Lies and Half Truths in the Archives

calico-jack-rackhams-pirate-flagAs a historian of piracy, I suppose it was inevitable that my research summaries would end up reading like bad monologues for a late night comedy act. Like this tidbit from the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla: “1618 four Frenchmen appeared before the governor of Santo Domingo accused of piracy by the Spanish patrolmen who caught them on the island’s coast. The governor interrogates the four men through a translator. One of the men admits that, to survive, they occasionally went pirating on the high seas, but that they never stole anything from the Spanish. The governor then asks him where they got their ship, to which the men admit that they may have stolen one thing from the Spanish.” Ba dum tsshhh, cue the rimshot and laughter from my friends as I relate the story over beers later that evening. Continue reading

Steamboats and Teaching Tech

steamboat-imageSteamboats are ready for a comeback. A pedagogical one, that is. While in all likelihood the steamboat’s time as a common form of transportation in the United States is finished, over the past several weeks I’ve noticed subtle mentions in a seminar paper, a museum display, comments during last month’s PEAES conference, and only once, I should add, did I bring them up! This may be in part due to my increasing interest in them as a pivotal subject in the history of Anglo-American intellectual property. Yet I don’t think this is entirely an instance of frequency illusion but rather indicates that while steamboats are no longer an effective mode of movement, they are very effective as an illustrative one, particularly when trying to flesh out broader themes in the political economy of the Early Republic. Continue reading

“Daddy” Schuyler, Hamilton, and the Dakota Access Pipeline

State St. in front of the NYS Capital building, Albany, NY N 42 39.11 W 73 45.31 Text: <---- 1 1/2 Miles Schuyler Mansion Home of General Philip Schuyler. Residence of Alexander Hamilton in 1781 and 1795. State Education Department 1940

Three things happened in the last couple weeks to put Hamilton back on my mind: 1) the Victoria Palace Theatre in London announced that tickets for the show would finally (finally!) go on sale in January, 2) I started re-reading some of my research notes for this round of book edits, and 3) police arrested and pepper-sprayed peaceful Native Americans—Standing Rock Sioux, along with 90 additional nations and tribes—who were protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.[1] I find that being a historian is a job of intellectual mood swings. I read my sources telling me about the horrible things some of the people I study did in the past, and then I have to pull back and contextualize their actions within an eighteenth-century milieu in which many people were terrible people most of the time by 2016’s standards (and people, our standards these days are low). All this is a longish way of saying that I, like many historians, love Hamilton while recognizing that its treatment of Early Republic history misrepresents and sometimes leaves out some of the topics that matter most to me as a historian. And so today I want to talk about Hamilton, settler colonialism, and Native American history—in particular, about land battles and the relationship between Indians, federal governments, and state entities. Continue reading

“A Story (true one) for Mrs Adams”: The Adams Family, William Vans Murray, and Halloween

147768819149414The Adams Family Papers, 1639–1889, at the Massachusetts Historical Society is a large collection. Its microfilm edition is made up of 608 reels which are available for research at the Society and various other libraries and archives in the United States and Europe. The Adams Papers Editorial Project has published over fifty volumes to date. (To read more about the process, see Sara Georgini’s 2014 post.) As I continue to work on volume 13 Adams Family Correspondence I am reminded of the breadth of the collection, so when I went looking for a Halloween-related letter, I wasn’t disappointed. Continue reading

Men of La Mancha

don-quixote-book-coverIn a certain village of vast early America, whose name I do not recall, a book fell open. Then another. And another. By 1860, many generations’ worth of American readers had imbibed the two-volume work of Spain’s early modern master, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote, or, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha (1605). Cervantes’ metafiction of a mad knight-errant, often hailed as the first Western novel, bustled and blistered with originality. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Bounties: The Christian Brothers, Mutinies, and Potential Piracies

BrandoA few years ago, I was delivering my first lecture to a hall full of well over one hundred students. Thinking I would impress them with my popular culture knowledge, I included a reference to Captain Jack Sparrow as an example of the type of piracy I did not research, and one of the many forms of piracy in which they should not participate. Crickets ensued. Thankfully, my follow-up joke about the crickets landed better, but this left me all the more surprised when a student exiting the lecture swung by the front desk and made a quick reference to Marlon Brandon being a better sailor than Johnny Depp. Embarrassed though I am to admit, it was a reference I did not understand until about a month ago. Continue reading

Hidden Bureaucratic Forget-me-nots and What to Make of Ubiquity

2015-01-07 15.49.56When wading through account books, muster rolls, and other dry military records, I don’t usually get a sense of the author—there might be a name jotted down, or maybe some distinctive handwriting, but hardly any evidence of personality. Reading through a 1758 orderly book from the Oneida Carry was much the same: a recounting of paroles, provisions, parades, and troop preparations. And then, curiously, tucked between the routine orders and work details, on the bottom of the 51st page:

When This You See Remember me.[1]

An—abruptly elegant—personal appeal hidden in the middle of a bureaucratic record, a record covering the various minutiae of one regiment of the vast British military apparatus but containing no information (other than a name) about the man who had chronicled them all. What on earth was it doing here?

This post began as a simple question about the meaning of private voices in the state record and quickly became something a little more meandering—tracing a phrase, finding its ubiquity in the British Atlantic, and then, in that broader context, pondering how and why it came to be on the page of an official military document. Continue reading