Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Applied History

Type "applied history" into a Google search and this definition is likely to appear at the top of the page:

Much of this describes what ideally happens in my classroom sans the museum, archival and preservation elements. Several years ago, in an effort to incorporate those elements and to address an oft-heard sentiment from students -- "I really love history, but I don't want to be teacher so I guess I can't pursue a career in history" -- I developed a proposal for a new course at the school where I teach called Applied History, a
semester-long class designed for a student interested in studying history in college or pursuing history as a career. The course will rely on in-depth historical interpretation and analysis (reading, researching and writing), while introducing students to the wide-range of possible careers in history besides the teaching of history: The essential theme of the course is that there is a "history" to everything and that there is a lot more one can do with history besides become an educator; one's interest or love of history can become a basis for a career. The course is hands-on, experience-based, and student centered following initial instruction/facilitation for each topic/unit from the instructor. Field trips to and guest speakers from a range of professionals, college and university programs, museums and historical societies and "virtual" field trips using numerous internet resources (e.g., Skype, conference calls, email, YouTube, Twitter, blogs, etc) will bring students into contact with a wide-range of historical experts and career possibilities.

While developing a proposal for this course I also corresponded with James Percoco, now retired from an award-winning career teaching at West Springfield High School in Springfield, Virginia and currently the Public Historian in Residence at American University. His classroom model is described in detail in two of his books, A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History and Divided We Stand: Teaching About Conflict in U.S. History. Much of what Percoco places at the heart of the courses he taught was a hands-on and student-centered focus that sought to, as much as possible, get students out of the classroom to directly interact with historical sites, documents and artifacts. In his case, he relied heavily on his school's proximity to Washington DC to provide a great depth of first-hand learning experiences. While the DC-area does offer a unique set of museums, monuments and battlefields, Rhode Island has a fairly deep bench when it comes to historical sites and cultural resources -- not to mention Connecticut and Massachusetts both within easy field-trip range -- history is all around us!

My course rationale (excerpted below) focused on exploring the potential career option open to students with a passion for history:
Most students who like history and might otherwise consider a career in history are usually unaware of the other career opportunities for history beyond being a classroom teacher or college professor. Applied History seeks to give students hands-on, personal experience with a wide array of public history career opportunities while digging deeper into historical topics that the traditional US/World History course does not have the opportunity to explore. From this course students will gain an in-depth appreciation for all the ways that history is relevant to their lives and American society.
The rationale included this direct quote from James Percoco:
“Today more opportunities are available in the history profession than ever before. No longer do you have to be a teacher when you study history. Jobs are available in the private sector as consultants. You can work in a museum or at an archives. At national and state historic sites you can be an interpreter, or participate in living history programs. These are only a few of the many possibilities. Many of the students who have gone through the Applied History course have indeed gone on to careers in history; a number have studied historic preservation at both the undergraduate and graduate level, while others have gone into anthropology and archeology.” (James Percoco, A Passion for the Past, page 13)
And the proposed Curriculum Outline:
Unit I. Careers in History: Student interest inventory, “Everything and Everyone (including YOU) has a History”

Unit II. Origins and Memory: Genealogy, oral history, memory, narrative history, myth and storytelling

Unit III. Places. Public memory, monuments, and cemeteries; historic preservation (National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission), tax-credits and restoration, (New England/US) history through architecture

Unit IV. Living History. Reenactments, docents, living historical communities (e.g., Plimouth Plantations, Sturbridge Village, Colonial Williamsburg); National Park Service; documentary film-making

Unit V. Public History. Museums and historical societies, collections management and curation, exhibits

Unit VI. The Nation. Military history, legal and constitutional history; the role and “uses” of history in nation-building and nationalism; coins, symbolism and the state

Unit VII. Social Science. sociology, anthropology, archaeology, history of language, linguistics and ethnology

Unit VIII. History and Science. Geology, paleontology, cosmology and “Big History;” history of math, science and technology

Unit IX. The Arts. Music history, art history, historical illustrations and photography, historically-themed theater and cinema

Unit X. Academic History. Teaching history, professional research, archives, rare books and special collections librarianship

Unit XI. Other Professionals. Real estate title-searches, genealogists, research consultants and think-tanks, document conservators, museum curators, lawyers and public administrators

Unit XII. The Future. Digital history and the digital historian.

Project-based Learning and Assessment

Students will generate a series of projects based on their interests to demonstrate their learning of course material, and share their discoveries via exhibits and presentations. Students will also create an electronic journal of their experiences in the class. The aim is to provide a “bridge” to a course of study in college in a number of possible career paths in public history, historic preservation, library and information studies, the social sciences and the humanities.
It was mentioned more than once to me during the approval process that this is a pretty ambitious curriculum for a one-semester high school course. The class would have necessarily been fast-paced, but the idea was cast a wide net and expose students to as many areas of history and potential career paths as possible, and let their interests dictate where they wanted to "drill down" into an area of particular interest through exhibits, projects and their journal.

Unfortunately, despite the course gaining the approval of the history and guidance departments, building department heads and administrative team (the assistant principal backed my proposal mainly because I was so enthusiastic about it), the school improvement team, and the district curriculum planning council, it failed to get a recommendation from the district-level administration and hence the school committee did not approve it -- the final (and crucial) hoop to clear in the approval process. In any event, if there is a turnover in district administration or if outside events improved its prospects for approval, I hope to propose it again. For instance, if Applied History were to gain a higher profile at say, the national level, that could improve the odds of my course being adopted.

What if Applied History suddenly became a Cabinet-level position in the executive branch? An article in September 2016's The Atlantic, "Why the U.S. President Needs a Council of Historians" makes the very practical argument that "most Americans live in what has been called the “United States of Amnesia,”" especially policymakers. Starting with the example of how the lack of historical depth by neocons the George W. Bush administration led to the current cornucopia of problems in the Middle East, authors Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson go on to point out that the Obama administration's overconfidence in its historical knowledge presents an obstacle to formulating good policies, such as in our current relations with Russia, and propose a solution to the problem:
"President Obama’s inattention to the deep historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine led him to underestimate the risks of closer ties between Ukraine and Europe. “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” President Obama told The New Yorker for a January 2014 article, referring to the great Cold War–era diplomat and historian. By March, Russia had annexed Crimea.

To address this deficit, it is not enough for a president to invite friendly historians to dinner, as Obama has been known to do. Nor is it enough to appoint a court historian, as John F. Kennedy did with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers. Historians made similar recommendations to Presidents Carter and Reagan during their administrations, but nothing ever came of these proposals. Operationally, the Council of Historical Advisers would mirror the Council of Economic Advisers, established after World War II. A chair and two additional members would be appointed by the president to full-time positions, and respond to assignments from him or her. They would be supported by a small professional staff and would be part of the Executive Office of the President."

Historians are relevant because policy-makers and politicians often lack even a superficial understanding of the historical subtleties of any geographic region and, as Allison and Ferguson point out "historical analogies are easy to get wrong."

For example, they suggest that one of the reasons why current strategies at reversing the expansion of the Islamic State are ineffective is because of an analogical misunderstanding of the group. US policy-makers view ISIS as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda and have responded to its growth in a similar way, by taking out its leadership via drone strikes and supporting ground forces to drive it out of areas captured from failed states. But as an organization it would be more accurate to compare ISIS with "classic acephalous networks" such as the Bolsheviks, whose ideology and popular appeals resonated with people world-wide. But then what? Allison and Ferguson advise
"students and policy makers to follow a simple procedure: Put the comparison you are considering—for example, ISIS and the Bolsheviks—on a sheet of paper, draw a line down the page, and label one column “similar” and the other “different.” If you are unable to list three points of similarity and three of difference, you should consult a historian."
Niall Ferguson has taken this idea one step further. He is also director of the Applied History Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. On the Applied History Project's website, (currently the fifth result on the first page in my Google search for the phrase "Applied History" -- due to Google analytics, your mileage may vary) in which he provides a definition of Applied History that does not consider the role of "public historians" in understanding the past but rather prioritizes the problem-solving potential of our discipline:
"Applied History is the explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogues. Mainstream historians begin with an event or era and attempt to provide an account of what happened and why. Applied historians begin with a current choice or predicament and analyze the historical record to provide perspective, stimulate imagination, find clues about what is likely to happen, suggest possible interventions, and assess probable consequences."
Ferguson explains that his agenda is builds on the work of "two 20th-century giants: the modern historian Ernest May and the leading analyst of the American presidency, Richard Neustadt." He cites their 1986 book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, as providing "the foundation on which we intend to build." (NB: Thinking in Time is available for $3.99 as an e-book on Amazon; it is now on my "next-to-read" list right after I finish The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, coincidentally a brilliant case study in policy-making gone wrong. If only George III had had a Privy Council of Historical Advisers...)

Ferguson then proposes a manifesto for the creation of a White House Council of Historical Advisers. Ferguson sees the Council dealing with a range of issues and problems confronting policy-makers as well as responding to unexpected crises and emergency situations.
“Is it unprecedented?” is just one of a number of questions or assignments that we propose the President could give his Council of Historical Advisers. Others include:
  • What lessons of statecraft from a former president’s handling of another crisis could be applied to a current challenge (“What would X have done?”)
  • What is the significance of a historical anniversary for the present? (a common topic for presidential speeches)
  • What is the relevant history of the state, institution, or issue at hand?
  • “What if?” some action had not been taken (the kind of question too seldom asked after a policy failure)
  • Grand strategic questions like “Can the United States avoid decline?”
  • Speculative questions about seemingly improbable future scenarios.

"...Of course," continues Ferguson, "building future scenarios is part of what intelligence agencies do. Yet, currently, historians play a very small part in this process. Applied historians do not have crystal balls. But they do have certain advantages over those who would try to answer such questions with models and regression analysis. They know that dramatic events that were dismissed as implausible before the fact are in hindsight frequently described as inevitable. Their study of previous sharp discontinuities encourages an “historical sensibility” that is attuned to the long-term rhythms, strategic surprises and daring coups de main that run through history."

If Ferguson's council ever becomes a reality, I will expand Unit VI of my course in Applied History to include "historical policy advisor" as a potential career path for students and resubmit the course for the approval process.

I for one support the creation of a White House Council of Historical Advisers with extreme prejudice.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Doing Digital Research

One of the benefits of twenty-first century technology is the availability of texts online in digital format. For printed government records or antiquarian books long out of print or copyright, one of the best repositories is the Internet Archive, "a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software,
music, websites, and more." The site is very user-friendly, and there are literally billions of resources available, from the materials I'm looking for -- .pdf scans of eighteenth century Acts and Resolves of the Rhode Island General Assembly and John Russell Bartlett's Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations -- to an extensive audio library of thousands of Grateful Dead concerts, 2.3 million book titles from dozens and dozens of American Libraries, and over 491 billion web pages in an Internet "Wayback Machine," curating an important component of recent history that would otherwise be lost in cyberspace.

Of course with all that cool stuff just one click away, one must be disciplined and not begin exploring all the rabbit holes at the Internet Archive...

Google Books is another online resource for digital documents but it is, in my humble opinion, less useful than the Internet Archive. Their downloadable scans are image scans rather than OCR scans, so they are not keyword searchable (more on OCR later). And since the last time I have done any serious digital research (I have purposefully taken the last two summers off from pursuing any new research projects to work on other things), Google appears to have taken a lot of documents that were previously downloadable and put them into a viewer system that I find cumbersome and difficult to navigate. While these are keyword searchable, in my experience serendipity plays a larger role than one might suspect -- I like to see the entire page rather than just the narrow slice of text in the viewer. One never knows what is right before or after the text that comes up in a keyword search -- often it is of little interest, but enough times it happens that the rest of the page turns out to be more important than the search term... Of course, all of this -- the unsearchable document scans, the snippets in the viewer, are due to Google being sued in Authors Guild v. Google and the resulting decision that found in favor of Google in large part because of their "snippets" policy.

Interestingly, while the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine have, like Google, been targeted by lawsuits contending copyright infringement, the Internet Archive as a member of the Open Book Alliance, was one of "the most outspoken critics of the Google Book Settlement" and (unsuccessfully) challenged the court ruling that allowed Google Books to continue.

Then comes researching the texts of the .pdf files I have downloaded from the Internet. For this phase, my weapon of choice is the PDF-XChange Viewer. Unlike Adobe, which costs boku bucks and is constantly spamming unfortunate users with its the latest "security update," PDF X-Change is free and doesn't relentlessly bug users to update it, In fact, it has never bothered me to do anything ever after I installed it, though there is an commercial upgrade, the PDF-XChange Editor. It has some very useful functionality and, at $43, it is far less cheddar than Adobe's cheapest .pdf-editing program, which starts at $119. (Disclaimer: I bought a copy of it for the WRICHS Archive PC, and it has been a great tool for us that didn't break the bank.)

Now that I have downloaded my sources and opened them in the .pdf editing program, the next step is to use the editor's OCR (optical character recognition) to "rasterize" the document. This is a CPU intensive task and fairly time-consuming, even on a relatively new computer. For instance, as I type this I am having PDF-XChange OCR Volume IV of John Bartlett's Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, usually abbreviated as RICR. At 636 pages and taking 15-20 seconds per page, it will be 15 to 20 minutes before the file is rendered searchable (longer if I opt to use my computer while it rasterizes in the background -- such as writing this blog entry about digital research). When the OCR is done, I will be able to enter a search term and find all the instances where it appears.

In this case, the term I will be looking for in RICR Volume IV is pox, for an article I am writing about smallpox in 17th and 18th century Rhode Island. Once the .pdf has been rasterized, I'll type the term "pox" into the search window, and if it is anywhere in the text, it will take me to each page that "pox" appears in the text, starting with the first instance. Then I can screenshot the page using Irfan View (another great free program useful for quickly editing images like screenshots) and I have a Word .doc open where I then paste the screenshot. When I am finished, I will have a repository with all the references to smallpox from Bartlett in one place. If I decide I would like to quote from the original .pdf, I can manually transpose it or I can use the copy function in PDF-XChange to highlight, ctrl-c and ctrl-v the text right into the draft of my article. Note that the idiosyncrasies of eighteenth-century typeface don't always translate 100% with ye old "cut and paste" from a rasterized source.

So far, my searches have identified no references to smallpox in Bartlett earlier than 1690, when a serious outbreak struck Rhode Island that crippled the the colony's legislature and court system and left several town and colony officials dead. Thereafter, references to smallpox become more frequent. The colony eventually addressed the problem by passing strict quarantine laws for both towns and ships in the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

One question that emerges -- why are there no references to smallpox in Bartlett's RICR before 1690? Certainly, smallpox did not appear in Rhode Island for the first time in 1690. Several possible answers come to mind. First, colonists did not travel much in the early years of the colony. Rhode Island utterly lacked what would be considered passable roads, relying on "Indian paths" until the King's Highway was surveyed and and built after 1703. Also, since Rhode Islanders were regarded as religious and social pariahs by the Puritans in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut, few Englishmen from neighboring colonies desired to travel through the colony. In any event it was far easier to travel around Rhode Island by water than through it by land in the 1600s, which limited the colony's disease vector vis-à-vis travelers introducing the infection. Likewise, Newport's mercantile economy did not emerge until the 1690s, so opportunities for smallpox to enter the colony through trade was far less in the seventeenth century than they would become once Newport and later Providence became centers of Atlantic commerce.

Second, the majority of people living in Rhode Island before 1675 were not Englishmen but rather the Narragansett. It is unlikely that the laconic English records would have noted outbreaks of smallpox
among the Indian population, even if they were quite severe. Perhaps the worst outbreak of smallpox among the native population in southern New England occurred from 1632-1634; the Narragansett experienced an epidemic in 1633 and another in 1635 that killed hundreds of tribal members, ending before Roger Williams founded Rhode Island in 1636.

In the wake of the mass movement of both Natives and English during King Phillip's War, a smallpox epidemic struck southern New England, as noted in Boston records. But given that nearly every building on the mainland in Rhode Island had been damaged or destroyed during the war, it is not surprising that an outbreak of smallpox was overlooked (or records of it lost) at a time when so many inhabitants were homeless and the colony nearly destroyed. It is important to note that Rhode Island's seventeenth-century records are spotty even in times of health and prosperity. This pattern continued well into the eighteenth century; for instance it did not occur to Rhode Island's government to bind all its laws into a single manuscript until 1705, and the laws remained unprinted and inaccessible to the public until 1719.

Finally, the RICR are themselves notoriously incomplete -- if Bartlett did not consider a particular fact "important" enough in the original hand-written records he was working from, he did not transcribe and include it. Historians have noted such discrepancies between his printed transcriptions and the original handwritten manuscripts (referred to as Colony Records) in the Rhode Island State Archive. However, this issue is more common the later (and more voluminous) the original manuscripts were. Rhode Island also began having the General Assembly's hand-written records transcribed and professionally printed circa 1750. For the years where the there are printed Acts and Resolves of the General Assembly (also all scanned and available on the Internet Archive) it is useful to supplement Bartlett with those sources.

Another notable problem is the weak indexing of colonial-era government records and other antiquarian sources. A word to the wise -- do not rely on the index to find information! Each volume of Bartlett's Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations has an index, but most of the references to a particular term in the text are not found there. In fact, a keyword may not appear in the index at all despite appearing repeatedly in the text. For example, the index in RICR Volume VI has a single listing for smallpox -- that the General Assembly passed a smallpox inoculation act (see below; note the highlighting of the keyword in the text by the OCR). However, a digital keyword search for pox in Volume VI turned up five discrete instances of the use of the term, including a lengthy obituary for former Rhode Island governor Samuel Ward, who died of smallpox in Philadelphia in March 1776 while representing the state in the Continental Congress, a 1772 resolution allowing a lottery to fund the rebuilding of Newport's smallpox hospital on Coaster's Harbor Island, and another resolution during the Revolutionary War ordering eleven towns across the state to designate smallpox inoculation hospitals.

In any event, working from home beats driving to Providence and pulling these same sources off the shelf or loading them into a microfilm viewer (though the Rhode Island State Archives ARE air-conditioned, unlike my house...) Ultimately, keyword searches are far more efficient than reading through literally thousands pages of irrelevant (and often distracting) text to find (or just as likely, miss) that first reference to smallpox in 1690, 54 years into the records. Software simply cannot make the errors that human beings may, with the result being that digital research is more thorough than would be otherwise humanly possible.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Summer 2016: Jetsam and Flotsam

             Photograph I took of Block Island Sound from Crescent Beach on Block Island last Sunday (Father's Day 2016)

Such is the nature of a life of being a parent, a teacher, a homeowner cat owner and a fellow human -- there are not ever enough hours in the day! I have several times since my last post contemplated writing a new one but have always been distracted of the above. It doesn't help that I am a bit of a perfectionist...a fellow (and far more prolific) blogger friend has suggested I just write every day and be less concerned with how perfect it may or may not be. Anyway. Time may be infinite but life is not, and being a parent, quality of life and the vortex of teaching take priority over daily blogging...

Now that I am on summer "vacation" I can get back to all the history projects that have been in various stages of limbo since -- in some cases last summer or even the summer before. Not to mention nurturing another creative outlet by dusting off the guitars, saxophones, basses and music editing/composing software on the computer. Another important summer goal is not to fall behind on Season 7 of Adventure Time and to catch up on the last two seasons of Game of Thrones and Veep. And for my inner geek, I should finish re-watching Babylon 5 and John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy...

And the beach. Definitely going back to that beach.

So, first some news. Congratulations to Erica Luke and the folks at the former Pettaquamscutt Historical Society for all their hard work leading up to the grand re-opening of PHS as the South County History Center! (Love the new logo btw!!) Everyone in southern New England (and Governor Raimondo's former marketing staff) should definitely check out "Cooler & Warmer: Poring Over the Drinks of Rhode Island," the Center's current exhibit (2636 Kingstown Road, Kingston, RI), in the main gallery at the Old Washington County Jail from May 21 - August 31, 2016.

Also congratulations to the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society for running a great Flag Day program at the Paine House Museum on June 14 that included both the Korean War Veterans and local Girl Scouts in celebration of the 1777 US Flag Resolution. Inara completed four out five goals for her Community Merit Badge, which (after she marches in a parade) will be her tenth Brownie merit badge!

History Camp Boston on March 26, 2016 at the Harriet Tubman House was a great success -- kudos to Lee Wright for once again organizing a great day of public history in Boston. The event sold out for the third year running!

The Unconference approach is such a great format that this year History Camps are happening not just in Boston but in Des Moines, Iowa, in the Pioneer Valley in Holyoke, MA and Denver Colorado! I had a lot of fun giving one presentation on Roman Britain and another on the landscape history of Rhode Island and Connecticut over the last 500 or so years. Now that I have some "free time" lol, I need to do some minor editing and upload both sets of presentation slides to the History Camp website...

Summer reading list...I just finished Michael Wolraich's Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics for the GoodReads History Book Club -- highly recommend it to anyone looking to read something good, informative but not "heavy." Have also ordered Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy's The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire and Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. While waiting for Amazon to deliver those in the next couple of days, I have begun reading Riad Sattouf's graphic memoir The Arab of the Future. And I am also re-reading Thinking Like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction, with the aim of redesigning my US History class almost entirely around Thinking Like's inquiry-based approach. Going to flip my classroom using NearPod to deliver textbook and vocabulary content and for formative assessment, and use the Thinking Like approach to guide the core work students will do in the classroom of interrogating primary and secondary sources to answer these questions:

And last but not least, writing and research. I have a Model Legislature 2.0 grant to write and submit to the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities by their August 1st Civics Mini-Grant deadline. Next stage: find a video production company to help us create the training modules for our website! Louise Oliveira (my fellow statewide coordinator for the program) and I also met this past Tuesday with Lane Sparkman, the Education Director for Nellie Gorbea, the RI Secretary of State, to talk about the trials and tribulations of the Rhode Island Model Legislature program. Great meeting -- nice to know we have a secretary of state who is an avid supporter and promoter of civics education! Then I have several oral history interviews on the agenda for the WRICHS Archive, as well as the ongoing organization of the archive there. I am a good part of the way through writing an article for Christian McBurney's Online Review of Rhode Island History ( about the way Rhode Island courts, towns and the provincial/state government responded to outbreaks of the smallpox virus in the 17th and 18th centuries. Christian also invited me and his blog's regular writers to take part in a new project called "Presidents in Rhode Island" (fairly self-explanatory). I am interested digging into TR's speech at Newport's Naval War College and LBJ's visits to RI college campuses in the Sixties.

And finally, this week I was called upon by the folks at the South County History Center to answer a question regarding South Kingstown's reaction to the Tea Act in 1774. As it happens, while researching my graduate thesis I had created a digital set of town records with an old Canon A630 (God I loved that camera, may it rest in peace!), and I also transcribed many pages of those meeting records into a Word document so I could do file searches. It didn't take me long to find the information the SCHC was looking for. I didn't even have to get out off the couch!

But this brief foray back into my old research has re-awoken my interest in the long-dormant journal article summarizing the findings of my MA thesis concerning the political rivalry between South Kingstown and Providence from 1760 to 1850. This was a project at the top of my "to-do" list after I finished my MA, but instead of working on that for some reason I busied myself with the next several projects on the list. I have been avoiding the thesis publication re-write I think because I was just too close to the living breathing all-consuming research-writing-defense-revision process (horror?), that I just couldn't look at it anymore. I. Just. Couldn't.

But I successfully defeated the snake five years ago this July 27...submitted my revised thesis and graduated four years ago...I think I can to go back in there now and objectively do this.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year, 2016!

HUZZAH! The earth has successfully completed yet another orbit around the sun, to add to the 4.54 (± 0.05) billion or so already completed and Alas! it is another new calendar year. The last few months have been especially busy, as evidenced by the not-much-blogging-taking-place around here (I do post interesting items I run across fairly regularly on Twitter though, @HistoryGardner It is like a mini-blog of History Garden type stuff, so if you haven't checked it out and are looking for some new history content, follow me on Twitter!).

Rest assured, new content will be posted in the new year. Boston's HistoryCamp 2016 is coming up March 26, and I will posting my presentation ideas/drafts here before March (I hope)!

In the meantime, here are some postcards courtesy of the The Compass Point from 100 years ago in celebration of the then new year, 1916, some with cheerful themes and others, somber reminders of World War I. Then entering it's third year, some of the most brutal battles of the Western Front were to be fought later that year...

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Upcoming Events September-October 2015

Some really interesting history-related events coming up in the next couple months! As I find more I will edit this post, but for starters, here are events sponsored by the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society, the Rhode Island Historical Society and lectures by historian Christian McBurney, author and founder of The Review of Rhode Island History, an online journal of Rhode Island History.

But first, I would also like to take this opportunity to send my heartfelt best wishes to Old Colony Historical Society Archivist, Coventry Historic District Commission Chairman and former Director of the Paine House Museum Andrew D. Boisvert, who is leaving for Washington DC on October 1! Good luck Andrew! Your history shirts and enthusiasm for documentary evidence and material culture will be missed!

Andrew Boisvert, April 2014

Next, I would like to announce that the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society will be making a VERY IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT at the Narragansett Towers on October 5, 2015.

Join PHS as we make history!

Also, Pettaquamscutt Historical is open these days through December 19, 2015:
  • Wednesday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.
  • Thursday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.
  • Saturday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.

And now, The Events.

Author Lecture: Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island by Christian McBurney
Sunday September 13, 2015 at 2 p.m. Babcock Smith House Carriage House, 124 Granite Street, Westerly, RI. Sponsored by the Westerly Historical Association.

"Espionage played a vital role during the American Revolution in Rhode Island. The British and Americans each employed spies to discover the secrets, plans and positions of their enemy. Author Christian M. McBurney unravels the world of spies and covert operations in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War." (Excerpt from review)

Public Lecture: Fort Kearney, Top Secret WWII German POW Camp, by Christian McBurney and Brian Wallin
Wednesday September 16, 2015, 4:30 p.m. at the URI Bay Campus Coastal Institute Auditorium, Saunderstown, RI.
RSVP to Rhode Island Sea Grant at (401) 874-6800 or to reserve a seat, though reservations not necessary. (This event has already received some nice press.)

Public Lecture: "Remembering the Great Gale" by Robert P. Emlen, Brown University Curator and Senior Lecturer in American Studies
Wednesday September 16, 2015, 6:30p.m. at the Aldrich House, 110 Benevolent Street, Providence Rhode Island

"On a Saturday morning in 1815, 11-foot-plus storm surges blasted the coast of Rhode Island, driven by what experts believe was a Category 4 hurricane originating in the West Indies and making landfall in New England.Scores of ships and hundreds of buildings were destroyed, and the Providence waterfront itself suffered rampant damage amounting to an estimated quarter of the city's total valuation at the time. Although few lives were lost in Rhode Island, a total of 38 New Englanders are reported to have died in the storm. Join Robert Emlen for a look back on the two hundredth anniversary of this natural disaster."

Tickets are $10; $5 for RIHS and Historic New England members'. Advance purchase is required here or by calling (401) 728-9696.

Author Talk: Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott by Christian McBurney
Thursday September 17, 2015, at 6:00 p.m. at The Mary Elizabeth Robinson Research Center (formerly known as the Rhode Island Historical Society Library), 121 Hope Street, Providence, RI. Sponsored by the John Russell Bartlett Society.

"Christian McBurney relates the story of these remarkable raids, the subsequent exchange of the two generals, and the impact of these kidnappings on the Revolutionary War. He then follows the subsequent careers of the major players, including Lee, Barton, Prescott, and Tarleton. The author completes his narrative with descriptions of other attempts to kidnap high-ranking military officers and government officials during the war, including ones organized by and against George Washington. The low success rate of these operations makes the raids that captured Lee and Prescott even more impressive." (Excerpt from review).

Walking Tour: Remembering The Great Gale of 1815
Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m., starting from The John Brown House Museum, 52 Power Street, Providence, RI 02906

Barbara Barnes (RIHS Tourism Services Manager) and Dan Santos (Historic New England Regional Site Manager for Southern New England) will lead a fascinating tour visiting the very places in Providence that bore the impact of the Great Gale of 1815. This special event will take participants back in time to a major moment in Rhode Island history.

Tickets are $10, and registration is required by emailing or by calling (401) 273-7507 x2.

Author Talk: Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott by Christian McBurney
Saturday, September 19, 2015 at 10:00 a.m., Winslow House, 634 Careswell Street, Marshfield, Massachusetts.

Author Talk: Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island by Christian McBurney
September 19, 2015, Saturday, at 2:00 p.m.: Atria Aquidneck Place, 125 Quaker Hill Lane, Portsmouth, RI.

The 2015 Newell D. Goff Lecture: "514 Broadway: A&L Tirocchi Gowns and the American Dream" by Museum of Fine Arts Boston Curator Pamela Parmal
Sunday, Sept. 20, 3:30 pm, Aldrich House 110 Benevolent Street, Providence Rhode Island

"The Tirocchi sisters and their employees produced exquisite dresses for high-society women in the early 20th century and left an unparalleled archive of garments, fabrics, ledgers, photographs, and correspondence. This talk is presented as part of the RIHS's Rhode Island by Design series for 2015, highlighting the role of design in Rhode Island history.

Strong demand for seating is expected, and RSVPs are required. Click here to reserve admission, email, or call (401) 331-8575 x136!

Public Lecture: Voices from the Back Stairs: Domestic Servants in New England by Historic New England museum historian, Jennifer Pustz
Monday, September 21, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. at the Governor Henry Lippitt House Museum, 199 Hope Street, Providence, R.I. Doors open 6:30 pm, lecture begins 7:00 pm. Light refreshments to follow.
$5.00 Historic New England and Preserve Rhode Island members; $10.00 nonmembers; buy tickets online here or call 617-994-6678.

Although domestic servants made everyday life in grand homes possible, their identities and roles within the household have long been hidden. A lecture by Jennifer Pustz, museum historian at Historic New England, illustrates the diversity of domestic service in New England over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Smithsonian Museum Day Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015

  • Pettaquamscutt Historical Society
    11 a.m. - 4 p.m. at the Old Washington County Jail with free family friendly tour and activities

  • Heritage Day Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society
    At the Paine House Museum Station Street, Coventry RI 02816, with free tours of the Paine House, hot dogs, johnny cakes, yacht soda, games and colonial-era crafters providing public demonstrations of their trades.

  • Museum Day Live! Rhode Island Historical Society (Smithsonian Affiliate)
    Free admission to: the John Brown House Museum 52 Power Street, Providence RI and the The Museum of Work & Culture 42 South Main Street, Woonsocket Rhode Island.
    This event will help launch "What Cheer Wednesdays," an experimental program with a pop-up sensibility featuring rotating weekly offerings, as well as chats with curators, docents, and educational staff. What Cheer Wednesdays will also feature free admission, starting September 30, 2015.

Author Talk: The Spirit of '74: How the American Revolution Began by Ray and Marie Raphael
Wednesday, September 30, 2015 7:00 p.m. at the Worcester Historical Museum, 30 Elm St, Worcester MA 01609

The Spirit of '74 is the story of what happened between the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773 and the battles of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, detailing how vitally important those sixteen months were to the overthrow of British rule and the founding of our nation. Worcester and Worcester County played key roles in this history that is often overlooked in standard narratives of the American Revolution. Worcester county militiamen from 37 different towns shut down the Royal Courthouse on September 7, 1774, in the largest peaceful display of civil disobedience at that time. This effectively ended British authority in the rural sections of Massachusetts. Worcester was also the center of military activity with the largest store of guns and ammunition in the colony. In fact, General Gage considered sending troops to seize these stores, but realized that the people of Worcester would put up too much of a fight and his troops would not be able to return safely to Boston. He chose instead to seize the stores held at Concord.

Ray Raphael is the author of seventeen books, including The First American Revolution, which details the closing of the courts in Worcester. Marie Raphael is the author of two historical novels and has taught literature and writing at Boston University, College of the Redwoods, and Humboldt State University.

Author Talk: Kelly Sullivan Pezza
Murder & Mayhem in Washington County Rhode Island

Saturday October 3 at 2 p.m. at the Old Washington County Jail

"Rhode Island’s Washington County hides a dark past riddled with macabre crimes and despicable Kelly Sullivan Pezza is a native of Hope Valley, Rhode Island, and has worked as a journalist for southern Rhode Island newspapers for seventeen years. With an education in law enforcement and many years of experience as a Rhode Island historian and genealogist, she has written hundreds of articles and several books concerning historic true crime and unsolved mysteries in Rhode Island." (Exerpt from review)

Author Talk: Cynthia Johnson, James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade
Wednesday October 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the Kingston Free Library's Potter Room
Co-Sponsored by PHS and Friends of Kingston Free Library

"Over thirty thousand slaves were brought to the shores of colonial America on ships owned and captained by James DeWolf. When the United States took action to abolish slavery, this Bristol native manipulated the legal system and became actively involved in Rhode Island politics in order to pursue his trading ventures. He served as a member of the House of Representatives in the state of Rhode Island and as a United States senator, all while continuing the slave trade years after passage of the Federal Slave Trade Act of 1808. DeWolf's political power and central role in sustaining the state's economy allowed him to evade prosecution from local and federal authorities--even on counts of murder. Through archival records, author Cynthia Mestad Johnson uncovers the secrets of James DeWolf and tells an unsettling story of corruption and exploitation in the Ocean State from slave ships to politics." ( review)

Public Lecture: “Villages, Maize, and the Narragansett: New Information on the Formation of a Traditional Indian Territory along the Rhode Island Coast” by Joseph N. Waller, Jr., PAL
Joseph Waller, Jr. of the Public Archaeology Lab will discuss the excavations at the Salt Pond archaeological site, also known as RI 110
Tuesday October 13 at 7 p.m. at the URI Bay Campus Coastal Institute Auditorium, Saunderstown, RI.
Co-Sponsored by the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society and the Tomaquag Museum

Public Lecture: "Unfortunate Ends: Gleanings from the Death Notices of Early Rhode Island Newspapers" by historian Robert Geake
Wednesday October 14th at 7:00 p.m. at the Warwick Public Library, 600 Sandy Lane, Warwick, Rhode Island. Sponsored by the Warwick Historical Society

Pettaquamscutt Historical Society: Lanterns & Legends Tours
At the Old Washington County Jail, Kingston RI
  • Thursday, October 15, 6-9 p.m.
  • Saturday, October 17, 6-9 p.m.
  • Thursday, October 22, 6-9 p.m.
  • Saturday, October 24, 6-9 p.m.
  • Thursday, October 29, 6-9 p.m.
Tickets available on Eventbrite soon!

Public Lecture: “The South Kingstown Quakers Meeting House Fire of 1790: The Application of Archaeological Forensics” by Dr. E. Pierre Morenon, Rhode Island College
Tuesday October 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Peace Dale Library
Co-Sponsored by PHS and the Peace Dale Library

Also, see my article Digging Up The Past: Archaeology at the Old Quaker Meetinghouse, about Professor Morenon's excavation at the Quaker Cemetery and Meeting House site in the summer of 2013.

Public Lecture: “Hidden History: A Demonstration of GPR on the Quaker Cemetery" by Dr. Jon Marcoux, Salve Regina University
Saturday October 31 from 10 a.m.- 1 p.m. at Quaker Cemetery on Old Tower Hill Road (parking available at the Southern RI Chamber of Commerce)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Reflecting on “Money I Have None:” Colonial Rhode Island’s Tradition of Negotiating Their Taxes and the Coming of the American Revolution"

"Money I Have None," the revision of the paper I presented at the New England Historical Association in the spring of 2013 ("₤200 Indet more then is Due Me:" Taxation and Negotiation in Colonial Rhode Island) is now up on Christian McBurney's Online Journal of Rhode Island History,

As I was about to graduate after defending and submitting my MA thesis (with revisions) in 2011, I realized I needed to do more work on my C.V., which was practically non-existent at that time. I began trawling through the vast collection of notes for my MA thesis, looking for a story I could tell in about 10 double-spaced pages. There was a vignette I had developed in my MA thesis from some intriguing and perhaps unique sources that I literally stumbled across while looking for something else -- actual property lists generated by colonial-era taxpayers on the eve of the American Revolution (for an example of one these property lists, see image embedded in the tweet below). I thought a paper focusing on these might make a decent presentation at NEHA, especially since the tax records for those years also include some unique information regarding these same lists. I remember discussing this possibility with my thesis advisor Ron Dufour in the spring of 2012, as I was preparing to graduate. He was concerned that the topic "wasn't sexy enough," that it might be rejected or perhaps even worse, only attract a small handful of attendees at the conference. Which led me to post this slightly snarky tweet poking my advisor while I was responding to NEHA's CFP:

Fortunately, the topic was "um, yes" sexy enough to get accepted for the New England Historical Association's Spring 2013 Conference, and there was a decent turnout for the session at the conference. Entitled "Eighteenth-Century Political Economy," I was paired up with two other public historians, one presenting a biography about John Fisher's exploits during the American Revolution, and the other examining the effects of the Treaty of Utrecht on trade in northern New England. During his comments, session chair Dominic DeBrincat said my paper brought to light key procedures regarding colonial tax assessment, but suggested I try to make more explicit the links between the how local taxes were assessed and collected and the issues related to imperial taxation that boiled over in the American Revolution.

Granted, there were a lot of things I would have liked to have included in the NEHA paper -- it's amazing how being very strictly limited to a 10 page paper and a 20 minute presentation forces an economy of words -- a lot of interesting points are lost on the cutting room floor because there is simply no room, no time, for them. Still, his point was well-taken. Even in my MA thesis where I was not up against a 10 page limit, that point was lost in a sea of details, and it should have been the denouement of the NEHA paper.

That was the main revision I made in the new article -- to argue more forcefully that the top-down non-negotiable imperial taxation system put the British Empire on a collision course with Rhode Islanders locally assessed and negotiated tax system. Taxation without representation, or "virtual representation" (as British PM George Grenville referred to it) and away from Britain's long-standing policy of salutary neglect combined with Britain's 1751 currency regulations were anathema to Rhode Island's political economy. Local property-holders accustomed to negotiating their taxes either face-to-face with a tax assessor or justice of the peace, or through democratic localism -- viz-a-viz a majority vote at town meetings directing their deputies in the General Assembly -- were baffled and angered by the new taxation regime. These changes in tax policy, piled upon a new monetary policies that stressed Rhode Island's economy and a stricter policing of Atlantic trade, were cause for Rhode Islanders to first burn the H.M.S. Gaspee and then join the American Revolution. That point is made very clear made in this version of the paper.

♦ ♦ ♦

I recall reading (here and here) that outside of one's family and academic committee, most theses and dissertations are read by no more than three or four people. A depressing fact, given how many years and how much effort it takes to write one (in my case about seven summers, since I was a part-time graduate student and full-time teacher, and the only time the repositories of primary sources were open coincided with my work hours). Reciting "₤200 Indet more then is Due Me" to a roomful of historians at NEHA in 2013 probably enlarged the audience for that particular aspect of my thesis tenfold. But publishing it on Christian McBurney's blog has opened up opportunities to reach a comparatively vast new audience. The analytics seem to be down at the moment, but the last count I saw my paper on Small State Big History had been "viewed" over 60 times in less than a month of being posted. Even this humble blog has had (as of today, August 13, 2015) 31,121 views (!) in its four-year existence. As the anonymous author of the blog 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School points out:
"Typically, it takes months of research, writing, and revision to produce a journal article that will be seen by fewer people in its author's lifetime than will visit this blog in an hour."
Another point well-taken. If the purpose of public history is to reach and educate as much of the public as possible, then blogging would seem to be one of the best platforms today for that purpose. As a teacher for many years, I have passed along some modicum of historical lore to somewhere between two and three thousand individuals I've had as students. It is humbling to imagine that with the single act of starting this blog (which was also part of my plan to build up my C.V. in 2011) I have reached ten times as many people in four years as I have as a teacher for over 25. Similarly, posting 140-character history blurts on Twitter (in lieu of blogging about everything I find interesting here) has had a similar (if unpredictable) expansion of audience, as well as opening myself up to an entire network of historians (the so-called #Twitterstorians), and opportunities such as HistoryCamp.

Other opportunities to reach new audiences with this story of colonial taxation have presented themselves. As a smallstatebighistory author, I was invited to be interviewed by Bruce Newbury on the local talk radio station 1540 AM WADK Newport last month, and the station archived the interview as a podcast (which you can listen to here). Next Monday evening, several writers for the Online Journal of Rhode Island History (including Robert Geake, Russ DeSimone, Maureen Taylor, Tim Cranston, and myself) have been invited to Smith's Castle in North Kingstown for a panel discussion. We will be talking about our areas of historical interest related to our articles, our experiences writing history, and the future of writing vis-a-vis blogging.

It this last point, the significance of blogging (a key piece of what has become "digital history") that should be at least as interesting to talk about with these historians as discussing the finer points of Rhode Island History, particularly given that our audience at next Monday's roundtable will likely be only a fraction of the viewers we have had online. Blogging -- is it the future of public history? Given falling metrics for museum visits and declining membership in historical societies, it may very well be.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Roman Britain on SlideShare

A couple of years ago I took a paper that I wrote for a graduate reading seminar on the history and archaeology Roman Britain and turned it into a three-week adult learning course at URI's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (aka OLLI).

I had a lot of fun putting the class together. It was an opportunity to re-enter an area of interest that I came very close to making into a career at one time in my life. I made a blog for the class, put together handouts for class discussions primary and secondary sources, downloaded YouTube videos (no network connections in the room I was in; TY YOUTUBE DOWNLOADER) and reworked some notes from a Western Civilization course I taught into PowerPoint presentations (no network connections precluded using Prezis or other online presentation resources). The feedback I got for the course from my students was very positive; I still run into people that remember me for no other reason than they took the class and enjoyed it. I am planning to do some more Roman history classes at OLLI in the near future.

Unfortunately, I only "emailed myself" the notes for the first week; due to the lack of internet access I didn't send myself the other materials I used for the class, and a catastrophic hard drive failure later that fall meant that I lost the other PowerPoint I constructed for the class (I have been slowly getting better at backing up important stuff sooner rather than later, or in this case,, too late).

But I still have the presentation for the first class/week, and through the miracle of SlideShare, please enjoy the presentation for the first class of "A Brief History of Roman Britain"

Somewhere near obsession...

Somewhere near obsession...