Sunday, July 31, 2022

Benjamin Church (among all the other things he was not) was NOT a Rhode Islander

Yesterday I was reading a recent article in an online journal I follow closely. The article, entitled "Benjamin Church, The First American Ranger" recounts the exploits of none other than Benjamin Church, that soldier for Plymouth Colony who took part in the Great Swamp Massacre and who is credited with incorporating Native American stealth tactics into fighting in the various wars of that age, down through to today.

One of those forgotten men is a Rhode Islander who played a pivotal role in saving the English New Englanders from losing the war to the Indian leader, Metacom, or as the English knew him, King Philip, and his allied warriors. The Rhode Islander did so by learning and implementing the superior war tactics of the Indians during the summer of 1676. Along with his contribution to the English victory he also set in motion a new style of war that would be used for hundreds of years in North America. These tactics helped America claim its independence from Great Britain and an evolved version of these tactics are still used to this day by one of America’s most elite military units, the United States Army Rangers. This largely forgotten man is Benjamin Church and he was the “The First American Ranger.”

Benjamin Church's other great claim to fame was identifying the body of Metacom (King Phillip) after he was assassinated by Wampanoag "praying Indian" John Alderman. Church, by his own account, ordered Metacom's body to be drawn and quartered. Phillip's head was taken to Plymouth and left on a spike that overlooked the town for decades after. 

Drawing, quartering, and spiking heads is all a bit medieval, but that was New England society in the seventeenth century. A bit medieval. 

But the article never mentions that, or looks critically at the primary source that much of this narrative draws upon. I am not a fan of writing that celebrates as heroes violent men responsible for slaughtering Indigenous peoples. Or writing that takes a biased primary source at face value without providing necessary context or any critical examination. It is an interpretation more typical of histories written in the 1920s than in the 2020s.

And I take offense to another inaccuracy made repeatedly in this narrative: that Church was a Rhode Islander. 

As a Rhode Islander, I will refute that claim this morning then head off to celebrate my birthday at the Newport Jazz Festival.

According to the genealogical website "Church [Family] History in America" Benjamin Church's father, Richard, arrived at Plymouth colony in 1630 with the same fleet that carried John Winthrop. Richard Church was a carpenter and he built the settlement's first Puritan meeting house of worship. Benjamin too was a carpenter, when he wasn't hunting down Indians, but more importantly he was a Puritan. Seventeenth-century Puritans despised Rhode Island and the heretics who dwelt there. In 1643 Plymouth, Massachusetts and the settlements that eventually became Connecticut formed the New England Confederation, to unite the militaries of the Puritan and Separatist colonies -- and deliberately left Rhode Island out of the alliance while making numerous claims against her territory. Massachusetts even invaded Rhode Island that same year to arrest Warwick's founder Samuel Gorton and drag him back to Boston. Nor was it the last time Massachusetts would. 

I suspect Benjamin Church, an early second-generation Puritan, would be loathe to be referred to today as a Rhode Islander -- a rabble rife with Baptists, Gortonites, Antinomians, and Quakers. 

Truth is, Benjamin Church never lived in Rhode Island.

Fact check. Wikipedia claims that Church died on "January 17, 1718 (aged 78–79) [in] Little Compton, Rhode Island." However, Little Compton was originally part of the homelands of the Sakonnet people before the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620, and remained so into the 1670s. Church built a house there in 1674 just a year prior to the outbreak of King Phillip's War. In 1682, after the English victory over the Indians of southern New England, Sakonnet was renamed Little Compton and officially incorporated into the Plymouth colony (see map below).  

Little Compton and Plymouth Colony, c. 1690.
The area in the 2022 Google Map (below) is in the rectangle (above) 

Image credit: Tenterden and District Museum

Then in 1685 Plymouth, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Haven, New York and East and West Jersey were reorganized into the Dominion of New England by King James II, until the Glorious Revolution of  1688-89. In the aftermath, Plymouth, which had operated for over 70 years without a charter from England, was officially made part of Massachusetts Bay. Benjamin Church would have learned of this in the spring of 1692, when newly minted royal governor Sir William Phips arrived in Boston after William and Mary refused to grant him for a charter for Plymouth.

So Church's house started off in Sakonnet Indian territory, which after King Philip's War became Little Compton, a town in Plymouth, then Plymouth became Massachusetts. Then Church died and was buried in the Old Commons Burial Ground -- known today as Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Little Compton #12.

Little Compton remained a Massachusetts town until a boundary dispute with RI was resolved in Rhode Island's favor in 1747 (see the Mass/RI boundary above). However, Benjamin Church died 29 years earlier, when everywhere on this Google map was Massachusetts, not Rhode Island. It maybe a bit much to expect Wikipedia editors to notice this discrepancy, though someone should go in and fix that. If I cared enough about Benjamin Church having an accurate biography on Wikipedia I would probably do it myself. 

So what about the argument that Benjamin Church was a Rhode Islander? Here is another section of the article that makes this claim:

Church was born in Plymouth Colony (now part of Massachusetts) in 1639 and learned to hunt and trap at a very early age. After marrying in 1667, Church eventually became one of the first settlers of “Sogkonate” (anglicized to Sakonnet) land that is now part of Little Compton, Rhode Island.  Soon after his arrival in Rhode Island in 1674, he encountered the Sakonnet tribe...

This passage argues that Church arrived in "Sogkonate" in 1674, and that this was "in Rhode Island." It was not. It wasn't even part of Plymouth yet. In fact it wasn't even Little Compton yet, and it would not be part of Rhode Island until Benjamin Church had been dead and buried in the Massachusetts ground for nearly three decades. 

Or more accurately, entombed just above the ground. if one were to visit the Old Commons Burial Ground (see Google Map above), Benjamin Church's place in the social structure of early Little Compton becomes clear. He and his entire family, including small children, are laid to rest in expensive altar tombs -- unlike the cemetery's other residents who are buried in the ground behind more modest headstones.

Top, Benjamin Church's altar tomb (center), Old Commons Burial
Ground (see map below). All these altar tombs in both photos
are member's of Church's family.

image credit: Caitlin GD Hopkins

Now let us look at the problems that arise from taking a biased primary source at face value without providing necessary context. For that, let's turn to the research of Jillian Lepore (Harvard University's David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History), then the work of Guy Chet (Professor Of History at the University of North Texas). 

Jillian Lepore explored the conflict in her 1998 Bancroft prize-winning book, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. For those who have not yet read Lepore's book, there are several well-produced videos online of her speaking about it, including this one she gave to the Gilder Lehrman Institute in December 2010. To summarize her lecture (and book), Lepore 

traces the meanings attached to [King Phillip's War]. Lepore examines early colonial accounts that depict King Philip's men as savages and interpret the war as a punishment from God, discusses how the narrative of the war is retold a century later to rouse anti-British sentiment during the Revolution and finally describes how the story of King Philip is transformed yet again in the early nineteenth century to portray him as a proud ancestor and American patriot. Through these examples, Lepore argues that "wars are just as much a contest for meaning as they are for territory, and wars are indeed just as much a contest for memory as they are for political allegiances."

Jillian Lepore during a presentation on The Name of War, at the Gilder Lehrman
Institute of American History, December 1, 2010. 

The Name of War is a deeply researched and highly regarded interpretation of King Phillip's War... which the article in question never cites or references. 

Lepore also provides a historically-grounded critique of Church's "The entertaining history of King Philip’s War" -- which she reads as not as a biography not by Church but a hagiography written by his son Thomas -- in her 2006 piece for The New Yorker"Plymouth Rocked:" 

"This as-told-to, after-the-fact memoir is the single most unreliable account of one of the most well-documented wars of the Colonial period. More than four hundred letters written by eyewitnesses in 1675 and 1676 survive in New England archives, along with more than twenty printed accounts, written as the war was happening, or very shortly thereafter. But even though “Entertaining Passages” was compiled forty years after King Philip’s War had ended and may well have been entirely written by Church’s son (who, at the very least, edited his father’s “notes” considerably)...[some historians have used] it without reservation or caution. 

Similarly, Guy Chet's 2007 article in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts "The Literary and Military Career of Benjamin Church: Change and Continuity in Early American Warfare," questions two arguments this article makes: first, that Church is the progenitor of the US Army Ranger corps, and second, that he was instrumental to the English victory over the Wampanoag and their allies. 

For a war that began in June 1675 and killed at least 10% of the region's inhabitants, Benjamin Church 

"had an undistinguished career until the summer of 1676, when he...started to accumulate tactical victories over Indian forces. At that point the remaining mutinous tribes were already starving, weakened, politically isolated, and on the run from English and Indian forces (Chet 107). 

Despite Church's heroic narrative that places him at numerous critical turning points of the conflict forty years after the fact, contemporary accounts written during the war hardly mention him. The most extensive account of his activities during the war were written by Boston minister Increase Mather, whose Brief History of the Warr With the Indians in New England (published in 1676) only mentions Church "in a July 1676 entry -- the closing stages of the war -- in which Mather states that Church recruited Indians to hunt other Indians" and "nothing...about Church being the conqueror of Philip." The other occasion Benjamin Church comes up in Mather's account was in a discussion of 1677 after the war was over, and in the book's Postscript. Other accounts written in 1675-1676 do not mention Church at all. (ibid 109).

As to how Church gained his reputation as an influential tactician and the father of the American small-unit tactical warfare, Chet finds it "striking about this wide-ranging credit is that Church seems to have won it posthumously" and that "Church's exploits, his story and legacy were products of the Jacksonian era more than the colonial period (ibid 108).  

His memoirs, Entertaining Passages relating to Philip’s War, written in part or in full by his son Thomas, offer a narrative that, understandably, highlights Church's successes and places him at the center of the story of the war. However, Entertaining Passages was published forty years after King Philip's War (1716), so nobody could have read and learned from Church for at least four decades, unless it was by word of mouth. The second edition of Church's memoirs was published in 1772, almost a hundred years after the war. A third edition appeared in 1825...a fourth edition in 1827; a fifth in 1829; a sixth in 1834; a seventh in 1842 an eighth (in two volumes) in 1865 and 1867. A ninth edition appeared in 1975...and a digital 1999 (ibid).

Chet's interest in Benjamin Church as well as another frontier fighter, Robert Rogers, as the genii of modern American warfare, are primary to the investigation of his 2003 book, Conquering the American Wilderness: The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast, the title of which is a bit of a spoiler here. A number of military histories regale both men as instrumental in the use of stealth, surprise, and deception that developed the uniquely American small-unit tactics that won the Revolutionary War for the United States. Chet sought to locate "the instructional mechanism by which the knowledge acquired by Church [and Rogers] was disseminated among colonial officers from one generation to the next." But he couldn't find it, because it did not exist.

What Chet discovered instead was that the stories about Church and Rogers being the fathers of the Ranger corps were ahistorical narratives centered in American exceptionalism and Turnerian glorification of the frontier long after the colonial era, rather than how the colonists and (later) the Americans actually fought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In reality, what Chet uncovered was that most colonists (and the their militias) were far more aligned with the Atlantic world and British battle tactics than with the individualism and stealth of a hunter or Indian fighter on the colonial frontier (ibid 106). 

So no, whatever the US Army's Ranger Handbook and the article "Benjamin Church, The First American Ranger" say to the contrary, Benjamin Church was NOT the father of the "American" stealth military tactics, nor did he play "a pivotal role in saving the English New Englanders from losing" King Philip's War. 

Nor was he a Rhode Islander.

The reality was that actual Rhode Islander's -- both English and Indigenous -- intended to stay out of this brutal conflict. Rhode Island was INVADED by the United Colonies of Connecticut, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay and their Pequot and Mohegan allies in December 1675. Their intention was to massacre the Narragansetts in their winter fort in what is today South Kingstown, just like Massachusetts Bay colonists and their Indian allies had done to the Pequot fifty years earlier. And not only Narragansett warriors but their elders, women and children. Men like Benjamin Church who, coming upon Metacom's assassination, according to his own "entertaining" story, called Phillip "a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast" as he lay bleeding to death on the ground (and if those are not words Thomas Church put in his father's mouth forty years after the fact). 

Nonetheless, I would argue that passage says more about how Church really felt about Indigenous people than the kumbaya story that "Benjamin Church, The First American Ranger" relates about Church breaking bread with Wampanoag sachem Anawan after capturing him in the summer of 1676. Another story from the Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War that, like nearly that entire source, is not corroborated anywhere else.

While Church is remembered rightfully as one of the early founders of Little Compton, he was NEVER a Rhode Islander. Just because his grave happens to be in Rhode Island now, that isn't our fault.


Bornt, Daniel J. "The Church Family in America 1630-1935" in The Church Family of Petersburgh, NY featuring descendants of Frank and Myrtle Church, 2002.

Chet, Guy, The Literary and Military Career of Benjamin Church: Change and Continuity in Early American Warfare. Historical Journal of Massachusetts, January 2007.

Hopkins, Caitlin, "Benjamin Church" Vast Public Indifference: History, grad school, and gravestones! May 30, 2009.

Lepore, Jillian, "Plymouth Rocked: Of Pilgrims, Puritans, and professors." The New Yorker, April 24, 2006.

The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1999. 

- "The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity" by Jill Lepore, History Resources, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Uploaded December 1, 2010.

Padula, Kevin, "Benjamin Church, The First American Ranger." The Online Review of Rhode Island History, July 30, 2022.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

The Fedora vs the Trilby, a brief history

A fedora, according to the American Hat Makers website "Trilby vs Fedora - What's the Difference?" is "a high-crowned (typically 4.5 inches), broad-brimmed (two to three inches) hat with a teardrop shape and a pronounced pinch in the front."  A trilby, while similar, is "a narrow-brimmed hat with a pinched, teardrop-shaped crown." The main difference between a trilby vs fedora is the brim size. Fedoras have a two to three-inch brim, while trilbies are often two inches or less. 

Both style of hats originated in the late 1800s. According to the website "The History of the Fedora," the word fedora comes from the title of an 1882 play, Fédora, which 

was written for Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt played Princess Fédora Romanov, the heroine of the play. During the play, Bernhardt – a noted cross-dresser – wore a center-creased, soft brimmed hat. 

The play itself doesn’t have anything to do with hats, according to historian Phil Edwards.

"It’s a Russian tragedy about a woman who avenges her lover’s death (later, it was adapted into an opera of the same name). The thing that made Fédora stand out was Sarah Bernhardt’s performance."

But the hat was fashionable for women, and the women's rights movement adopted it as a symbol. 

Sarah Bernhardt wearing a brimmed hat in a photo taken
around the time she was in Fédora  
Image credit:

Meanwhile the trilby, according to the the American Hat Makers, comes from the title of the 1894 novel Trilby, whose main character's name was, oddly enough, Trilby. 

"During a stage adaptation of the book, [Dorothea Baird, the actress who played Trilby in the British version of the play] wore a stingy brim sloped down in front, and up in back. The play was popular, and the name stuck. Since the play premiered in London, the trilby was first popular in English fashion before across the pond to the United States. It wasn't until the 1970s that the trilby started making the rounds in America. The film The Blues Brothers helped bring the style into the mainstream. More recently, Jason Mraz, Ne-yo, and Pharell Williams have been seen wearing trilby hats."

Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi wearing trilbys as Elwood and "Joliet" Jake Blues
in the 1980 movie, "The Blues Brothers"

Pop Quiz! 

Now can you tell the difference now between a fedora and a trilby?


And what do you think, Miller? Is that a trilby, beltalowda?

Kim Philby's Trilby, on display in the International Spy Museum.
Photo credit:

Rory Gallaher should have named this song "Trilby" instead of "Philby." It could have worked...


Friday, July 29, 2022

What Are "Ron Carter Drops"? A legendary double bass player explains his technique

On Monday October 28, 2019, renowned double bass player Ron Carter performed at a bass clinic Berklee Music School in Boston, where he "regaled a packed recital hall with stories about playing with Miles Davis and tips about his signature bass style." 

Ron Carter (right) performs with Berklee faculty Steve Bailey (middle, electric bass)
and Ron Savage (left, drums)
(image by Dave Green)

According to a Berklee news post a few days later

"With 2,235 recordings to his name as a bassist (he set the world record in 2016 with 2,221), it’s no surprise that Ron Carter drops so many legendary names into his conversations that you need a shovel to scoop them up. During a recent guest lecture on campus, moderated by Steve Bailey, chair of the Bass Department, Carter would reference “Miles, Herbie, Wayne, and Tony” as if he was describing friends he met at a bar, and not his bandmates in Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet. The group, which Carter was a part of from 1963 to1968, helped teach the bassist one of the most important lessons of his career: trust. “We understood that this music would have a life if we were responsible for it, if we trusted each [other’s choices],” he said."

"Carter went deep into his own process and technique, which vacillated between the technical (“What’s it going to take to make this D-flat on the downbeat of [an F7 chord in a blues] work?”) to the quasi-mystical: “We were four scientists with a head chemist,” he said of the Second Great Quintet. “Our job was to recognize the chemicals [Davis] laid out for us, and manipulate them so there’d be a different kind of explosion every night.”

"Much of the talk centered on Carter’s ability to play seemingly “wrong” notes at the top of a tune—that aforementioned D-flat-over-F7 choice, instead of playing the traditional root note of F—but with a laser-precise view of what notes he’ll then need to play throughout the song to bring the band into harmonic alignment. “I don’t play root [notes] anymore,” he said early on, drawing laughs from the audience, before going on to make a broader point about the important role the bassist plays in creating a shared “language” for a song, saying, “Why would I put an exclamation point before the first word? The last root I played was…1978. It was the right one, too.”

In this video from June 3, 2022, Carter explains bass drops, fall offs, pull-offs and glissandos and how he uses them to make interesting or unusual connections between notes. 

I began listening to Miles Davis (and hence, Ron Carter) as a freshman in college while I was taking a jazz appreciation course. At the time, I was very impressed by Miles' late 1960's and early '70s electric jazz fusion music. I had been listening to prog rock all through high school and this phase of Davis's reinvention of himself fed right into my tastes at the time. 

But I have to be in the right mood for that stuff now. Mostly I listen to Miles' acoustic recordings these days. I enjoy his forays in bebop and hardbop in the 1940s and 1950s, and his modal phase -- which was just the one album, Kind Of Blue  -- but what a phenomenal one album! But in particular I love his postbop recordings with the "Second Great Quintet," which was Miles Davis band from 1964 to 1968. 

This lineup was composed of Miles Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock, piano, Tony Williams on drums and Ron Carter on bass. According to Richard Cook's It's About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record,

"The performance style of the Second Great Quintet was often referred to by Davis as "time, no changes", incorporating elements of free jazz without completely surrendering to the approach. This allowed the five musicians to simultaneously contribute to the group as equals at times, rather than to always follow the established pattern of having the group leader and then the backing musicians perform unrelated solos" (Cook, 168). 

Miles Davis Second Great Quintet recorded six studio albums E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro, and the live set The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965. Below is an example of their style, the first track from 1967's Sorcerer, "Prince of Darkness"

Numerous other live performances were recorded or filmed, such as this one recorded on Halloween, 1967 at the Konserthuset in Stockholm, Sweden.

- Agitation (Miles Davis)
- Footprints (Wayne Shorter)
- ‘Round Midnight (Thelonious Monk)
- Gingerbread Boy (Jimmy Heath)
- Theme (Miles Davis)

“Their solos were fresh and original, and their individual styles fused with a spontaneous fluency that was simply astonishing, The quintet’s method came to be dubbed ‘time, no changes’ because of their emphasis on strong rhythmic grooves without the dictatorial patterns of song-form chords. At times they veered close to free-improvisation, but the pieces were as thrilling and hypnotically sensuous as anything the band’s open-minded leader had recorded before.”

I am inclined to agree with John Fordham. Whether I am listening to the Second Great Quintet's studio work or anything they recorded live, I am constantly astonished by what they achieve. I also find the recordings by the other members of the Second Quartet, as leaders of their own projects from the same time period, to be of a similar high quality. Wayne Shorter's JuJu, Speak No Evil, The Soothsayer, Et Cetera, The All Seeing Eye, Adam's Apple, and Schizophrenia (all recorded between 1964 and 1968) and Herbie Hancock's Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage, and Speak Like a Child (recorded during the same 4-year timespan) are all excellent explorations free jazz/postbop, and most of them include Ron Carter on bass.  

I never saw Miles Davis live. I was too young to have seen him before his mid-1970s hiatus, and I have to admit I was not a fan of his 1980s work when he came out of retirement (it's still not high on my list). So I didn't take advantage of several opportunities to have seen Miles Davis play in Newport, Boston or at other area appearances before his untimely death in 1991. But I have seen Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, both separately and together at the Newport Jazz Festival over the years, and I saw Ron Carter play at Waterplace Park in Providence almost 20 years ago. 

Here is Ron Carter from around the time that I saw him at Waterplace Park. They're playing "All Blues," a song from Miles Davis Kind Of Blue, which starts at 50:34.

And here is Ron Carter playing in May 2022 for the NPR Tiny Desk Concert series, with Donald Vega on piano and Russell Malone on guitar. I especially like his "Blues for Tiny Desk" (3:34).

The Ron Carter Quartet is playing Sunday July 31, 2022 at Newport Jazz. When I was deciding which day to go this year, that Ron Carter is playing Sunday featured greatly in my decision to go then. 

The current lineup for the Ron Carter Quartet is Renee Rosnes on piano, Payton Crossley on drums, Jimmy Greene on saxophone and of course, Ron Carter on bass, which is the line-up in the "Foursight" video below.

I leave you now with this recording Ron Carter made with Gil Scott-Heron in 1971, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Enjoy!

The cultural references in Gil Scott-Heron's poem can be read here

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Peculiar History of Democracy in Rhode Island: A Presentation for the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society, July 27, 2022

Last night I gave my first public history lecture since November of 2020. I gave my presentation on Rhode Island democracy for the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society, in the Tavern Room at the Paine House Museum. 

In a way it is also a history of political parties in Rhode Island, as well as a history of the General Assembly, and a history of the struggle to maintain (or upset) the status quo. I give a modified version of this presentation to the students on the RI Model Legislature leadership team. It is important students have an understanding about the history of the institution they are imitating.

Setting up the projector in the Paine House Tavern

The other thing I got to do was test drive my Surface Pro tablet running a presentation. The fan in my old HP ProBook 450 G1 died over a year ago, and I am running an external fan that pulls the hot air out through the exhaust port to keep it from overheating and cooking itself. Every time I restart it, I have to bypass the warning screen reminding me that there is no operational fan in the device. It has been out of warranty for seven years; that laptop has totally earned the right to hang out in my office and not leave the house anymore. 

I also had to buy a USB C to HDMI VGA Adapter to connect the tablet to the projector, but it worked flawlessly. The only technical bumps were a) my powerstrip decided to take a permanent dirt nap, so I had to borrow one from the museum, and b) the AA battery to the mouse, which I use to click through the slideshow took a nosedive about 15 minutes into my presentation. But I have some extras in my brief case because this happens all the time at work. It only took me half a minute to get that dead battery swapped out. So overall not many technical problems. And the tablet worked just fine.

It's 6:30... Time to get started!

Below are some of the highlights from last night's presentation of the history of Rhode Island's Colonial era, the American Revolution and Early American Republic period. These slides are all from the first half of the presentation. If you want to find our what happens next and how it all ends, have your local historical society book me to come in! 


Someone somewhere must have uttered a more delightfully arrogant boast of the power they wield over their constituents. But if so, I have yet to see it.

If you have, please post it in the comments.


Note: the images used in this post are subject to copywrite and appear here for educational purposes only. Any commercial use of the information or images on this this blog post are strictly forbidden. 

If you use any of the information from the slides, please abide by the following Creative Commons license:

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Strains of Machiavellianism and Utopian Idealism in US History

Giving students an overarching theme to come back to over and over as the course progresses can lead to some interesting "aha!" moments, or at get students to think about the implication of certain events through a lens they might not have thought about otherwise. One professor teaching a pre-Civil War American History course spiced things up by asking us to identify the strains of  "Union" and "Disunion" during the Antebellum. Turns out there was a lot more disunionism going on and from people and places I hadn't suspected. But having that bug in my ear from the beginning kept me on the lookout for the ideas while completing the readings for the class, and it made for some interesting class discussions.

In American history, another set of intertwining themes are that of Utopian Idealism and Machiavellian realism (or pragmatism). From the arrival of the Puritans and their dream of founding "A City Upon A Hill," the powerful enlightenment language of equality, liberty and freedom in the Declaration of Independence, communes from the Shakers to the hippies, Americans have sought to create a better society than the one they came from or grew up with. At the same time, Americans have always done whatever it took to gain land, expand westward, forge a hemispheric hegemony, and to become the most powerful nation in the world. 

Spend a little prep time at the beginning of the year comparing short bios of Niccolò Machiavelli and Sir Thomas More, and going over the basic concepts of the two philosophies. Then throughout the year, have students discuss and identify these dichotomies in an exit question or warm-up, and just before the review session at the end of a unit. Some interesting insights into what students see as the motivating forces in a given time period.


Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Big History: Trilobites and Punctuated Equilibria

Big History, according to Khan Academy, is "a unified account of the entire history of the Universe that uses evidence and ideas from many disciplines to create a broad context for understanding humanity; a modern scientific origin story." It covers history from the Big Bang through to the present in an interdisciplinary way, using the summary findings from biology, cosmology, astronomy,  geology, paleontology, and anthropology to show what happened before homo sapiens became the dominant species on the Earth. It is NOT an account of the past in teleological terms, with humanity as the the raison d'être for evolution, the Universe, and existence itself. Rather it maintains that viewed purely scientifically, humanity's significant yet absolutely miniscule context is a teeny-tiny speck compared to the incomprehensible time span of the Universe

One of my all-time favorite animals from the paleontological past (edged out only slightly by the dinosaurs), are trilobites. If I ever teach a class in Big History, trilobites will get an entire lesson, at least. 

Trilobites are an extinct marine arthropod, whose name comes from the Greek tri- "three" + lobos "lobe" -- so called because their body is divided into three lobes:

Trilobites are one of the earliest arthropods, appearing fully formed in the fossil record in the Early Cambrian period, 521 million years ago. Analysis suggests a long and cryptic development for trilobites before the breakup of the supercontinent Pannotia, between 600 and 550 million years ago, and possibly as far back as 700 million years ago.

They crawled along the bottom of the sea, but also swam through the water and when under attack they could scrunch themselves up into a tiny ball, protecting their vulnerable underside with their hard carapace (see animation above). They were one of the earliest animals to evolve sight, and their vision was more than a simple detection of light and dark. They appear to be the first creatures to evolve an apposition compound eye -- each lens acts independently to create a mosaic image of what a creature sees, like modern insects. Or rather, modern insects see just like trilobites, During their long existence they evolved into over 20,000 species ranging from under 1 centimeter long to over 1 foot in size (see Trilobites: Variations on a Theme, New York Times, March, 3, 2014),

The last trilobites disappeared in a mass extinction about 252 million years ago. 

Excerpted from The Cartoon History of the Universe

Existing well over a quarter of a billion years... That is a pretty decent track record.

During that time trilobites survived a number of minor extinction events and two major mass extinctions (see chart below) that had eliminated almost all the other lifeforms that existed when they first appeared. The first one, the Ordovician Mass Extinction, was 450–440 million years ago at the Ordovician–Silurian transition when 85 percent of all species died out. The Second was the late Devonian Mass Extinction, 375–360 million years ago near the Devonian–Carboniferous transition, when 70 to 80 percent of all animal species went extinct. 

The one that finally got them, the so-called "Great Dying" was the mass extinction from the transition of the Permian to the Triassic, killing off 90 to 96 percent of all species and bringing the Paleozoic Era, and the mighty trilobite, to a final end. 

Attribution: Dragons flight
(licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The video below ("Six Extinctions In Six Minutes - Shelf Life #12" by the Museum of Natural History) examines six mass extinction stories. The trilobite segment is from about 1 minute to 2:16.

Over the quarter of a billion years of trilobites in the fossil record, it becomes apparent that many trilobites appeared very similar to each other, but other species evolved many variations (see article above, "Trilobites: Variations on a Theme"). Today, both gradualism -- an evolutionary model that refers to the tiny variations in an organism or in society that happen over time to make a better fit for animals (or humans) in their environment -- stasis with punctuated equilibrium are considered essential processes to the evolution of life on earth. But that was not always the case. 

"In the late 1960s, Niles Eldredge was a graduate student with a passion for trilobite eyes. He had been taught to expect slow and steady change between the specimens of these Devonian arthropods he collected for his dissertation. 

Only his trilobites were doing one of two things: staying the same, or evolving in leaps.

Several years later, Eldredge, along with co-author Stephen Jay Gould,  turned his observations into a theory known as “punctuated equilibria”: the idea that species stay relatively the same, or at equilibrium, throughout the fossil record save for rare bursts of evolutionary change. 

Below is another video from the Museum of Natural History, "Niles Eldredge: Trilobites and Punctuated Equilibria." Enjoy!

Some trilobites are SUPER CUTE though

Trilobite plush organism

Monday, July 25, 2022

Sources of Public Documents for Historical Research

[Note: the following outline is taken directly from a presentation I gave at a RIDE Professional Development Institute held at Rhode Island College in the spring of 2014]

  • Public Documents are in the public domain; no copyright restrictions!
    • Necessary Equipment
      • Digital camera 
        • 8-10 megapixels minimum resolution
        • AA batteries vs. rechargeable “battery pack”
      • Laptop computer to download and check images
      • USB cords to connect camera to laptop
    • Expect to be asked to sign-in, possibly check bag, coat, etc.
  • Good practice
    • Turn off cell phone!
    • Check quality of images immediately upon downloading to laptop
    • Re-photograph right then is a lot easier than driving back to repository to re-photograph a single key page/passage later
    • Photograph any relevant citation information on the spot
    • Organize images in named folders at same time as downloading to laptop
    • Backup data! 
      • LOCKSS: Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe!
    • Rename photos by page number if you plan to be using the source as a constant reference 
Sources of Public Documents
  • Town Halls / City Halls - in every RI town/city
  • Some towns and cities have a nearly complete set of records; others are missing some or most of their handwritten records -- fires, floods, hurricanes, misplacement, mold, and outright theft have left gaps in many municipal records before the age of modern printed or digital archival records.
    • Town Meeting Records
    • Town Council Records
      • Includes hearings of transients “warned out” of town 
    • Probate Records and Wills
    • Land Evidence and Mortgages
    • Manumission of Slaves
    • Earmarks and Brands
    • Tax assessments and tax rates (town and state)
    • Voting lists
    • Audit books
    • Other Misc. Records: Overseer of the Poor (O.P.) reports, Justice of the Peace (J.P.) court records, town meeting warrants, etc.
Town Hall, South Kingstown RI
SK has the most complete set of town records of any city or town in Rhode Island

  • Rhode Island State Archives 
    • 337 Westminster Street, Providence; free parking with stamped parking ticket (2 hours) 
Current RI State Archive, 33 Broad Street, Providence

NOTE: since this presentation, the RI State Archives have moved to a new location on Johnson & Wales University Providence Campus, 33 Broad St, Providence, RI. See RI Gov press release,  7/14/2020

Rendering of future permanent state archive building, looking east down
Smith Street. Question: is this Neobrutalism? Oh, be still my beating heart!

In January 2019, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea sought to have a new RI Archive building constructed in the vicinity of the RI Statehouse on Smith Street. Rhode Island remains the only US state without a permanent state archive, and the current location is under lease for ten years while the state decides where to build a permanent location for the archive. [1]
  • Historical Sources at RISA (Rhode Island State Archive)
      • Rhode Island Laws (1705 manuscript; printed copies from 1719 on)
      • Microfilm (can photograph the screen or have pages printed fairly cheaply)
        • Records of the Colony of Rhode Island (manuscripts, some indexed)
        • Petitions Granted by General Assembly (17th to mid 19th century; some indexed)
        • Petitions Denied by General Assembly (finding aid currently being developed)
      • Manuscripts of all the above (when microfilm might be difficult to read)
      • Many other records too numerous to list here
  • Rhode Island State Library
    • Second Floor of RI Statehouse, Smith St., Providence
    • Awe-inspiring, beautiful room
    • Printed copies of Acts and Resolves of Rhode Island General Assembly and Schedules from 1747 to 1900
      • Very dense source of information
      • Too many topics to list here
    • Printed copies of Rhode Island Laws from 1767 to present
RI Statehouse, 82 Smith St, Providence, RI
Below: Legislative Library, located on the second floor of the Statehouse

  • Rhode Island Law Library
    • 250 Benefit Street, Providence, Rhode Island 
      • Top floor of Licht Judicial Complex, Supreme/Superior Court
      • Metal detectors (it is in a courthouse)
    • Acts, Resolves and Reports of Rhode Island General Assembly
    • Rare legal texts related to RI history
Licht Judicial Complex, 250 Benefit St, Providence, RI 02903
Below, RI State Law Library top floor of Licht Complex 

  • RI Supreme Court Judicial Archives
    • 5 Hill Street, Pawtucket, Rhode Island
  • Repository for central repository for the State's semi-active, inactive, and archival court records.
  • Archival court records from 1671 to 1900 of civil, criminal, and divorce proceedings all RI county courts 
  • No Justice of the Peace records (see town hall / local historical societies)
  • Many Kings/Washington County records too badly damaged to allow public access
  • Naturalization Records 1793-1974
  • Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHPHC)
    • Located in the Old Statehouse, 150 Benefit St, Providence, RI
      • State Survey Publications
      • Survey of every RI town, plus many villages and special topics (e.g., historic bridges, Native American archaeology, etc) – 60 books in total
      • .pdf files of each available on RIHPHC website
      • Some are little dated (survey began in 1967, long before 911 addresses were implemented)
      • Surveys for some towns are more thorough than others

Other Sources of Public Documents
  • University libraries special collections
  • (Internet Archive)
    • .pdfs of many RI documents; you may not even need to leave your house!
    • Acts and Resolves of the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 1747-1800 available online Hugh & Hazel Darling Law Library, UCLA [these resources are unfortunately no longer available to non-students]
  • Local Historical Societies and Community Libraries
  • Rhode Island, Newport Historical largest collections
  • Many other communities have a historical society
  • Local libraries may house manuscripts and other historical documents in a special collection 
  • Many historical societies / libraries have restrictions and fees in place regarding digital photography
    • Check policies beforehand
  • Often an under-utilized source of primary documentation!

[1] Beth Comery, "New Site For State Archives." Providence Daily Dose, January 3, 2020.