Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Nootka woman wearing typical Pacific Coast headgear

Nootka woman wearing typical Pacific Coast headgear

On March 15, 1806, Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal: “we were visited this afternoon by Delashshelwilt  a Chinnook Chief his wife and six women of his nation which the old baud his wife had brought for market.” No stranger to white traders on the Pacific Coast, the Chinook women had come to Fort Clatsop hoping to profit from the presence of the Corps of Discovery by selling what the men wanted most: sex.

As Lewis and Clark well knew, the men of the Corps of Discovery were not above resorting to the “good officies” of prostitutes to meet their sexual needs. On November 21, 1805, Clark wrote from their camp along the Columbia that

Several Indians and Squars came this evening I beleave for the purpose of gratifying the passions of our men, Those people appear to View 〈horedom〉 Sensuality as a necessary evile, and do not appear to abhore this as Crime in the unmarried females. The young women Sport openly with our men, and appear to receive the approbation of their friends & relations for So doing    maney of the women are handsom. They are all low both men and women.

Clark noted the presence of venereal disease among the natives, a drawback that didn’t seem to discourage the men from enjoying the women’s favors. Clark noted, “we divided Some ribin between the men of our party to bestow on their favourite Lasses, this plan to Save the knives & more valuable articles.”

Chinook woman and child

Chinook woman and child

While Lewis and Clark obviously accepted sexual relations between their men and the natives – and perhaps participated in it themselves – they seemed to balk at out-and-out prostitution. On Christmas Eve 1805, Clark recorded the visit to Fort Clatsop of a Indian named Cuscalah ” who had treated me So politely when I was at the Clâtsops village.” Cuscalah arrived in a canoe with his young brother and two “Squars” and gave the Captains each a gift of a mat and a parcel of roots. When Cuscalah later demanded two files in exchange for the presents, Clark wrote, “as we had no files to part with, we each rturned the present which we had received, which displeased Cuscalah a little.    he then offered a woman to each of us which we also declined axcepting of, which displeased the whole party verry much—    the female part appeared to be highly disgusted at our refuseing to axcept of their favours &c.” Lewis wrote of the Chinooks a few days later, “they do not hold the virtue of their women in high estimation, and will even prostitute their wives and daughters for a fishinghook or a stran of beads.”

Lewis and Clark had good reason to be cautious. Lewis noted on January 27, 1806 that “Goodrich has recovered from the Louis veneri which he contracted from an amorous contact with a Chinnook damsel. I cured him as I did Gibson last winter by the uce of murcury.” Since mercury was not in fact an effective cure for the Louis veneri or “pox” (syphilis), it must be concluded that Lewis and Clark’s men did more than their fair share to spread venereal disease among the native populations of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.  The presence of other whites on trading ships along the Pacific Coast added to the problem. By the time the “old baud” showed up with her six girls, Lewis would have none of it. He dryly observed, “this was the same party that had communicated the venerial to so many of our party in November last, and of which they have finally recovered. I therefore gave the men a particular charge with rispect to them which they promised me to observe.” To prevent further outbreaks of venereal disease, Lewis ordered his men not to sport with the “tawny damsels.”

Clark's journal drawing of flattened heads of Pacific Coast Indians

Clark's journal drawing showing flattened heads of Pacific Coast Indians

For his own part, Lewis seems to have found it easy to resist the Chinook women. His journal entries reveal that he found the natives of the Pacific Coast singularly unattractive. On March 19, 1806, a few days after the “old baud’s” visit, Lewis wrote clinically about the natives’ appearance:

they are low in statue reather diminutive, and illy shapen; possessing thick broad flat feet, thick ankles, crooked legs wide mouths thick lips, nose moderately large, fleshey, wide at the extremity with large nostrils, black eyes and black coarse hair.    their eyes are sometimes of a dark yellowish brown the puple black. I have observed some high acqualine noses among them but they are extreemly rare.    the nose is generally low between the eyes.—    the most remarkable trait in their physiognomy is the peculiar flatness and width of forehead which they artificially obtain by compressing the head between two boards while in a state of infancy and from which it never afterwards perfectly recovers.

Lewis also noted the swollen legs of the natives: “the large or apparently swolen legs particularly observable in the women are obtained in a great measure by tying a cord tight around the ankle.    their method of squating or resting themselves on their hams which they seem from habit to prefer to siting,  no doubt contributes much to this deformity of the legs by preventing free circulation of the blood.”

Chinook woman and child, by Paul Kane

Chinook woman and child, by Paul Kane

Finally, Lewis couldn’t resist a swipe at the women’s abbreviated clothing, sagging breasts, and exposed private parts:

The dress of the women consists of a robe, tissue, and sometimes when the weather is uncomonly cold, a vest.    their robe is much smaller than that of the men, never reaching lower than the waist nor extending in front sufficiently far to cover the body…  when this vest is woarn the breast of the woman is concealed, but without it which is almost always the case, they are exposed, and from the habit of remaining loose and unsuspended grow to great length particularly in aged women in many of whom I have seen the bubby reach as low as the waist. The garment which occupys the waist, and from thence as low as nearly to the knee before and the ham, behind, cannot properly be denominated a peticoat, in the common acceptation of that term; it is a tissue of white cedar bark, bruised or broken into small shreds, which are interwoven in the middle by means of several cords of the same materials, which serve as well for a girdle as to hold in place the shreds of bark which form the tissue, and which shreds confined in the middle hand with their ends pendulous from the waist, the whole being of sufficient thickness when the female stands erect to conceal those parts usually covered from familiar view, but when she stoops or places herself in many other attitudes, this battery of Venus is not altogether impervious to the inquisitive and penetrating eye of the amorite.

In other words, he couldn’t help looking, but he didn’t like what he saw. Lewis temporarily dropped his scientific tone to offer this scathing judgment: “I think the most disgusting sight I have ever beheld is these dirty naked wenches.” Unfortunately, there is no record of what the Chinook women thought about him.

More interesting reading:

Love in the Afternoon: Syphilis and the Lewis & Clark Expedition

Lewis and Clark Among the Clatsops

Read Full Post »

Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, 1803

Jefferson's Instructions to Meriwether Lewis, 1803

On your arrival on that coast endeavor to learn if there be any port within your reach frequented by the sea-vessels of any nation, and to send two of your trusty people back by sea, in such way as shall appear practicable, with a copy of your notes. and should you be of opinion that the return of your party by the way they went will be eminently dangerous, then ship the whole, & return by sea by way of Cape Horn or the Cape of good Hope, as you shall be able. as you will be without money, clothes or provisions, you must endeavor to use the credit of the U. S. to obtain them…

So wrote Thomas Jefferson in his instructions to Meriwether Lewis at the outset of the Lewis and Clark expedition. If Lewis and his party were successful in reaching the Pacific Ocean, Jefferson instructed, he was hopeful that Lewis could hitch a ride home on a friendly ship, or at least send back a couple of trusted members of his party and his precious journals by sea, if returning by land seemed too dangerous.

Captain Robert Gray

Captain Robert Gray

How practical a plan was this? The Pacific Coast or “Northwest Coast,” as it was called back in the early 19th century, was well known to ship captains engaged in the fur trade. The first American trading vessels recorded as having been in the area were the Columbia Rediviva and the Lady Washington of Boston, which arrived on the Pacific Coast in September 1788. Under Captain Robert Gray, the Columbia Rediviva made a second voyage from Boston to the Northwest in September 1790, spending the winter of 1791-92 at an encampment just north of Nootka Sound (on present day Vancouver Island). While there, Gray and his fifty crew members explored the area and collected sea-otter furs for sale in China.

Also in the area at that time was British Captain George Vancouver, in the British sloop Discovery. When Gray and Vancouver met, Gray showed Vancouver his map pin-pointing the location of the then-unnamed Columbia River. Although Vancouver had noted “river-colored water” in the sea as the Discovery had passed a spot off the coast just two days earlier, he dismissed Gray’s discovery as the outflow of a few minor streams.

On May 11, 1792, Gray navigated the Columbia Rediviva across the treacherous sand bar at the mouth of the Columbia River and became the first western trading vessel to actually enter the Columbia waterway. Gray and Vancouver are both credited with the “discovery” of the Columbia River, though Vancouver deemed it “not suitable for major commerce.”

George Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia

George Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia

The next decade saw an increase in trading ships along the Columbia, with several ships a year visiting the coast to engage in fur trading with the coastal Indians. By the time Lewis and Clark reached the coast in 1805, there was a thriving trade in furs centered at Nootka Sound. Ships sometimes encountered in Pacific Northwest waters included Boston traders, French expeditions, British, Russian, and Spanish explorers and merchantmen, New England whalers, and even an occasional Japanese junk.

So, it was not unreasonable for Jefferson, Lewis and Clark to hope that a ship might happen by to carry the explorers home. In fact several ships were in the area that year. Most notably, the American ship Lydia of Boston, under Captain Samuel Hill, entered the Columbia River in 1805 to acquire timber for spars. The Lydia entered the lore of coastal legend not because it picked up Lewis and Clark, but because it picked up another famous, unlucky passenger. In his book The Way to the Western Sea, historian David Lavender sums up the story:

In the spring of 1803, a trading ship hunting for sea-otter pelts sailed into Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Resentful of several years of mistreatment by white traders, the Indians massacred all the crew except the ship’s twenty-year-old, English-born armorer (blacksmith) John Jewitt, and the sailmaker, John Thompson. Those two languished as prisoners until rescued on July 19, 1805, by Captain Samuel Hill of the brig Lydia, out of Boston. The salvation was effected without bloodshed, and on departing for further trading operations along the Northwest Coast, Captain Hill said he would return to Nootka within a few months to pick up whatever pelts the Indians gathered during his absence.

The Columbia Rediviva

The Columbia Rediviva

The Lydia traded along the Pacific Coast until August 1806 before heading for China, so it could have, in theory, been within hailing distance during Lewis and Clark’s time on the coast. On November 6, 1805, Clark reported, “we over took two Canoes of Indians going down to trade one of the Indians Spoke a fiew words of english and Said that the principal man who traded with them was Mr. Haley,and that he had a woman in his Canoe who Mr. Haley was fond of &c.    he Showed us a Bow of Iron and Several other things which he Said Mr. Haley gave him.” The “Mr. Haley” the Indians were speaking of was, presumably, Captain Samuel Hill.

As it turned out, “Mr. Haley” was a popular figure along the coast. On November 11, 1805, Clark reports talking with a Cathlama Indian dressed in a “Salors Jacket and Pantiloons,” who reported trading with white people. Sergeant John Ordway wrote balefully, “they tell us that they have Seen vessels in the mouth of this River and one man by the name of Mr. Haily  who tradeed among them, but they are all gone.”

On January 1, 1806, Clark made a list of “the names of Sundery persons, who visit this part of the Coast for the purpose of trade &c. &c. in large Vestles; all of which Speake the English language &c.—as the Indians inform us.” He again mentioned Mr. Haley, recording that the Indians said that he “Visits them in a Ship & they expect him back to trade with them in 3 moons to trade — he is the favourite of the Indians (from the number of Presents he givs) and has the trade principaly with all the tribes.”

Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls, Columbia River (Mural from the Oregon State Capitol)

Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls, Columbia River (Mural from the Oregon State Capitol)

Captain Hill/Mr. Haley’s well-supplied ship certainly would have been a welcome sight, but unfortunately for Lewis and Clark, he proved to be elusive. But was the Lydia really anywhere near Fort Clatsop? In 1815, when the Lydia‘s rescued sailor John Jewitt’s secret diary of his captivity was published – under the potboiler title Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt – the narrative contained a surprising factoid not in Jewitt’s original diary. According to David Lavender, Jewitt related that “the Lydia had crept about ten miles into the Columbia estuary in search of a convenient stand of timber from which to cut a new mast and spars. While the traders were there, visiting Indians showed the mariners medals given them by Lewis and Clark, who, they said had arrived by land with a small party and then, only a fortnight earlier, had started home, again by land.”

This would seem to have been a heartbreaking miss of an easy ride home. But, the historical record and common sense shows that Jewitt’s recollection of the timeframe, especially almost ten years out, is suspect. Given the talkative nature of the coastal Indians. it is highly unlikely that any ship in the area would have gone unreported by the Indians and unnoticed by Lewis and Clark. Besides, according to Mary Malloy, author of Devil On The Deep Blue Sea: The Notorious Career of Captain Samuel Hill of Boston, Hill’s reputation as a sea captain was decidedly mixed, with murder, rape, kidnapping, and madness among his rumored capabilities. So even if Hill had shown up, it might not have been an easy ride home after all.

In the end, no trading ship appeared during the entire long winter of 1805-1806, captained by “Mr. Haley” or anybody else. There was no way to communicate with anyone back home, no safe passage for the journals, and no new supplies for the Corps of Discovery. Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson had considered just such an eventuality. His instructions provided Lewis with a Plan B:

Should you find it safe to return by the way you go, after sending two of your party round by sea, or with your whole party, if no conveyance by sea can be found, do so; making such observations on your return as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.

On March 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery began the long walk home.

Read Full Post »

Much has been documented about William Clark’s ownership of slaves, including the famous York who accompanied him on the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Clark, while generally considered by his white contemporaries to be a kind man, comes off as a harsh master in his own letters when he describes punishing his lazy slaves and “trouncing” York for his discontent after the Expedition’s return. Less has been written about Meriwether Lewis’ attitude toward slavery, but he too was a slave owner.

Overseeing the slaves

Overseeing the slaves

Lewis’s father William died in 1779, leaving his 5 year-old son Meriwether as the primary heir to his estate. This included his plantation at Locust Hill in Albemarle County, Virginia (about 1600 acres) and other property, including 24 slaves. Until Meriwether Lewis reached the age of majority, his guardians and an overseer managed the slaves at Locust Hill.  After the death of his step-father John Marks in 1791, Meriwether ended his schooling, helped his widowed mother move back from Georgia, and somewhat reluctantly took on the job of the day-to-day running of the plantation. He was 18.

By this time, wheat had become the primary agricultural crop at Locust Hill, a crop that was less depleting to the soil than tobacco – but also less profitable. It was also more complicated to grow and harvest than tobacco, and required more training of slave labor. The cultivation of wheat required permanent, plowed fields, including the need to periodically manure the fields and rotate the crops to maintain the fertility of the soil. The use of plows meant that you needed draft animals and slaves trained in their care. The need to transport grain to the mill, and fodder and manure to your farm, meant you had to maintain wagons, horses, and a blacksmith shop. Lewis had a lifetime of agricultural learning ahead of him, as well as getting used to managing the day-to-day task of assigning work and supervising the slaves.

Little is known about Lewis’s feelings about the slaves in his employ. No doubt slaves would have worked in the home at Locust Hill, as well as in the fields, so he would have gotten to know them well. The slaves would have required food, clothing, and medical care. Lewis’s mother Lucy Marks was an extremely capable woman and a skilled herb doctor, and it is known that she treated the Lewis slaves humanely, played the primary role in their supervision, and cared for their medical problems herself. Evidenced by a letter written to Lucy by one of her former slaves, at least some of them had been taught to read and write.

19th century cartoon, "Little Lewis Sold"

19th century cartoon, "Little Lewis Sold"

What is also clear is that Meriwether Lewis was ill-suited to the role of country planter and slave owner. In 1794, when the Whiskey Rebellion broke out, Lewis left his life and Locust Hill and joined the Virginia militia and then the regular army. He never looked back.

Although army officers were allowed and frequently did take a slave manservant into the field to cook their meals, clean their quarters, brush their uniforms, polish their boots, and groom their horses, Lewis apparently never did. An inveterate loner and rambler, Lewis seemed not to want the baggage and overhead of having to supervise and provide for a slave. He did, however, agree to let Clark take York along on the Expedition in 1803, as long as Clark believed that York could withstand the trip.

York by Charles M. Russell

York by Charles M. Russell

Although Lewis no doubt got an up-close and personal look at the contradictory attitude towards slavery held by his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, he seems to have given the matter no deep thought. “With regards to blacks, he made no distinctions between them, made no study of them, had no thought that they could be of benefit to America in any capacity other than slave labor,” Stephen Ambrose wrote about Lewis in Undaunted Courage. This attitude likely held true for York as well as the other slaves Lewis had dealt with in his life. Clark was in charge of York during the expedition, and aside from assigning work to York like any other enlisted man, Lewis left any supervision or discipline of York to Clark. Nevertheless, York was allowed the special privilege of carrying a gun, and when they reached the Pacific Coast, Lewis did allow York (along with Sacagawea) to vote in the poll of where to make their winter camp. Clearly York had proved himself, and Lewis’s world view could expand enough to concede that even a slave deserved basic rights.

Lewis returned to Locust Hill for a visit after the Expedition, but he had no desire to take up his old role as plantation owner. Upon his arrival in St. Louis as governor of Upper Louisiana in 1808, Lewis once again showed his reluctance to take on the daily supervision of a slave, choosing not to take any of the slaves from Locust Hill with him. Instead he hired a free black man, John Pernia (or Pernier), to be his manservant. Lewis was no doubt aware of Clark’s conflict with York and the thrashing York got at Clark’s hands. It is unknown whether Lewis might have tried to intervene on York’s behalf or moderate Clark’s anger at York … if he did, he did not succeed.

Unfortunately, though their relationship was not one of master and slave, Lewis was destined for conflict with John Pernia. Financial problems led to him getting seriously behind in paying Pernia’s salary. Pernia was with Lewis on the Natchez Trace at the time of Lewis’s death, and some have speculated that Pernia may have played a role in Lewis’s shooting or at least robbed him of the cash he was carrying after his demise. Pernia did travel all the way to Monticello to seek out payment of the $240 in back pay that Lewis owed him, but was rebuffed by Jefferson, as well as Clark, Madison, and Lewis’s family.

In despair, John Pernia later committed suicide. The tradition that prior to his death he was confronted by a Lewis family member in his native New Orleans, supposedly carrying the gold presentation watch given to Lewis by Jefferson, is apocryphal.

Read Full Post »

Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully

Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1821

The last years of Thomas Jefferson’s life were plagued by terrible financial problems. Perpetually in debt because of his loose spending habits and the never-ending construction at Monticello, Jefferson also suffered from lower-than-expected income from the crops he produced on his various plantations. But the ultimate ruinous blow came from an unexpected source: Jefferson’s friend Wilson Cary Nicholas, a former senator and governor of Virginia and president of the Richmond branch of the Bank of the United States.  Jefferson’s involvement with Nicholas would lead to the loss of everything.

In the fall of 1817, Jefferson asked to borrow $6000 from the Bank of the United States, and Nicholas gladly co-signed two separate notes of $3000 each. Six months later, Nicholas asked Jefferson to return the favor and be co-signer on a loan for him – this time two notes of $10,000 each, for the total sum of $20,000. He assured Jefferson that he was worth at least $350,000 and would easily be able to repay the notes, to come due in the fall of 1819.

Nicholas had been a close friend and political supporter of Jefferson’s for years. Jefferson’s beloved grandson Jeff Randolph was married to Nicholas’s daughter. With no reason to doubt Nicholas’s solvency, Jefferson signed the papers “in utter confidence” and the loans were approved.  He seems not to have given the matter much thought.

Wilson Cary Nicholas by Gilbert Stuart

Wilson Cary Nicholas by Gilbert Stuart

Fast-forward to August 1819, when Jefferson received a letter in the mail from Nicholas. Something had gone terribly wrong. Despite his earlier assurances, Nicholas confessed to Jefferson that he had been not been able to keep up with his loan payments. The bank had investigated and found that Nicholas was far from solvent – in fact, rash speculation in western lands had put Nicholas $200,000 in debt. They were calling in the loan.

Jefferson realized immediately that if Nicholas went bankrupt, as co-signer of the loan, he was now on the hook to pay back the money. “He said very little,” Jefferson’s granddaughter wrote, “but his countenance expressed a great deal.” Unfortunately, Jefferson’s next action made a bad situation worse. He asked the bank to extend the term of the loan for a full year, and offered to bring in another co-signer—to whom he would deed land worth $20,000—to help guarantee the loan. The second co-signer was Nicholas’s son-in-law and Jefferson’s grandson, Jeff Randolph.

Wilson Cary Nicholas’s unexpected death  on October 10, 1820, plunged the Jefferson family into an unfathomable financial disaster. In the days before Chapter 11 and other bankruptcy protection laws, the family stood to lose everything. There was no way Jefferson could pay back $20,000 plus interest – about the equivalent of four years of earnings on his farms. But if he defaulted or died – he was then 77 years old – the debt would pass to his grandson, saddling him with a crushing liability.

Thomas Jefferson Randolph by Charles Willson Peale

Thomas Jefferson Randolph by Charles Willson Peale

Desperate, Jefferson conceived of a plan for the family’s salvation that came to him “like an inspiration the realms of bliss,” according to his daughter Martha Randolph. The family could sponsor its own public lottery, selling tickets and offering as a prize some of Jefferson’s farmland that his obligations to the bank left him unable to sell. Jefferson hoped to raise $60,000 from the public raffle, enough to pay off the debts, secure the family’s immediate future, and live comfortably for the remainder of his life. Jefferson even had secret hopes that the Virginia state government would buy all the tickets and burn them in a great patriotic bonfire, allowing him to keep both the land and the money. All he needed was approval from the Virginia legislature.

Unfortunately, that approval was not easily forthcoming. Then as now, “family values” were an important part of political rhetoric, and the lottery Jefferson proposed was considered gambling – and gambling fostered immorality.  Jefferson was crushed by the legislature’s chilly reception. “I see in the failure of this hope a deadly blast to all my peace of mind during my remaining days,” he wrote disconsolately. “I am overwhelmed at the prospect of the situation in which I may leave my family.”

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

In February 1826, the Virginia legislature relented and approved the lottery bill—but with important and chilling alterations. The farmland being offered as a prize would have to be independently appraised to make sure the $60,000 raised did not exceed the value of the prize – which it most certainly did. Therefore, the land prize would not be enough to get the lottery approved. A more attractive prize must be offered – Monticello itself. As a generous concession, the bill would allow Jefferson and Martha to remain in the house for the rest of their lives.

The thought of losing the home was unbearable. Due to the family’s dire financial straits, Monticello was already suffering from lack of upkeep. When the public learned of Jefferson’s plight, many people began to raise money outright and donate it to the Jefferson family. Though touched by these patriotic gestures, Jefferson tried to discourage them because he feared it would divert attention and money from the lottery.

Jefferson did not live to see the outcome. He passed away on July 4, 1826, surrounded by his family, and was buried in the family graveyard. Months later, his family held a public auction in a last-ditch attempt to raise much-needed cash. Over five days in January 1827, they watched forlornly while eager buyers picked through Monticello and carted off everything from Parisian furniture, prints and maps, and stemware to hogs, horses, saddles and ordinary household items. The auction of Jefferson’s slaves was an awful  ordeal, as families that had lived on Monticello and served the Jeffersons for years were sold off and dispersed. It was, Jefferson’s grandson wrote, “a perfect hell of trouble.”

Monticello in ruins, late 19th century

Monticello in ruins, late 19th century

Unfortunately, interest in the lottery quickly waned after Jefferson’s death,  and the idea was abandoned. In July 1828, after laboring heroically for years to save the family from his grandfather’s debts, Jeff Randolph put Monticello up for sale. By the time he finally found a buyer three years later, the mansion was decrepit, dilapidated and a shadow of its former self. The new owner was a druggist from Charlottesville, who purchased the mansion and grounds for $7000, about half of the asking price.

Adding insult to injury, he had poor taste. Proving that blood will tell, Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia wrote sadly: “[I] have some fear that he may disfigure that beautiful & sacred spot by some of that ‘gingerbread work’ which grandpapa used to hold in such contempt.”

More great reading: Marc Leepson’s Saving Monticello

Read Full Post »

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

When it comes to political scandal, “Weiner-gate” has nothing on the Founding Fathers. Today marks the 207th anniversary of the death of former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, one day after he was mortally wounded in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s violent death on July 12, 1804 stunned that nation. A longtime political enemy of Burr’s, Hamilton had worked against Burr in the presidential election of 1800 and had recently helped ensure Burr’s defeat in the New York gubernatorial election of 1804.

The final showdown between the two men occurred when Burr learned that Hamilton had expressed a “despicable opinion” of him at an upstate New York dinner party. Stung by the attack on his honor as well as by his recent political defeat, Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton refused, insulting Burr further by casually instructing him on the many possible meanings of the word “despicable.”

Despite attempts of friends to avert a duel, the two men met on July 11, 1804, along the west bank of the Hudson River, on a rocky ledge in Weehawken, New Jersey. The exact sequence of events is disputed. What is known is that Aaron Burr walked away and moved on to other schemes. Hamilton – former Treasury Secretary, co-author of The Federalist Papers, one of the most brilliant architects of American democracy – lay dying on the ground, gut-shot.

The story of Hamilton’s life and death still has the power to stop us in our tracks. I invite you to watch this brilliant rap by Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda, performed at the White House on November 2, 2009. It’s told from the point of view of Aaron Burr. Watch and enjoy.

Read Full Post »


Welcome visitors from Historical Tapestry! And for our regulars, we are guest-blogging on the great Historical Tapestry blog on the topic of “Rediscovering America.” Here’s an excerpt:

A few years back, history-based fiction like Jakes’ The Kent Family Chronicles and Howard Fast’s April Morning and Citizen Tom Paine were snapped up and devoured by the “greatest generation,” who saw themselves in the struggles of characters battling for liberty over the Old World forces of evil. Many people had been through Depression and war; many were still close to the immigrant experience depicted in best sellers they loved, like Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man or James Michener’s Centennial. People loved the idea that America was special; they still believed in liberty and democracy as a wonderful, ever-evolving experiment we could all be a part of.

Boy, have times changed. …

Let’s get some comments going on this often-controversial topic! And to make it interesting, commenters are entered for a copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe! You can also buy the book directly from this site (as well as Amazon and other retailers). Check out our great deals under “Buy Now.” You can order autographed books, and save $12.95 over Amazon’s prices if you buy the set! Plus buy our books in a number of e-book formats, including Kindle and Ipad!

Read Full Post »

The Game of Fives

18th century men playing fives

18th century men playing fives

In one of my favorite scenes in The Fairest Portion of the Globe, young ensign Meriwether Lewis plays a game of fives with the treacherous general James Wilkinson.

He dove after Wilkinson’s next serve and got a miraculous lucky bounce. Wilkinson raced forward but couldn’t get to it. As the dead ball rolled at his feet, Lewis picked it up and held it for a moment, turning the ball in his hands. He pushed his damp bangs out of his eyes and looked at Wilkinson. “That’s three all, sir.”

Wilkinson stepped forward and took the ball. “Give it here, Lewis. I don’t want you to mistake my meaning.” With visible fury, he turned and sent the ball slamming into the wall. Startled, Lewis lunged for the ball but collided with Wilkinson’s flying elbow instead. He tripped and crashed onto his hands and knees, face-first into the wall. His head rang and he tasted grit and blood.

“Lewis, let me tell you something for your own good,” Wilkinson jerked him around and stood over him, his hands digging into Lewis’s skin beneath his thin shirt. “Anthony Wayne has been a thorn in my side for twenty years, going back to the Revolution. Wayne has had his time here. Soon it will be a new era at Fort Washington. Jefferson’s time. My time.”

Lewis gaped up at him, warm blood trickling down his lip. “What? You and Jefferson? Sir, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about—”

Wilkinson gave a little chuckle of pity—or was it contempt?— then leaned down and tapped him on the forehead. “Use your head, Ensign Lewis. You’re a Shakespeare buff, I understand. Wasn’t it in Coriolanus, where the bard said, ‘Nature teaches beasts to know their friends?’”

Lewis swallowed, remembering the next line in the play. Without thinking, he whispered aloud: “Pray you, who does the wolf love?”

“Precisely, ensign.” Wilkinson let out a mirthful titter. “The lamb.”

Fives was a ball game that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Similar to handball, it was formally played on a stone or brick court, and informally against a stone wall in a churchyard. The purpose of the game is to hit a small, hard leather or rubber ball over a line on the back wall so that your opponents cannot return it before the second bounce. The game is fast-paced and requires sharp hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and agility.

General Thomas Sumter

General Thomas Sumter, the "Carolina Gamecock"

Fives was a favorite pastime of country gentlemen in the late 18th and early 19th century. American Revolutionary War General Thomas Sumter of South Carolina, known as “The Carolina Gamecock,” was known for his abilities on the fives court. The most famous fives player who ever lived is said to be John Cavanagh, an Irish house-painter who played on the fives court in St Martin’s Street in London, remaining undefeated until his death in 1819.

David Herbert Donald, in his biography of Abraham Lincoln, records that while the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago was deciding who was to be the presidential nominee, Lincoln was quietly going about his business in Springfield. Up early on Friday, May 18th, the day when nominations were to be made, Lincoln passed some time playing fives with some other men in a vacant lot next to the Illinois State Journal Office. After he got the news of his nomination, he spoke “to the ball players who broke off their game to congratulate him.”

The popularity of fives waned in the United States in the 19th century, but the game became even more popular in Britain as it was institutionalized as a sport in Britain’s elite public schools. The most well-known variety of fives is Eton Fives, which originated at Eton College in England. The side of Eton’s chapel is supported by buttresses that form perfect three-sided fives courts in which the students can play. The bay at the foot of the chapel steps is different from the rest, because the steps’ handrail forms a hazard that complicates the game, and a landing between the two flights of steps extends the playing area. Another popular variety of fives, played on a four-sided court, originated at Rugby School in Warwickshire.

The original Eton Fives court

The original fives court at Eton Chapel, England

Though not the craze it once was, Eton Fives and Rugby Fives are still enjoyed by schoolboys and “old boys” in England. Modern Eton Fives is played on courts built to resemble the unique bay at the foot of the Eton chapel steps, recreating the handrail hazard that has long been the bane of many a young scholar-athlete. In the United States, the only known fives courts that are still in use are in Massachusetts: at Groton School, St.Mark’s School, the Union Boat Club, and the A.D. Final Club at Harvard University.

For everything you ever wanted to know about fives:

The Eton  Fives Association

The Rugby Fives Association

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts