Colonial History, History, Pantheon, statue, Uncategorized

Learning All About History By Looking At Statues. Chapter III “A Tale of A Forgotten Colony”

 

Old postcards, of a no-longer-extant statue, lead me to an interesting bit of early American history.

In college, I became interested in the study of colonial emigration to North America.  It’s a field that’s rich, complex, and often surprising.

Why would people suddenly leave the Old Country, with all the Shakespeare plays, great wines, fun accents, Eiffel towers, etc. and go live in a wilderness?

Religious wars, family squabbles, a gradual weariness with eating bread soaked in olive oil, are the usual back stories.  Escape from feudalism and blood feuds, incessant bagpipe and accordion playing, and other loud wheezing kinds of sounds, from aristocrats and their drafty castles.  But this statue tells one of the other, less-well-known motivations, and thereby hangs a tale.

One of the most powerful royal families in Europe, the Hapsburgs were a case study in inbreeding.  They suffered from an exaggerated chin (“Hapsburg jaw”), gout, depression, dropsy, and an overfondness for Bourbons.

Their cousins, the House of Hamburg, had all these hereditary problems, and more.

Including, in a few cases, and not to put too fine a point on it, tails.

The Hamburgs are usually only remembered now, because their difficulty in chewing caused them to create ground-meat patties, which became popular for a time as “hamburgers”.

 

 

Examine the portrait above – –  around this nobleman’s neck hangs a tiny dead sheep.

Now look at the pedestal in the picture below, with its goat heads.

What are the artists trying to tell us?

 

 

The pedestal was inscribed “Postremo superbia semper,” and “Last to leave the fight,” although a more literal translation would be, “Bringing up the rear with pride”

A sword hilt is visible, but in fact, the Hamburgs never carried on their persons, so much as cuticle scissors, due to a neurotic aversion to the sight of blood.

The hilt is just a prop.

Poking out from under the cape, disguised as a scabbard, but fooling no one, we see the hereditary Hamburg tail.

The family fled the Old World — which had turned it’s back on them  – – subjected to persecution, and often painfully pinched, when people were too quick to slam shut those enormous bronze doors they have on castles and churches.

Aristocrats who were destined to never sit upon a throne, because they just couldn’t sit comfortably on anything other than ottomans.

Off they went to America, back to fundamentals, to establish a new family seat, a place to rear their young.

But their New World colony “Hinterland” (near present-day Piscataway) was short-lived and tragic, and with the exception of a huge number of porcelain cats, no artifacts of any note have been unearthed at the site.   Why did they settle on that particular spot?  No one knows.  The Hamburgs, famously articulated in some ways, never clearly articulated their plans.

They left, but didn’t leave a note, and probably became extinct or something.

So there’s really no reason to talk about them anymore.

 

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My walk begins a few years ago, on a foggy night.

I’m going down Queen Street in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

An old colonial town on the Chester River,  where I’m attending Washington College.

 

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It’s pretty late, nearly midnight, on my nightly walk around town.

Down an all-too-familiar route — the town is small and only the historic district is worth seeing, so I know the path by heart.

I stop to admire #116 on the corner of Queen and High Streets.

My favorite dream home, in a town full of stunningly gorgeous historic homes.

Along the tiny harbor, a row of brick Georgians, some on the National Register, from the days when this was a British port of entry.

 

Widehall LOC

 

Right by the water sits “Widehall”(owned in the past by governors, senators, and judges).

A wonderful scent mixing with the salt water smells, from flowering shrubs in its walled garden.

Next door, is the old Custom House, home at times to British tax collectors and redcoats.

And then to a leader of the Sons of Liberty.  Who traded in slaves.

I wind through the old streets, move quietly down the back alley by the courthouse, and past the old historical society building.

I walk quickly, by Eastern Shore standards.

It is a foggy night, there is a moon up there somewhere in the clouds, and I reach my favorite street.

 

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My footsteps echo against the pavement, I hear each step very clearly.

The dim hum of traffic on Washington Avenue heading toward the bridge fades away.

I vaguely recall checking my phone to see the time, just as it reached midnight.

 

 

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I do not subscribe to a belief in ghosts or spirits, but at that particular witching hour, I am quite convinced that for the minute and a half it took me to reach the end of the street, I stepped back in time.

Walking swiftly through a swirling fog, in the warm, humid, late-spring air of Maryland, the noise of the cars was silenced, and I heard what sounded like horse hooves clopping behind me.

I turned and looked, but there was nothing, just fog and the same old houses I’d been admiring each night for years.

I continued walking, and mid-stride, I again heard the sound of horse hooves striking cobbles, and maybe a sound like a cane clacking against the brick pavers.

 

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By the time I reached Queen Street where it becomes wider and busier, as it meets High Street, I returned to the present.

I was aware suddenly of the steady stream of sound of cars going over the bridge across the river.

But, I was sure that, only a moment ago, I had not heard any cars, nor did I recall that that the temperature had just been this humid and breezy.

I had walked into a patch of warmth, silent of the sounds of the modern era, and, upon reflection, were the street lights really that dim, or did they just not appear a moment ago?

I’ve read about “marine inversion layers” and other weather phenomena, that refract sound waves, and all that.

None of those meteorological books mention horse hooves.

 

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Midnight in Paris may be a more romantic vision, but a late-night stroll in Chestertown is apparently magical. There is something in that town’s old district that lulls you into feeling at home, wanting to linger longer. You find yourself drawn to it, walking it’s streets every night, researching the old homes that you secretly wish you could step into, if only for a minute.

Walking back from this neighborhood, I realized how I was a bit sad to be walking around in what was clearly modern times, passing the seedy Royal Farms and the beat-up gas station, where girls always worried about getting hassled.

This modern era wasn’t the town I loved.

As I reflect on it, that particular corner, Queen and High Street, really is “magical.”  Never did I feel stressed once I walked down past it, and life seemed slower. The pace of the town was muted on that street at night.  My favorite, familiar houses seemed so inviting.

On another night, after a day filled with lectures and talking, walking late with a friend who appreciated silence and the old houses as much as I did, I think I was again aware of a shift in time, although this second time the shift felt less dramatic.

The old Imperial Hotel, ritzy, too pricey for me to pay too many visits, also seemed to slow down time, and its bar exudes the 1920’s, the perfect place for a Sidecar or Gin Rickey.  Memorable for having my first and best Bloody Mary there.  It felt like the Twenties:  the music, spiffy clientele, seersucker suits, the whispered conversations. This may be partially due to the amount of vodka in the Bloody Mary (and I may have had more than one, because they were so good),  but I distinctly remember feeling this way even before I took my first sip. It is of no great surprise that this copacetic joint sits on the corner of Queen and High.

I digress; before soaking up atmosphere and alcohol at the Imperial Hotel, I was walking.

Farther along High Street, near Philosopher’s Terrace, it’s not fun at night.  Or ever.  It smells of diesel.  Local unwashed and resentful denizens hang out by the low-rent housing on the corner, shouting and gesticulating toward you, as you go by at night.  Then you pass the frat boys, lounging about their dilapidated off-campus houses for a stretch, until you reach the college. That night, the night I heard horses, late though it was, the magic was starting to wear off as the noise of cars, the shouts of local hooligans, and the music and drunken sounds of a frat party drowned out my midnight reverie.

Turning down another street to escape back into the silent night.   Walking up to my dorm, an old brick pile from the 1800’s, I once again felt the warm glow of walking through a quiet time, though I knew I was in my own era, as a Volvo slowly glided past, and the glow of an iPhone illuminated a silhouette smoking a cigarette. I looked down, and my magical encounter had ended, but it renewed my enthusiasm for that little town at the edge of the River Chester.

 

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my home for senior year.

 

 

Chestertown History, Colonial History, Uncategorized

A Walk Through Colonial America, Part II ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ A Foggy Night in Chestertown, Maryland 1706

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Colonial History, History, Uncategorized

A Walk through Colonial America. Part I. Jamestowne, Virginia 1607

 

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Have you ever had someone say to you, “Can we talk while we walk?”  That’s what I want to do here.

The walk begins in Jamestowne, Virginia.

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On the surface, not much survives from colonial days.  A ruined church tower and graves, huddled next to the James River, on a swampy, bug-infested little island.

Nonetheless, I’ll  begin by endorsing the bold claim that Jamestown is the best place, to begin a walk through American colonial days.

In 1607, with a little band of Englishmen, landing on a miserable, malarial spit of land in Virginia.

Not with the Spanish in Florida, the French in Canada, the Dutch in New York, or the Pilgrims in New England.

But this post isn’t to argue that point.  It is to talk about gaining insights into history, by visiting the sites.  It’s part of a larger, and mostly out-of-fashion, empathetic approach to learning about the past.

 

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It is a strange thing.  America’s saga – – one of immigration, revolution, movement, progress, and tremendous change, begins in a place where it appears nothing much has changed.

 

IMG_1531Mostly because this Good Place To Start…is a bad place to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the summer, Jamestown Island is kind of a pest hole.  Full of mud, the water in the swamps full of natural toxins (plus new pollutants from upstream), riddled with ticks and chiggers and mosquitoes and any number of multi-legged freaks that bite, sting, suck your blood, and perhaps give you a nasty disease.  My time there required gallons of aloe, calamine, and bug repellent.  And antibiotics, when I tested positive for Lyme disease.  And as more pests and diseases head our way, they will probably find this island.  Many folks forget that malaria used to be endemic in places like this, and wasn’t really wiped out in the U.S., by hosing down the landscape with DDT, until after WWII.

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Flea. Hooke’s “Micrographia” 1665

 

I spent the summer of ’14 working as an intern and docent at Historic Jamestowne. While I loved my work, and working with some great people from Preservation Virginia, I surely did not care for the locale.  The temperature passed 100 Fahrenheit almost every day, and the humidity seemed to be trying to exceed 100, too.  If we could time-travel, I’d probably try to persuade the Virginia Company to continue northward to the Hudson River.   Or maybe even Hudson Bay.  Someplace cooler, anyway.

IMG_8360To someone used to a more northern climate, it seemed hot, sticky, and terrible, even without the 1607 perils of  dysentery, famine, and ambushes.

Ok, so maybe things weren’t quite as terrible as during the old days.

 

 

On the other hand, by arriving early, the original settlers didn’t have to put up with America First-ers.

Not the political group, but the haughty “My ancestors were the Hereditary Squires of Dripping Snodsbury, who stepped off the Mayflower, onto Plymouth Rock, laden with antique bed-warmers, brass thunder jugs, and rigid religious convictions …”  who do not want to hear any history that isn’t the apotheosis of English colonialist heroism, and the sacred birthplace of Patriot democracy and manifest destiny.

The reality of a desperate, starving, backstabbing, murderous little Bedlam clashes a bit with their legends.

People of color, standing in the shadow of the ruined church, ask about another first:  the first shipload of African captives to arrive in Virginia.  (On an English ship, sailing as a Dutch privateer, which captured the Africans from a Portuguese slaver – a real EU common market of misery.)

Native Americans also visit, and desire to hear a narrative of a bucolic, endlessly harmonious, precolonial Eden, ruined by an invasion of disease-laden illegal aliens.

If you can balance and placate all these parties in the same talk, you should run for office.

At least, as far as I remember, even if somebody didn’t care for my lecture, I never heard an arrow or musket ball whistle past.

And seriously, I appreciated 99.9% of visitors — people who take the time to visit, to learn, and who care about history, care enough to form an opinion, and can share their family histories without snobbery!  I enjoyed giving tours to visitors from all over the world, and was fascinated by everyone’s stories, and their incredible array of viewpoints and conceptions of history.

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Who first said, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”? I’m thinking, Beelzebub?

I was thrilled to work among fascinating artifacts (more being uncovered every day!), wandering among the active dig site and learning more as I went.

The site is unusual in that the archaeologists are doing their level best to do a clean sweep.  Usually a small portion of a site is dug, and the rest reserved for future researchers, who may have more sophisticated technology.  But here, salt water encroachment is dissolving artifacts at a pretty good clip, so they’re trying to dig and conserve them, before they vanish.

 

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The Past.  In Past Tense.

I believe it is important to learn history “In person.  On site.”  Meaning, go to where it happened.

Why?  Just say “historic preservation” three times, and most people lapse into a coma, like an incantation of boredom.

 

Captain Smith's Map of Viriginia LOC

Captain Smith’s excellent map of Virginia. LOC

 

Why bother going to these sites? The colonists are long dead and gone, their little fort and pathetic shelters also returned to dust.  The first five hundred didn’t have much time to make a mark, really, since all but sixty would be dead within a year. Why go “some place where something happened.”  Past tense.  Then, but not Now.

Why not just find a comfortable armchair, and read about it.  Actually, I love that!  Historians, when they’re good, boil down so much research and thought, and pour it out for us, nice and smooth.  They make things accessible, organized, and so very clear.  We can just sit back and enjoy the narrative, as history marches along, obeying the Zeitgeist, every character in perfect step.

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17th c. church tower under repair, and statue of the intrepid Captain John Smith

 

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The historical story-telling started right at the start, with Captain John Smith, a pretty amazing guy. Man, what I would give to hoist a few flagons with this man

So many amazing people have devoted themselves to writing history – digging, sifting, reassembling, distilling.  Peering through complex lenses in the mind’s eye, re-imagining, so they can draw for us, all the interwoven paths and patterns invisible to ordinary folks just existing day-to-day.

I love diving into history books.  But, here’s a recent news flash — you cannot understand everything about life by reading. You also need to experience it. What does 110 degrees feel like in the Virginia summer?  Stand in the sun there for a summer, trying to focus while feeling various blood-sucking bugs crawl up your legs to reach embarrassing places, and you have a better grasp, better than any book can convey, of at least one aspect of the colonists’ lives. I came to the realization, that I don’t think clearly in weather like this, don’t feel well, and would undoubtedly pass out if I was chopping down trees, trying to put up a palisade.  And I wasn’t starving to death, half-poisoned by tainted well water, encased in wool, leather and steel, capped off with a Sancho Panza tin hat, and terrified of getting an arrow in my back.  The steamy weather also made me feel short-tempered – probably not a good idea to let me have a sword handy.  Not surprising they found the remains of what was probably the first accidental gunshot victim in America.

 

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I do not think for an instant, that we can really “walk the walk,” meaning, replicate the experience or mindset of those folks in 1607.  But I do believe, simply put, that experiencing these places can yield some insights not available from a book.  In a similar way, probably some people find it easy to mock reenactors.  To them, the hardcores in Tony Horwitz’s “Confederates in the Attic” might appear faintly ridiculous.  I think, that they probably know a few things about the Civil War, that we do not.

Some good guys from Friends of the James River and Preservation Virginia. This sturgeon is being tagged & released – when the settlers arrived, the James River was teeming with fish

 

V0030081 X-ray, skull Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org X-ray of a skull, in profile. Photograph, ca. 1915 1915 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

Immovable Feast

We learn so much from doing.  Of course, you have to draw a line somewhere.  For me, at Jamestown, it was meals.  And the historical question “Do we really taste like chicken?

L0041127 Hand coloured illustration of facial surgery Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Hand coloured illustration of facial surgery and suturing technique. 1561 By: Ambroise ParéLa methode curative des playes, et fractures de la teste humaine. : Avec les pourtraits des instruments necessaires pour la curation d'icelles. / Ambroise Pari Published: 1561. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

1561 Ambroise Paré. Wellcome Library

What made cannibalism, totally taboo and almost unheard of in American history, come to life for me?  One day I found myself staring into the empty eye sockets of a skull, unearthed from a rubbish pit, and then unable to stop staring at the knife marks on it, where a starving colonial cut the flesh and ligaments off the face of the deceased girl.  No matter how cerebral the author, or how sinewy the prose, a book about the Starving Time will never have the visceral impact that skull did.

The fleshless skull brought history to life for me. I’d read, studied, and listened to lectures about the colony and its woes, but until I worked at the site, and among the artifacts and relics found there, I had not really felt their desperation.

Living on a student stipend, I opened my brown bag, and each day, felt sincerely grateful for my peanut butter sandwich.

L0018633 X-ray photograph of Lord Lister's hand Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org X-ray photograph of Lord Lister's hand with ring on fifth finger Photograph Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

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I’ve fiddled with this picture, trying to highlight the post holes. The one center right, is the really cool one. The littoral & literal edge of empire.

 

It Ain’t Much, It’s Just a Hole in the Ground

Here is another example from that summer of 2014.  While I was there, archaeologists uncovered something spectacular and exciting, in it’s own way.

It was a hole in the ground.

And the decayed remains of a wooden stump.

Actually, the spot where a hole used to be.

Exciting, right?  I can tell you’re impressed.

But when Bill Kelso, the famous archaeologist who’s been digging there many years, looked down at that particular posthole, he realized we were looking at the exact, literal edge of the British Empire.

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The colonists’ first concern at Jamestowne was being slaughtered by the Spanish, so a three-sided fort was quickly thrown up, with cannons pointed toward the river.  But when the native inhabitants became hostile, the British fell back on their experience in Ireland, combating ambush-style fighting in the Ulster Plantation, and created a five-sided fort.  The posthole they uncovered while I was there, was a remnant of this 1608 palisade.

Suddenly I felt that I was living history. In history classes and travel, it seemed I was always, always running into Englishmen Abroad.  Hong Kong.  Singapore.  Sepoy Rebellion.  East India Company.  Jamaica, mon.  Prudential’s Rock of Gibraltar.  Rhodes Scholars/Boer Wars/South Africa.  Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham.  A cup of tea from Kenya.  Kiwi from New Zealand.  Henry Hudson sailing through NY.  Dr. Watson’s limp from a Jezail bullet.  54° 40′ or Fight.  The Falklands War.  etc.   I can keep going all day, it’s no problem.

And of course, there was this local dispute between English folks, in 1775.   So the idea that The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire was embedded in my mind.

But what I was looking straight down at, just an image in the clay, was the farthest extent of that empire in 1608.  The whole glorious imperial affair, almost four thousand miles across the Atlantic from London, terminated in a choleric swamp in coastal Virginia, marked by a bit of stump in a soggy hole.  The rest of North America, and the world, was “beyond the pale.”

 

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Alfred Waud’s 1864 sketch of the church tower. LOC

 

Jamestown felt like my first face-to-face encounter with history. From then on, I began to experience history on a personal level, driving me to work harder, dig deeper, and ask more questions.  It’s a good place to think this way, since forty years ago, the experts advised Dr. Kelso, that Jamestowne had long ago washed into the river.  He questioned, dug, and found the site.

…On with the walk.  Moving up a century, and farther upstream…next stop, Chestertown, on the Chester River, in Maryland.

I promise, no more famine, no cannibalism, no blood-sucking pests…well, there will be British tax collectors.

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A “quantitative” historian in his next life.

 

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