Science and Knowledge: Keeping them Alive
During the early years of the United States, adults esteemed science and knowledge of mathematics as objects of learning. In addition, they loved asking questions about the natural world and the universe. Jefferson’s and Madison’s libraries covered universal subjects in many languages.
Thought in this period rested on what historians call the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. These were ideological shifts about the rights of man that led to the great revolutions of the eighteenth century. In the early 1800s Americans supported not only their revolution, but its ideological underpinnings.
Early Americans were interested in more than politics. Most importantly, they believed that “we the people” could pursue happiness by free inquiry and free thought in all fields. They knew the difference between facts and fiction, and valued systematically analyzed and understood facts. In sum, they admired and valued science; the U. S. Constitution guarantees patent rights to the innovative.
Very few universities existed and most of these focused on the instruction of ministers of religion. Thus, the educational establishment purveyed religion and morality; it did not conduct research and support free inquiry. However, the core curriculum in most universities included mathematics and some practical science. This practical core allowed The College of William and Mary to train and grant a license to George Washington to be a surveyor.
The Philadelphia Museum
None of the thirteen colonies housed museums, although there were several learned societies that pursued the science of the day and diffusion of knowledge. The Philadelphia Museum founded by Charles Willson Peale in 1784 was the first American museum. Peale, a well-known portrait painter, opened the museum with a display of forty- four “worthy persons” of the revolutionary era.
Peale hoped to get commissions for more portraits and charged admission to his museum. At first, his collection occupied the upstairs space in his home. Here is one of Peale’s portraits of George Washington (now hanging at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon):
George Washington in Virginia Militia, 1772
The Philadelphia Museum began to attract donations of many items and soon had to expand from its original space. For example, displays included Martha Washington’s thimble, American Indian clothing, weapons, and various household objects.
In 1794 Peale moved the museum to the building of the American Philosophical Society, the country’s first scientific society, where Peale served as secretary. Peale, a scholar and student of botany and natural history, collected specimens of plants and animals. Interestingly, he found a place in his museum for a live menagerie including two grizzly bears, a monkey and a bald eagle.
Science and Knowledge of Natural History
The American Philosophical Society pursued science. Members studied and systematically organized their knowledge. They made their discoveries and artifacts available to the public.
In 1801 Peale led an expedition to Newburgh, New York where a farmer had found the skeleton of a large mastodon. Peale and his son, Rembrandt, excavated and reassembled the skeleton and put it on display in the museum. The mammoth caused a sensation and was the most popular item in the Peale collection. As a result of increased visitor interest and attendance, the following year the museum moved to the second floor of Independence Hall.
The Peale Collection was now a serious museum. Visitors received a printed catalogue with collections organized according to a botanical order. Painted portraits hung over glass cases holding birds, reptiles, insects, minerals and fossils. The reassembled mammoth skeleton dominated the museum.
Restored Mammoth in Museum
The Smithsonian Institution: Origin and Early History
Similar to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, a group of Washington DC citizens organized the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences in 1816. The organization received a charter from the U. S. Congress in 1818 and elected some prominent members who served as officers.
The Institute proposed to study plant life, to create a botanical garden on the capitol Mall, to study the country’s mineral production, to improve the management and care of livestock, and to create a topographical and statistical history of the United States. In 1824 it occupied a permanent home in the capitol building and provided weekly presentations to members of Congress.
During the life of the society, eighty-five communications were presented to Congress, with more than half devoted to astronomy and mathematics. Of all the activities planned by the institute, two were implemented—the establishment of a botanical garden (it’s still there) and a national museum for the study of natural history. The Institute’s charter expired in 1838. The National Museum, based on the natural history holdings of the society and founded in 1840, later became part of the Smithsonian Institution.
James Smithson was a well-to-do British scientist living in Italy. He died in 1829 leaving most of his estate to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford. Smithson’s will stipulated that should his nephew die without heirs, the estate would pass “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The nephew, Hungerford, died in 1835, childless and still in his twenties.
Nobody knows why Smithson did this. He had never visited the United States and knew nobody living there.
Finally, Congress officially accepted the legacy and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust on July 1, 1836. President Andrew Jackson sent Richard Rush to England to collect the bequest, and Rush returned with 105 sacks containing 104,960 gold sovereigns. That amounted to about $500,000 at the time; in today’s dollars, approximately $220 million.
What did Smithson Mean by Science and Knowledge?
President James K. Polk in 1846 signed legislation establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of the United States. The law created a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian who would administer the institution.
Smithson’s will did not specify what he meant by diffusion of knowledge, and the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the institution to become a center for scientific research. At the same time, it became the depository for various U. S. Government collections.
In 1838 the United States navy embarked on an exploration that would circumnavigate the globe and last four years. The expedition, conducted by a navy crew and nine civilian scientists, sailed on six small ships.
The exploring expedition amassed forty tons of samples of natural history. Artifacts included thousands of zoological specimens, 50,000 plant specimens, thousands of shells, corals, fossils and geological specimens. In addition, the expedition collected a few thousand ethnological curiosities, including 450 weapons. The crew evidently participated in deadly battles with Fijian warriors and collected many intricately carved war clubs.
Fijian War Club
Housing Science and Knowledge: The Castle
The vast collection brought back by the exploring expedition was catalogued and displayed at the U. S. Patent Office. As a result of the expedition, Congress debated the need for a building on the Mall, to both fulfill Smithson’s wish and to house all of the newly amassed objects. At the time, Washington DC was a small city and the Mall served as its center.
Money was appropriated and construction began in 1849. The building, designed by James Renwick, Jr., imitated a Norman castle. The Smithsonian opened its building, known widely as the Castle, in 1855, completing the requirements of Smithson’s will.
The Smithsonian Castle
Today the Smithsonian Institution is a giant repository of knowledge and science in Washington DC, a city dominated by politicians and politics. While rhetoric, exaggeration, and obfuscation comprise most of what politicians say, they know where science and knowledge come from. They support the Smithsonian with their budget every year.
Free and open to the public, the Smithsonian has been that way from its beginning. Today it consists of nineteen museums as well as the National Zoo. Eleven of the museums are located on the National Mall along with the National Botanical Garden. In addition, the Smithsonian supports 168 affiliated museums in 39 states, Panama and Puerto Rico.
Still true to the requirements of science, the Smithsonian Institution supports some twenty research centers. Several are connected to affiliated Smithsonian museums.
In 2020, the federal budget and appropriations by Congress for the Smithsonian amounted to $1 billion, or 62 percent of total expenditures. The rest comes from trusts and private donations. Smithson’s legacy still operates.
Science and Knowledge: Magic at the Smithsonian
My family lived in Washington DC during the years my children grew to adulthood. We visited the Smithsonian frequently and one year both my children enrolled in a Smithsonian course on magic.
Christian the Magician acted as professor and he was well known in my neighborhood for presentations at birthday parties. For six weeks he met with his small class teaching them not only the tricks, but how to present them.
The final exam consisted of a performance by the students for an audience of parents and grandparents, held in a small auditorium in the Castle. We sat in a semi-circle on platforms built to serve as seats (no chairs) and could view the small stage from above.
My children managed to demonstrate a display of a complete newspaper page after they had shown the crowd that they had torn it up and shredded it. We cheered loudly as did all the other parents and grandparents.
After the performance I asked the children how they did it. They refused to answer. They had done the work and were keeping the knowledge and science to themselves.
Back in April I wrote in this blog that technological change appears to be accompanied by old jokes. That was six months ago, and jokes have dried up a bit. The boredom continues, but people have overcome isolation through the use of modern devices. The use of new technology changes how we live.
For example, new technology has changed our lives by providing us with virtual education through Zoom meetings. My granddaughter before the pandemic played drums in the high school band. The pandemic stopped that. Now she teaches younger students how to play percussion through the internet. She has two students, one eight-year-old and one about thirteen, and she has written to me about her challenges teaching drums using Zoom.
My granddaughter becomes irritated after sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours doing high school work. She takes a break by writing me a long-hand letter that she places in an envelope, stamps and mails. I’m sure she also bangs on her drums now and then for the pleasure it gives her. I treasure her letters and they bring back old memories.
Fountain Pens Were Once New Technology
My father’s pen, coated in dark red wood, felt heavy in my hand. An early fountain pen, its gold point wrote smoothly. My father loved doing this. I think his pen, a gift from his parents, brought back memories of his childhood. He loved the beautiful sleek instrument and valued it more than jewelry.
Fountain pens came with rubber inserts that carried more ink than a simple dipping, and in its day represented a great innovation, a new technology. The defective ones leaked, but fine fountain pens became works of art and style. They were favorite gifts to children, and writers used them to create wondrous long letters. Without the fountain pen, Bob Dylan might not have written the 20-page letter to an ex-girlfriend, from which he later extracted the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Fountain Pens Had Style
In response to my grand-daughter’s letter, I dragged out my old fountain pens from a box at the top of my closet. I answered her last letter using one and it wasn’t easy. Like shoes, fountain pens have to be used regularly to feel comfortable. Their points change shape over time and the pressure used by the writer affects how much ink is released. I wasn’t used to my own pens, and my favorite one seemed scratchy. In this case, technology (new pens) has changed my life for the better.
Nobody thinks about pens as valuable any more. Modern technology produces pens that write smoothly, are cheap and easily replaced. Who needs fancy pens when nobody writes letters? The old companies- Parker, Waterman, Cross- don’t exist any longer. Their brand names now belong to foreign firms that manufacture mostly in China. We communicate through smart phones and the internet.
Technology Changes Life in Unforeseen Ways
We already can see the next revolution in how people will live. Pens are ordinary cheap instruments, but changes in their use affects the economy. Great companies disappear when people no longer buy their products. We can’t foresee all the effects of people moving their work back into the home, and communicating electronically instead of personally or through the mail.
Ruth Goldman in her book “The Domestic Revolution” writes about the shift from wood to coal fuel in sixteenth century Elizabethan England. The population of London grew and wood prices became exorbitant because wood had to be shipped from miles away overland. Coal could be shipped by sea from Newcastle. Britain was the first country to convert from wood to coal fuel and it happened quickly.
The switch to coal transformed the country. Since wood wasn’t needed for fuel, forest areas were converted to agriculture. Smoke stacks with chimneys were built to vent the noxious fumes caused by coal fire. Once tall smoke stacks were being constructed, it made sense to build larger buildings and London began to see two and three-story buildings topped by chimneys.
Coal burned hotter than wood and British industry began to develop and produce cooking utensils made of iron and brass. This laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution hundreds of years later, based on knowledge and machinery using iron and coal.
Technology changed life dramatically. People cooked, ate and lived differently. Coal fires stained walls and wall hangings. Tapestries came down and wall paints were developed as well as wall papers. Coal ovens could be regulated producing a steady temperature. The use of coal-fire for cooking allowed foods to be roasted. With the new technology, the British invented boiled puddings and kidney pies.
Coal Fire Made Possible the Baking of Steak and Kidney Pie
Will the Use of Virtual Communication and Technology Change How we Live Long-term?
Moving people back to home from the place of work reverses trends of the last few hundred years. The industrial revolution began with cottage industries. Workers in their own homes had to produce goods, without regulation of hours, working conditions and no restrictions on child labor. When factories were built, they were considered an advance in living conditions. Factories had light, heat, and were designed to produce goods efficiently.
Factories moved manufacturing out of the home and away from crafts and hand labor. Eventually abuses brought about strikes and legislation regulating conditions of work.
When we move work back to the home, we aren’t going back to the eighteenth century. We’ll expect our salaries, pensions, health care and other legislatively provided protections to continue.
Nevertheless, we’re moving back. A house that contains workers as well as families has to be built to accommodate all the functions necessary for the people living and working in it. Will houses be redesigned to house work spaces? What would that kind of house look like?
If very many people work at home, will food delivery services have to improve and increase? What will happen to food production and delivery, if restaurants stay in a state of decline? Will our stay-at-home chefs come up with brand new food ideas and how to prepare them?
What about big cities and big office buildings? Will the city of the future be simply an entertainment park where very little productive work is done? Technology changes how we live, how we eat, and how we work in unpredictable ways.
Technology has Already Changed How We Live and More Change is Coming
We are aware of how technology changes how we live, but we don’t see the wider picture of where we are going.
But the following describes what we are experiencing now:
- You have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach a family of four
- Your reason for not staying in touch with friends and family is that they don’t have email addresses
- Accidentally you enter your password on the microwave
- You haven’t played solitaire with real cards in years
- You pull in your own driveway and use your cell phone to see if anyone is home to help you carry in the groceries.
Stuck in my house since March due to the pandemic, I now write short essays and letters instead of major 50,000 word pieces. I think short pieces are easier to follow, and from letters I seek understanding.
Last year, I completed a document detailing my experience being treated for lymphoma. Now I hate to remind myself about anything to do with that. I can’t look at the piece. It sits in my computer, like a sulking neglected child. It cries to me and makes demands, but I resolutely ignore it.
Instead, I started a blog. I also write letters to my grandchildren. These are actual paper letters, written by hand, placed in an envelope with a stamp, and delivered by the post office. Remember what those are?
Last week I received my first response, from my fourteen- year- old granddaughter. She writes, “It’s been forever since I’ve had to write a letter. Emails just aren’t the same.”
What a clever girl!!
She can write, and her handwriting is less cursive and much easier to decipher than mine. My writing is cursive destroyed by years of practice and annoyance at how long it takes to put my brain on paper. After all, there’s much more in my head than a few written words can say.
When I started my essay about lymphoma, I thought about my own personal history. For my generation, major events were communicated by letter. People understood what was happening from letters. I guess that’s why I write to grandchildren.
Understanding Letters and Family History
For example, in my family, letters went back and forth constantly. My mother lived in New York City, as did two sisters and three brothers. Two more sisters and a brother lived in Richmond, Virginia. My two aunts from Virginia came to visit every year when my grandfather was alive. They took the train and spent their time on board playing canasta, evidently with numerous other people taking the same trip. Always arriving with pockets full of cash and newly minted silver dollars which they used for gifts to the children, they came with stories, gossip, and jokes. The rest of the year, they exchanged letters with the New York family.
My mother wrote her letters using Hebraic letters, but they were not in Yiddish. She used the Hebrew script to write letters in English, as did her sisters in Richmond. The Virginians always ended their letters with a “Love y’all,” phonetically written out using Hebrew script. They understood each other’s letters without difficulty, though I’m sure I couldn’t decipher them easily.
In contrast, my father treated a letter from a brother in Europe or a sister in Brazil as a major event. He wrote most of his correspondence in Russian and kept his family’s letters to himself. The letters told him about the events of World War II, the murders of his parents and his brother’s serving in the Russian army at Stalingrad. He hid a few photos in a small drawer away from everything else, as though if we were to touch or see them they would bring harm of some kind. My father never spoke out loud about these letters, although in response to them we sent regular CARE packages to his family in Europe after World War II ended.
Letters, Meaning and Understanding
Letters aren’t like electronic texts. When we understand them, they show force and strength, weakness and sorrow, love and happiness. Every person has a unique handwriting and choice of how to say things. Understanding written letters allows us to know something personal about the person who wrote them.
Physical writing isn’t easy. A writer looks at the blank page and knows that somehow it needs to be filled with something meaningful that another person can understand. The way a person writes can tell a lot about the writer, apart from the words being inscribed. Letters are about understanding meaning.
All of my historical novels introduce fictional characters who read and write authentic letters that carry the story. The more recent the time period, the more material exists in libraries. Letters held in libraries sometimes are originals; sometimes they have been transcribed into typed versions. Seeing the old letters, the wording, the size of the script, and the force with which script was put on paper, gives us some understanding of the character of the writer.
Revolution and History as Seen from an Understanding of Letters
My latest book, Washington’s Shadow, is based on the personal correspondence of Leven Powell with his family and about his work for George Washington. Powell knew Washington personally and worked for him in many capacities for over thirty years. In his later years, at Washington’s request, he ran for office and served as an elector in the 1796 election.
Washington Surveying the Field
Leven Powell was a supporter of revolution and an owner of a mill and a farm. Like Washington, he looked to the west. He wanted growth and expansion, and the settlement of new land. Serving as a colonel in the field during the revolution, he spent much time writing his wife detailed letters. Here is one excerpt, describing his feelings about a meeting of truce with representatives of his enemy, the British military:
I have been uneasy at not hearing from you for some time… Since my last letter, this neighborhood has been honored by the company of great men… As the head of a flag of truce…I had the honor of breakfasting on the best Hyson Tea with the Commodore, General Clinton, Lord Dunmore and several gentlemen Officers. I was received and treated with great politeness by the whole…On board the “Kitty” vessel I found 12 or 15 Officers, the most hospitable, kind people I ever met. …their treatment of me was so exceedingly kind that on my return I sent them a present of 20 bushels of oysters, 30 loaves of bread, a goose and a turkey. It grieves me to see men of such sentiments as those engaged in such a cause.
What His Letters Say About Leven
Understanding this letter tells a lot about Leven. When he wrote it, he held the rank of colonel and led a small army. Favoring the American cause from the earliest days leading up to the first hostilities, he’d served in militias and was a friend of George Washington. And he was a gentleman. Leven didn’t see the British officers he met as monsters and enemies to be slaughtered. He found them to be kind, and favored them with a generous gift of food.
Washington’s Shadow is a novel, a story of Leven Powell’s children and the first wave of western expansion. Washington’s presence permeates their decisions. They took meaning from their father’s letters. The plot is mostly fiction, but the place and the events are historic and recorded in letters.
The Written Record and More Recent History
In 1940 Germany began massive bombing of Britain, known euphemistically as “The Blitz.” Letters, films, and official and private postings showed the bombings and their effects. When we understand the personal letters, films and postings we can see what it was like to live at the time.
For example, Britain’s Richmond Golf Club posted the following temporary rules after German bombs hit the course in 1940:
- Players are asked to collect Bomb and Shrapnel splinters to save these causing damage to the Mowing Machines.
- In Competition, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
- The positions of known delayed action bombs are marked by red flags at a reasonably, but not guaranteed, safe distance therefrom.
- A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.
- A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty one stroke.
These written temporary rules meant, “Let’s muddle through.” Muddling through at this golf club meant keeping the game going, regardless of circumstances. They were serious. In golf, a player normally can replay a ball from the same place and take a one stroke penalty. Bombs, in this club’s rules, are to be ignored.
Why do people care about history? What do they think knowledge about the old days will tell them? Men and women look at history a little differently. They imagine what the world might have been for each of them.
After several years as a docent at Jamestown Settlement and fielding questions from people from all age groups and parts of the country, I think I understand what we, both men and women, want to learn about history. Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum commemorating the arrival of three English ships in 1607.
Children learn the history: warfare, Pocahontas, starvation, lots of murky action. Jamestown Settlement is a park, a fort, an Indian village, and a dock on the James River holding replicas of the three ships. Children enjoy playing outside where chickens and wild turkeys roam and crafts are demonstrated in the Indian village.
But adults don’t come to Jamestown simply to entertain the children. When they enter the museum they ask questions. They want to know where they fit into the mosaic that makes up American history. Did their ancestors arrive in Virginia four hundred years ago? Unlikely, in physical terms, for most people asking. But they still feel an affinity with the first settlers; somehow they feel a connection.
Susan Constant docked on James River
History and the Need for Women
The first settlers were young men and boys who spent a lot of time fighting with everyone, including themselves. After all, they came to fight, and thought they would fight the Spanish. Sometimes they succeeded in killing each other. These people didn’t have descendants.
So when does American history begin? In my opinion, it happened when the first young settlers realized that to survive, they couldn’t rely on rescue ships from the mother country. To thrive in the new world, they needed to build more than a lonely fort. They needed a place to live and begin families. For that, they needed women.
In the beginning, the only women around Jamestown came from the native tribes who lived in the area. Archaeology tells us that native women did a lot of the cooking in Jamestown fort. Historians estimate that about a third of the original settlers who arrived on the first ships married Indian women.
Indian Cooking Site outside Jamestown Fort
After a hundred years or so, with substantial intermarriage with the Indians and the arrival of some women from Europe, Virginia developed a family structure. The wealthy landowners created plantations on which they raised and sold tobacco. There were very few towns; religion was observed in small parish churches paid for and controlled by local parishioners who lived on plantations. Though the colony received a charter to establish a university in 1622, Virginia didn’t get around to accepting that idea until 1693.
Virginia tobacco was highly prized in the mother country and all over Europe, and Virginia planters became wealthy. From 1619 they were also self-governing by an elected House of Burgesses. The mother country sent over governors who were advised by an appointed Governors Council; the more raucous elected House of Burgesses passed all legislation, including tax bills.
Women in Colonial Virginia
This is all basic stuff, but think. What and who were represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses? After about a hundred years the colony numbered about fifty thousand people. Two representatives were elected from each borough and they, all men, represented the plantations.
The plantation was Virginia’s basic unit of society. It contained everything that was necessary for life and the beginning of a family structure: the plantation raised the food, prepared it, made the furniture and the tools necessary for the crops, and sold the product. It also provided security from bandits and incursions by foreign tribes. A representative of a plantation spoke for everyone living there: rich, poor, male, female, free, indentured or slave.
Tobacco brought wealth and nice houses located on the rivers from which tobacco was shipped. Tobacco traded internationally; Virginia credit purchased many products for the use and enjoyment of the plantation residents. It also paid for tutors for the children.
Because the men went out to the fields and served in the local militia, Virginia plantations often were run day-to-day by women. Women frequently outlived their husbands and powerful, wealthy women operated in international trade. Women were important participants in deciding who their children should marry, and Virginia plantation society featured close family ties. Many members of the Governor’s Council and the House of Burgesses were closely related. It was a government of cousins who knew each other well.
History Continues: Women still Watch out for the Children
Is that so different from what we have today? Women still write a lot of the checks and run most households. They have the children and raise them. They also run a lot of small businesses, as they did in colonial Virginia. When a tourist visits Colonial Williamsburg he and his family can eat in a number of restaurants in the colonial area. Historically, almost all of them were owned and operated by women.
Women exercised their property rights early, and generally they did so to protect their children. Jamestown Settlement’s museum displays a legal document from the 1650s which describes what today would be described as a prenuptial agreement. In it, Mrs. Hannah Bennett Turner Tompkins Arnold states that she will marry her third husband, but that certain parts of her acreage will be set aside for her children. She buried three husbands and kept her farm and property together for her heirs by legal deed.
This is all detailed to a certain extent in my book, The Wealth of Jamestown. The star of that book is, of course, Sarah Harrison, daughter of a great planter, who in her marriage ceremony to the Rev. James Blair, clearly stated “No obey” when asked if she would love, honor and obey him. From that, the plot thickened.
Women didn’t often get their names and dates recorded, but they were there. We’d have no history without them.
My granddaughter, a high school junior, plans to take a course in which she’ll be learning about American history this summer. Likely it will be a virtual course delivered by zoom over the computer.
I wonder what constitutes history to today’s teenagers. Personally I can remember the end of World War II and its aftermath. Parades marched down the main streets and veterans returned home with missing limbs. I hid under my school desk in drills to protect me from a Russian nuclear attack. The Cuban missile crisis felt like the beginning of World War III and I remember the assassination of President Kennedy.
My own children have no living memory of any major war: World War II, Korea or Vietnam. They and their children know nothing about the gas shortages of the 1980s and Jimmy Carter’s inflation that destroyed our small community banks. They do know about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the destruction of the twin towers in 2001. My grandchildren don’t even remember that.
What do they teach in American history courses in today’s high schools? I hope they do a better job than they did when I went to school. But I know they won’t be teaching early history. I was told this by quite a number of history teachers when I served as a docent at Jamestown Settlement, a historical museum that commemorates the first landing of three English ships in North America in 1607.
Peter Minuit Buying Manhattan: Learning Early New York City History
What I Learned about Early American History
Growing up in New York City, I began learning about American history in kindergarten and the first grade. For instance, I remember learning about three ships arriving at Jamestown and the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock. There, at Plymouth Rock, they apparently celebrated the first Thanksgiving. I know we were shown a painting of Peter Minuit buying Manhattan Island from the Indians with twenty-four dollars in trinkets and a bottle of rum.
Look at the painting closely. We can see that all of the Indians are covered head to toe in deerskins. Several wear elaborate feathered headdresses. An Indian woman wears a cotton print dress under her deerskin. We know that Western Indians in the nineteenth century dressed like that, but Manhattan Indians in the seventeenth century likely looked quite different.
No matter to the kindergartener. We made deerskins to wear and feathered headdresses—all out of brown paper, colored and pasted together any way we liked. I remember we also made pilgrim hats, but they were black and out of card board. In comparison, it was much more fun to be an Indian; they got to prance around and make loud noises.
Whatever people learned in school, to most people the founding fathers fell out of the sky in powdered wigs and silk stockings. Therefore, the hundred and fifty years between Pocahontas and George Washington remain a blank.
American History and Genealogy
At Jamestown Settlement I met many genealogists, anxious to see if they had an ancestor on one of the first ships. Though they were interested in learning about American history, I had to tell them that those people were probably not people they’d want to meet. My teachers never taught this in school, but the settlers came to fight and make fortunes. They fought with each other and the native tribes nearby, and most of them died early gruesome deaths from starvation, disease, warfare, and simply fighting with each other. These early sailors weren’t ancestors of anybody.
Descendants of Pocahontas (there are many) are generally not the genealogists; they know their family lines very clearly and don’t have to prove anything. While their “history” goes back to 10,000 B.C., they come to the museum to see history as relevant to today. They come to see the building of the country, from sailing up the rivers, establishing plantations, trading crops for credit, and developing a way for different people to live together.
About a third of the sailors on the three original ships “married” Indian women. The Indians helped to build James Fort, and Indian wives did most of the cooking. Indian-made cooking utensils have been found on the site of the original fort, and in the earliest days only the Indians would have known what was edible. The earliest surviving settlers learned a great deal from the Indians. If you date your family to seventeenth century Virginia, Pocahontas is probably your relative.
Some Perspective on Learning about Early History
Early history isn’t taught because little is known about it, and what’s written is partisan, controversial and probably incorrect. We don’t learn about early American history in school, but where else can we learn about it?. Were the English barbarians, out to kill and rampage? Were the Indians savages, out to starve out the new arrivals? Didn’t they trade and learn from each other? How did they really build towns and colonies?
Let me end with a cartoon by James Stevenson (1966) from The New Yorker:
Learning about American History: Indians and Settlers: Friends or Foes?
Cartoons don’t settle anything. They just keep the arguments going.
Washington’s Shadow is my fourth historical novel and probably the last. All of my books focus on American nation building in our early history. Generally early American history is not being taught in elementary schools and later grades.
I’ll be addressing the process by which I produce these books at a discussion panel at the Williamsburg Book Festival on Saturday, October 5. Nation building is a subject that has always interested me. Virtually everything I write discusses some aspect of it. The people who build the nation have to be strong enough to understand they can’t do everything alone, by themselves. They have to risk danger in moving ahead, but they have to communicate with each other. They have to build coalitions and marriages. Nations, in my way of thinking, always begin with families and extended families and how they learn to deal with individual members and each other. Washington’s Shadow is about how Washington visualized the country and how the people who followed him interpreted the idea of nation building in his image.
I’ve spent a good part of my working life in and out of government jobs. I’ve worked as staff in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. I held positions in the US Treasury Department, and the US Commerce Department. I worked for several Washington law firms and lobbies. I know how our government is supposed to work.
When I retired and moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, I met many people from outside Washington DC. I was surprised by how little most people knew about the practical working origins of the US government. More shocking was how little actual research had been done to explain and understand our history. There are very few serious books that explain the political institutions of the early colonies. There are publications, fictional and non-fictional, about Pocahontas, colonists starving, and the exploits of famous pirates. For the most part these are designed to entertain children and give little historical context.
What Americans Know About Nation Building and their History
On retirement I took a position as a volunteer docent in the museum at Jamestown Settlement. Jamestown as a city no longer exists. Jamestown Settlement, a modern park, is situated near the James River. It includes a gallery, a model fort, an Indian village, and a port holding three ships. The facility is designed to explain the founding and development of the first English settlement in the new world. I learned there that most people have heard of Pocahontas. However, many believe the three ships that arrived in Jamestown in 1607 were the Nina, the Pinta, and Santa Maria. The next Virginian most people can identify is George Washington, who lived a hundred and fifty years later.
Visitors coming to Williamsburg from Washington DC are often surprised by the familiarity of the old government buildings and institutions of colonial Virginia. Most people don’t know that Jefferson, who designed the US Capitol, previously served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, as did George Washington. When they learn some facts, they begin to understand that our government didn’t somehow fall out of the sky. The American government was the product of long experience and practice. The US Constitution was written by people who knew what they were trying to do.
Nation Building and the Founding Fathers? Who Built the Nation?
The Wealth of Jamestown, The Wealth of Virginia, and Blackbeard’s Legacy are three short novels to the early 1700s. The books describe men and women, young and old, native Americans and settlers, the educated and the uneducated living almost a hundred years before the US Declaration of Independence. The characters are not European; they are American. They are engaged in politics and commerce on a grand scale. Blackbeard, the king of international trade in his day, was as much a Founding Father as Thomas Jefferson. Each of these books required at least two year’s research into original documents and obscure writings and sources.
Washington’s Shadow tells of people living at the edge of a wilderness in a time soon after the Revolutionary War. These people knew Washington. They are a later generation of Americans. They moved west to build towns and communities. They faced away from Europe with its wars and dynasties, a movement of people that began in 1607. Though taking place in 1810, Washington’s Shadow is the latest chapter in my fictional explanation of nation-building, American style.