Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


The Digital Detective: Tracking Criminals When the Trail Runs Cold

When I began work on a history of American counterfeiting between the Revolution and the Civil War, I was faced with some peculiar research problems. With a few rare exceptions, counterfeiting during this period was a crime that was not prosecuted by federal authorities. The problem was instead left to state and local law enforcement officials who were often outnumbered and incompetent. This was partly a consequence of the fact that the paper money in circulation originated not with the federal government, but with hundreds of state-chartered banks. But it was also a reflection of the relative weakness of the federal government's policing.

And therein lay a serious problem, not only for the police of the day, but for the historian who would attempt to reconstruct this kind of criminal activity. Counterfeiting involved vast numbers of players spread out across state and even national lines. This meant that local law enforcement officials often operated in the dark as to the scope and scale of the network of manufacturers, distributors, retailers and passers of bogus bills. Local law enforcement records—what few have survived—often provide but a fleeting snapshot of an individual counterfeiter who typically posted bail and fled, never to be seen again. What, then, is a historian to do, particularly a historian who wants to reconstruct the entire criminal careers of some of these colorful individuals?

The Digital Detective: Tracking Criminals When the Trail Runs Cold


Recovering Memories of a Defining Local Event: A Revolutionary-Era Tea Burning

In the 18th century, it was not unusual for a ship to dock at John Shepherd’s landing in the tiny village of Greenwich, New Jersey. The town, located on the Cohansey River about six miles from Delaware Bay, was an official British customs port. But it was not a very busy port town, and its population was small enough to make any vessel’s arrival worthy of conversation. One ship in particular—which arrived sometime in the second week of December 1774—was even more newsworthy because of its cargo.

For the past year, the British-American colonies had been resisting England’s efforts to flood their markets with cheap tea from India. The colonists had been forced to pay a tax on tea since 1767—the year the commodity was included on a list of luxury items levied as part of the Townshend Duties. When the Townshend Duties were repealed in 1770, however, the tax on tea continued, causing the product to become the object of many colonial boycotts during the seven years that preceded the dreaded Tea Act of 1773. This spirit of resistance was not lost on the inhabitants of Greenwich. The brig that had just pulled into their port was filled with tea from the East India Company.

Recovering Memories of a Defining Local Event: A Revolutionary-Era Tea Burning


Religion and the Rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan, 1915-1922

In 1915, the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was born. The second Klan, a memorial to the Reconstruction Klan and its work in the postbellum South, was to act as a restructured fraternity that supported white supremacy, the purity of white womanhood, nationalism and Protestant Christianity. William J. Simmons, a fraternalist and former minister, organized the charter for the new order and consecrated its beginning by setting afire a cross on the top of Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Simmons’s flair for the theatric (including the adoption of the fiery cross as a symbol of the Klan)—along with the order’s aggressive public relations campaign and membership boon—quickly gained the attention of local and national newspapers. Reporters commented on the Klan's platform, its stated intentions and its historical connections to the Reconstruction Klan. Some of the initial coverage, in the South especially, was favorable. The Columbus Enquirer Sun wrote, “Proof that the noble spirit that actuated the members of the famous Ku Klux Klan in the reconstruction period still lives among the sons is shown in the remarkable growth of the organization…” 1The new order seemed to have the potential to reform the region—and possibly the nation.

Religion and the Rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan, 1915-1922


Rescuing Cast Offs: The Do-It-Yourself Box Furniture of Social Worker Louise Brigham

Today's Do-It-Yourself movement is peopled with crafty types who revel in finding creative ways to reuse things instead of simply throwing the old stuff out and buying new. Evidence of this movement can be found in the popularity of ReadyMade Magazine's MacGyver Challenges; in Ikeahacker's celebration of imaginative consumers who adapt the often bland goods sold by that international chain; and in Wardrobe Refashion's encouragement to those inclined toward re-interpreting and re-thinking the value of "pre-loved" clothes.

Why do some of us go through the trouble of reusing old things instead of simply buying new? The answers vary, but common motives include environmentalism, thrift, artistic expression and a desire to find alternatives to disposable consumption. This "stewardship of objects"1 once played a much more prominent role in everyday peoples' lives, as each person mended, made do and cajoled objects into lasting as long as possible at a time when material goods were not as easily obtained as they are today. (For more on the truly fascinating history of the "stewardship of objects," read Susan Strasser's Waste and Want.) And even if today's repurposing efforts are not the result of scarcity of goods, this practice plays an important part in the story of America's material culture. One hundred years ago, Louise Brigham's box furniture played a part as well.

Rescuing Cast Offs: The Do-It-Yourself Box Furniture of Social Worker Louise Brigham


Creating the Fourth Branch of Government: The Role of the Press in Pennsylvania's Constitutional Debates

The views expressed in this article are the author's and not necessarily those of the Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, or the United States Government.

When the meeting of the Pennsylvania State Assembly received the Federal Constitution in September 1787, the idyllic excitement that had emanated from the Federal Convention shattered. The leaders of Pennsylvania—the first state to witness a large and heated public deliberation over the Federal proposal—quickly turned to the press to gain public support. Historians have typically acknowledged Pennsylvania as a leader in the ratification debates, setting the blueprint for state campaigns to come. Historian George Graham summarized the dominant historiographical argument when he wrote, "In practical terms, Pennsylvania was the heart of the new nation both socially and economically. In symbolic terms, it was its political center. During the ratification process, this symbolic status proved to be in many ways the most significant."1 While correct in identifying the state's leadership role, Pennsylvania's most significant contribution came through its use of the press.

Pennsylvanians had long argued over many of the issues addressed in the Constitution, including representation, taxation and others. However, by its very nature, the Constitution raised the stakes of t hese debates and further polarized the citizenry. Each faction then relied upon the press to spread and court public support. George Washington confirmed the influence of the press when he commented to an associate that "[ratification] will depend … on literary abilities and the recommendation of it by good pens."2 Pennsylvania's ratification debates reveal the transformation of early American political life from one primarily dictated by personal reputation and influence to one controlled by print.

Creating the Fourth Branch of Government: The Role of the Press in Pennsylvania's Constitutional Debates


100 Years Ago in Baseball: Dead Balls, Spitters and No-Hitters

For baseball fans, 1908 is a year to remember. That September, in a pennant race that has not been replicated since, four teams in the American League were separated by a only few percentage points. For three teams in the National League, the race to the World Series was even closer.

Click here to see full pdf documentThe season came down to the very last weekend. In the American League, Detroit barely held off Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox to clinch the pennant by the smallest margin of victory in baseball history—.004 percentage points. In the National League, a miscue of mythical proportions helped decide the pennant: in a game between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants, Giant rookie Fred Merkle failed to tag second and nullified his team's winning run. A season-ending playoff game ensued, and—anomaly of all 20th-century anomalies—the Cubs took the game from the Giants and proceeded to go on to beat Detroit and win the World Series for the second straight year.

100 Years Ago in Baseball: Dead Balls, Spitters and No-Hitters


"A Dastardly Outrage": Kate Brown and the Washington-Alexandria Railroad Case

As a Senate employee "in charge of the ladies' retiring room," Kate Brown worked hard, washing towels and laundering curtains. More than one senator commented on her "lady-like character" and described her as "an educated, intelligent, respectable, and to all appearance refined woman." Although not known as a rebel or a troublemaker, on a chilly afternoon in February 1868 Kate Brown rebelled and stirred up a legal storm that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

It was nearly 3:00 p.m. on February 8, 1868, when Kate Brown pulled out her return ticket and stepped aboard a train to take her from Alexandria, Virginia, where she had been visiting a sick relative, back home to Washington, D.C. With her foot still on the step, Brown was accosted by the rail line's private police officer, who called from the platform that she must take the other car. "This car will do," the 28 year-old Brown replied quietly and stepped inside the train. At that point, as Brown later told a Senate committee investigating the incident, "the policeman ran up and told me I could not ride in that car... he said that car was for ladies." Of course, Kate Brown was a lady, but she was also African American.



Start Locally, Think Globally: An Approach to Teaching History

"Why does this stuff matter?"

"Why should I care?"

Questions like these have accosted most instructors during their teaching career. It can be especially challenging to show students in social studies classes the relevance of what they perceive to be centuries-old clumps of dates, events and timelines. Students in many classrooms experience "none of the questioning, argumentation, and wrestling with the past that so marks the vigor and fecundity of history as a disciplinary practice," as Bruce Van Sledright has noted. "All acquisition of others' ideas about what the past is and no participation in the activities that produce those ideas in the first place leaves them largely empty headed and seat-twitchingly bored."1

The research of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen shows that Americans' connection to history is strongest when they can locate a personal point of entry: "Many told us they wanted…to reach into history by reaching outward from their own lives. They wanted to personalize the public past." 2 Educational theorists have also shown that constructivist approaches to teaching—emphasizing students' active production of knowledge through inquiry and analysis—are typically more engaging to students than traditional approaches centered on lectures and quizzes. How can educators take these lessons into account and awaken students to the fun of historical exploration and the pertinence of the past to the present?

Start Locally, Think Globally: An Approach to Teaching History


"I am scholar—hear me roar! Primary materials rule." Students Test the Scholar in the Digital Archive

I love putting history on trial in my undergraduate courses. These students still typically think of history as finding, identifying or uncovering a set of hard facts, but, as Hayden White reminds us, history has a subjective dimension—historians construct claims, create narratives, interpret facts, build cases, possess agendas, have pre-dispositions. History is much more interesting than students sometimes think.

Well, there's no better place to put history on trial—that is, to experience the role that invention plays in the writing of history—than the massive digital collections in the Archive of Americana®. And while working with these collections there is a generic assignment I have found valuable in assisting undergraduates be critical thinkers about history that I call "Testing the Scholar."

Let's test the scholar, I say, by first understanding the scholar's argument and then forming our own judgments by investigating virtually the same bundle of data, tapping the inherent power of access to rich primary materials.

Let's take a representative example of this exercise from Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Let's say we want to learn about execution sermons—a topic sure to have "curb appeal" for undergraduates.

If we click through the "Genre" tab to the healthy list of subcategories under sermons, there is a category for execution sermons. There are 90 such sermons in this grouping, about 65 first editions, not an impossible task for a class of, say, 20 or 30 students to divide up, read and hold in their group consciousness.

The first thing I would do is have the students read Ronald Bosco's "Lectures at the Pillory: The Early American Execution Sermon"—an essay that covers precisely the time period as Early American Imprints, Series I—and, as a class, identify all Bosco's claims, both major and minor.



Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications, Part III: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

On the heels of the release of his second report, John C. Frémont was sent out again to map a better route through the Sierras to California. This time he took with him 60 well armed men and perhaps secret orders to act as he thought best if hostilities with Mexico seemed imminent.

This third expedition, his final government-sponsored expedition of exploration, quickly segued into the Bear Flag Revolt, which he essentially instigated and led. At its successful conclusion he was appointed Provisional Governor of California by the American commander on the spot, Commodore Stockton of the U.S. Navy, but eventually fell prey to a jurisdictional dispute between the Army and the Navy. In August 1847 he was taken into custody by one-time friend, now bitter enemy, General Stephen Watts Kearny and taken back to Washington under arrest to await court martial in the fall of that year.

In January 1848, despite a valiant and vigorous defense, Fremont was found guilty of mutiny, refusing a lawful command, and conduct prejudicial to military discipline. He was ordered dismissed from the service. President Polk rescinded the punishment, but declined to overturn the conviction itself. Feeling ill treated, Fremont resigned his commission in protest.

It is interesting to note that all of the related court martial materials, none of which were congressional in nature, appear in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set because the President collected them and submitted them to Congress in the form of a message (S.Exec.Doc. 33, 30-1). This is a reflection both of the importance of the underlying issues and Fremont's continued popularity in Congress and among the public.

Conducting Biographical Research in Government Publications, Part III: John C. Frémont and the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


Pages

Welcome to The Readex Report

This online publication explores diverse aspects of digital historical collections and provides insight into web-based resources, including the Archive of Americana and Archive of International Studies.

Recent Issues

Twitter @Readex


Back to top