Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Museum acquires USCT battle flag for $196,800

Friday, June 14th, 2019

The battle flag of the 127th Regiment United States Colored Troops sold at auction yesterday for $160,000 hammer price, just above the low end of its pre-sale estimate. The total cost including buyer’s premium is $196,800. The winning bid was made by the Atlanta History Center, home of the newly restored Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama (which is up and running as of February, btw). This is the most the AHC has ever paid for a single object.

The Atlanta History Center is one of the largest museums in the country in terms of square footage, a 33-acre campus that features thousands of artifacts in the museum’s permanent collection, extensive gardens, the historic Swan House, Smith Family Farm and the Wood Family log cabin. Objects associated with the United States Colored Troops are extremely rare, and the museum has very few of them.

Objects specifically identified with soldiers or regiments of the United States Colored Troops are extraordinarily scarce.  Atlanta History Center Military Historian and Curator Gordon Jones called this flag the definition of rare. “It’s an iconic knock-your-socks-off artifact,” Jones said. “Even an enlisted man’s USCT uniform wouldn’t be as historically significant as this flag.”

Black soldiers in the U.S. Army were issued the same uniforms and equipment as white soldiers, making collecting to interpret the USCT story a significant challenge. “So unless a soldier put his name on a piece of gear or it came down through the family, we will never know who used it,” Jones noted. […]

Among at least 11,000 Civil War objects in the Center’s collections are a dozen objects identified specifically with African American soldiers or regiments. These include a brass drum belonging to a drummer boy of the all-black 55th Massachusetts Regiment, a knapsack used at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, by a soldier in the 8th USCT, and a recently acquired canteen bearing the stenciled mark of the 15th U.S.C.T., which guarded railroad lines in Tennessee during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

The acquisition of the battle flag dovetails neatly into the Center’s long-term strategical goal of making the museum an inclusive representation of city’s demographics with a focus on attracting new members and visitors among non-white people under 50 years old who live inside the perimeter of metro Atlanta.


Unique 1864 Black regiment flag for sale

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

A one-of-a-kind Civil War flag from Pennsylvania’s 127th United States Colored Infantry Regiment is going up for auction this week.

Its imagery is remarkable, depicting a Black troop waving goodbye to Columbia, the Goddess of Liberty, beneath a banner that reads: “WE WILL PROVE OURSELVES MEN.” Below the cartouche is a banner that says: “127th REGt. U.S. COLORED TROOPS.”

The flag was designed and hand-painted by Philadelphia portraitist David Bustill Bowser. He was the son of a fugitive slave father and grandson on his mother’s side of prominent Philadelphia baker, brewer and civic leader Cyrus Bustill, a former slave owned by his own Quaker father. Cyrus Bustill was able to buy his freedom before the Revolutionary War. Like many members of his extended family, David Bowser was politically active in his community. His home was a stop on the Underground Railroad and he made portraits of important abolitionist figures, most famously John Brown a year before the Harper’s Ferry raid. He also designed flags, banners and regalia for political parties, civil rights organizations, fraternal groups and fire companies.

[Entirely random historical flagmaker connection:

David Bowser’s father Jeremiah was a member of the Society of Friends. He had escaped slavery and become a successful businessman in Philadelphia as owner of a popular oyster house and beer seller. His former owners had him arrested in Philadelphia and Friends raised funds to buy his freedom. When his son was born, he named him David after David Newport, one of the Friends who had worked indefatigably to secure Jeremiah’s freedom. David Newport’s grandson, also named David, who had known Jeremiah and David Bowser from early childhood, married Susan Satterthwaite, granddaughter of Betsy Ross.]

As soon as Congress passed the act allowing African Americans to serve in the military, Bowser actively worked to recruit black soldiers. That was July of 1862, but President Lincoln didn’t allow any black troops to serve in combat until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1st, 1863, and then it took another six months before the War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops to recruit and deploy black units in an organized fashion. Racism was deeply ingrained in the process. Commissioned officers all had to be white; black soldiers were paid laborers’ wages; their families were rarely granted the financial support white soldiers’ dependents received.

In June of 1863, the Union Army issued an appeal for black soldiers to enlist: “The Government of the United States calls for every able-bodied African-American man to enter the army for three years’ service, and join in fighting the battles of Liberty and the Union.” A week after that proclamation, Camp William Penn, the first federally operated recruitment and training center for black troops, was established on property outside Philadelphia owned by prominent Quaker abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lucretia Mott.

A month later, a Meeting for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments was held in Philadelphia where speakers including Frederick Douglass promoted black men enlisting in the Union Army. Douglass’ clear-eyed, thoughtful explanation of why African Americans should fight for a government and army that had shown such active contempt for them was extremely well-received and recruitment took off in a big way.

Almost 11,000 volunteers made their way to Camp William Penn. Eleven of the new United States Colored Infantry regiments mustered there and the camp’s Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments commissioned Bowser to create their regimental battle flags. Somebody, there are no surviving records indicating who, lodged an objection. All we know about this event is from a letter written by John Weil Forney, an influential Philadelphia politician, to Thomas Webster, chairman of the committee, on March 29th, 1864. Forney wrote:

“While in Philadelphia two days ago, I learned that an effort was being made to deprive Mr. D. B. Bowser of the work of painting the flags of the colored regiments, and I would have called upon you to make an appeal on his behalf had not the weather been so bad. He came to see me, but I was much too occupied to give him a hearing, and he writes me this morning, begging me to intercede with you — which I most earnestly and cheerfully do. He is a poor man, and certainly professes very remarkable talent. He has been active in the cause and is himself a colored man, and it seems to me there would be peculiar hardship in taking away this little job from him and giving it to a wealthy house. Will you do your best for him, and greatly oblige.”

That did the trick. Bowser kept the commission and created one flag for each of the 11 Camp William Penn regiments. The image of Columbia, the personification of the United States as symbol of liberty and justice, accompanied by a black soldier was a recurring motif on Bowser’s flags, perhaps a deliberate needling of Confederate troops who, symbolism aside, would surely have been triggered by the images of a white woman being defended/touched/closely accompanied by a black man. Other low-key burns include the 45th regiment’s flag featured a black soldier waving a US flag in front of a bust of George Washington under the slogan “One Cause, One Country,” and the flag of the 22nd regiment which showed a black soldier bayoneting a Confederate soldier under the banner “Sic semper tyrannis,” (thus always to tyrants), the motto of Virginia and the phrase yelled by John Wilkes Booth on the stage of Ford’s Theater after he shot Abraham Lincoln in the head.

Of the 11 flags Bowser created, only the 127th regiment’s is known to survive today. Seven of them are known from photographic prints. Because United States Colored Troops flags were not issued by state and/or federal government as every other unit’s was, when the Mustering Office closed in June of 1866, the physical flags were returned to the USCT. They were stored in Washington, D.C., until 1906 when they were moved to the museum of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Never exhibited, they were taken out of storage and destroyed in 1942.

The 127th flag is believed to have been given to David Bustill Bowser after the war by Camp William Penn’s commander Louis Wagner. Bowser gave it to Post 2 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a fraternal organization of Union veterans, which eventually became the GAR Civil War Museum and Library. The museum did some work restoring the flag. They are now putting it up for sale via Morphy Auctions, which has done further restoration work to stabilize and preserve this precious and unique survivor. It will go under the hammer on June 13th with a pre-sale estimate of $150,000-$250,000.


Conserving the bibliographic patrimony of the Americas

Monday, June 10th, 2019

The Fray Ignacio de Quezada library in the San Augustin Monastery in Quito, Ecuador, is the only library in the Americas housed in its original late 16th century building. It contains 33,500 rare books, manuscripts and incunabula ranging in date from the 15th century through the 20th covering the sciences, literature, music and religion.

There are 26 extremely rare incunabula — publications created between 1450 and 1500, the first decades after the invention of the printing press in Europe — in the collection. This is the largest number of incunabula in Ecuador, which is one of the reasons the San Augustin library is the most important center of bibliographic heritage in the country.

The oldest book in the collection is an incunabula published in Venice in 1482. Another jewel in the incunabula collection is even more important because of a handwritten inscription that says it belonged to Fray Pedro Bedón (1551-1621), a renown muralist and one of the first artists of the Quiteña School of colonial art.

It also contains other books of immense historical significance, including the polyglot Bible of Paris (1645), a seven-volume Pentateuch written in the oldest known variants of Hebrew, Greek, Samaritan Aramaic, Syriac Aramaic, Targum Aramaic, Latin and Arabic. That’s not the only polyglot Bible in the library. There’s one published in England which features two additional languages: Persian and Ethiopian.

The monastery of San Augustin was damaged in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Ecuador in April 2016. While the epicenter was 110 miles from Quito, some structures collapsed in the quake and there were widespread power failures.

The monastery was already in need of repairs before the earthquake, so it and the literary treasures it guards were highly vulnerable. The ceilings, walls and shelving of the archives were damaged. Leaking water and skyrocketing humidity levels put the books at great risk of destruction, and one strong aftershock could well have caused catastrophic loss. Attempts to restore the roof after the quake put the volumes at even more risk as dirt and debris fell into the monastery interior.

In 2017, the Fundacion Conservartecuador (FC), an NGO dedicated to the conservation of Ecuador’s cultural heritage, requested the aid of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development’s Cultural Emergency Response (CER) program. With their financial support, FC was able to triage the collection. They selected the works in most urgent need of attention based on their importance, condition, age, content, author, printer and connection to the culture of the Americas and removed them to a workshop where they were documented, photographed and their immediate conservation needs assessed.

The first step in the ongoing conservation of the books was cleaning them, removing the accumulated dust of centuries and the recent additions in the aftermath of the earthquake. The books were placed in a plastic chamber connected to a filter hoses that gently absorbs particle matter. Working with their hands inside the chamber, conservators used soft, small brushes to carefully clean remaining dust from the pages. That step alone adds decades of life to the books.

Thornier issues can then be addressed. Some books have fungi contamination. Some, like 17th century choral books written on vellum and decorated with gold leaf, are highly susceptible to changes in temperature and must have specialized treatment to stabilize their supports. It’s an extremely expensive proposition. Restoring a single choral book, for example, costs around $30,000.

The project has generated unexpected benefits beyond the preservation of these priceless documents. The library’s contents were little known. Having to go through every single holding page by page gave researchers far more insight into and detailed knowledge of the vast resource. They discovered how much historic information was at their fingertips, and the publicity generated by the conservation has drawn international attention to largely forgotten writings documenting the colonization of Ecuador and the cultural practices of indigenous peoples before the Spanish conquest.

The publicity also gave the library access to more funding for the long-term management of the its assets, and has become a model for cultural heritage preservation in the country. Universities, museums, government entities and even the military, have all sent personnel to the Monastery to be trained in the latest methods and technologies in the conservation of documentary heritage.


Shipwreck found by accident in Gulf of Mexico

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

The wreck of a wooden ship from the mid-19th century has been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico entirely by accident. The crew of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Okeanos Explorer wasn’t looking for shipwrecks on the May 16th dive. They were testing Deep Discoverer, a new remotely operated vehicle, and it more than lived up to its name when its sonar detected something shaped like a shipwreck. That something was a shipwreck.

Unprepared for an impromptu archaeological survey, researchers called and emailed marine archaeologists to follow Deep Discoverer‘s exploration remotely via live stream video. The dive was extended an additional three hours to give the archaeologists an opportunity to get a more thorough look at the site.

Those who joined the live stream suspect that the wreck is that of a sailing vessel built sometime in the mid-19th century, perhaps a schooner or brig, measuring roughly 37.8 meters (124 feet) long. The vessel is wooden with copper sheathing covering the bottom of its hull. Experts were able to infer the time period of the vessel’s origination based on a number of construction features, including the form of the stem and bow, the body of the hull, and the remains of the windlass. However, this information does not indicate the age of the vessel at the time it was lost, which could have been decades later. Initial observations also noted copper and iron artifacts at the site, but no diagnostic artifacts reflecting the vessel’s rig, trade, nationality, or crew were identified during the dive.

The hull remains are more or less intact up to the water line, with its timber protected by the sheathing. Some of the sheathing has deteriorated and fallen off the hull, leaving only the edges of each copper plate where they were tacked or nailed to the hull. However, all structure above the waterline is missing, and during the initial observations of the dive, there did not appear to be many traces of the standing rigging. Furthermore, a number of timbers appeared charred and some of the fasteners were bent, which may be an indication of burning. While the evidence is still being assessed, it is possible that this sailing vessel caught fire and was nearly completely consumed before sinking. This may explain the lack of artifacts from the rigging, decks, and upper works, as well as the lack of personal possessions.

The surviving section of the rudder has copper numbers “2109” nailed to it as are the remains of the copper sheathing. Where the copper sheathing remains attached to the hull it is still doing the job it was intended to do: keeping marine life from setting up shop on the wood. The barnacles and shipworm that have attached themselves to the rest of the ship avoid the copper areas.

The ROV has recorded extensive high-definition video of the wreck. It will be used to create a photomosaic of the site in extremely high resolution that will allow experts around the world to examine the wreck in much greater detail. This is the low-res version, believe it or not:

A low-resolution photomosiac of the wreck site, produced by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Marine Archaeologist Scott Sorset using the ROV video. Image courtesy of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

And here’s some of the footage of the wreck taken by Deep Discoverer:

Video courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

Massive panorama restored in public

Monday, May 27th, 2019

Saint Louis Art Museum conservators are restoring Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley in public view for museum visitors. The massive scroll of painted fabric is being unrolled sections at a time in the southwest corner of Sculpture Hall so that conservators can repair it while museum visitors look on and ask questions.

It is 7.5 feet high and 348 feet long, an example of the hugely fashionable trend for massive panoramas that were installed in custom-built rotundas or played in temporary venues. Painted in vivid colors and displayed with spotlights and live music, the panorama would scroll through 25 distinct scenes before a viewing audience. An advertisement for one of these shows in Pennsylvania in 1851 announces in a bewildering proliferation of fonts that erudite lectures on the “ANQUITIES & CUSTOMS OF THE UNHISTORIED INDIAN TRIBES” will accompany the unfurling of the panorama “with all the aboriginal monuments of a large extent of the Country” covering more than 15,000 feet of canvas.  It was so huge and so difficult to roll that the morning show would feature the trip down the Mississippi, and then afternoon would just run it backwards, narrating a trip up the river.

What is truly extraordinary about this piece is how thoroughly it covers archaeological discoveries, depicting the excavation of ancient mounds and dinosaur fossils. It shows the digging being done by black slaves, under the command of two white men, an accurate capture of how these mounds were sectioned in the mid-19th century. Other Native American archaeological sites dot the vast Mississippi Valley landscape.

The reason for this unusually specific viewpoint for a panorama is that the work was commissioned by physician and natural scientist Montroville Wilson Dickeson who, by his own account excavated more than 1,000 mounds from which he recovered more than 40,000 artifacts. His field drawings became the basis of the archaeology scenes in the panorama. Dickeson hired artist John J. Egan to create a compelling backdrop for his lectures whose exhibition would help fund further excavations.

Five panoramas of the Mississippi were made in the 1840s. Their great size and detailed depictions of the “Father of Waters” made them a hit with audiences, perhaps too much of a hit as none of them have survived. Egan’s later work is the only one of the trend to be extant. It too is endangered by its years of hard work. It was painted in distemper on cotton muslin and over time all the dismounting, mounting, scrolling and traveling damaged the textile and the paint.

When the museum acquired it in 1953, it was in bad condition. An ambitious program of restoration began in 2011. The old wooden rollers were replaced by metal drums and a motorized rolling system. Paint loss and damage to the muslin has been repaired on individual panels. Now the end of the long voyage down the Mississippi River is in sight, with only three remaining panels in the process of treatment.

Conservators will complete the extensive, nine-year project by treating and preserving the final three damaged scenes.  During this process, Museum visitors have the unique opportunity to observe and interact with the conservation team while they work. In addition, Museum docents, curators, and conservators will provide additional insights to visitors on scheduled weekdays in Sculpture Hall.


“Forgotten Winchester” gets permanent display

Sunday, May 26th, 2019

Great Basin National Park has a new permanent exhibition dedicated to the “Forgotten Winchester,” the historic firearm found leaning against a Juniper tree by park archaeologist Eva Jensen in November of 2014. The Winchester Model 1873 Lever Action Rifle, already iconic as “the gun that won the West,” became a viral hit for its weather-beaten appearance and casual pose as if it were just hanging out for a minute waiting for its owner to return.

The park sent it to the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming where experts examined it. They were able to find its serial number in their extensive archive of Winchester records and identified it as having been made in February 1882.

Before beginning the conservation process, the Cody team needed to ascertain that the gun wasn’t loaded. First they employed the wooden dowel test: inserting a wooden dowel to measure the length of the barrel to the breach. The dowel encountered some kind of blockage, so curators took the rifle to the local hospital for an X-ray to find out what was inside.

There was no bullet inside the barrel. The blockage didn’t show up on the X-ray, so curators suspect it was compacted organic material. The X-ray did find there was a live cartridge inside the buttstock. The Winchester had a trapdoor and a little storage tunnel in the buttstock that was usually used to keep cleaning supplies. Experts were able to open the trapdoor and remove the cartridge. They found it was a .44-40 Winchester Center Fire round made between from 1887 and 1911 by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.

The rifle was carefully disassembled so it could be conserved in the same awesomely weathered condition in which it was found. Corrosion was removed from the metal parts and the flaking wood bound with adhesive to keep it from further loss. The rifle was then put on public display briefly at the Cody Museum, at various gun shows and at Great Basin National Park’s Lehman Caves Visitor Center.

The new permanent Forgotten Winchester exhibition puts the rifle in a display case that positions it as it was when it was found with a life-sized image of the tree as the backdrop. The live round found in the buttstock is also on display.

The exhibit also highlights the role the Model 1873 — one of the most popular guns on the Western frontier — played in the history of the West.

“The exhibit is a showcase for visitors to discover the rifle’s mysterious story and become inspired to imagine, investigate and care about a piece of their American history,” said Nichole Andler, the park’s chief of interpretation. […]

“It has been a fun and inspiring project to work on with our park staff and our partners to complete this exhibit and give the Forgotten Winchester a permanent home,” Andler said.

The Juniper tree that was its home for so long alas is no longer with us. Just two years after the rifle was found, a wildfire burned the hillside above Strawberry Creek where the Forgotten Winchester had resided. Its comfy leaning tree was devastated in the conflagration. All that is left of it is a black stick. Had Eva Jensen’s keen powers of observation not spotted the rifle — which had weather to such a consistently grey color that it looked practically indistinguishable from the tree — than it would have burned to nothingness and nobody alive would have known it ever existed.


Sword from 17th c. Dutch shipwreck found in stone

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

A treasure hunter has discovered the remnants of a sword from a 335-year-old Dutch shipwreck off the coast of Cornwall. Robert Felce found the remains of the sword encased in thick concretion on the beach at Dollar Cove in Gunwalloe. Gunwalloe got its name from local legends of a Portuguese treasure ship sinking there in 1526 and a ship full of silver dollars sinking there 250 years later, but the rumored abundance of coin has never been found, nor has any other trace of the two fabled vessels.

Felce has found shipwreck artifacts at Dollar Cove before: three 17th century hand grenades. No treasure in the monetary sense of the word, but interesting from an archaeological perspective. Like the grenades, his latest find also looked like a rock from the outside, the result of centuries of built-up sand, stone, shell and assorted marine debris hardening around the object. He found it in a gulley at low tide. It was broken in three pieces and looked very little like anybody’s idea of a sword.

Robert Felce:

“Because the shape of the concretion was rounded it looks like it has rolled into the site and then broken up on the protruding bedrock with the action of the waves. This may have been a relatively short time before being luckily spotted in a sandy gulley.

“As you would expect with such an item, likely to be from the Schiedam shipwreck in 1684, age and the action of the sea has taken its toll. Most of the blade is either corroded or missing.

“However there is enough of the original iron blade to indicate the shape of the blade in cross sectional profile near to the hilt. The width of the blade is approximately five centimetres, or two inches.

“The whole length of the blade could have been perhaps more than 60 centimetres or two feet long and would probably have been kept in good condition by its original owner who could have been either a sailor, a soldier or even a North African pirate.

“Looking at the void in the concretion and remaining ferrous corrosion, it looks indeed like the profile and length of a piece of forged blade, likely a sword or sabre as opposed to a knife, dagger or bayonet-type blade.

Originally a Dutch merchant vessel, the Schiedam became the rope in a maritime tug of war. First it was captured by Barbary pirates off the coast of Gibraltar in August of 1683. Then the Royal Navy captured it from the pirates and repurposed it as a transport vessel for the English colony at Tangiers. It was a bad time to get assigned to British Tangiers. Moroccan forces had been assaulting the city non-stop for three years and the cost of constantly having to send reinforcements and rebuild or strengthen defenses was increasingly prohibitive to the strapped King Charles II.

In 1683, Charles gave up on the colony. He gave secret orders to evacuate the city and destroy it on the way out the gate. Tangier’s civilian population was only 700 people; the garrison had almost 3,000 men. From October 1683 until February 1684, Admiral Lord Dartmouth (assisted by administrator and famed diarist Samuel Pepys) systematically razed the city, its defenses, ports and harbor wall. The last of the English forces evacuated on February 5th, 1684. Moroccan forces took control of the demolished city on February 7th.

The Schiedam, loaded with heavy armaments, civilians and soldiers, was part of the Tangiers evacuation fleet. It was caught in a gale off the coast of Cornwall in April of 1684 and sank. Some of its larger armaments were salvaged at the time.  It was soon forgotten — an armed transport ship doesn’t make for good gossip like a treasure ship does — until shifting sands briefly exposed the wreck on the seabed. The sands quickly covered it back up.

The brief exposure, documented by diver Anthony Randall, was enough to get it designated a protected wreck after the passage of the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973. As such, it cannot be interfered with. Artifacts do wash up on the beach from time to time, which is where Robert Felce finds them. The sword has been registered, as required by law, with the Receiver of Wrecks (which is as excellent a title as it is a job).


Stolen Alexander Hamilton letter found 80 years later

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

A letter by Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de LaFayette that was stolen eight decades ago has been found. It was stolen from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Archives by clerk Harold E. Perry between 1937 and 1945. After he was caught, he claimed to have stolen the documents as a “collector,” but he just so happened to have made quite a career from trafficking in looted history. He also stole original papers of George Washington’s, Benjamin Franklin’s, Paul Revere’s and, fittingly, Benedict Arnold’s. The thefts weren’t found out for years.

The Archive was left with documentary evidence that it had once owned the letter — a notation on a 19th century index list and on a name and subject index — and a photostat copy done in the 1920s. (Actually, they only had a photostat of the 19th century index list, because the traitor had stolen the index too while he was looting the archive.)

Perry was arrested in 1950, but by then he’d sold documents to dealers all over the country. He removed Archive reference numbers to obscure their origins. The Massachusetts Attorney General sent letters to all the major dealers alerting them to thefts and seeking the return of any stolen materials. Some of them were recovered. The Hamilton letter was not.

It was rediscovered when the document was consigned for sale to an auction house in Alexandria, Virginia by a South Carolina family in November 2018. The letter was valued at $25,000-35,000, but it never went under the hammer because a researcher at the auction house discovered the letter was missing from the Massachusetts Archives. They alerted the MA which provided documentation of the theft and then the auction house called the FBI.

The would-be consigners had no idea they had attempted to fence stolen goods. They inherited it from a relative who collected documents. From what they know, he bought it in the 1940s from a rare book dealer in Syracuse, New York, named Elmer Heise.

The FBI in Boston is currently in possession of the letter. US Attorney Andrew Lelling has filed a civil forfeiture complaint, a legally necessary step in the process of returning the letter to the Archives. Once that goes through the court, the Hamilton letter will be back at the Massachusetts Archives.

Dated July 21, 1780, the letter was written at George Washington’s Preakness Valley Headquarters in New Jersey. Its recipient was in Danbury, Connecticut at the time.

My Dear Marquis
We have just received advice from New York through different channels that the enemy are making an embarkation with which they menace the French fleet and army. Fifty transports are said to have gone up the Sound to take in troops and proceed directly to Rhode Island.

The General is absent and may not return before evening. Though this may be only a demonstration yet as it may be serious, I think it best to forward it without waiting the Generals return.

We have different accounts from New York of an action in the West Indies in which the English lost several ships. I am inclined to credit them.

I am My Dear Marquis with the truest affection

Yr. Most Obedt

A Hamilton  Aide De Camp


19th c. barracks unearthed in Ottawa

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

An excavation of Ottawa’s Parliament Hill in advance of redevelopment has unearthed the remains of military barracks predating the founding of city. What would become Ottawa was known as Bytown then, named after Lieutenant Colonel John By, a British military engineer charged with building the Rideau Canal to link Montreal via the Ottawa River to the Saint Lawrence at Kingston, Ontario.

The mission had a military purpose. In the wake of the War of 1812, Canada feared the United States would persist in its attempts at invasion. Having a secure supply route connecting Montreal to the British naval base in Kingston instead of having to rely on the Saint Lawrence, with its treacherous rapids and section bordering New York, would provide an important tactical advantage.

Work began in 1826. It was not an easy job. The canal had to be dug out of the earth over a distance of 202 kilometers (125.5 miles). Much of the heavy work was done by contractors who employed Irish and French-Canadian labourers, but the Royal Sappers and Miners Regiment were deployed to work on the canal under By’s command. Those 150 soldiers and their wives and children had to be quartered in Bytown.

On the north side of the future Parliament Hill, three barracks, a guardhouse, stables and kitchens were built, as was Ottawa’s first jailhouse (a very petite one with just three cells). Also latrines, which of course make archaeologists rub their dirty hands together with glee.

The items uncovered so far include a range of military items: chin straps, tags, gorgets  — which officers often wore to hold their neckties in place — and other domestic items, like coins. […]

But there might be more left to uncover, in a somewhat unusual spot: the privies.

“It’s an excellent place to dispose of things,” said [excavation project manager Stephen] Jarrett. […]

With no modern-day plumbing, it doesn’t take much to imagine the odour.

“You need to keep the smell down from the human waste, and so you put fill layers on top in order to keep the smell down,” Jarrett said.

“So that comes with all the broken dishes and anything else that can help keep that smell down.”

The canal was completed in 1832. It was a remarkable feat of engineering but it never was used for military purposes. By the time it was done, the prospect of a US invasion was no longer a concern. The barracks remained on the hill for another 25 years. Ottawa was founded in 1855. In 1858 it was declared the capital of the newly-established United Province of Canada. The old Bytown barracks were demolished to make way for the parliament buildings of the new capital.

The excavation will continue until the fall. All recovered artifacts will be cleaned and conserved by Public Services and Procurement Canada experts. Once they are stabilized, the objects will be placed on public display


French & Indian War battle drawing found inside wall of 17th c. home

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Restorers have discovered a battle scene believed to be from the French and Indian War drawn on the wall of a 17th-century home in East Hartford, Connecticut. A crew from the Glastonbury Restoration Company, a firm that specializes in restoring historic structures, was removing old plaster to reach the original wooden frame of the house when he uncovered a much older plaster wall covered with a mural five feet wide drawn in primitive style.

It’s a rudimentary drawing that is nonetheless incredibly active and detailed. In different colors of charcoal and chalk, it depicts a complex battle scene with soldiers in different colored uniforms, complete with winter coats and hats, cannon being moved on carts, Native Americans wielding bows and arrows and dead bodies with arrows protruding from them. There’s even a mysterious red tree-like creature in the middle of the scene who appears to have some human facial features and is waving his thick branchy “hair” in the wind. Where was the Whomping Willow in the 1700s? (I demand a cut of any prequel JK Rowling writes based on this idea.)

Glastonbury Restoration Company owner Steve Bielitz has found plenty of graffiti in the many houses he’s worked on over the years, but nothing even remotely like this. He showed the work to art experts in Connecticut and other states, among them University of Delaware architectural historian Michael Emmons Jr. who described it as an extremely rare 18th century “architectural sketch”

Emmons said he has documented thousands of graffiti and wall markings across the country. He said a vast majority were created by young males — ages 10 to 30 — but mostly by teenagers. He said although the drawing looks like it may have been created by a child, that’s not the case.

“Rudimentary drawings and less literate writings often reveal younger people’s handiwork, but admittedly, these things can also be misinterpreted because it “looks” like it’s done by a young person, when in reality it was done by someone who just couldn’t write or draw well,” he said.

Emmons said he believes the drawing could have been made by a family member after being told the story of the battle. […]

“My gut sense here is that these images were created by a younger person, rather than even a young soldier who has fought in a war. This does not preclude the possibility of these images being drawn by someone who actually participated in a war, which is definitely possible, but my instinct is that this is a younger person drawing a scene they’ve read about or heard about, or maybe even recreating an event that a family member experienced,” he said.

There certainly would have been a myriad opportunities for that kind of transmission. The home is the oldest surviving house in East Hartford, dating to the Colonial era around 1693. Its first owner was Jonathan Hills, the youngest son of William Hills who was one of the founders of Hartford. William Hills had emigrated to what was then the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1632, and moved to Hartford four years later. He accrued significant property in a very short time, including more than 500 acres in land in an area of Hartford called Hockanum on the east bank of the Connecticut River. Hockanum would become East Hartford in 1783.

William Hills was a captain in the Hartford militia. His son William, Jr., died in King Philip’s war in 1675, shot by an Indian arrow. The family’s military tradition continued for generations. Jonathan was a lieutenant in the colonial regiments, as was his son David Ensign Hills and his son David. The latter is known to have to fought in the French and Indian War (1754–1763).

The artwork was made on the wall in situ, perhaps by a family member to entertain and educate the children. We know a renovation after 1850 covered the wall with another plaster wall because some of the figures in the mural were found behind a stud. The date hasn’t been able to be narrowed down any further than that yet. The drawing will be studied further by Michael Emmons at the University of Delaware. It will be analyzed with infrared photography and reflectance transformation imaging which may reveal details invisible the naked eye.

As for its final disposition, that is up in the air at the moment. The house is still owned by descendants of the Hills family. They have are having it dismantled piece by piece and moved to South Carolina. They own the mural, of course, as it is literally a piece of their house. They might put it back on the wall where it was discovered.





June 2019
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