Brian Benoit


About Author: 
Brian Benoit has indexed maps, newspapers, and government documents at Readex’s Chester, Vermont office since 2002. For five years he worked with rare performing arts material at Harvard College’s Houghton Library. He is author of the recently published Crustacean Vacation (Islandport Press, 2012).
Posts by this Author

Boundary Issues: Iowa Territory and Missouri Deploy their Militias against Each Other during the Honey War

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Spoiler alert: it wasn’t about the honey. Rather, this 1839 border dispute between Iowa Territory and Missouri involved conflicting survey lines that left the boundary there at best ambiguous, at worst contentious. According to the apocryphal story, in lieu of collecting taxes a frustrated Missouri official chopped down a valuable stand of trees inhabited by industrious bees, on land owned by a person who had reason to believe that he (and the bees) lived in Iowa Territory. No blood was shed, but militias were mobilized, property seized, and a sheriff jailed.

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The map above shows four survey lines varying by almost ten miles at their greatest extent. There was the Sullivan Line (Line 1), run in 1816 by John C. Sullivan to delineate an Indian treaty, but effaced by time and later found to be inaccurate. Then there was the Brown Line, established by John C. Brown in 1836 at the behest of the governor of Missouri; this was the northernmost line (Line 4). Then there was the survey by Albert Miller Lea (Line 3), on behalf of Iowa Territory and the federal government, which put the border south of Missouri’s claim. The fourth line was the one Sullivan should have drawn if he had taken magnetic declination into account in his survey (Line 2).

Boundary Issues: Iowa Territory and Missouri Deploy their Militias against Each Other during the Honey War

Keeping the “Death Angels” from the Door: Healthcare in New Mexico Territory, 1909

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The digital edition of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1764-1953, features a great deal of material by and about famous and influential people struggling to extend the structures of federal government to the Western frontier. At the margins of that endeavor the researcher often encounters pioneers in desperately humble circumstances struggling to stay alive.

Such was the case in Doris, New Mexico Territory, in 1909, as described in a lengthy series of letters relating to the medical practice of James R. Franz, whose services were much in demand by the poor persons of that rural place. Doris was more of a mining settlement than a town, in Quay County, New Mexico, on the Texas border near Tucumcari. Doris was in a rugged and arid region known as the Llano Estacado, the Staked (or Palisaded) Plains. It was so small that it does not appear on this 1910 mineral survey map of the area from the Readex digital edition of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1994.

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Doris might not have attracted any notice at all but for letters such as the following [excerpted; original in six pages]:

Doris, N. Mex., June 14, 1909

Keeping the “Death Angels” from the Door: Healthcare in New Mexico Territory, 1909

Un-Compromising: Sovereignty and Slavery Sow the Seeds of Rebellion in 1850s Kansas

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If the present state of political discourse calls to mind the analogy of blood sport, spare a thought for “Bleeding Kansas,” that period from 1854-1861 when pro- and anti-slavery forces faced off in a violent prelude to the U.S. Civil War.

In Readex’s digital edition of the Territorial Papers of the United States, 1764-1953, the politics of division becomes personal through handwritten accounts such as the following letter from Kansas Deputy Marshal William J. Preston to Governor John W. Geary, written on October 12, 1856. Preston described a party of approximately 240 “immigrants” who were stopped by federal troops near the Kansas-Nebraska border:

There was nothing in the appearance of this party indicating that they were peaceable immigrants. They had no stock of any kind, except those of draught. There were only seven families among them, with no visible furniture, agricultural implements, or mechanical tools, but on the contrary, they were amply supplied with all the requisite articles for camping and campaigning purposes. These were seen protruding from their vehicles.

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Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke gave Deputy Marshall Preston an exact reckoning of the baggage of these “peaceable immigrants:”

Un-Compromising: Sovereignty and Slavery Sow the Seeds of Rebellion in 1850s Kansas

Hostile Takeover: Utah Territory (Barely) Puts Up with its Imposed Territorial Governors

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At the beginning of the end of Utah Territory’s isolation there was Alfred Cumming, who in 1858 arrived with an army at his back to replace the popular Mormon leader Brigham Young as the federally appointed Governor. Readex’s Territorial Papers of the United States makes it clear that this was far from a casual undertaking:

Utah Affairs. Alfred Cumming appointed Governor, during recess of the Senate.

Instructed as follows: xxx “A detachment of the army is under orders to take up a position in that country, for the performance of the ordinary military duties of security and protection upon our frontiers, and alas, if necessary, to aid in the enforcement of the law. The commanding officer has been ordered to carry into effect your requisitions for the service of the troops in support of the public peace. A copy of these orders from the War Dep’t is herewith communicated. xx

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Cumming left after a couple of years; the army stayed. Relations were so fraught that in 1861 Cumming’s successor, John Dawson, couldn’t quite manage a month in the position. Following Dawson’s departure, Governor Stephen Harding eked out a few years from 1862-1863 before being driven out of office himself. For non-Mormons, being governor of Utah Territory was a thankless job exercised in a trackless waste over an intractable people.

Hostile Takeover: Utah Territory (Barely) Puts Up with its Imposed Territorial Governors

Reindeer Games: The U.S. Bureau of Education’s Reindeer Importation Program in Alaska

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It’s well established that reindeer only fly in a metaphorical sense, such as when bounding across the snowy tundra. In the 1890s, however, at the behest of the U.S. Department of Education large numbers of reindeer traveled by boat across the Bering Strait from Siberia, or by boat, rail, and boat again from Finland to what was then known as Alaska Department, or District. The following letter from Commissioner of Education William T. Harris in Readex’s Territorial Papers of the United States describes how that came to pass:

In 1890, Doctor Sheldon Jackson, General Agent of Education in Alaska, reported to me that owing to the rapid killing off of the whale and walrus in the Arctic waters of Alaska and the destruction of the fur-bearing animals of the land, the Eskimo of that region were on the verge of starvation.

With the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, Congress was asked to make a small appropriation for the introduction of the domesticated reindeer of Siberia into Alaska as a permanent food supply.

 

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Reindeer Games: The U.S. Bureau of Education’s Reindeer Importation Program in Alaska

“Bustle in the House of Wisdom:” The Life and Crimes of Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon

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Multiple choice: You’re Matthew Lyon, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1801. On the occasion of your fifty-second birthday, you’re asked what your most enduring legacy will be, that for which you’ll be remembered in two hundred years.  Which of the following answers do you choose?

  1. You were the first person convicted for violating the Sedition Act of 1798, when you accused President John Adams in print of “ridiculous pomp,” among other things.
  2. You were the first (and only) member of Congress to be reelected while imprisoned (for the above infraction).
  3. You were the first member of Congress charged with “gross indecency” and were repeatedly threatened with expulsion from office, for spitting in the face of a fellow member of Congress, and for the physical violence that ensued.
  4. You cast the deciding Congressional vote to elect Thomas Jefferson as President during the Election of 1800

With perfect hindsight from the twenty-first century, the election of Thomas Jefferson looms large in the list above, but all of these choices are notable for their impact on the course of early American history. Matthew Lyon was an Irish immigrant, an entrepreneur, and an (allegedly) disgraced Revolutionary War officer who served with Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. Lyon was a vehement anti-Federalist. The Federalists believed in a strong central government, whereas Lyon and his fellow Democratic-Republicans feared monarchy and favored states’ rights instead.

“Bustle in the House of Wisdom:” The Life and Crimes of Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon

The Territorial Imperative: Readex’s First Release of the Territorial Papers of the United States

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In the early days of the American republic, the territorial imperative that would develop into manifest destiny was more of an optimistic thought experiment than an imperial (or divine) mandate to subdue the wilderness. For the first release of Readex’s Territorial Papers of the United States, let’s examine a few deceptively simple terms and the concepts underlying them, namely Territory, and Paper.

A Territory denotes a specific piece of land over which a consistent level of sovereignty and law is extended. But what did that require, exactly? When surveys were perilous, expensive and imprecise, and even explicit natural boundaries were often contested, the concept of a Territory required magical thinking. Certainly American Indians took that position; the boundaries delineated in treaties and land grants took little account of indigenous traditions, alliances and patterns of settlement. In that much U.S. territories seemed quixotic and arbitrary, foisted upon established societies that could do quite well without legal title, not to mention Indian removal.

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The Territorial Imperative: Readex’s First Release of the Territorial Papers of the United States

Apocalypse Laos: America Loses the Laotian Civil War to the Communists

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American Proxy Wars: Korea and Vietnam is designed to feature Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) coverage of those two countries, but this database can be used for much more than researching the Korean and Vietnam wars. For example, let’s take this new Twentieth-Century Global Perspectives database “off-label” and see what it can tell us about America’s proxy war in Laos.

 

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Laos itself was a creation of French colonialism in the late nineteenth century, and achieved independence in 1954 following the First Indochina War. The Pathet Lao, a communist organization, came into being in the early 1950s in opposition to French ambitions in Southeast Asia. The Pathet Lao were similar to the Viet Cong in that they had both political and military aspirations, and the two groups worked closely together. America targeted them both during the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese Army moved its supply operations into Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

 

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Apocalypse Laos: America Loses the Laotian Civil War to the Communists

Overt Operations: The North Korean Seizure of the USS Pueblo Exacerbates Flaws in U.S. Naval Intelligence

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As President Trump prepares for a landmark summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, it’s worthwhile to recall an actual landmark in that country’s capital, Pyongyang. Moored on the Potong River in the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, the USS Pueblo is still listed by the U.S. Navy as in active military service since it was seized by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968. One crew member was killed during the assault, and the 82 survivors were imprisoned and tortured by the North Koreans for nearly a year.

Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, America’s suspicions of communism and deployments against the Russians remained largely unchanged. If President Trump expects dramatic shifts in North Korean or American strategic interests to result from a single summit, history has shown that deadly games of cat-and-mouse are persistent motifs of international relations despite diplomatic initiatives to the contrary.

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Overt Operations: The North Korean Seizure of the USS Pueblo Exacerbates Flaws in U.S. Naval Intelligence

Sins of the Father: Syrian President Hafez Assad’s Legacy of Chemical Weapons and the Balance of Power in the Middle East

Only three weeks ago the world media was filled with horrific images of Syria’s purported use of chemical weapons and the military response of America and its allies. But we’ve been here before which raises the question: why does this keep happening?

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Readex’s Nuclear Arms and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Global Perspectives, 1945-1996, contains abundant references to the development of Syrian chemical weapons as a readily attainable foil to Israel’s alleged nuclear capability, and as an impediment to American hegemony in the Middle East. In that region, chemical weapons have become the less-developed country’s nuclear arms, with most of the benefits and few of the liabilities of the latter.

The late Syrian President Hafez Assad, father of current President Bashar Assad, said as much in a 1987 interview in the newspaper Al-Qabas, as broadcast on the Damascus Domestic Service, recorded and translated by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), and now found in Nuclear Arms and Weapons of Mass Destruction. Assad spoke of a “taboo” against the use of nuclear weapons that he used to Syria’s advantage:

Sins of the Father: Syrian President Hafez Assad’s Legacy of Chemical Weapons and the Balance of Power in the Middle East

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