Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Cracking Roger Williams's Code

Congrats to the team at Brown on cracking Roger Williams's onerous shorthand and revealing a new text! I know we're all clamoring for more treatises on the evils of infant baptism, but this is actually pretty exciting. I'm looking forward to seeing the full translation, especially the bits where Williams discusses the shortcomings of Indian conversions.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Word on Anna Wintour

I know, Anna Wintour is not usually my beat, but bear with me a moment.

Some news outlets are reporting rumors that President Obama is considering Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, for the post of Ambassador to either the UK or France. This may or may not be true, but the reaction from my conservative friends is noteworthy.

The immediate response in my Facebook feed is outrage. There's lots of "R.I.P. Chris Stevens" and complaints that Wintour is ridiculous by definition. She's only being considered because she's a big fundraiser!!!

Spare me. Who among our recent ambassadors to the UK or France has not been a major fundraiser for the president who appointed him? What made someone like William S. Farish a great choice for the job? His vast experience raising thoroughbred horses?

But Anna Wintour is a woman and the editor of a fashion magazine, so she is obviously frivolous. She's not a leading businesswoman with tremendous organizational skill and an impressive network of influential European friends. Woman. Fashion. Luxury. Vice.

Seriously, reading these freakouts is like being transported to the 18th century. Let's just make John Adams ambassador to France. Because that was such a rousing success the first time around.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Here's a Stumper

Stephen Pinker, writing for the New York Times Opinionator wonders, "Why Are States So Red and Blue?"

Yes, of course, red states and blue states have different ideas about government and vastly different social values, but "why do ideology and geography cluster so predictably?"

Words not appearing in this article: slavery, slaves, nullification, secession, Civil War, Reconstruction, Civil Rights, race, patriarchy.

Yes, the fundamental differences in our conception of government, personal autonomy, and commonweal that erupted into a Civil War along geographical lines a few generations ago linger on. Go figure.

It's somewhat amazing to me that someone can frame a thesis about the South's "culture of honor" without mentioning the white supremacist and patriarchal foundations of that culture, specifically as they align with modern political issues from women's sovereignty over their bodies to the "moochers vs. makers" mindset. I am equally floored by his wilderness/frontier/civilizing framework. I mean, I know historians have had a hard time communicating to the general public, but I thought that we could probably get the Harvard professors of social science to pay some attention to some of the major works written in the past 30-odd years. A short reading list for Professor Pinker might include Stephanie McCurry's Masters of Small Worlds, Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought, and Patricia Limerick's Legacy of Conquest.

I mention this article mostly as a note to myself to bring it up to my advisor next time I see her. At a recent meeting, she told me that it was unsporting to go after Albion's Seed with knives drawn because it is hopelessly dated and has been thoroughly debunked and discarded. True though that may be, this is the second time in a week I've seen it used in a major media outlet, so it clearly needs a bit more hammering.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Family Annihilators

Tragic news from Virginia today — a man named Albert Peterson killed his family and himself because he "felt that our God-given rights were being taken away." Family friends are also telling the press that Peterson feared that government spending would "be on the backs of his boys."

The whole incident has me thinking about family annihilators in the Early Republic, who were also faced with a profound shift in political power during their lifetimes. Like Americans in the Early Republic, modern Americans are seeing traditional structures of patriarchal power crumble, and some of them are reacting with violence. I'm reposting a piece I wrote several years ago on the deaths of the Beadle family of Wethersfield, CT:

For a brief intro to the "101 Ways to Say 'Died'" series, click here.

On December 11, 1782, William Beadle of Wethersfield, CT attacked his family with a knife and an axe, killing his wife and all four (or five?) of his children. He then committed suicide by shooting himself with a pistol. The family's maid was the only survivor of the household — William sent her to bring a letter to a neighbor just before the attack. The letter turned out to be a confession, but by the time the neighbors arrived at the house, it was too late.

William Beadle was not the only 18th-century American to murder his family. Many modern readers will be familiar with the Purrinton murders, a case publicized by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Midwife's Tale. Between 1780 and 1840, at least seven American men committed acts of familicide, crimes that were widely publicized in sensational (and very popular) pamphlets. Daniel Cohen, author of "Homicidal Compulsion and the Conditions of Freedom," argues that family annhilators "were profoundly traumatized by the radical new 'conditions of freedom' experienced by common Americans in the early republic, particularly the new geographic mobility, economic instability, and religious liberty."

Most of the family annihilators, like Beadle, committed suicide and were not given "decent" burials. I'm not sure whether they were denied the honors of burial in consecrated ground because they were murderers or because they committed suicide. Here's the Connecticut Journal (12/12/1782) on the subject:
I have not been to the graveyard in Whethersfield, so I don't have a picture of Lydia Beadle's grave. I don't want to steal other people's photos, but I will link to them (here and here).

Here lie interred Mrs. Lydia
Beadle Age 32 Years
Ansell Lothrop Elizabeth Lydia & Mary
Beadle her Children: the eldest aged
11 and the youngest 6 years Who
on the morning of the 11th day of Decr AD 1782
Fell by the hands of William Beadle
an infatuated Man who closed the
horrid sacrifice of his Wife
& Children with his own destruction.
Pale round their grassy tombs bedew's with tears,
Flit the thin forms of sorrow and of fears;
Soft sighs responsive swell to plaintive chords,
And Indignations half unsheath their swords.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bless You, Thomas Lechford

That's probably not something that has been said very often. Thomas Lechford was a lawyer in 17th-century England (so maligned right off the bat). He was exiled to America around 1637 for some vaguely Nonconformist views on church government. He spent 3 or 4 years in New England, but was driven out of Massachusetts Bay for . . . nonconformist views on church government. As far as I can tell, he did not have many friends.

But bless him anyway. When he returned to England in 1641, Lechford wrote a book called Plaine Dealing or Newes from New-England, which detailed all of the new and dangerous ideas being practiced in the colonies. There are hundred of inscrutable treatises on church government from the early 17th century, but Plaine Dealing lives up to its name as the most straightforward of any of them. Not only is language colloquial (hallelujah!) and uncluttered (miraculous!), Lechford writes with the exasperation of a reasonable person whose life has been upended by the ceaseless demands of religious fanatics who are fundamentally beyond appeasement. Here is how he describes the feeling of being caught in the ever-shifting tide of Puritan grievances as expressed in congregational church government:
Some have well compared the humour of the people in this kind, to a merry relation of an old man and his sonne, passing through the streets of a City, with one horse between them: First, the old man rode, then the people found fault with his unkindnesse, in that he did not cause his son to ride with him: then the young man gets up too, now the people say they are both unmercifull to the beast: downe comes the old man, then the young man is unmannerly to ride, and his father walk on foote: at last downe goes the young man also, and leads the horse, and neither of them to ride. Well, but alter the inconstant vulgar will; if so, God grant it be for the better. But then consider stories, one alteration follows another; some have altered sixe times, before they were setled againe, and ever the people have paid for it both money and bloude.
This is, by the way, the grand finale of Plaine Dealing. And it was written in 1641, when the "money and bloude" of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms were just beginning to flow.

So bless you, Thomas Lechford. I don't think you'd like modern democracy very much, but I admire your commitment to calling out everyone around you for making unreasonable demands. And for writing clearly. Mostly the writing clearly.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

1812 Girl

There's a new American Girl doll, and she's from . . .

. . . the War of 1812?

Ok. Wevs.

Apparently, her father owns a shipyard on Lake Ontario and there will be some Great Lakes naval battles in her books. Which is kind of awesome? And unexpected.

Look, I know there are a lot of problems with the American Girl dolls and their stories. They argue that childhood is ahistorical, with the same storylines iterated with minimal alterations for girls living in four different centuries. But I also loved those dolls and read every one of their books 100 times when I was in elementary school. Anything that gets girls interested in history is a good starting point, even if it is pretty bad history in the long run. At the very least, they're better than the Elsie Dinsmore dolls and books.

And there is also the small matter of my now being able to purchase these teeny shield back chairs and federal-style table. Well played, Pleasant Company. Well played.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Name of the Day

Peacock Bigger

He was a merchant, brazier, and distiller in Philadelphia in the 1730s-1740s.

Not kidding. Look him up.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Name of the Day

I've been working with some probate records at the Mass State Archives this week. I try to be productive, but sometimes it's difficult to avoid the lure of just flipping through the probate index for funny names. It's difficult to concentrate on wills when I know the index is full of these:

Sewall Swallow

Guardianship (1891), Suffolk County Probate #86860)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Kids These Days

New Haven Colony, 1642:
Samuel Hoskins and Elizabeth Cleverly being desirous to join together in the state of marriage, and not being able to make proof of their parent's [sic] consent, but seeing they both affirm they have the consent of their parents, and withall having entered into contract, and sinfully and wickedly made themselves both unfit for any other, and for which they have both received Publique correction, upon these considerations granted them the liberty to marry.

Friday, July 20, 2012

"The Worst Mass Shooting in US History"

Update: This is the CNN homepage on Saturday afternoon at 2:30

It's late, so I'll make this quick:

I really wish that all of these news outlets would stop calling today's mass murder in Colorado the "worst mass shooting in US history." It is not. It may be "the worst mass shooting involving a single shooter or pair of shooters since World War II," but US history does not begin in 1945.

The criterion being used by CNN seems to be the total number of people shot (killed + wounded), thus elevating today's events over more deadly shootings like Columbine and the Virginia Tech massacre in service of whipping up ratings. I suppose they can use whatever criteria they want, but calling it the "worst mass shooting in US history" is inaccurate and misleading.

I suppose that you could make the case that mass shootings by soldiers should not count, even if they are shooting civilian strikers, children, or prisoners of war. But still, today's shooting is not even the worst incident of civilian-on-civilian gun violence in American history — more than 100 people were killed in the Colfax Massacre of 1873. I suppose you can quibble about whether people shot with a cannon are victims of "shootings," but these are all firearm deaths.

I find many things troubling about this framing, but here are the big three:
  • It erases state violence against civilians. The worst mass shootings have been perpetrated by groups of heavily armed men in officially sanctioned killings of civilians.
  • It erases violence against Native Americans and African Americans. Most of those military massacres targeted people of color. Not that white civilians didn't massacre their black neighbors with great vigor (again, I direct you to the Colfax Massacre).
  • It makes it sound like America is getting more violent over time. Not true. Don't let people think the past was all petticoats and flag waving. The violence of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was horrific.
So please, ABC, add some qualifiers into your sensational reports.

Friday, May 4, 2012

History in the News

Some stories about American history from around the internet:
  • The New York Times covers book conservator Marie Malchodi's discovery of a rare Paul Revere engraving tucked into a book in the Hay Library at Brown University. In college, I worked (briefly) in this book conservation lab, but I never found anything cool there. I did, however, find a copy of the regimental history of the 116th Pennsylvania signed by St. Clair Mulholland and inscribed with a message donating it to the George G. Meade chapter of the G.A.R. in Philadelphia. That was in the regular stacks, though, not the rare books library.
  • Also from the NYT, an old map reveals a new clue to "one of early America's oldest secrets": the fate of the Roanoke colony. The story is actually pretty cool — someone found a patched map and under the patch are some markings indicating a possible location for a previously unidentified fort or settlement. The whole tone of the story made me laugh a bit, though. Perhaps I'm just not convinced that there's anything all that "mysterious" about the "disappearance" of the Roanoke colonists. Yes, it's true that we don't know exactly which of two or three possible fates befell them. But surely the fact that 100 underprepared civilians left on the American coast for three years without resupply "vanished" does not require some sort of extraordinary explanation. My favorite part of this article is the last line, where historian Karen Kupperman is quoted as saying, "To my mind, the most interesting question at this point is why were the patches put on, and who put them on, and when."
  • From the Washington Post, a collector and historian of 20th-century radio history catches a thief at the National Archives. And it turned out to be one of the archivists. Yikes.
  • Not strictly history related, but Harvard just announced the winners of the 2012 Hoopes Prize (awarded for excellent undergraduate theses). Two of the winners were my students in History 97 (the intro course required of all sophomore history concentrators). Congrats!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Preservation and Respect

Today, I am reading Norman J.G. Pounds' The History of the English Parish: The Culture of Religion from Augustine to Victoria (2000) and enjoying it very much. If you ever wanted to know anything about medieval/early modern English parish churches — from how the sextons were paid to where the stones were quarried — this is a good place to start. I'm finding Pounds' systematic explanation very helpful for reconstructing the church that New England's emigrant generation would have known.

Like any good British historian of a certain generation, Pounds sometimes interrupts his history with a bit of armchair pontification. While I appreciate the detail work he has done in recovering the history of the English parish, I disagree with many of his pronouncements, some of which seem reactionary and shallow. For example, Pounds says of the erosion of inscriptions on church floors:
The parish church is the community's mausoleum. The floor of its nave might have been covered with slabs and monuments to its departed members, but the tramp of feet has over the centuries dislodged the brasses and worn inscriptions smooth. Effigies, sculpture and heraldry have been mutilated or removed. This is a tragedy and a violation of the rights of the dead. It is also an act of vandalism, destroying historical evidence which deserves to be protected for its own sake. For every church there should be a careful record of its monuments and of the persons commemorated, both within it and in the enclosing cemetery.
I've discussed this attitude before — particularly in regard to the preservation of grave offerings at Arlington National Cemetery. As an historian with a particular interest in material culture, I love old things, but the idea of preserving objects by removing them from their contexts bothers me. I'm all for documenting objects — photograph them, record the names on the old gravestones, etc. But should we "protect" them by alienating them from their original purposes? That strikes me as selfish.

In the case of the Arlington offerings, I argued that preserving artifacts is not inherently more respectful than destroying them. Should a letter left on a loved one's grave be preserved for the eyes of future historians? As an historian, I say yes, please say everything! As a person, I say no — that object isn't meant for me and I do a sort of violence by claiming it. I feel the same about putting gravestones in museums.

In the case of the worn inscriptions in the English churches, I don't agree with Pounds' accusation that erosion is "an act of vandalism." In fact, I think it's lovely that the congregation has shuffled over those inscriptions for so many years that the words have worn off under their feet. It's not that someone stole the plates for personal gain or destroyed them out of malice. Things decay. It's part of their existence. And trying to forestall that decay by "protecting" them seems to miss the point. You could install a plexiglass floor over the memorials in these churches so no one could actually touch them or remove them from their places and put them in a museum, but why is that better than preserving their place in the life of its community?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Meditations on the Dead: Mather vs. Story

Today, I've been mulling over Cotton Mather's A Christian Funeral (1713), specifically as it contrasts with the use of cemeteries envisioned by Joseph Story in his dedication address at Mount Auburn (1831).

Mather and Story agree on one thing: the living should learn from the dead.

Let the Dead Person in the Coffin, become a Lively Teacher unto us: their Death, a Lively Sermon unto us. When we see the Sleep of Death upon one of our Acquaintance, let it Awaken in us, many Pertinent Meditation.
Our Cemeteries rightly selected, and properly arranged, may be made subservient to some of the highest purposes of religion and human duty. They may preach lessons, to which none may refuse to listen, and which all, that live, must hear. Truths may there be felt and taught in the silence of our own meditations, more persuasive, and more enduring, than ever flowed from human lips. The grave hath a voice of eloquence, nay, of superhuman eloquence . . .
Yet, despite some superficial similarities, Mather and Story actually have very different views on how the living should relate to the dead. Mather places the living in close proximity to "the Dead Body" and emphasizes feelings of abject humility. He deems four meditations most appropriate for funerals:
  • "The Frailty of Dying Man; and Frail Mans Tendency to Death"
  • "The Certainty, the Speediness, and for ought we can foretell, the Suddenness of our own Death"
  • "The Compassion of God, in Sparing of us, when Death has had a Commission to fall upon others"
  • "The Insignificancy of all Worldly Satisfactions, unto a man that must Leave the World"
Mather may hear "a loud Voice from the Hearse," but it says, "Friend, Thou must quickly come to this!"

Story hears a voice, but it's saying something very different:
As we sit down by their graves, we seem to hear the tones of their affection, whispering in our ears. We listen to the voice of their wisdom, speaking in the depths of our souls. We shed our tears, but they are no longer the burning tears of agony. They relieve our drooping spirits and come no longer over us with a deathly faintness. We return to the world, and we feel ourselves purer, and better, and wiser, from this communion with the dead.
Someone coming from one of Mather's funerals might feel many things, but not comfort. Mather's funeral lesson is that man is vulnerable and wretched. Story leaves the grave feeling strong and uplifted.

Mather's "voice" is purely metaphorical, but I'm not sure Story's actually is. Or even if his is — he "seems to hear" — the seeds of spiritualism are present in the rural cemetery movement's embrace of an immediate, mystical connection with the dead.

Mather does allow that mourners may learn a "Lesson of Goodness or Wisdom" by remembering the life of an exemplary Christian and "send[ing] up our secret wishes to Heaven, Lord, Help me to do so too!" But this is very different from Story's immediate connection with the dead. In Mather's thinking, the dead body is an object of meditation, an aid to remembrance, and an inspiration for prayer. For Story, the body is not particularly important, but the setting of the grave is crucial for establishing an immediate connection with the dead. In the former case, the dead person humbles the living and brings him crawling to God. In the latter, the dead person's spirit strengthens the living, and I can't quite see where God fits in at all.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Originalist Smackdown: Healthcare Mandate Edition

In The New Republic, Harvard Law Professor Einer Elhauge delivers an awe-inspiring smackdown of the "originalist" case against the healthcare mandate:
But there’s a major problem with this line of argument: It just isn’t true. The founding fathers, it turns out, passed several mandates of their own. In 1790, the very first Congress—which incidentally included 20 framers—passed a law that included a mandate: namely, a requirement that ship owners buy medical insurance for their seamen. This law was then signed by another framer: President George Washington. That’s right, the father of our country had no difficulty imposing a health insurance mandate.
I have my own problems with Constitutional Originalism and its flawed theory of history, but this is just straight up pwning. Elhauge goes on to detail several instances in which actual Congresses made up of actual Founding Fathers passed mandates, including an individual mandate that required sailors to purchase medical insurance.

If such a ruling would not hurt so many millions of vulnerable Americans, I could almost wish that the Supreme Court would strike down the mandate just so that we could have this awesome example of "actual" Founding Fathers vs. "original" Founding Fathers. I may get that wish fulfilled anyway, much to my sorrow.

More coverage from Slate here.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Name of the Day

I'm sitting here, watching Who Do You Think You Are, working on Pete's family tree. He's descended from pretty much everyone in colonial New England (he's a Beecher!), so it's fun for me.

My favorite names in the branch I'm working on are Oliver Fisk (b. 1750) and his wife, Olive Wickes (b. 1750). Together, they form the Oliver-Olive Fisk-Wickes family.

Monday, April 23, 2012

John Copley, Briton

Jane Kamensky has a great article in Sunday's Boston Globe about how Americans think about John Singleton Copley. She argues that our collective memory of Copley — as embodied in the MFA's exhibition of his work in its "Revolutionary Boston" exhibit — positions Copley as an American and a participant in the Revolutionary movement, but that it would be more appropriate to think of him as what he was: a British provincial.
But Copley did not imagine himself that way, and might well have been surprised to discover how thoroughly America has claimed him. Copley’s life, his works, and his words defined him as a subject of the British empire, not a citizen of the American republic. Born in British America in 1738, he died in his comfortable home on Hanover Square in London in 1815, having spent the Revolution, the War of 1812, and more than half of his long life in England. Copley was buried as he was born: a loyal subject of the crown. He never set foot in an independent United States.
 Read the whole article.

The more I read about the MFA's Art of the Americas Wing, the more I wonder about whether the gap between academic history and public history is bridgeable.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On New England Aesthetics

Here is John H. Sheppard, member of the board of directors of the New England Historical and Genealogical Society and librarian of the Society (1861-1869), on the aesthetics of colonial New England:
It seemed not enough to erect temples to God, without regard to any order of architecture, without form or comeliness, looking like steepled barns, and then to use them for unholy purposes and town meetings; but, in too many instances, the very churchyards were neglected, unfenced, and uncared for, the graves exposed to horses cattle, and dogs, not a tree nor a flower suffered to shade or bloom there, and neither walk nor path laid out among the falling, struggling stones, for the pensive mourner to muse over a loved one, or drop a tear over his grave.
Sheppard was an Englishman, raised in the Anglican church. I will keep "steepled barns" close to my heart. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Traces of the Trade" Screening at Harvard

If you are in Cambridge this evening, please consider attending this screening of Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. The event will include a discussion with the filmmakers and academics involved with the Harvard and Slavery Research Project, including distinguished professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. The screening will start at 6:00 in the Fong Auditorium (Boylston Hall) on Harvard Yard.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Names, Names, Names!

Many thanks to the readers who continue to send me excellent New England names. I apologize for not getting around to posting them until now.

From Joseph at Sticks and Stones Photography, we have Redexsalana Bissell of East Windsor, CT:

From commenter RJO, we have Philemon Whale of Wayland, MA:

Also from RJO, Greenleaf Mayo Patch (or Mayo Greenleaf Patch? this entry is a little confusing) of Reading, MA. Maybe he can be Fanny Forward's gardener:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Soft on Crime, Sons of Liberty Edition

I'm no fan of the anti-labor laws making their way through the Georgia state legislature at the moment, but Zaid Jilani makes a less-than-convincing argument against prohibiting protestors from picketing in front of private homes:
Prior to the Revolutionary War, Sam Adams and other Founding Fathers formed a group called the Sons of Liberty to protest the Stamp Act and similar oppressive legislation. The Sons of Liberty regularly protested outside of the homes of British colonial officials, including the homes of tax collectors. If Balfour and Georgia’s Big Business titans have their way, these protests would be illegal, and Adams and many of the other Founding Fathers would’ve been arrested.
That's an awfully charitable reading of the protests in Boston between 1765 and 1770. The Sons of Liberty did not just protest "outside of the homes of British colonial officials" — they tore those homes to pieces, sending the officials and their families fleeing into the night to escape the mobs of armed looters.

When the Sons of Liberty came calling on August 26, 1765, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson was having dinner with his children:
In the evening whilst I was at supper and my children round me somebody ran in and said the mob were coming. I directed my children to fly to a secure place and shut up my house as I had done before intending not to quit it but my eldest daughter repented her leaving me and hastened back and protested she would not quit the house unless I did. I could not stand against this and withdrew with her to a neighbouring house where I had been but a few minutes before the hellish crew fell upon my house with the rage of devils and in a moment with axes split down the doors and entered by some being in the great entry heard them cry damn him he is upstairs we'll have him. Some ran immediately as high as the top of the house others filled the rooms below and cellars and others remained without the house to be employed there. Messages soon came one after another to the house where I was to inform me the mob were coming in Pursuit of me and I was obliged to retire thro yards and gardens to a house more remote where I remained until 4 o'clock by which time one of the best finished houses in the Province had nothing remaining but the bare walls and floors. Not contented with tearing off all the wainscot and hangings and splitting the doors to pieces they beat down the Partition walls and altho that alone cost them near two hours they cut down the cupola or lanthern and they began to take the slate and boards from the roof and were prevented only by the approaching daylight from a total demolition of the building. The garden fence was laid flat and all my trees &c broke down to the ground. Such ruins were never seen in America. 
In 1770, another group of "protestors" gathered outside of Theophilus Lillie's shop in broad daylight. Lillie's neighbor, Ebenezer Richardson, tried to destroy an effigy they had constructed, so they attacked his house, throwing so many rocks, bricks, and handfuls of feces that they tore the window casements from the walls, leaving ragged holes. After his wife was hit in the head with a rock, Richardson loaded his gun with birdshot and fired into the crowd, killing 11-year-old Christopher Snider.

Which is all to say that if you are trying to defend people's rights to protest peacefully, it's probably not a great idea to use the Sons of Liberty as your example.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Washington, Lincoln, Franklin?

I'm sitting here watching the Duke/FSU game and I'm pretty sure I just saw a Subway ad for February's $5 Footlongs that included presidents Washington, Lincoln, and . . . Franklin?

Maybe he was just a really jolly John Adams.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Newport Slaveowners

In 1774, about 30% of Newport's white households owned slaves.*

Nearly half of these slaveowners owned only one slave, and over 3/4 owned 3 or fewer slaves. Only six slaveowners owned 10 or more slaves, with the largest slaveowner  in the city (merchant John Mawdsley) owning 20.

The practical effect of this dispersed model of slave ownership was that most black families in colonial Newport did not live together.

In the graveyard, we can see this plainly in the many gravestones dedicated to husbands and wives who are commemorated under their masters' surnames. These were families in fact, but the laws and conventions of slave ownership made it impossible for them to establish independent households:

*Please note: the 1774 census lumps together all black Newporters, making no distinctions of age, sex, or status. The numbers in this post assume that black Newporters living in households with a black head of house are free, while those living in a household with a white head of house are enslaved. It is possible that the limitations of the census data makes some free people appear to be slaves if they were free servants living full-time in a white person's household. I have not seen any cases of this documented, but it is theoretically possible. Inspired by the language of the NLSY97 questionnaire I fill out every year, I will call this a "slavery or slavery-like arrangement."

Monday, February 13, 2012

Newport Population, 1774

I've been running some numbers on the population of Newport, as given in the 1774 census.

Fast facts:
  • Total Population: 9,136 people living in 1,582 households
  • 86% white, 13% black, .5% Indian
  • average household size: 5.8
The census distinguishes white people by age and sex, but lumps all black people together, making it difficult to determine their age, sex, or freedom status. There are some clues, though — there are 48 (perhaps 49) households with a black household head. I think it's reasonable to conclude that the 151 people living in these households were probably free. There may also be some free people counted in households with a white household head, but there's no way to tell that from the census.

If we assume that the 149 black people (and 2 Indians) living in black-headed households were free and that the 1,076 black people living in white-headed households were slaves, then 12% of black Newporters were free and 88% were enslaved.

Free black households were substantially smaller than free households, averaging 3.2 people per household rather than the overall 5.8. About 38% of free black households were headed by a woman, compared to 20% of white households.

More on Newport's slaves and slaveowners to follow . . .

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Newport Names

Unfortunately, the 1774 census of Newport only reports the names of heads of households. Nevertheless, there is plenty to love. If any novelist is searching for some 18th-century character names, I submit these real-life names for your consideration:

Freelove Boss
Baulstone Coggeshall
Ebenezer Cesar
Preserved Fish
Freelove Gubbins
Ludowick Hoxsie
Prudence Hastings
Uriah Lyon
Hopestill Morey
Clother Peirce
Peirce Spear
Jerusha Spooner
Ithuriel Tripp
Pardon Tillinghast
Valentine Wightman
Patience Winpenny
Peleg Wood

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Boston Municipal Burials 1704-1774

Between 1704 and 1774, nearly 36,000 people were buried in Boston's three municipal graveyards (Copp's Hill, Granary, and King's Chapel). I started my count in 1704 because that is the first year in which the statistics were separated by race and I end in 1774 because the upheaval of the Siege of Boston in 1775 was a demographic catastrophe.

Of these, nearly 5,300 were black, though the records make no distinction between slave and free. Overall, about 15% of Bostonians buried in the city during that time were black, though the percentage goes as high as 23% in some years. Over the course of the 18th century, the percentage of blacks buried in these three graveyards dropped, though this was mainly due to an increase in white burials — the number of blacks buried stayed fairly constant:

The three high peaks are smallpox epidemic years: 1721, 1730, and 1752.

  • What proportion of the city's dead were buried in these three municipal graveyards?
  • Did that proportion differ for blacks and whites?
  • Does the decrease in the % of black burials indicate a smaller relative population in later decades, or the use of a non-municipal burying ground?
  • Is it safe to estimate the racial makeup of the city's population based on these numbers?
  • How many surviving gravemarkers commemorate black Bostonians from this period? I know of one (Frank, 1771, Granary) are there more @ Copp's Hill?
  • What % of black Bostonians were buried at Copp's Hill vs. Granary vs. King's Chapel?