Category Archives: 19th century history

A new day in history

Once upon a time, before I really started researching 19th century history, I lumped the entire 19th century into the Victorian era, all about propriety and manners, dominated by “prudish, hypocritical, stuffy, [and] narrow-minded” cultural attitudes (Murfin and Ray 496).

While two-thirds of the 19th century did fall within Queen Victoria’s reign in England (1837-1901), I now know the Victorian America preoccupation involved mainly New England and the Deep South. Most American citizens weren’t about establishing high society. They were on the move, focused on settling lands to the West while ridding the continent of native peoples, on inventions and technological break-throughs that would bring the industrial age to stay.

But at the beginning of the 19th century, the wild experiment called a republican government had just begun. With the signing of the U.S. Constitution into law (the 13th colony, Rhode Island, did so in 1790) the United States of America had embarked on something optimistic, risky, and unprecedented  — constitutional rule and a representative government. No sure thing. Many doubted this new republic would succeed. People just couldn’t be trusted to rule themselves.

It seems to me we’ve come to overlook those times, that heady spirit of freedom to make a new day in history. Recently, I came across this sense of freshness and challenge in an ad in the 1837-1838 Directory of Cleveland and Ohio City that renewed my appreciation for those times.

Cleveland Liberalist advertisement in 1837-1838 city directory

Civil War POWs

In the current July/August “Echoes,” published by the Ohio Historical Society, I was delighted to find a piece about the Union Army POW camp Johnson’s Island (located in Sandusky Bay just to the south of Lake Erie).

I don’t remember how I happened on the existence of the Johnson’s Island camp in my research for The Last of the Blacksmiths, but I remember thinking how spotty the information seemed. Now, the “Echoes” magazine notes, there’s a new exhibit called “Privy to History” about the Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, an exhibit that will run through January of 2015. The exhibit is funded by the Sidney Frohman Foundation and the Friends & Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison. For details, go here.

A terrific on-line resource is the Johnson’s Island Preservation Society. Hover over the drop-down tab for History & POWs, for the submenu “Pleasure Resort Era.” Excuse me, Pleasure Resort Era? Yup.

The first Johnson’s Island Pleasure Resort Company leased about twenty acres of land in 1894. The resort was in business from July of 1894 to September of 1897, when operations were discontinued. In 1904, a new group purchased the stock and lease rights of the resort and retained its name. The resort was then operated for four years until it, too, was sold to a different owner, the Cedar Point Pleasure Resort Company.

johnsons island postcard

Cedar Point Pleasure Resort Company?!?! When I saw this, I was astounded and horrified. I’d gone to Cedar Point Amusement Park many times as a kid. Had they really built it on top of a POW Camp?! The answer, thank goodness, is a resounding NO. Cedar Point is across the bay. The “Pleasure Resort Era” on Johnson’s Island was short-lived, closing down once and for all in 1908. The full write-up is found here.

Another on-line resource for Johnson’s Island is found at Ohio History Central.

Homestead Digitization Project

Breaking news for genealogists and family history researchers.

Files detailing Nebraska’s homesteading history have been digitized and are now available to the public. The milestone’s part of a larger effort by the Homestead Digitization Project to put all homesteading documents from around the U.S. online. For more on the subject, Robert Siegel speaks with historian Blake Bell from the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Neb.

Link to interview on NPR

Buffalo robes

I first included buffalo robes in the novel The Last of the Blacksmiths because it was something my grandmother used to mention when she described sleigh rides. I didn’t really know what they were like — after all, buffalo robes are not an everyday object now like they once were in the 1800’s. Then again, there’s always Wikipedia.

From the 1840s to the 1870s the great demand for buffalo robes in the commercial centres of Montreal, New York, St. Paul and St. Louis was a major factor that led to the near extinction of the species. The robes were used as blankets and padding in carriages and sleighs and were made into Buffalo coats.”

Here are two examples found in the book American Indian Art: Form and Tradition (E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1972).

This colorful robe, made in the late 1800s, is attributed to the Ojibwa tribe.

Ojibwa Buffalo Robe circa late 1800s

This horseback “battle scene” buffalo robe is dated 1797 and was collected by Lewis and Clark in 1805 in present day North Dakota. Apparently, it’s the oldest known robe still in existence.

Battle scene between rival tribes circa lat 1700s

Even on the bitterest of winter nights, my grandmother described buffalo robes as keeping her cozy and warm in the brisk open air sleigh.

Enough time has passed that the buffalo is no longer on the endangered species list, and buffalo robes and hides are making a comeback. If you have $800-$1200+ to spend, that is.

Another first

With the publication of my debut novel The Last of the Blacksmiths, the “firsts” keep piling up. The first book deal, first book launch, first novel reviews, and now, a first radio interview! This afternoon at 4:00 p.m, I’ll be interviewed by host Ed Bremer on Everett’s “Sound Living,” KSER 90.7 radio.

Am I prepared? The novel took almost four years to write, so hopefully I’ll be able to answer a question or two. Since it’s radio, I won’t have to demonstrate how to shoe a horse or anything. Still, this being another first, it feels as challenging and daunting as all the others. I’m excited too–it should be fun. Listen in, if you get a chance, and wish me luck!

The trailer

My nephew Nicholas Gebben put together an awesome book trailer for me. I hope you like it:

The Last of the Blacksmiths trailer

Sleigh rides

My grandmother was a young girl in Cleveland in the 1890s. One of her favorite memories of that time was winter sleigh rides, her parents tucking her into the sleigh seat with a lap robe and fur coat, her hands toasty in a beaverskin muff. I imagine her sleigh rides were more staid than this scene in a Currier and Ives print I saw recently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. This one is called “A Brush for the Lead: New York ‘Flyers’ on the Snow” by artist Thomas Worth. The image, poorly rendered by my non-flash camera in the museum, is still “Christmas-y” enough that I wanted to share it.

Currier and Ives New York Flyers on the snow

Of course, nothing is ever idyllic as it first sounds. There were inherent dangers, just like our car accidents today. Here is “‘A Spill Out’ on the Snow” done in 1874.

Currier & Ives "A Spill Out on the Snow" 1876

Happy holidays. Stay warm.

Traveling musicians of the 19th century

art music bandBrowsing through photos of my visit to Germany a few years ago, I came across this image of a traveling music band, a photo I took of a display at the Culture House Museum in Bad Dürkheim.

lichtenberg castleThe scene reminded me of a wonderful museum I visited during my travels: the Pfälzer Musikantenland-Museum in Kusel at the Burg Lichtenberg. It’s a stunning setting, a former castle that’s now something of a village, with shops, a dining hall and a family and youth hostel guest house.

At the Musikantenland Museum, I picked up a flyer that provided “A Little Bit of History.”

The western Palatinate (primarily the area comprised by the former Bavarian Rhine Landkommissariate of Kusel, Hornburg, Kaiserslautern and Kirchheim), known as “Musician Country” is one of the few regions of the German-speaking cultural world with a tradition of itinerant musicians or Wandermusikanten.

After the Palatinate attained freedom from French occupation in the era of Napoleon (1797-1814), one encounters the vocational description of musician more and more often in western Palatinate archives. The freedom from guild obligations allowed a considerable number of local popular musicians to make a living from their natural talents. Economic causes (overpopulation, famine, bad harvests in the poor soil of the western Palatinate, similar to the reasons which drove many people from the Palatinate to emigrate to America in the 19th century) were also responsible for the first travels of musicians around 1830. They traveled first to neighboring countries (France, Switzerland) or to other German states (Prussia), then to the rest of Europe (Spain, Holland, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Russia etc.) and finally — after the middle of the century — literally to the entire civilized world.

After thorough practice during the winter, these western Palatinate musicians set out in the spring and remained away until fall, if they were seeking to make their living in Europe, or came home after two, three, or more years if they traveled overseas.

In the prime years around the turn of the century, approximagely 2,500 musicians were traveling about, earning the considerable sum of many millions of gold-marks annually.

The Musikantenland Museum at Burg Lichtenberg houses not only instruments, uniforms, and so on, but also souvenirs the men carried back from their travels. More information about the itinerant bands (and their demise) can be found at a brief history of Itinerant Musicians.

Personal travel accounts by 19th century women

voyager out book coverI go to my local bookstores in search of a books written by nineteenth century women. “Are there any nineteenth century travel accounts written by women?” I ask the bookstore clerk.

I’ve read Dickens American Notes about his travels in North America in the early 1800s, as well as James Fenimore Cooper’s accounts of travels along the Rhine. Friedrich Engels, of Marx-Engels fame, wrote an account called The Campaign for the German Imperial Constitution, which includes his experiences in the Palatinate in 1849. But I’m hoping to broaden the perspective, to catch a glimpse of a woman’s point of view.

By the time I leave the bookstore, I have Isabella Bird’s  My First Travels in North America in hand, and Katherine Frank’s A Voyager Out on order. I’ve blogged about Bird’s book here. Since, then, I’ve heard from a woman journalist in the UK who is currently traveling through China in Isabella Bird’s footsteps. She’s been at it for ten months now, and just resumed her journey after a brief hiatus. You can follow her travels at Time To Fly Free.

Much later, I get around to reading Katherine Frank’s A Voyager Out. A biographical account of the life of Mary Kingsley, the first four chapters are an obligatory background family tree (so-and-so begat so-and-so). I have trouble sticking with it, but the bookstore clerk  told me it was her favorite book of all time, so I hang in there.

At Ch. Five, we finally get to  Kingsley’s voyages, and the amazement, wonder, and chutzpah that make this book so memorable. Mary Kingsley departs from England to Africa saying she is going to study African ethnography. She is well aware of the risks, in an abstract way as she sets out on a cargo ship, and in a very real way once she arrives in West Africa. In the Victorian era, it seems, a significant number of Englishmen died of disease, dysentery, and madness in Africa. Numerous deaths are chronicled in A Voyager Out as Kingsley passes from Sierra Leone to the Gold Coast to Cameroon and as far south as the French Congo.

Although chronically ill at home in England, on her journeys, Kingsley appears immune. In England, she suffers from all sorts of illnesses: “influenza, neuralgia, migraines, heart palpitations, even rheumatism.” In fact, originally Kingsley imagines her travels in West Africa will result in her tragic end. Since “no one had need of me anymore when my Mother and Father died within six weeks of each other in 1892 and my brother went off to the east, I went down to West Africa to die.” Improbably by all accounts, she survives and thrives. 

Mary Kingsley negotiates her way through the remotest of African villages as a trader. Perpetually dressed in high-collar Victorian clothes, she sleeps in village huts and eats local food, hacks her way though the jungle with a machete, navigates rivers in her own canoe, and nurses all manner of sick and dying people along the way, all in order to study African customs and beliefs. Her book  Travels in West Africa endures as a landmark work to this day. 


When friends and I get to talking about history, we’ve been known to land on how much things have changed.

“Isn’t it amazing,” one of us will reflect, “how far we’ve come?”

The other will proceed to recount his or her latest realization — how we once called native peoples “savages,” or how slavery was an acceptable practice for way too long.

More than once, I’ve been known to add: “No doubt one day we’ll look back on something we’re doing today and think — Oh my God! How could we not have seen how wrong that was?”

washington allston elijah in the desert 1818I had an oh-my-God moment the other day when I picked up the August 2013 issue of The Sun magazine and started reading the feature interview: “Keep Off The Grasslands: Mark Dowie On Conservation Refugees.” Dowie’s comments smacked me in the forehead with how regressive my “Left-thinking” has been on the issue of the wilderness. I’ve been a huge fan of national parks and protected wilderness, a backpacker who is strict about the principles of “leave no trace.” I’ve never questioned the notion that wilderness must be defined as a place without people. In the article, interviewer Joel Whitney asks Dowie where that notion came from.

Dowie replies: “It was brought here from Europe by people like [John] Muir, who romanticized wilderness even where it didn’t exist. It was reinforced by artists: painters like Albert Bierstadt and photographers like Ansel Adams. Adams would spend hours with a camera trained on a particular scene that he wanted to shoot, waiting for it to be clear of native people before he clicked the shutter.”

Once the first National Park was established (Yellowstone in 1872), 108,000 parks and protected wilderness areas have been created worldwide, “covering an area equal to the total landmass of Africa.” This is a good thing, right? It would be, if it didn’t mean 20 million indigenous people have lost their lands and livelihoods as a result of protecting this wilderness. The stewards of these lands have been literally kicked off. Worse, conservation groups and big corporations are now colluding in deals that allow natural resources to be extracted from these areas. Oh my God.

That the wilderness and human civilization are separate, I realize now, is a crazy way of thinking. It leads us to behave as if we have nothing to “protect” in our civilized yards, only something to protect afar. It leads us to imagine that the wilderness takes care of itself, when in fact, places like pristine Yosemite were ecologically managed by the Ahwahnechee people, the Serengeti by the Maasai. There’s an incredible essay about this romantic definition — that wilderness happens to be a place where people are not — written by William Cronon: “The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” I highly recommend it.