Like Bowe Bergdahl, many 18th century captives didn’t go home again

librarywithcaptivesPer my comparison of recently freed Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl to Anglo-American captives of the eighteenth century, the Wall Street Journal reports that so far, “Sgt. Bergdahl has refused to see his parents or speak to them on the phone, the official said. The decision by Sgt. Bergdahl, who returned to regular duty on Monday, suggests a deeper estrangement between the soldier and his parents than the military understood when he was released. Still, officials said, they don’t know the precise cause of the tension or when it began.”

Slate comments that “the news that Bergdahl has refused to speak to his parents is an unexpected plot twist in a story already full of hairpin turns.”  Actually, no.  The eighteenth-century evidence suggests that Anglo-Americans who were adolescents or young adults and who were adopted by new Native or French families frequently chose to remain with their new families rather than return home again.  (I wrote about these captives, especially the girls and women who didn’t return, in chapter four of Abraham in Arms.)

Many captives became very attached to their new families and caregivers.  In the case I cited last month in my analysis, Sylvanus Johnson–a child captive from age six to eleven–forgot how to speak English, forgot his own parents, and for the rest of his life allegedly “so much preferred the modes of Indian life to the prevalent customs of civilization, that he often expressed regret at having been ransomed.  He always maintained, and no arguments could convince him to the contrary, that the Indians were a far more moral race than the whites.” Continue reading

An elementary explanation for how ed tech widens, rather than narrows, the achievement gap

Are the Lords of MOOC Creation listening?  I doubt it, but let’s review this article at Slate by Annie Murphy Paul anyway:

Why would improved access to the Internet harm the academic performance of poor students in particular? Vigdor and his colleagues speculate that “this may occur because student computer use is more effectively monitored and channeled toward productive ends in more affluent homes.” This is, in fact, exactly the dynamic Susan Neuman and Donna Celano saw playing out in the libraries they monitored. At the [affluent neighborhood] Chestnut Hill library, they found, young visitors to the computer area were almost always accompanied by a parent or grandparent. Adults positioned themselves close to the children and close to the screen, offering a stream of questions and suggestions. Kids were steered away from games and toward educational programs emphasizing letters, numbers, and shapes. When the children became confused or frustrated, the grown-ups guided them to a solution.

The [impoverished neighborhood] Badlands library boasted computers and software identical to Chestnut Hill’s, but here, children manipulated the computers on their own, while accompanying adults watched silently or remained in other areas of the library altogether. Lacking the “scaffolding” provided by the Chestnut Hill parents, the Badlands kids clicked around frenetically, rarely staying with one program for long. Older children figured out how to use the programs as games; younger children became discouraged and banged on the keyboard or wandered away.

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Returning POWs, eighteenth-century style

The recent redemption of captive Bowe Bergdahl has interested me–not the political pissing match, which seems as drearily predictable as the plot of a Harlequin Romance.  The details coming out about his experiences as a prisoner of war are what I want to know more about.  The news that he has trouble speaking English now is especially fascinating to me.  It called to my mind this passage from A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. [Susanna] Johnson, Containing an Account of her Four Years of Suffering with the Indians and French.  First published in 1796, it told of her family’s experiences from 1754-58 as prisoners during the Seven Years War after they were captured in a raid on Fort Number Four in what’s now Charlestown, New Hampshire.  Johnson relates this about the return of her son Sylvanus, whom she last saw at age six or seven.  He was eleven before she saw him again:

In the October following [1758], I had the happiness to embrace my son Sylvanus; he had been above three years with the Indians, followed them in all their hunting excursions and learnt too many of their habits; to civilize him, and learn him his native language was a severe task, (136).

Little Sylvanus Johnson has been on my mind recently, because I wrote an essay last summer about child war captives in early America, and I focused on his experiences in one portion of the essay.  In successive editions of her narrative, Susanna Johnson either gives us more details about Sylvanus’s condition, or she embroiders the story.  From the 1814 third edition published after her death in 1810:

In October, 1758, I was informed that my son Sylvanus was at Northampton [Massachusetts], sick of a scald.*  I hastened to the place, and found him in a deplorable situation; he was brought there by Major Putnam, afterwards Gen. Putnam, with Mrs. How and her family, who had returned from captivity.**  The town of Northampton had taken the charge of him; his situation was miserable; when I found him, he had no recollection of me, but, after some conversation, he had some confused ideas of me, but no remembrance of his father.  It was four years since I had seen him; he was then eleven years old.  During his absence, he had entirely forgotten the English language, spoke a little broken French, but was perfect in Indian.  He had been with the savages three years, and one year with the French.  But his habits were somewhat Indian; he had been with them in their hunting excursions, and suffered numerous hardships; he could brandish a tomahawk or bend the bow; but these habits wore off by degrees, (130).

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“Maternal Solicitude,” or, how to avoid both infanticide and suicide!

babydos&dontsFrom the very first paragraph of Mary Watkins’s Maternal Solicitude, or Lady’s Manual (New York, 1809), h/t to my graduate student, Clarissa:

WHEN a mother does not nurse her own infant, she, in many instances, does violence to nature; a custom unknown among the most polished in the purest ages of Greece and Rome.  The sudden check given to this great natural evacuation of milk, at a time when her weakly state renders her unable to sustain so great a shock, is often of the worst consequences to herself; and the loss to the child is much greater than in commonly apprehended.  A woman in this case, runs the imminent risk of her life from a milk-fever; besides the danger of swellings and imposthumes of the breast, and such obstruction in them as lay a foundation of a future cancer, (7).

Yes, a 205-year old breastfeeding manual on the first page threatens the reader with both the loss of her child and CANCER!  But let’s not get too smug today.  Maternal Solicitude is almost as subtle as modern pro-breastfeeding propaganda. Continue reading

Josephine Baker’s postwar/Cold War “rainbow tribe”

The book that kept Matthew Pratt Guterl indoors all last summer was published last month by Harvard University’s Belknap Press.  Rebecca Onion gives it a nice rundown here at Slate:

Baker was born in St. Louis but moved to France in 1925. Her danse sauvage, famously performed in a banana skirt, brought her international fame. During World War II, she worked for the Red Cross and gathered intelligence for the French Resistance. After the war, married to her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, she struggled to conceive a child. Meanwhile, her career waned. Guterl’s book is about this period of Baker’s life, as she built her large adopted family, became ever more active on behalf of the nascent civil rights movement in the United States, and re-emerged into fame.

Baker purchased her estate, known as Les Milandes, after marrying Bouillon in 1947. In addition to the chateau, the property boasted a motel, a bakery, cafés, a jazz club, a miniature golf course, and a wax museum telling the story of Baker’s life. As Guterl makes clear, the place was over-the-top, but its ostentation was a political statement. Les Milandes, with its fairy-tale setting, announced to the world that African-American girls born poor could transcend nation and race and find wealth and happiness.

Guterl makes it sound like Baker’s family was kind of a multicultural Trapp Family Singers or a Partridge Family, crossed with the Dionne QuintupletsContinue reading