Archive for the ‘Historical Musing’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Frontier In 1708 : Part II

truestoriesofnew00bake_0011David Rose, the hero of my tale, is one of Pieter Schuyler’s men. Of course not very much detail is known about this sort of operation, but in True stories of New England Captives carried to Canada during the old French and Indian wars, by Charlotte Alice Baker, and published in 1897,

Schuyler did not relax his efforts to protect New England. He openly protested against New York’s maintenance of neutrality whereby marauders passed unmolested, to attack the people of Massachusetts; and remonstrating in the name with the Governor of Canada, he said it was his duty to God and man to prevent as far a possible the infliction of such cruelties. Se sent friendly Indians, as scouts into the enemy’s country, and reported all he could learn of the designs of their captors in regards to them. pp137.

David was abducted ten years before the start of this story, and moves fluidly between Mohawk and French society. After he meets Matilda, he seeks out Schuyler to ask about her. Schuyler is 1.schuylersurprised, since her name had not been released either to him, or to Massachusetts governor Joseph Dudley. Schuyler sets David on a mission that is in essence our story, he must discover why Matilda is different from other captives, and how he can save her from the man who wants her secrets.

David and Matilda are typical enough residents of the new world, to be remarkable to ours. Because the population of New England was so low, it made sense to me that there would be little that was typical, and I invented two people who embody nearly all possibilities of background, but not culture; English Puritan culture ran strongly among all the ‘others’ who lived with them.

David’s father is John Rose, born Joao Roaz. John converted to Puritanism after he fell in love. The conversion was not difficult because Calvinism is, as he jokes, an Old Testament based covenanted religion. John was born in Lisbon to a family of hidden Jews, called in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, Marranos (meaning swine). John ran away from his family at thirteen. Preparing for a secret Bar-Mitzvah which might cause the arrest of all his extended family was too much for him, as was an apprenticeship with a member of the his father’s guild which bored him. When he entered the English world he adopted the name John Rose.

Growing up in Lisbon, the home of the greatest explorers of the time, gave young John a fantastic opportunity, and he slipped away on a ship. In time his ship is overtaken by pirates and he joins them, finding himself part of the Anglo-Atlantic world and in trouble he jumps ship in Boston, Massachusetts. There he meets a native Algonquin of the Agawam people. She is probably the first dark eyed, dark haired beauty he has seen in months, and he fell in love with her immediately. Mercy’s family are fully assimilated into Puritan New England, (all the Agawam were by 1675.) She is fun to write because she is devoutly Puritan, and celebrates her Thanksgivings with clam bakes and steamed corn.

Next Matilda:

PostHeaderIcon The Frontier in 1708

I am currently undertaking a story that takes place on the frontier in 1708. The frontier in this case is not the wild-west, but northern, central Massachusetts in this case Groton and Haverhill. (See my post on the mysterious stranger) These towns bordered the deep woods of northern New England and were settled by people who were enticed by land to take on the risk of living in this region. It was in fact a dangerous place, full of wild animals, cougars, rattlesnakes, wolves as well as all the smaller predators. The English had not considered the Indians enemies until a legal disturbance in Plymouth Colony led to a conflict named for the Sachem whose English name was Philip. Soon after, southern, central/northern Massachusetts, as well as ConneHaverhill signcticut and Rhode Island, were part of the conflict between the English settlers and the local Wampanoag tribes called King Phillip’s War or Metacom’s Rebellion, it lasted from 1675–78.

Although King Philip’s War sets the frontier towns as dangerous places, more important to my story, is that both were attacked from the north, in a series of border invasions, and abductions enacted by the French Army, who used their Indian allies against the English Protestants. Queen Anne’s War, was the second European war with a North American, intercolonial element. It was known in Europe as the War of the Spanish Succession, and fought on the American frontier from 1702-1713.

Groton signI have created a story in which Matilda is burned out of her home when town of Groton is under a fictional attack in 1708, and brought to Canada and delivered to the Maqua village. That was, and is a real town, although its location changed depending on soil fertility and safety of the townsfolk. The town was inhabited mostly by Mohawk, but nominally controlled by French Jesuits. These were Catholic Indians who had been schooled by the priests to hate the English Protestants, and the Agawam and other praying (Protestant Indians). In fact one diary by a visiting French priest says he was surprised to find that the Indians were taught, and believed, that the English had killed Christ, their god. Their hatred for the English was created and fed in this manner.

The English government did not send English soldiers to fight the French Army in North America, as the French did to fight the English. This left protection of the towns to the local militia, and farmers/tradesmen who were known as minutemen, meaning that although they were no in the militia they would be ready at a moment’s notice to protect their town. Every New England colony had a standing militia, and tradition held that the colony just to the north was defended by the colony to the south. This worked well in the Maine territory of Massachusetts, southern Massachusetts, aided by Connecticut and New Hampshire, aided by Massachusetts. (Vermont was a disputed region and not yet a separate colony.) However, this system of protection against the Canadian French broke down in New York west of the Massachusetts border.

The Albany area was still controlled by Dutch traders and landowners who owed much of their wealth to the fur trade. Skins were brought down from the north and west to Albany where they were shipped down the Hudson River to the harbor at New York and on to Europe where the desire for beaver skins was insatiable. It was more important to the Dutch landowners to keep trade open, than to protect the lives of English captives, so they gave French and Mohawk armies free reign with their lands.

This was not true of at least one Dutch/New Yorker, Pieter Schuyler. Schuyler was the mayor of Albany and agent for the English relating to prisoners. He often made official exchanges of prisoners between the English and the French, but some records imply that he put “spies” in the Indian villages to monitor English prisoners there.

If you have read my previous books, you know I can’t resist a spy.

More soon.

PostHeaderIcon Mud : New England’s Extra Season

mud new england


This is a tire track left by a city snow-plow in a park.

After last winter’s almost surreal amount of snow, this winter has been a balm for our backs and psyches. Of course we’ve shoveled snow a few times in the past two months, and more may yet fall from the skies, but anything that has fallen has dutifully melted within a day or two. But, of course it has been wet and cold with good melts in between, and that creates mud. Mud in New England is so much a part of late winter it gets its own season, and this year mud season has lasted most of the winter. I wrote this a few winters ago, and this year seemed like a good one to bring it back.


Before the age of corduroy roads; in places where no one had the good sense or ability to lay down a bed of gravel, the roads of New England were dirty and dusty. In the summer, towns sent out large barrels of water which were carted through busy streets and country roads, spraying water to keep down the dust. In winter, the roads were rutted and frozen. During the cold months snow-covered roads were more easily passable, and therefore snow-covered streets were preferable to those that were clear or melted.

But between the snowy or rutted roads of winter, and the dry, dusty streets of summer, there is a separate season. It comes just at the end of winter: we call it mud season. After months of hard freeze, the warm days and cold nights create inches thick mud that seems to sink downward with no end. Some years there is no one freeze that lets go at the beginning of spring. Some winters there is a never-ending freeze/thaw cycle; mud season from November to April.

In fields and woodlands, this cycle brings the ubiquitous boulders, called fieldstones, from deep in the earth. Deposited by three miles high glaciers from the Wisconsin Ice Sheet that ended about 25,000 years ago, these rocks were pried out of the fields each spring, and moved to the edges of the fields by strong young men, creating the stone walls that outline the border of every New England homescape.

This year mud season has been fantastic. Even with concrete sidewalks and macadam streets, the mud from yards and gardens oozes over, practically bubbling up in an icy mess that gets into the deep treads of our Vibram soles and covers floors of mud rooms, kitchen doorways, and front halls throughout the region. All this mud reminds me of a story told in early New England on this subject.

In times past, the mud of early spring was often many feet deep. One day, during such a year, a horseman was riding down a muddy road when he saw a fine hat lying in the lane. Because the hat was a nice one, and worth a bit of money, the rider got off his horse and went to pick it up. When he looked at the road under the hat, he noticed the face of a man staring up at him from the muddy road. “Are you all right?” the rider asked the face of the man in the road. “I’m doing fine,” replied the face, “but I’m worried about the horse I’m riding.” The implication, of course was that the animal was under the man, buried deep in the mud .





PostHeaderIcon Man-Up Ben – History is Not for the Squeamish!

flower garden at Mt Hall 19072History is not for the squeamish. The same goes for genealogy, and it’s too bad no one told Ben Afleck or Deborah Nathan that. Let me explain. The other day, as reported in the DailyMail and then all over Facebook, it became known that Ben wanted the fact that one his ancestors owned slaves, censored from the genetic tracing show ‘Finding your Roots’. The PBS show is hosted by Henry Louis Gates, a man not afraid to confront the history of slavery in the American south, but for some reason, he let his friend fudge the past. The request to alter his genes came from Ben himself through Sony Pictures, and PBS agreed. (The fictional show aired on October 14, 2014.)

Deborah Nathan, commentator and public comedienne, recently discovered that her Texan forbears owned a few domestic slaves in the 1850s. She delved deep to prove it wasn’t so. Jews owning slaves, was that possible? But of course it was. It was Texas in the 1850s and if her ancestor wanted help in the store or house,  he owned the labor. It wasn’t as if he could drive by the HomeDepot and pick up a few workers.

It should not come as any sort of shock to Ben or Deborah, that people of means in the south owned slaves. The reality of labor in the southern states, was that labor was in short supply. Owning land was cheap. That meant there were few workers available for hire, slave-holding was the only option, and of course it was legal.

Careful before you gag with superiority, you northern moralists.

Labor is the north – after around 1800 give or take a few Rhode Islands and Connecticuts, which slowly and gradually abolished slavery between the years 1784 and 1848. Those states finally abolished slavery completley just fifteen years before the Federal ban, (known as the Emancipation Proclamation, signed in 1863) – was in short supply too, but keeping slaves in large numbers in the north, was more costly than hiring day laborers. Let me explain.

Think about what an owner owes his slaves. Remember these are expensive commodities, whatever we may feel about the institution itself, no one wanted his slaves killed or made unable to work. So except for a few famous cases (only unusually terrible situations made it into the court system to be transcribed) most slaves were housed and fed tolerably well. For the owner this required space to house his workers, and food to feed them.

I know you want to complain that the food was bad and the space was mean. I agree. (nolo contendere)

But the basic requirement for land and food didn’t work in the north. Families were large, and children supplied plenty of cheap, unskilled labor. Land was poor and rocky so there was little extra, and most farms remained small. Interestingly, those few places with abundantly fertile land, were those few places in the north where slavery held on into the nineteenth century. And by the first decades of the that century, immigration brought new, cheap labor to northern cities, making slavery even more expensive. It is simply cheaper to pay a laborer a few coins, and not care about where he sleeps or what he eats. With freedom comes the right to starve.

Deborah Nathan and her family were able to “come to grips with the past”, a concept I find laughable, because the past just sits there whether or not we can grip it. Also, I’m sorry that Ben feels ashamed of his people. They were within their legal, and historical right. He really shouldn’t have the right to disown ancestors, even if he disapproves of them. As I said, history is not for the squeamish, man up Ben.

For the record, many of my ancestors owned slaves in the south. My great-grandfather and his brothers fought for Georgia in the Civil War, and my father and mother fought for fair housing and jobs for Black Americans in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I am no more “shamed” by my ancestors, that I take “credit” for their successes and discoveries. (Picture above is of my grandmother and her sister, Mt Airy, Georgia about 1907.)