The Union Army’s false Afro-Canadians

Via my Twitter feed, I see that my host for the Past Present talk last week has an interesting article in the New York Times‘s blog on the Civil War, Disunion.  Adam Arenson, who is headed to Manhattan College later this year, has discovered a number of false Canadian volunteers for the Union Army.  After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, it was no longer sufficient merely for runaway slaves to cross into a free U.S. state, as Eliza did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in her desperate bid to cross the semi-frozen Ohio River with her little boy from Kentucky to Ohio.  The Fugitive Slave Act effectively denied that there was any such thing as a free state, so escape to Canada was the only sure means to escape the grasp of the U.S. slaveocracy.  The result, according to Arenson?  Fake Canadian volunteers!

As for those men who enlisted in St. Louis in August 1864, the man listed on the rolls as Jerry Watson explained to pension officers: “I did not tell them I was born in Canada and I was not asked where I was born.” Another, John Adams, said he had been enslaved in his home state of Kentucky, and that “I ran way from there and came to St. Louis and enlisted.” So why was he listed as a foreigner? “They had me say I was from Canada,” Adams replied. They — white substitute recruiters, paid a portion of the bounty, or perhaps even the enlistment officers themselves — seem to have coached these black men to claim foreign birth, and the advantages of a new identity for joining the Army. That could explain the strange phrase on Adams’s enlistment record: “born Canada British Prov.” — a description that doth protest too much.

With the flick of a pen, fugitive slaves could gain a connection to British North America, and lose some of the clues that would allow angry slaveholders or worried family members to track them down. Some of the African-Americans who had escaped to Canada considered the Great Lakes crossing as a new baptism, or coming under the protection of the British Lion’s paw. The experience of these soldiers as fake Canadians demonstrates how the talismanic power of Canada could extend far south of the border, to dwell in the minds of Union citizens and soldiers alike during the Civil War.

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Happy Labor Day!


After driving all over L.A. and Orange Counties yesterday to visit friends, I’m taking it easy today.  Here’s a cool Labor Day poster, especially for those of us who work for government.  Enough of the attacks on public sector employees and the small subset of us who are still unionized!  Solidarity forever.

Here’s something I heard while driving around what Southern Californians apparently call “the Southland.”  (Maybe it’s just because I’m an American historian and a professional Yankee by birth, inclination, and residence, but I’d never call anyplace I live “the Southland.”  Just sayin’.): a hilarous segment from Latino USA:  “The Worst Latino.”  Well worth a hearing for anyone who’s ever felt like an inferior member of an ethnic group, political movement, religion, or whatever.  It’s all about interest group boundaries, and how they define us and bring us together as well as potentially alienate us. Continue reading

We U.S. Americans are now beyond parody: guns, race, gender, and parenthood, ca. 2014



Jesus Mary and Joseph.

As I’m sure all of you know already, a nine-year old killed the man who was instructing her in the use of an Uzi submachine gun this week at a shooting gallery in Arizona.  The  juxtaposition of this story with a story from earlier this summer, in which a mother spent more than two weeks in jail for letting her 9-year old girl play in a park by herself while she did her shift at McDonald’s, says it all:  “In America Today, a 9-Year Old Girl Can’t Play Alone in a Park But She Can Play With an Uzi.”

Andy Borowitz satirized the current conversation about parenting and guns yesterday in “Nation Debates Extremely Complex Issue of Children Firing Military Weapons,” but then I open the L.A. Times this morning to find exactly this kind of “experts say. . . “/”others argue that. . . ” debate as to the best way to teach children to use guns in the pages of one of America’s great newspapers.  As though the use of semiautomatic weapons by children is a debatable issue!  Where were the voices of public heath experts, family practice doctors, and pediatricians?  Where were the voices of parents in Chicago, whose neighborhoods are routinely interrupted by gun violence and who fear for the safety of their children just walking to and from school? Continue reading

The Native American & Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) annual meeting needs early Americanists!

Dear Readers,

Historiann here.  Today’s post is from a comment from Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, who teaches in the Department of Transnational Studies at the University of Buffalo.  We clashed a bit around my post criticizing this year’s Omohundro Conference, as she thought that my post overlooked her panel (and it did), but in the end I believe we agreed that we’re both rowing in the same direction when it comes to diversifying early American studies.  

We emailed a bit over the following month, and she graciously agreed to permit me to publish a modified version of one of her comments on the Omohundro post to help advertise the 2015 Native American & Indigenous Studies Association conference.  Alyssa is concerned that very few early Americanists, so far, are involved in NAISA.  So if you are an early Americanist, or anyone working on Native American or Indigenous Studies, read on and consider putting together a proposal for the seventh Annual Meeting of NAISA, which will meet in Washington, D.C. on June 1-6, 2015.  Take it away, Alyssa!

It’s been a few weeks since I jumped into the fray here, and I wanted to follow up with some comments that developed out of a very productive email exchange with Historiann.

I want to make clear that I am invested in opening up lines of communication regarding scholarship among and between those working in Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) and those whose work focuses on the early Americanist period. From what I’ve seen over the past seven years since the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) was founded, there are very few early Americanists who regularly attend NAISA meetings. I’m interested in working to change that and toward that end I helped Coll Thrush organize two sessions around the theme of “Indigenizing Early Modern and Early American Studies” at the 2014 annual meeting of NAISA in Austin. The standing room-only crowds (over 100 people) that attended the linked panel and roundtable seemed to signal that there is a significant scholarly audience for this work and this discussion. Continue reading

History, Judge Lynch, and Walking While Black: thoughts on Ferguson, MO

cowgirlcoffeeStop by and sit for a spell.  Have a cup of coffee, too, while you’re at it!  (It’s fresh, or at least it was this morning.)  As you have probably guessed, I’ve crawled my way out of the wilderness and back to internet-connected civilization.  Although the entrance to The Huntington Library and Gardens is torn up now because of a major construction project, everything indoors and out is pretty much its usual quiet and studied perfection.  As commenter Susan noted in the comments on my last post, the Corpse Flower is about to bloom here, so we’re all on the edge of our seats.  (Follow the progress on Twitter, #CorpseFlower).

I’ll surely be reporting more from my new sabbatical year location, but I’m actually getting lots of writing done this week (!) so I don’t want to let the blog suck too much of my mojo right now.  I’m enjoying the offline company of my fellow nuns and monks here.  It’s a refreshingly cloistered environment, in which people still cultivate the attention spans required for long study and deep reflection rather than the instincts of the blogosphere or Twitterverse.

The Huntington is also culturally and environmentally about 15,000 miles away from Ferguson, Missouri.  Working and strolling through this privileged environment, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the incredible liberties I have even amidst the many botanical, art, manuscript, and bibliographic treasures.  All it takes is a “reader’s card” on a lanyard around my neck, and I have nearly the run of the place.  And who am I?  I haven’t paid a dime for the pleasure–in fact, I’m a huge welfare queen!  I’m getting paid to be here!  What a tragically different experience Mike Brown had of his own neighborhood. Continue reading

Call the whaaaaaaaaaambulance!

OMFG.  This is a completely incoherent critique of Orange is the New Black because–get this!–the show which is about a women’s prison doesn’t portray male prisoners realistically or accurate to their numbers in U.S. prisons.  See if you can make more sense of it than I can.

Hey, Concern Troll:  where was your column about the mis- or under- or stereotypical representations of women on just about every other television program or movie ever made?  Did you have this concern about Oz, or Silicon Valley, or The Bachelor?  I guess I missed that.  All I can see is that you’re complaining that you can’t see a man like you on the one semi-high profile program on TV that features women’s stories (and not just white women’s stories!) Continue reading

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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