The Colonial Internet
In the modern world if you need news fast you can turn to your phone or computer. Want to know what your neighbors or friends and family are up to? You can always go to Facebook or Twitter to find out who’s doing what to whom at any hour of the day. Besides gossip and outrage, we have also seen the Internet used to spark resistance and rebellion to perceived outrages and threats. Heck, we have even seen Twitter used to spark governmental overthrows. But if you lived in Colonial America in 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, how would you get your news and know what was happening all around you. That is where the local tavern came in.
More than a place to get a pint or grab a quick meal, the tavern was the center of social life for the community (some will say Church, and that may be true in some places) and it was here that news was traded and gossip spread. Men would gather from all over to talk about the news of the day, even taking turns reading whatever newspapers were available.
It was in taverns that the American Revolution took shape and form. The City Tavern in Philadelphia and the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg are among the most famous. In the back rooms, men would meet and voice their concerns and plan their actions. It was in places like this that the first calls for a general continental congress came to fruition. Face to face, person to person, thoughts took shape and ideas formed.
The taverns were very much the Internet of Colonial life. A social place where you could keep up with neighbors and the world outside. Hear the news and plot your rebellions. The picture above is of the King’s Arms Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. Today it serves as a family restaurant, staying as true as possible to the colonial era. You can’t bookmark it like a Google search, but you can sure make reservations!
The Journal of Major Washington
In 1753 the Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, sent Major George Washington (then only 21) into the Western reaches of the Colony to warn the encroaching French that they were trespassing on land that was claimed by Virginia for England. The land in question would eventually become Ohio.
Washington and his small expedition were to deliver an ultimatum to the French garrison at Fort Le Boeuf. Not far from Lake Erie. He was received by the French commander who told Washington that he would forward the request to his superiors in Quebec. In the meantime, they were going nowhere.
When the expedition kicked off Washington was sure to take experienced woodsmen, explorers, and interpreters with him. He was about to get his first taste of the true frontier. On his tour, he dealt with rain and snow, visited a number of French forts and even some native villages. Putting his skills as a surveyor to the test he even created one of the first maps of the Ohio River Valley. Realizing that he was not going to get the answer he was looking for Washington headed home.
As soon as he returned to Williamsburg Washington wrote out the official report of his trip and handed it over to Governor Dinwiddie who immediately saw it as a tool to warn people about the encroaching French menace. Dinwiddie had the journal published in book form and in broadsides and excerpts even showed up in newspapers in the colonies and back in England. Overnight Major George Washington became a name well-known at home and in the social circles in London.
The picture above is of one of the original copies of the published journal.
Dinwiddie would send Washington back to the Ohio River Valley on a second expedition to parley with the French. This one did not go as well. George Washington may have accidentally started a world war. One that would end with the British American colonies on a slippery slope to revolution. Too bad he didn’t keep a journal of THAT adventure!
The Symbol of Domination
The New World brought untold riches to the powers of the Old World. Gold, silver, furs, tobacco, and many, many other resources became the currency of conquest. There was however one other resource that can not be left off that list, souls. Religion, as is almost always the case, became a weapon and resource in the New World.
The natives that lived in North America had beliefs and religion of their own. That didn’t really matter. The Catholic Church, under the auspices of both Spain and France, saw the natives as savages and pagans. They sought to “rescue” their souls for God.
To do so they established missions all through the New World. These missions often became the center of life for many of the Europeans living in the frontier. They became crucial to not only gaining the support of the natives but converting them to Christianity.
In particularity unsafe or contested areas, sometimes these missions would become forts. From there they would be able to attack enemies and aggressively spread the word of God.
Not all native tribes took to the missionaries very well. They saw no reason to change their traditions and beliefs. There was an effort to make them more like the white man by encouraging them to move from the hunter/gatherer society they had always known to an agrarian based society. All too often the attempts to “civilize” the natives lead to bloody conflict that never ended well for them.
The crosses that are shown in the picture above came were found in the area of one of the old mission/forts. Where the meaning of cross to some is death and rebirth, to others it could just as easily be about the end of a way of life.
The gentleman in the picture above is one of the wonderful staff at Colonial Williamsburg. I did not catch his name but the “character” he played had an interesting evolution. He played his character at different points in time. Starting from when the trouble with Britain was beginning all the way to the end of the war. In this picture was a Continental soldier after the war trying to figure out was next for himself. Many like him thought they would have some sort of pension to lean on, here is part of that story.
First Pension Act
Pensions and land grants were two methods used to entice young men to join the Continental Army. As early as 1776 Congress passed the first of the pension laws which promised half-pay for a period of time to anyone that served in The Continental Army. With the caveat that the only men eligible were those that lost a limb or that were rendered unable to earn a living after the war. So a start.
In 1778 General Washington convinced Congress to amend that to include half-pay for 7 years to all officers that remained in the service until the end of the war. Enlisted men who stayed would be eligible for an $80 annuity after the war.
In 1780 Congress amended the act again to provide the half-pay for 7 years to the orphans and widows of Continental officers who died in service.
Later in 1780, it was amended again, once more at the insistence of Washington, to give officers half-pay for life.
After the near revolt of the officer corps at Newburgh, NY in March 1783, a new pension act was passed giving the officers full pay for 5 years payable in hard money or interest-bearing annuities. Officers could choose which they wanted
The pension laws would be changed another six times over the years. In 1828 Congress provided for full pay to surviving officers and enlisted men without any further requirement of disability or financial need. In 1832 they extended further, full pay for life for all officers and enlisted men who served at least 2 years in the Continental Line, the state troops or militia, the navy or marines. Men who served less than 2 years but at least 6 months were granted pensions of less than full pay.
100 Years and Still Tweaking
Fifty-six years after the start of the war everyone who fought was now eligible for a pension. The final actual pension legislation regarding the American Revolution was passed in 1878. This last one extended lifetime benefits to any widow whose husband served at least 14 days or participated in any engagement during the war.
The sad part is that many of the men and widows were never able to actually collect their pensions. That is a story for another time though.
Keep Your Gunpowder Dry
Gunpowder changed the way that lives were lived and wars were fought, no one can deny that. From guns to bombs, to fireworks, to any number of uses. It gives a great amount of bang for the buck (pun intended). The only problem is that once it gets wet, it quits banging. So for ages people have been coming up with ways to keep their powder dry. The most popular was the good old-fashioned cow horn. It was waterproof and easily obtainable, just eat a cow and usually you get two!
During the French & Indian War, American and British forces took the old-fashioned powder horn to new heights by engraving them with military themes. The smooth surfaces were perfect for engraving and anyone that has been to war knows the old adage, “hurry up and wait.” So the men had plenty of time to be creative.
The powder horn above was a custom job that was carved for a veteran of the 1758 siege of Louisbourg (Nova Scotia, yeah, we invaded Nova Scotia once). The horn contains a map of the city showing where each artillery battery was located, shows ships in the harbor firing on the city, a hunter with his dog, and a light infantryman firing his weapon at Native Americans. (It was a different time!)
In the center of the horn is a distinctively carved tree. This style of the tree was like a signature for the artist. Unfortunately, he remains unidentified, but his work has been seen several times.
For almost two hundred years the flintlock firearm was the state of the art for the military around the world. First developed by Marin le Bourgeoys for King Louis XIII of France around 1610 they continued to be refined and developed until the mid-19th century when percussion caps became more the norm.
The flintlock pistol was normally used in conjunction with another weapon, sword or cutlass and would fire one shot before having to be reloaded. They ranged from six inches up to twenty and were mostly smooth bore. Effective and powerful in the short-range their greatest deficiency was that time it took to reload. For those that have never done it here are the steps:
Load the flint into the lock.
Half-cock the cock
Pour the proper amount of black powder down the muzzle
Tamp it down
Wrap the ball in a patch, usually linen or cotton
Put the ball in the muzzle
Tamp the ball and power down with the ramrod
Prime the flash pan
You are ready to fire!
Now imagine that in the middle of a fight, probably not going to happen which is why you would normally carry more than one.
Not only is the load process time-consuming, but the actual flick that makes the spark can sometimes be an issue. They wear out, and if not produced right is just plain ineffective. Of course, keeping your powder dry was a major issue. Even when it was you would have to constantly clean the powder residue from the weapon to keep it functioning. Since most of the pistols were made by hand the parts were mostly not transferable from one to another. So if something broke, you may be out of luck.
Still, though they were good weapons and were integral in not only the military but taming the new frontiers found on the American Continent.
By the Ledger Book
What you see above is a ledger from a small colonial business in Virginia. If you looked close you would see all the normal debits and credits that you would expect in a ledger. Now imagine if instead of a wallet you carried your own personal ledger book? Not so far-fetched.
In a time before ATMs and banks hard currency was very hard to find and when you did find it parting with it was not something you enjoyed doing. In New England people used a sort of ledger system for most personal and business transactions, sort of like using Bitcoin. Here is how it worked.
Let’s say you were a young man who decided to do some work on your neighbors farm. You work ten hours. When the day was over you would both take out your ledger books, you would write down that Farmer John owed you for ten hours of work. Farmer John would write in his book that he owed you for ten hours of work. On the way home you stop at the butchers to buy some dinner and decide on a nice ham. The butcher may want to sell you the ham for $5 (just an example), well you don’t have any hard currency but you and the butcher agree that since Farmer John owes you for ten hours, the butcher can lay claim to five of those. You both makes the notes in your ledgers and you have dinner.
Sometime later the butcher needs help with rounding up sheep for the slaughter. He looks in his ledger and sees that now Farmer John owes him that five hours, so he goes and collects by having Farmer John help him for five hours. All accounts are square and not a single piece of copper or paper has actually changed hands.
Simpler? No, not really but when everyone is on the same page it can be effective.
The New World was rich with resources which drew the interest of those in the Old World. For the Spanish Central and South America gave them gold, more gold than anyone ever thought existed. This gold fueled the Spanish Empire and caused the other nations in Europe to take notice.
France, England and The Netherlands looked upon North America with interest, some hoping to find the same gold that the Spanish found in the south, some hopping to find something even more valuable. One that they found, were beavers.
Yes, beaver, or more accurately their fur, spurred a gold rush of a different kind in North America and became a flash point for generations as France and England wrestled for control of the resource. The key though was relations with the Native Americans whose land this trade crisscrossed.
France looked upon the natives as partners in the endeavor, they did their best to treat them fairly and not subjugate them. Of course this was not purely altruistic. The French never colonized in the numbers that the British did and keeping on good terms with the natives was truly in their own self-interest,
The British took a slightly different view on the fur trade. They looked upon the natives as subjects and where the French were fairly free wheeling in their dealings, the English looked for a much more regimented structure and as their population grew, conflict with the natives and the French was inevitable.
And this all came on the back of the beaver and the incredible military uses that the little buggers provided. What? No military value? OK, then it must have been because of the beaver has a special gland that provides eternal life? No? Not that either huh? Yes, their fur was prized, and most of it went to the creation of hats. Yes, hats. The photo above shows a beaver pelt and the end product, a beaver pelt hat. A pelt and hat that would eventually lead to the founding of the United States of America.
I come to this book with a confession. After seeing the first several episodes of the AMC series TURN, I wanted to know everything I could about the characters. So I came to this book to find out more. What I found was a bit surprising, but in the end I guess the show did its job by getting to find this book.
Now, to the book. Rose tells a gripping tale of intrigue as Washington attempts to build an intelligence service that will give him an edge against the British. Reading the tale it is surprising that what he built was not only effective but vital in winning the revolution.
While it would be easy to try to read this as a spy novel, it is not. It is the story of real and flawed men that have to make decisions that literally could mean life or death. Abraham Woodhull, who is the main character in the show and one of the focuses in this book, is not an irreproachable patriot that will do anything for the cause. He is man who argues with Washington over wages, and expenses and actual quits his post several times.
Even so, the way that Rose presents this man you feel for him. The pressure he is under is real and palpable, and because of that you tend to want to forgive him and by the end tend to admire him somewhat. It is to the author’s credit that he can capture the insecurity and uncertainty of the time, while at the same time humanize those that may tend to have history do otherwise to them.
Read the book for the truth, watch the show for the drama.
The Thirteen Colonies
The colonies that would go on to become the United States of America were different and diverse societies among themselves. The idea that these separate entities would one day come together to form a nation is quite simply a miracle. In this book, The Thirteen Colonies, the origin and founding of these colonies is brought to splendid life by the author.
Starting with the discovery of the New World and the initial struggles that put all the major players on the field, each region and colony gets a its own treatment as we learn about the people who risked everything to create this new world. From their early struggles against nature and natives, to their simmering disagreements and differences among themselves, the story of the societies that made up these colonies is brought to life.
Special consideration should be given for the way that it deals with the French & Indian War (Seven Years War). This is topic that has spawned thousands of books on its own. The coverage of it here in this book is done well enough to serve as a primary for further study, it does not bog you down in the nitty-gritty, but does well enough to provide for the entire experience and the contribution of the colonies during this major world war. This portion alone is worth it.
One word of warning in regards to this book though. It is dry and written much more as an academic exercise than as any sort of adventure or novelization. Because of that many people not already engaged with the subject may find it boring and perhaps even a little hard to get though. Stick with it. Definitely worth the purchase.