Archive for the ‘Non Fiction history’ Category

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.)

PostHeaderIcon Storms of the Revolution

Boston snow  Well it has done nothing but snow here in Boston these past three weeks. In fact we are up to about 70″, a new record for snow in one month. Of course such things makes me start thinking about the importance of various storms during the past.  One of the most important was the storm that took place in March of 1776 and was significant as part of the Battle of Dorchester Heights. That battle was famous for convincing the British to evacuate Boston after General Howe looked up at the Heights on the morning of 3/6/1776 to see the Americans dug into the hill in a howling blizzard. From the description of the storm it becomes clear that it was what we would call a ‘nor’easter,’ so that was how I wrote it in Beside Turning Water, which will be out later this month.

Excerpt of Beside Turning Water, Battle of Dorchester Heights.

Like so many battles in history, the Americans were helped, by the atrocious weather. The storm probably came across North America from the west, hitting the cold moisture of the Mid-Atlantic coast, it pushed north toward cold Atlantic waters, gaining strength and moisture as it moved. By the time it hit New England, the north-easterly swirl of the winds caused it to be caught in the bays and harbors, blocking itself from moving quickly eastward or north and away. For hours, it battered the town and harbor reducing visibility to inches, and turning roads and fields to ice and mud.
In Boston, it started in late morning as rain. By afternoon, the rain had turned to an icy mix, slowly turning to snow, sleet and rain in competing sheets. It battered the workers on the eastern slope with raging, incessant ocean gales, broken by stronger gusts, and icy rain. At the coast it brought high seas mixed with the abominably high tides of the March full moon, assuring that the British Marines headquartered just below Dorchester Heights, would be unable to make landfall without risking a watery, rocky death. The roar of the wind was such, that for the first time in days the cannonading from Phips Farm on the Cambridge side was muffled.

Look for Beside Turning Water at Amazon, Barnes & Nobel or at the buy the book link on this page.

PostHeaderIcon Romantic Christmas 1914 and 2014

The Sainsbury Chocolate Christmas ad has the romantic feel of being far away from home during Christmas time, that I have tried to portray in the three stories I’ve posted in the last three weeks. I want to wish everyone a safe and joyous season, and meaningful peace in the New Year. Doryshistoricals bookmark copy

PostHeaderIcon Tea Things Images for the talk: Tea the First Wicked Weed

tea warehouses in canton chinatea cratetea caddy  Richard Collins, A Family of Three at Tea, 1727Pewter Tea Set TudricteasetAmerican made china setCopley's Reverebakers chocolate - 2 imagesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

PostHeaderIcon American Georgians: Novels in the time of George III and George Washington

Geo Washington BostonReaders prefer Regencies. I write American Georgians.                                                                                                                        (An open letter to author Jo Beverley)

Dear Readers,

Recently I read an interview with an author of Medieval romances. She spoke of the era as lawless, and that the lack of social rules made some readers shy away from that genre, but she liked writing in a period that allowed a man and a woman to be discovered in a room together without scandal or forced marriage. That was just one of many reasons she liked this relatively chaotic world where the only law was the King’s word and he and his armies were largely absent. I agree that such times open up areas of romance and relationships to an author, that the rigid rules of the Regency cannot allow.

A few years ago I began writing about another chaotic, lawless era. Not lawless because the law was absent, though often it was, but because the known world was changing so quickly that rules seemed suspended. This is a short essay on how I began writing my Edge of Empire / World Turned Upside Down Series or the American Georgians, if you will. (George III and George Washington.) The novels take place during the American Revolution 1773-1780 plus or minus a plot point.

It all began when Jo Beverley’s Rothgar, mentioned ‘trouble in the colonies’ in conversation with his younger brother. Being an American historian with a deep love for, not only British history, but British historical romances, my antennae went up and I matched the “trouble” to the stamp crisis in Boston. Then Chastity discovered Cyn’s tomahawk-scar from an attack during in the Seven Years War in Canada or perhaps Massachusetts or New York. That is a war we in America call the French and Indian War. For us, this war began with Indian attack in 1675 and didn’t end until the treaty of Paris in 1765. Even then, there were attacks from Canada into western New York for another year. In those years, Americans were British, and army and militia fought together against the French and the Canadian Indians.

No non-fictional family explains the emotional conflict the American Revolution presented to the British aristocracy better than the Howes. Cousins of King George III, (their mother was an avowed illegitimate daughter of George I), three Howe brothers served in America during the French and Indian War. The oldest, General George Howe, led forces in New York, and died at Ticonderoga in 1758. He is buried near Albany, New York. George was greatly adored on both sides of the Atlantic and after his death the Province of Massachusetts paid for a commemorative plaque in his honor to be placed in Westminster Abbey.

In 1774, as the next crisis in the colonies heated up, George III asked General William and Admiral Richard Howe to go back to America to lead the Army and the Naval forces there. They agreed to go only if they would be allowed to seek reconciliation with the colonies. The King agreed, but he and his secretaries gave them no support.

With the inspiration of Ms. Beverley’s Malloren novels, and the fighting of the pro and anti Americanists in Parliament as background, I constructed a fictional aristocratic family, and the fictional Duchy of Chardon. The FitzSimmons are a large loving family with too many sons, two of whom I quite rudely remove from Britain, and place in America at the time of this conflict. One is a merchant seaman who lands in Boston the week of the “Tea Party” the other is a lieutenant on General Howe’s staff. There is a younger brother who will come to visit as soon as he finishes school.

Their mother, Elizabeth FitzSimmon, Duchess of Chardon, is an energetic redhead who has been involved in the raising of her children from their birth, and running all aspects of her household. She argues politics with anyone who will listen, and writes to the newspapers as Queen Bess. She visited family in America, some time in the past, and loved the land and its people. She is a cousin of General John Burgoyne. The same John Burgoyne who landed in Boston with William Howe in the spring of 1775. Elizabeth and her ilk are not shy in telling him he is a buffoon when he does not believe the Americans on the frontier will fight hard and well. She is proved correct.

The  two oldest brothers, Robert and Stephan sit in Parliament. Robert takes his father’s seat in Lords, because the Duke won’t travel anymore, and Stephan was elected as an MP for the district. Both men are sympathetic to the American cause, as were many others to greater and lesser degrees. Historian, David Hackett Fischer refers to this as the King in Parliament Whigs, (the British), vs. the no King in Parliament Whigs, (the Americans), the two sides agreed on almost everything except that one thing, and it was insurmountable!

In my stories, three family members: Stephan; Thomas, the third brother; and the husband of their older sister, Elizabeth, own a shipping company named after the family. Jason, the fourth son, has been in the employ of this company as first mate on the Chardon. Cardinal Points begins as Jason makes landfall at Boston, Massachusetts, in December 1773, simultaneous to the treasonous events of the night. He decides to leave his brothers’ employ and strike out on his own.

John’s story In Fate and Fair Winds, begins during his travels. He had been tasked by General William Howe to come to an understanding of the Americans. This was part of the efforts of the Howes, William and Admiral Richard, at reconciliation with the Americans. John lands in Philadelphia at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He is fiercely loyal to the King and the notion of nationhood, but he grows to believe that Parliament has betrayed the English ideal of representative government with their intransigence toward the Americans.

So, mine are the stories of the extra sons as a new world unfolds before them. Each man meets an American girl. Each eventually finds love in a topsy-turvy world.

What I have tried to do in these books, beside giving the reader a fun story with adventure and romance, is to complicate the narrative of the American Revolution. To tell stories, not through military victories and losses, but through the eyes men and women finding love in the midst of rhetoric and revolution.

When General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington in October 1781, he had his band play a tune called “World Turned Upside Down.” For an Enlightenment Englishman of that time, losing the colonies was not simply the loss of valuable real-estate, but an alteration of the way things should be in an ordered world. Quite literally, the known world had ended.

As I say on my book covers: In a world turned upside down, the only right – may be love.

Most Humble, &c.

PostHeaderIcon Cooleewahee Shout: a song from the deep South

Flint River at Albany GANot long ago I talked to an old friend about my work. I promised her that once in a while I would include something from or about the south. Well, after a recent trip to Georgia I got inspired to rework a book I wrote thirty years ago about my grandmother, Kate Fort Codington. I include here a story about her childhood on a plantation near Albany, GA. Her father John Porter Fort had bought the land before his marriage, in 1881. (More about him later.)
The six Fort children loved this land of cotton and deep swamp, they named it Cooleewahee after call of the wood thrush.

My Aunt Catherine wrote this for me in 1979:

It was Brooks Locket, the family butler and driver of John Fort’s two white Kentucky thoroughbreds, who taught Mother this song, and who at one time saved her from certain death, after he followed little Kate through the open door of the ginhouse. He saw her, a joyous little tomboy of about four, climb up on a piece of machinery and dive headfirst into a deep, fluffy pile of unbaled cotton. She was immediately unable to move or to breathe and would have suffocated if the horror-stricken Brooks had not extricated her. “Miss Katie, Don’t you never do dat again!”
The dance is called a “shout”, the feet are moved somewhat like a Charleston, the dancer leans over from the waist. It begins with shouting out ‘oly man or ‘oly woman, and then continues:

You better live ‘umble
You better live mild.
You better live like-a dat heabenly chile.

When I gets to heab’n I spects to stop,
Choose my seat and den sit down,
argue wid do Father, chatter wid de Son,
Talk about de worl’ dat I jus’ come from,
Talk about the green tree die as well as de dry-a
De green tree die jus’ as well as de dry-a –

O Lawdy!

Walk steady chillun, study yo’selves-a
Jus lemme tell you ‘bout God Himself-a,
When He was a-walkin’ here below
Betwixt de eart’ and den de sky,somethin’ like a Jericho-a
Eatin’ of de honey and drinkin’ of de wine…

O Lawdy!

Simon Cyrene gwine dig my grave,
Angel Gab’l gwine hol’ me down,
Hol’ me down with a golden chain –

O Lawdy!

PostHeaderIcon Tea the First Wicked Weed

I have been working on a talk for libraries and groups about how Tea; the buying, preparing and drinking, became a symbol of all things British and therefore rejected as colonists began to separate from their mother country. It’s loads of fun to think about and I am making a shiny pink dress (gown) just for the project. Here is the brochure:
TeaThe First Wicked WeedA talk byDory CodingtonHistorian-1TeaThe First Wicked WeedA talk byDory CodingtonHistorian-2

PostHeaderIcon Molasses Cookies and Gunpowder

bakers chocolate - 2 images    In January of 1919 an enormous tank of molasses on Commercial St. in the North End of Boston burst. This disaster spewed hundreds of gallons of molasses into the streets, killing and maiming nearly two hundred people and horses and moved entire buildings off their foundations. This is a famous story, at least one definitive book has been written on it. I will leave known history severely alone and tell a different story. A sweeter one – of Boston, molasses, sugar and chocolate.

To do this some historical background is necessary.

Most of colonial America developed along a pattern, known as the Virginia model, of agriculture and extraction. Highly successful because land was fertile, cheap and plentiful. So was labor, mostly due to indentured and enslaved workers.

New England Farms grow rocks and children.

The New England colonies could not follow a model of agriculture and extraction. Labor was expensive because of available work on ships and at docks, and because the region’s thin rocky soils produced barely enough food to feed large families, certainly not enough to maintain a labor force that wasn’t needed anyway. This subsistence farming was the result of geology. From 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, the Wisconsin ice sheet, about three miles high, pushed rocks from upper Canada into New England rearranging everything in its way. Boston Harbor, the Blue Hills, Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Long Island, NY are the nearby, obvious result of this ice. The size and shape of the north eastern mountain ranges, and the dearth of native rhododendrons are a few others.

While the ice took away to soil, it left deep harbors (and a never-ending supply of field stones that decorate the sides of roads and foundations for most of the region’s houses.) But before we move onto sweeter things, there is one extractive thing the mother country needed very badly: New England hardwoods for ship building and tall white pines for ships’ masts.


In brief, he who can make a leak-proof ship, can make a barrel that doesn’t leak. And New England shipyards produced the best fitting, leak-proof barrels and barrel staves in the colonial world. This was good because although the British Colonies in the Carribean tried to make sugar into cones from the cane they grew, the tropical heat caused the raw sugar to return to its drippy, syrupy state. Fortunately for the sugar producers of the Caribbean, barrels of dried cod, quickly returned to Boston with drippy molasses that was refined into sugar in the reliably cool New England town of Boston.

So Revere Sugar, Baker’s and now Taza chocolates, and of course Lindt and NECCO are not coincidentally located within reach of Boston, neither was the molasses tank that exploded on Jan 15, 1919, but for that you need to understand how molasses was made into smokeless gunpowder for use in WWI, and I’d rather make cookies.

Interesting fact. Dried cod is still used in many Caribbean dishes, a leftover from colonial times.

PostHeaderIcon Christmas in Colonial New England


First Church Topsfield




To think about Christmas in Colonial New England, we first must remember that colonial New England encompasses a region over a very long time. The Plymouth Colony began in 1620, Salem, Massachusetts was settled in 1627, and Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled in 1630. Colonialism ends with the beginnings of the American Revolution in 1775. That is one-hundred and fifty years, give or take a few. Nothing stays the same for seven generations, not even in New England.

In the seventeenth century the devout Protestants who settled these places, did not celebrate Christmas. There are a few reasons for this. For instance, Cotton Mather, one of Boston’s leading Puritan ministers of the time, expressed the opinion of most when he preached that Christ’s birth should be celebrated every day. But really these first ministers were worried and opposed to the dual pagan holidays of Yule and Saturnia. Yule being the Anglo-Saxon worship of the darkest days of the year, and the return to lengthening days and increasing light. In other words the winter solstice. Saturnalias were what we now associate with New Years, the loud raucous -drunken worship of the god Saturn; the end of one year and beginning of another.

So Christmas worship was frowned upon. In many places it was another work-day, in others it was a day of prayer and contemplation.

But Colonial New England extends over one-hundred years, and many things changed over a century and a half, among them Christmas celebrations. Yes change even happened among the most religious New Englanders. It happened slowly, with the Anglofication of New England, and quickly as new people with different and more light hearted ways of doing things moved in to the region.

It is well known that America was never more English than it was just at the time of the Revolution. Colonists had adopted many English customs as travel time lessened, and more English goods were available in the marketplace. Those customs began to include boughs of evergreen and holly in the house, Christmas parties and church services dedicated to the birth of the Christ child.

At the same time America was becoming more English, more Germans immigrated to America, making up the second largest immigrant group in colonial America. Although most settled in the mid-Atlantic region, many moved north and settled in New England towns. These newcomers brought many of the things we today associate with Christmas, such as candles in the windows, gingerbread houses and men, the work cookie, and eventually – in another one-hundred years, the Christmas tree. (The first of these was erected in 1832 in Lexington Massachusetts, so the story goes, by a Unitarian minister, a German named Charles Follen.)

So the quick answer to: how was Christmas celebrated in Colonial New England? Is that it wasn’t, and then it was.

PostHeaderIcon Boston Harbor a Teapot Tonight : December 16, 1773


735890_606152312755447_126531004_oDecember 16 two-hundred and forty years ago, that’s 1773, a gang of seamen and mechanics, Boston harbor’s working men, after listening to debates and lectures for nearly four weeks, dumped million’s of dollars worth of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor. This event was originally called ‘the destruction of the tea,’ and over the years it has come to be known as The Boston Tea Party. (Not to be confused with a former rock ‘n roll venue of the same name.)


The arguments the men, women, and children heard, involved much talk of ‘taxation without representation’, and a governor who was out of touch with the needs of the Province. He, of course, was an employee of the King, and knew it. The issue being discussed was over three ships in the harbor. By statute, they had to be moved that night, and it was Governor Hutchinson’s decision either to land the tea, that was unload it, or allow the ships to sail out of the harbor and back to London.


Most of Boston wanted the tea sent back. By itself that was contentious. Boston was the largest and busiest port west of Plymouth, England, and busy, profitable ports are not in the habit of sending ships back where they came from without an exchange of goods. But that was exactly what the citizens of Boston were clamoring for. And it wasn’t even over the tea.


Not over the tea? No, non-importation agreements had been in place for years by then. These were agreements that town meetings had voted on and signed throughout New England, promising that British made goods would not be sold, purchased or consumed. Tea had been politically and socially too hot to drink or handle for a decade, and no one protesting the tea-ships had sipped a cup for years.


What then? Thomas Hutchinson, the man who was to decide if the ships were to stay or go, had already decreed that only a few shops in Boston would sell the East India Company tea sitting in the harbor. And not surprisingly the owners of those few shops were friends and relations of Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. So when the Governor sent word that the ships should be brought in, unloaded, and the tea brought to the approved-merchants’ warehouses; no one was surprised. It was after Hutchinson’s order was given, that Samuel Adams stood at the pulpit at Boston’s Old South meetinghouse and gave the sign that sent the disguised workmen down Milk Street to the harbor to dunk the tea.


Adams said: “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!” the men responded “huzzah” and “Boston harbor a tea pot tonight”. And off they went.


People from Rhode Island and North Carolina have pointed out on Facebook and other places, that it happened at their ports too. They are correct. But it wasn’t what Bostonians did that night that started the American Revolution, it was what Parliament did in response to the tea’s destruction that started the war. It was Parliament’s efforts to punish Boston with a series of laws now referred to as the Insufferable Acts, which caused worry in the Massachusetts countryside, and in the other twelve colonies. Their worry, and their efforts to save the townsfolk of Boston, changed gangs of young rebels, into a unified nation of Patriots. Patriots, who with a common cause, organized against the government of King George III and started something amazing.