicly committed to a course of action that would be punished as treason if they failed. It was all or nothing, and they were all in it together.  As Benjamin Franklin famously summed it up, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Washington received a copy of the Declaration  on July 8 and had it read aloud in the city at 6 p.m. the next evening. Afterwards, swarms of people marched out to tear down a giant statue of King George III, hack off the statue’s head, cut off his nose and mount what was left of the head on a spike in front of a tavern.  Lead from the statue would  later be melted down into musket balls.

But the celebrations didn’t last long. Within three days, British ships brazenly sailed up the Hudson River and while American gun crews fired furiously all day, the ships suffered no harm and the only casualties were six Americans killed when their cannon blew up due to their own mismanagement.  More ships followed, and soon the British had a comfortable base on Staten Island.

To the British, the Declaration of Independence was a joke. The British admiral’s secretary said the document revealed “the villainy and the madness of these deluded people.”

Ships and troops continued to arrive throughout the summer until the end of August when the British attacked and defeated Washington’s army in the largest battle fought on North American soil up to that time. While Washington and his men were able to elude capture, they suffered a series of defeats and were chased out of New York.

Seven years of brutal fighing would follow before the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783.

So this year when we wave our flags and head out to parties to celebrate our nation, let’s be glad that “bombs bursting in air” above us are decorative amusements and not weapons designed to destroy. And let’s drink a toast to our forefathers who were willing to set aside their differences to “hang together.” We could use a little of that right now.

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Much of the information in this article comes from 1776 by David McCullough.

The sad story behind the Great American Road Map

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

As travelers prepare to hit the road for Memorial Day weekend, I thought I’d reflect on what we no longer need—a road map. Those of us who haven’t memorized the route we’ll be taking will rely on GPS to figure out how to get from home to Vacation Central and back again. The really old-fashioned among us may resort to directions from MapQuest. But virtually no one will pull out an atlas or unfold one of those crazy impossible-to-refold roap maps that still lurk in random glove compartments.

And that’s a shame, really, because the road map was a wonderful invention and absolutely essential to American travel for about 200 years. But it didn’t start out that way.

The first American road map was created by Christopher P. Colles, an engineer and visionary from Ireland who came to the colonies shortly before the American Revolution.  Using studies he created while serving in the army as well as other military surveys and additional surveys undertaken on his own for his new project, Colles produced the Survey of the Roads of the United States of America in 1789.

Kate Dolan writes about first American road map

This section of the map depicts roads just a few miles from my house outside Baltimore…not that my house was standing then

(more…)

Political worries come back to haunt us

Friday, April 15th, 2016

“This country has reached a very alarming crisis. Torn by two parties…Congress enacting laws it is unable to enforce …only to substitute equally bad ones…”
Sound familiar? I’m know I’m not alone in finding the factionalism in the United States to be frightening, but it comforts me to know that this worry is not unique in time.Factionalism at work in our nation's early days The words above were written by Rosalie Stier Calvert in 1809. Like me, Rosalie is a mother who did most of her work from home in suburban Maryland. But while I would put myself in the “average” category in many areas, Rosalie would fit into the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” category. She was born into a wealthy European family who fled to the United States in 1794 to escape the Reign of Terror. Though they had to leave behind the family castle, townhouse and other property, they brought enough gold to ensure they could live like nobility. Rosalie did not much care for her new home. After a few months, she wrote “America displeases me more and more every day–you meet only scoundrels.” (more…)

New Years in Maryland Not What it Used to Be

Friday, January 1st, 2016

chestertownNew Year’s Day is often considered a day of change, but there was one year that the change was a bit bigger than usual for Great Britain and her colonies. The change had nothing to do with New Year’s resolutions and the fact that eleven days went missing had nothing to do with excessive drinking on the part of King George or anyone else. It was a calendar correction, like shifting to daylight savings time in hyper-drive.

Most of Europe, and therefore most European colonies, had been using the Gregorian calendar since 1582. But because this new calendar was the creation of a Roman Catholic pontiff, proudly Protestant Great Britain ignored the change and continued to use the Julian calendar developed during the reign of Julius Caesar. Under the Julian calendar, each year was about eleven minutes longer than a solar year. While this doesn’t sound like much, over the course of the centuries it added up. The vernal equinox was occurring in real life about 10 days before it showed up on the calendar. Something had to be done. (more…)

Here Comes Anti-Claus

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Have you seen the previews for the movie Krampus? These days we don’t tend to think of monsters during the Christmas season, but back before we had the option of watching Elf or A Christmas Story on TV every night, we humans satisfied our need for entertainment by sharing Christmas stories around the fire. There is an ancient tradition of telling “winter tales” that included fantastic or paranormal elements inspired by our fears of the dark.Kate Dolan writes about the Christmas demon

My favorite figure from these tales is the Belznickel, a figure from Germanic legend that is very much like Krampus. They’re the opposite of St. Nicholas. Where the saintly Nick rewards children who’ve been good, the Belznickel does the opposite – he punishes the bad.

With whips and chains.

That could make for a very scary Christmas if you’ve been bad. (more…)

The Dubious History of Jump Rope

Monday, November 16th, 2015

I thought I would combine my favorite subject—history—with the subject of my latest book—jump rope—and write a blog about the history of jump rope. However, I should warn you that I could make up just about anything in this blog and you’d be hard pressed to prove me wrong. It turns out there’s little real evidence about the history of skipping rope.K.D. Hays discusses the history of jump rope
The Jump Rope Institute speculates that the sport began in Egypt where skilled athletes jumped over vines.

The International Rope Skipping Federation says that jump rope originated in ancient China where ropemakers played at game called Hundred Rope Jumping as part of their New Year’s celebrations. (The Traditional Chinese Game League confirms this – more or less. They say jumping rope was called “jumping 100 threads” because a rope circling through the air looked like it had been split into 100 separate ropes. But most of their discussion of the “tradition” involves a Chinese Jump Rope which is a large elastic loop that is nothing like a “western” jump rope.)
The National Double Dutch League suggests that the style of jumping known as Double Dutch, where long ropes are turned toward each other while one person jumps in the middle, originates with ancient Phoenician rope makers. (more…)