Category Archives: American History

A Country of Strangers…

After the past few days of Trump-crazy spin, from both sides, blaring across American media, I spent some time thinking about a sad Conrad Richter novel, A Country of Strangers, written in 1966, which I read last month.

The Richter novel was set in the American colonial period, at the time an agreement between colonials and the Ohio Tribes, consisting of several related Algonquin peoples, required the return of all white captives.  Richter’s story was written from the viewpoint of a young Lenni Lenape woman, Stone Girl (Mary Staunton), who was a white child captured by a Lenni Lenape (Delaware Indians) tribe when she was very young.  She has only a few memories of her white family and a few bits of information an older white woman captive kept repeating, reminding her of her English name and parents.  Stone Girl’s belief system and identity is completely Lenape.  To compound her alienation from her white heritage, she does not speak English.

Stone Girl married a warrior in the tribe and has a young child, so when the return of captives agreement becomes known, her husband takes her and their child further into Indian territory, hoping that will keep her safe from being forcibly returned to a white family she doesn’t even remember.  Stone Girl and her child are forcibly returned.   While Richter’s story disappointed me a bit, overall it left me feeling, not only sad for Stone Girl and her child, but sad about how so often political decisions made with the best of intentions, end up causing immense anguish for powerless individuals caught in the middle.

My father’s German ancestors settled into northeast PA, moving north of the Blue Mountain, in 1762.  That area had been an ancient Lenni Lenape (Delaware Indian) village, called Meniolagomeka.   Moravian missionaries had spent a few years in the 1750s erecting a mission in the area to attempt to convert the Lenni Lenape villagers to Christianity, before the Delaware were pushed out and white settlers moved in.  The French and Indian War, from 1754-1763, took a very heavy toll on the Lenni Lenape, from repeated forced relocations, disease and the ravages of this war.

The plight of Native Americans in the European settlement of America still haunts our American conscience, but so often we try to see these troubling situations in black and white, trying to choose a side, when in very personal terms, the larger political decisions, even well-meaning ones, sometimes inflicted enormous personal suffering on many individual people, on both sides, caught up in them.

I found an interesting 2001 article, Redeeming the Captives: Pennsylvania Captives Among the Ohio Indians, 1755-1765, by Matthew C. Ward, at JSTOR.  This article was originally published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 125, No. 3 (Jul., 2001).  Ward writes that in this 10 year period in the mid-1700s, the French and Indian War had left the frontier border, especially in Pennsylvania, dangerously unprotected and exposed.

Ward explains that during that short decade, the Ohio Tribes waged an escalated campaign of taking white captives as a political and strategic effort, resulting in the capture of nearly two thousand white settlers – men, women and children.  Many of these captives fully-integrated into the Ohio tribal societies and despite the forced return of white captives at the end of the French and Indian War, many of these captives fled back to their Indian tribes or refused to leave their tribe.  In the Conrad Richter novel, Stone Girl finds out her Indian warrior husband has died in a battle and then her young son is killed, so the spoiler alert is she flees back to the Indians with a former captive, white man she has met, who, like her, had completely acculturated into Indian tribal life.

This phenomenon of white captives voluntarily returning to live with the tribe has been well-documented in early American historical accounts and was very common.  The European settlers, who considered the Native Americans uncivilized savages, were mystified by the frequency with which white captives chose to “go native” and stay with the Indian tribe.  The Delaware tribes adopted white captive children into their families and fully-integrated white captives, even adults, into their tribal social structure.

And that brings us to our modern politics and the frequent warnings of the dangers of tribalism, where sadly America, in a real sense, often truly feels like a country of strangers.

Interestingly,  Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy, Goldberg mentions this very situation in our early American experience:

“In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger recounts how the English colonies in North America were vexed by a bizarre problem: Thousands of white Europeans colonists desperately wanted to be Indians, but virtually no Indians wanted to be Europeans.  “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs,” Benjamin Franklin explained in a letter to a friend in 1753, “if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”  However, Franklin added, when whites were taken prisoner by the Indians, they’d go native and want to stay Indians, even after being returned to their families.  “Tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”

As Junger observes, this phenomenon seemed to run against all of the assumptions of civilizational advance.  And yet it kept happening thousands of times over?  Why?  Because there is something deeply seductive about the tribal life. The Western way takes a lot of work.”

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy, Jonah Goldberg, page 13

The Western way, indeed, does take a lot of work to keep our diverse and complex society united for any common purposes and with the rise of populist and nationalist sentiments, and the deepening factionalization (tribalism), often fueled by obscene identity politics, America seems more and more like a nation of  screeching tribes, on a 24/7, media-fueled verbal warpath, rather than a nation united by any common beliefs or bonds.

So, where does America go from here?  How do we begin to heal the divides and unite our nation under even a few common beliefs?  How do we begin to neutralize the damage inflicted on American unity, by this malignant, 24/7 scorched earth spin information war, that only works to fuel outrage and mass hysteria?  Is there hope for our rabid American partisan to find some calmer middle ground and begin to work together to unite Americans around a few common beliefs and causes?

America began as an unique experiment – a project – that requires commitment from each generation of Americans to thrive and succeed.

There’s been another Trump-incited debate in recent days about what American immigrants owe America and JK posted a link to the National Review podcast, where Charles Cooke and David French debate whether American citizens, who immigrated here, owe America more gratitude than native-born American citizens

My personal belief is it’s not so much about showing “gratitude”; it’s that our republic needs more individuals making the personal choice to commit to the American project’s most important civic belief – treating our fellow citizens, regardless of which “tribal group in our diversity soup” they identify with, with respect.

I agreed with some points on both sides of the French/Cooke debate, but for me, debating who owes more “gratitude” misses the most important point.  It’s not about picking a group who owes more to America, it’s about ALL American citizens should decide whether they want to put in their oars and row, in working toward some common goals.

I believe the first core belief America needs, to even form an American team, that can function, is demanding, not “gratitude”, but demanding we all  commit to treating each other with respect.  Focusing on judging other Americans, based on their displays of “gratitude” or how they show respect for America, which President Trump will surely hype in his 2020 campaign, as he wraps himself in the American flag and works to polarize and incite more divisions, gets us nowhere.  I say this, even though, I am struggling with negative feelings toward Omar’s anti-Semitic remarks and her comments that I perceive as anti-American.   Still, working hard to treat other people with respect, here we go from the PA girl, is our keystone belief.  It’s our American central principle, if you will.   Pennsylvania is the Keystone State, just had to throw that in.

Our political leaders spend more time fueling divides and anger, with too many orchestrating and participating in personal smear campaigns.

A few weeks ago, I listened to the audiobook  Unified: How Our Unlikely Friendship Gives Us Hope for a Divided Country, a book written by Senator Tim Scott and former Congressman, Trey Gowdy.  The book explains their friendship, but in the process, both offer many examples of how to build a relationship between two people from very different backgrounds.  They both talk about how they worked hard to build trust in their relationship and that required being willing to, not only listen to each other’s differing perspectives, it meant trying to understand them.  Their friendship took commitment, like all trusting relationships do.  On a larger scale America needs leaders committed to building trust across partisan lines and leaders who will put the national interest above their personal or partisan interests.

In his book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other — And How To Heal, Senator Ben Sasse, relates this very point:

“Over the last year, I’ve had occasion to meet with a number of senior Chinese officials, and they’ve always been quick to point out — a kind of diplomatic trash talk — how young the United States is compared to China’s forty-five centuries of history.

Fair enough.  We’re babes, historically.  But (as long as we’re trash talking) age is not always what it’s cracked up to be.  And, besides: doesn’t this discussion miss the point?  China is a nation in the classic sense. It is blood and soil.  It’s great wall, a fascinating people, an extraordinary long-lived culture.

But America is something different.  America is an idea — it is a creed.

The American idea is a commitment to the universal dignity of persons everywhere.”

Them: Why We Hate Each Other — And How To Heal, written by Ben Sasse, page 134.

I agree with Sasse about “universal dignity of persons everywhere”, but being a homemaker, I believe we should work to clean up our own house, first, starting in our daily lives and hopefully our elected leaders and those with a public platform will commit to cleaning up our own political house, instead of just talking about which side is worse.

Frankly, I am ashamed of our American scorched earth spin information war, even though I am just a homemaker, with no political power.  The elected leaders in America represent all of us… and most of them, on both sides, are committed to this appalling spin war, where vicious, orchestrated smear campaigns and petty media spin games  – to incite, belittle, disparage each other – have become their default form of politics.  President Trump, AOC & her squad, and many other elected leaders, political operatives, and the media remain completely committed to waging this spin war.

This scorched earth spin information war is a national disgrace.  We should all commit to end it.

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Filed under American Character, American History, Civility, General Interest, Information War, Politics

Happy Flag Day!

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Old ways and new with survival

On YouTube, amidst mountains of rubbish, you can also come across truly excellent historical information presented in a very entertaining  video format.  The above YouTube channel, Townsends, offers hundreds of videos exploring 18th century American living.  Along with fascinating historical information, this channel dishes up some amazing 18th century cooking, prepared as it would have been, back when bison roamed America’s fruited plains.   The Pemican video is part of a series of videos on this true early American survival food.

The Townsends YouTube channel offers dozens upon dozens of well-researched videos on 18th century cooking and living, presented in an entertaining and educational format.  These videos are like a walk back into early American life and you can almost imagine you’re living in George Washington’s time.  With my fascination with the American colonial time period, once I came across the Townsends channel, I wished I still had my cheap felt tricorn hat and quill pen.

In my last blog post, I took a pretty dim view of some of the “homesteading” videos I’ve watched on YouTube.  There seems to be a consumerist bent to how many of these people approach their “back-to-nature” lifestyle,  being motivated mostly by watching other popular YouTube homesteading “influencers”, then following advice gleaned via social media, embarking on moving into rural settings they are unfamiliar with and lacking financial plans and a means to provide for unexpected expenses.

The ground truth appears to be, their goal seems more to become quickly famous (popular) selling their beliefs about their back-to-nature lifestyle than it does to actually develop good working systems on their homestead and that bothers me.  Many of these people seem to spend more time working on their YouTube videos and social media than they do on finding practical ways to make their actual homesteading more productive.

Any home, requires food, water, heating, sheltering, waste disposal/sanitation systems.  Those are the basics anywhere humans live.  The more effectively and reliably these systems operate in a home, the more enjoyable everyday life becomes.  Absent dependable systems in the basics, the more stressful life becomes.  That’s just common sense, in colonial American homesteading or modern American homesteading.

Rather than be so negative about so much of the YouTube homesteading fad, here’s, the queen of common sense homesteader, Appalachia’s Homestead with Patara, who offers not only sensible homesteading advice, she offers the real deal homespun common sense advice, to people with no background in gardening or farming, embarking on a homesteading lifestyle.   Beyond all of the sensible things Patara says about finances and planning for her homestead, at minute 7:32, in the background is a simple clothesline.

I’ve watched another YouTube channel, of a homesteading couple, with a lot of young children, who have put out several videos where the mother laments about all of her off-the-grid laundry misery.  They choose to live with no electricity and this mother uses a ridiculously small, folding, wooden drying rack to try to dry clothes outside.

In a recent video, she praised her husband for helping her out with laundry… by carting some of their laundry to the neighbor’s, to wash and dry there.  How on earth this is being self-reliant, I have yet to figure out.  In another video, this father also talked about going to part-time hours at his retail job in a home improvement store, in hopes of being able to have more time to work at home… mostly, it seemed, on their social media video “business” ventures.

I kept wondering why on earth, living in the Ozarks and this man working in a home improvement store, he hadn’t put up some real clothesline outside, so his wife could make use of the many days of wonderful breezes there.  I lived at Fort Leonard Wood in the early 90s,  during my husband’s Army career and I had a clothesline in my backyard of our military housing.  On many clear, breezy days, I could fill up my clothesline, sometimes three separate times with loads of laundry.  I started laundry as soon as my kids left for school and got the first couple loads hung out.  Usually by noon, that was dry and I could hang out some more.  And if I had still more, by mid-afternoon, I could hang it out and get it dried.

I had a large capacity electric washer and dryer though, so on rainy days, laundry continued without any interruptions.  One time, living in MO,  the heating element in my dryer stopped working.  My husband went and picked up a new heating element and fixed my dryer when he got home, after working a very long day in the Army.

A clothesline is a common sense thing to have living a rural lifestyle, in most parts of the country.  It’s also one of those basics that could make laundry less of a trial with a large family and no electricity.  A sturdy clothesline doesn’t cost much to put together and for a family with small children, off-the-grid, it makes no sense to me why this mother spends so much time on YouTube lamenting about her laundry woes.

I kept wondering why her husband, who said he worked at a home improvement store, hadn’t put up some sturdy clotheslines, so she could make use of the great breezes that blow through the Ozarks.  Instead, this mother waxes on about amber teething necklaces, pricey amazon health food stuff and the kids, unsupervised, were mixing up batter with almond flour in one video.  I had priced almond flour for a recipe that called for it.  The Walmart store brand was $10 and some change for a 2 lb. bag.  The other brands of almond flour cost more than that.  I decided to stick with my all-purpose flour and skip trying this new recipe with almond flour.

As irksome as I found this couple’s laundry decision-making, it’s nothing compared to some of the YouTube preppers, like a lady waxing on about “dry canning” store bought rice and beans and claiming they have a shelf life of 30 years.  I wondered who on earth tested this “dry canning” method as a safe 30-year food storage method…  She did motivate me to go through my cupboards and discard some food that had long passed the expiration date, lol.  I have a bad habit of stockpiling store-bought canned goods and packaged food.  “Dry canning” store-bought beans and rice is advice, I’ll take a pass on, thank-you very much.

I suppose this sounds like my Three Little Pigs YouTube homesteading saga, so here’s another couple at Living Traditions Homestead (also in the Ozarks), who offer really solid, practical advice on planning and operating a family homestead business.  This couple planned for 7 years before moving to a homestead in the country.  They paid off all of their debt and appear to do their homework before making big decisions and changes.  They offer many interesting cooking and canning videos too.

My dream isn’t a family homestead, but to be completely debt-free and to eventually have a big backyard vegetable garden again and plant lots of flowers.  Whenever I browse seed company sites or walk into stores with gardening supplies and plants, my heart longs to buy, buy, buy, but I’m going to just grow some herbs and veggies in containers this year.  It’s the same response when I watch many homesteading and gardening videos, my eyes are bigger than my physical energy level and time.

For inspiration on container gardening, here’s another YouTube channel, a very nice couple at, Hollis and Nancy’s Homestead, who offer very clear how-to videos on container gardening methods.

You can learn many positive things from YouTube and social media, but often the “most popular” people or the videos with the most likes aren’t the ones offering the most sensible advice.  It’s best to take the time to wander through several YouTube channels when looking for “how-to” videos and think about what that channel is really selling before buying into  magical “healthy” products or lifestyles.

As the Appalachia Homestead lady, Patara, advises constantly, “Slow down and think before rushing into things!”  That’s sound advice on just about all aspects of life.

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Veterans Day thoughts

“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.”   — Dale Carnegie

November 11th is Veterans Day.  All day today, I thought about writing a blog post, but instead I worked on some craft stuff, tweeted a bit (to my regret) and I moped around thinking about my mother.  Twitter got me riled, because of the endless Trump spin hysteria about Trump not attending a WWI ceremony yesterday.  By the time John Kerry was tweeting, attacking President Trump, I lost it and tweeted about Kerry’s foreign policy failure with Kerry thanking Iran for releasing our sailors they had captured and then Iran turned around and released demoralizing propaganda videos and photos of our sailors.  Kerry and the mainstream media went with the White House spin that it was new era in diplomacy and a great ending…

For someone like me, who finds President Trump’s conduct totally unacceptable much of the time, the way the Dems and media run these hysterical spin attacks, disgusts me more than Trump does.  Of course, President Trump should have attended that WWI ceremony on Saturday, unless he was too ill to attend.  The Dem/media spin feeding frenzy, attacking Trump, continued from Saturday all through today.  I tweeted some comments about how President Trump has a ways to go to match some of the Clinton or Obama outrages when it comes to the military… like Somalia, Benghazi, selling Bergdahl the “war hero” and of course our sailors on their knees.  I believe that is the truth too, but at the same time, yes, I regret tweeting while ticked off and I really wish I had stuck to just ignoring the hysterical spin and tweeting dignified stuff today.  President Trump would do better, if he just ignored the media spin and focused more on doing his job and behaving in a dignified manner. And I, too, need to try to follow my own advice and avoid the mean comments

November 11th was also my late mother’s birthday.  She passed away in 2001, but certain times of the year, the loss becomes painful and raw.  Thankfully, I can remember all of the wonderful things about my mother, like her complete dedication to our family and even smile at how completely organized and disciplined she was about everything she did.  My mother would have been an outstanding drill sergeant in the military.  I’ve written many times about my mother, so for today, I’ll stick to some interesting links I’ve found pertaining to commemorating WWI, which got a lot of media attention this year, with it being the WWI  Centennial Commemoration and also a few other military related links.

The Army Center of Military History put out some fairly short videos (under 15 minutes) on the history of WWI, with a lot of actual photos and film footage:

The UK National Archives has a large collection of war letters, where you can see the actual letter and the text is also provided, so you don’t have to struggle to decipher handwriting. Here’s the link for the WWI collection: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/letters-first-world-war-1915/

Nick Gillespie, at Reason wrote, a short piece worth a read:

Instead of Making Today About Trump, Let’s Remember the Dead of World War I

Gillespie’s piece has a link to Rudyard Kipling’s poems, Epitaphs of the War, which speak to the horrors and massive losses of WWI.

At Military.com, Service to This Country: A Lifetime Oath, written by a former Marine Corps veteran, Sean Mclain Brown, struck me as a very personal and heartfelt Veterans Day message, with advice we can all take to heart. Brown writes:

“Marine Corps combat veteran and CEO of Team Rubicon Jake Wood once told me that civilians “don’t understand the culture and daily sacrifices that veterans make” and that it’s our responsibility to help “educate them by sharing our stories.” I agree. We need to move beyond the casual “thank you for your service” and move toward “can you tell me about your service?” to help bridge that gap between the military and civilian worlds.”

And last, at the end of November, last year, I wrote a blog post, “A few leaves of grass” for remembrance, which came to mind thinking about WWI today.  Here’s part of that post:

I keep War Letters:  Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll, on a small table by my recliner.  A few years ago, I mentioned General Pershing’s famous WWI letter to his young son, Warren, which I came across in this book.   General Pershing’s letter to his son was a father explaining the important values Americans fights to protect and preserve.  It’s probably my favorite letter in the book, but a close second is a letter written in 1918,  by Maude B. Fisher, an American Red Cross nurse.  She penned one of the most touching letters to Mrs. Hogan, the mother of a young soldier, Richard Hogan, who died of influenza in their hospital.  This wonderful nurse took the time to pen a very personal letter, so that a grieving mother would know how her son died.  The letter includes details of how brave and cheerful the dying soldier was, the care he received, and even more than that this nurse wrote the details of the soldier’s burial:

“He was laid to rest in the little cemetery of Commercy, and sleeps under a simple wooden cross among his comrades who, like him, have died for their country.  His grave number is 22, plot 1.  His aluminum identification tag is on the cross , and a similar one around his neck, both bearing his serial number, 2793346.

The plot of the grave in the cemetery where your son is buried was given to the Army for our boys and the people of Commercy will always tend it with loving hands and keep it fresh and clean.  I enclose here a few leaves of grass that grows near in a pretty meadow.

A big hill overshadows that place and the sun was setting behind it just as the Chaplain said the last prayer over your boy.”

page 171, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll

No one required this nurse to write to this grieving mother, because the Army notified fallen soldiers’ families, but she cared enough to want this mother to have more details.  The book offers a few details about each letter.  Mrs. Hogan lost two of her other children back home in Woburn, Massachusetts, during the 1918 influenza epidemic.  It must have been a great comfort for her to know her son far away was dutifully cared for as he lay dying and that he was given a proper burial.  And imagine her relief knowing exactly where her son was buried.

Thoughtful good deeds, like Maude Fisher’s, used to be very common when most people were reared to put other people before themselves and when quietly doing the right thing was drilled into children and served as the cultural norm

And with that I’ll end this post and hopefully we can all say a prayer tonight for all our brave men and women serving all over the world and for hope to guide our country through these troubled times.

 

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Falling in love… with American history

Since it’s Constitution Day, I’m going to meander away from our rancorous politics and go traipsing back to my childhood in the backwoods of northeast PA, plus a few other interesting locations in this blog post.

JK mentioned a book, Miracle at Philadelphia, he came across helping his mother move and decided to read.  I added it to my Amazon wish list, but I have many books on the American Revolution and how The Constitution came about, including some very nice Library of America editions of the writings of Jefferson and Washington, a two-volume set of The Debate On The Constitution, a two-volume set on The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776, and a volume of Paine’s writings. I mention these very nice editions, because they’re kind of like real gem jewelry to me, who collects mostly used books and books other people were ready to trash.  I love very nice books, but I have no problem collecting cast-offs

My book collecting habit developed early in life, when I eagerly began gathering discarded books from my family and neighbors, especially my oldest sister, who had friends with whom she shared paperbacks.  I pretty much read whatever books I could get my hands on and books I signed out of my school library.

Some passions grow slowly and some are sparked by a specific event or person, I think.  I can pinpoint exactly when and where my fascination with the history of early America and especially the Revolutionary War period started.

Growing up in a large, blue-collar family, we never went on any fancy summer vacations, but my parents did do a lot of same-day trips to see tourist sites in Philadelphia, other historical sites in PA, parks, some amusement parks and other “natural wonders” like Crystal Cave, and lest I forget a childhood favorite tourist location that had a great selection of cheap tourist trinkets… tada, Roadside America.

When my husband and I were visiting PA one time, in the early years of our marriage, I told him that you haven’t seen the greatness of PA until you see Roadside America, because it’s amazing.  Let’s just say, he was less than impressed and he kept looking at me funny as I happily did the tour again and then insisted the experience wasn’t complete without spending an equal amount of time as the tour, pouring over the wide selection of gift shop “treasures”.

I learned early on, that my husband does not have any tourist DNA in his body and he lacks any sensibility to appreciate the joy of collecting cheap tourist mementos.  He used to love amusement parks though.  Alas, fast rides scare the bejesus out of me and amusement parks attract large, loud crowds, another thing I assiduously try to avoid.  Museums, historical sites and peaceful gardens, on the other hand, assuredly are the most delightful tourist locations, right?

PA has many important and truly fascinating historical sites.  To see Gettysburg really takes a few days of sightseeing, likewise Philadelphia, plus there’s that whole western side of the state too.

My one son and I were discussing traveling and what types of places rank high on our tourist wish list over the weekend.  He mentioned that he enjoyed touring historic Philadelphia and seeing the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, but he’s not one to get all excited looking at stuff like a chair, where the tour guide reverently tells you, “George Washington sat here.”  And, therein lies the difference between us.

So, you might think the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall or perhaps even The Betsy Ross House provided that spark that grew into my lifelong passion.

You’d be wrong.

When I was 12 years old, one of my sisters and I went with our Girl Scout troop on a big trip for a few days.  Our troop raised money for the trip, which made it feel even more momentous.  Nothing prepared me for that stepping back in time feeling of Colonial Williamsburg, VA.  I still have my 1973 Official Guidebook and Map (50 cents):

Colonial Williamsburg spoke to my young heart in a special way.  Every person in colonial costume explaining something about life in pre-revolutionary America held me enthralled.  Then we toured the House of Burgesses and a female tour guide explained that Thomas Jefferson stood at the half-open door to listen to Patrick Henry’s fiery speech denouncing the Stamp Act, a wildly unpopular direct tax imposed by the crown on American colonists.  Standing in that room, I felt almost transported back in time.

When it came time to leave, I yearned to be able to stay in Colonial Williamsburg forever, but alas, I had to settle for my official guidebook and, of course, some souvenirs from the gift shop.  My prize souvenirs were a cheap, black felt tricorn hat and a large white feather quill pen.  When I got home I cut two small holes in the back of my hat and inserted the feather at a jaunty angle.  And yes, I often sat at my desk in my bedroom wearing my tricorn hat, reading about early American history and The Constitution, despite my sister, with whom I shared a bedroom, mocking me and my “stupid” hat.

The Williamsburg trip was where it began.  Then I was blessed with an amazing 7th grade U.S. history teacher, who inspired my love of studying The Constitution.  A few years later, it was 1976 in America and everywhere I turned Bicentennial books and merchandise fed my passion.

1976 was a really great year for falling totally in love… with American history.

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Looking Westward

“Wherever one found informality, unconventionality, a firm handshake, an open door, a breezy rhetoric, an unrestrained manner, there was the West.”

– Carey McWilliams

With our endless silly, shallow, venal political circus in America, I’ve wandered back to America’s pioneer days this summer.  Of course, I am still keeping an eye on politics, because being an unrepentant news-junkie, going cold turkey away from news just ain’t happening.  Since traveling isn’t possible with my husband still recuperating from VP shunt surgery in June, I’m hitting the trail back to the Old West with my reading.

A while back JK left a comment recommending a David McCullough book, Brave Companions: Portraits in History, so I went ahead and ordered the paperback edition.  Some of the portraits are of people whose names did not even ring a bell, like Alexander von Humboldt, the subject of Chapter One: Journey to the Top of the World and the men behind the Panama Railroad, linking the Atlantic to the Pacific in Chapter Six: Steam Road to El Dorado.  Some were familiar names of famous people, but whom McCullough introduced a whole other dimension to their biography, like Charles Lindbergh, his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Beryl Markham of Kenya, the first woman to fly the Atlantic from east to west, in Chapter Nine: Long Distance Vision.  McCullough explains these 20th century aviation pioneers:

“But most remarkable is how many of them proved to be writers of exceptional grace and vision, authors of more than a score of books.  Lindbergh wrote seven, beginning with We, a hugely popular account of his early life and the Paris flight, which was rushed into print that same year.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh, her husband’s copilot and radio operator on later expeditions, was a diarist and poet, who hardly ever stopped writing.  Her first published book, North to the Orient, described the unprecedented survey flight the couple made in 1931 in a small seaplane from New york to China by the great circle route over Canada and Alaska, touching down in Siberia and Japan.”

p. 126, Brave Companions: Portraits in History, by David McCullough.

This short David McCullough book served as my summer reading jumping off point, as I sat here wondering why I had never read any Conrad Richter novels.  Richter is the subject in Chapter Ten: Cross the Blue Mountain.  I love American pioneer novels, so I have no idea how I missed Conrad Richter.  My love of stories about American pioneers settling in a new land began during the 1970s when America’s bicentennial mania hit.  I read every novel in the John Jakes Bicentennial series about the Kent family.   Around that same time I read Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, for the first time and fell in love with the main character, the strong, quiet cowboy, the Virginian. This remains my all-time favorite Western novel.

This McCullough book is how many of my reading adventures begin.  I debated buying Conrad Richter’s 3-novel series, The Awakening Land, but even the kindle versions are $11.99 each and I already have piles upon piles of books and many kindle books that I have not read yet, so a bit of book hoarding guilt set-in.

Near the end of McCullough’s portraits, in Chapter Sixteen: Recommended Itinerary, McCullough offers suggestions of places to visit in America, but he also writes, “Look at people when you travel. Talk to people. Listen to what they have to say.”  That’s advice worth heeding always.  He also advises:

“Or go to a tiny graveyard on the Nebraska prairie north of the little town of Red Cloud and look about until you find a small headstone. It reads “Anna Pavelka, 1869-1955.”

By every fashionable index used to measure success and importance, Anna Pavelka was nobody.  Three weeks ago my wife Rosalee and I were among several hundred visitors who arrived in a caravan of Red Cloud school buses to pay her homage.  Who was she and why did we bother?”

She was born Anna Sadilek in Mizzovic, Bohemia, present-day Czechoslovakia, in 1869, at age fourteen she sailed with her family to America to settle on the treeless Nebraska prairie in a sod hut.  Some time later, in despair over the struggle and isolation of his alien new life, her father killed himself.”

p. 223, Brave Companion: Portraits in History, by David McCullough

As soon as I read that I thought, “she’s My Antonia” and sure enough that’s exactly who Anna Sadilek was.  My Antonia is a pioneer novel written by Willa Cather.  In one of my early blog posts, Survival: The Mind-set, back in 2012, I mentioned  this Cather novel:

 “This novel exemplifies the “put one’s hand to the plough” mentality that separates those who persevere and thrive and those who prefer to wallow in misery.  The young male main character, Jim Burden, narrates the story of moving to early 20th century Nebraska to live with his grandparents, who were early homesteaders.  Jim becomes fascinated with neighboring homesteaders, the Shimerdas,  a family of Bohemian immigrants.  Throughout the story, Jack’s grandmother exemplifies the indomitable American spirit and she’s a testament to planning not just to survive, but to live as comfortably as possible in an unforgiving environment.  The Shimerdas, city-dwellers in their home country, fail to take responsibility for their own survival, necessitating good neighbors to prevent their demise.  In one scene the grandmother packs a hamper to take to the Shimerdas, she offers this line:

‘Now, Jake,’ grandmother was saying, ‘if you can find that old rooster that got his comb froze, just give his neck a twist, and we’ll take him along. There’s no good reason why Mrs. Shimerda couldn’t have got hens from her neighbours last fall and had a hen-house going by now. I reckon she was confused and didn’t know where to begin. I’ve come strange to a new country myself, but I never forgot hens are a good thing to have, no matter what you don’t have.”

Despite the Shimerdas family’s hardships and suffering caused by their parents lack of survival skills, Antonia Shimerda and her siblings (thanks to neighbors and others in their rural Nebraska community), get on the path toward successfully homesteading and thriving in America.”

 Survival: The Mind-set

I picked up my tablet and read Cather’s O’Pioneers, which I already had in my kindle library.  Cather’s pioneer novels,  give life and voice to the unforgiving land, taking it from being just the setting of her stories, to being as alive and vibrant as her human characters.  Then I waffled and ordered the kindle version of Conrad Richter’s short-stories, Rawhide Knots & Other Stories, thinking that I could get a taste for his writing and decide if I want to order some of his novels.  My local library doesn’t have any of Richter’s novels, which made me wonder if he was one of those Pulitzer Prize winners whose work appealed to literary critics more than the general public.  By the fourth short story  I’m already a Richter fan. He captures the harshness of that land too and like Cather,  his female main characters aren’t delicate flowers.  These women, just like the men, are gritty survivors in a new land.

I pulled out my old copy of Lonesome Dove, a truly epic Western by Larry McMurtry, which I read decades ago and might reread that and I also pulled out this old hardback book, A Treasury of Western Folklore, that I picked up in an antique/junk store in Clovis, NM in 2006.  My husband and I had driven to Clovis to visit our son serving in the Air Force, before he deployed to Iraq.  I’ve started skimming through this collection and reading some fascinating bits of trivia and tall tales.  The story about how the Stetson became the most recognizable piece of western attire ranks as an amazing merchandising strategy of a hat-maker, who began sending samples out west to merchants and the orders poured East to John B. Stetson’s hat-making factory in Philadelphia.

Once I tire of the Westerns, it will be time to start hunting down the Lindbergh and Beryl Markham writings.  One slim David McCullough book looks like it will keep me exploring new vistas for quite some time.

… and of course I read close to a dozen historical romance novels this summer too… but even several of those were set in the Old West… Some things never change. Have a nice day!

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Frederick Douglass celebration

Found this Frederick Douglass google celebration site worth checking out:

Learn about writer and activist Frederick Douglass

 

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