Seamus Dunphy


About Author: 

Seamus is an Editor who joined NewsBank in 2006 and continues to be an integral member of the Readex Digital Collections team. He currently leads a team indexing the Territorial Papers, curates derivative products, and writes blogs and training material. He received his B.A. from Marlboro College and remains a student of political science and economics. His hobbies include writing, gardening, and traveling.

Posts by this Author

“Silkeries of the Skies”: The Solar Superstorm of 1859

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Last night one of the most magnificent atmospheric exhibitions that have ever been witnessed in this latitude took place. A display of the aurora borealis of surpassing extent and beauty occupied the heavens, producing the most singular effects, and exciting the admiration and awe of the thousands that witnessed the wondrous sight.

This article, first published in the New York Evening Post, was reporting on what we know today as the solar storm of 1859. This massive storm, the largest of its kind on record, would also become known as the Carrington Event after British astronomer Richard Carrington who made some of the earliest astronomical observations of the solar flare. The flare and resulting geomagnetic storm of 1859 produced auroras seen around the world.

Headlined “Remarkable Atmospheric Phenomena—The Scenery of the Heavens,” the report continues: 

“Silkeries of the Skies”: The Solar Superstorm of 1859

‘Guaranteed to blow a body-snatcher over the highest church steeple’: Coffin Torpedoes and Other 19th-Century Burial Devices

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During the Second Industrial Revolution, Americans were introduced to an array of life-changing products—from the automobile to the lightbulb to the telephone. But 19th-century inventors also designed products with “a post-mortem relation to the needs of mankind.”

Several of these “inventions for the tomb” were highlighted in an 1896 issue of the St. Louis Republic.

The “coffin torpedo” is the latest patented device in the line of burial appliances. It is introduced into the casket before the latter is closed, the arrangement being of such that any attempt to force the receptacle open will release a spring, strike a percussion cap and set off the bomb. This means almost sure death to the unsuspecting grave robber, whose industry the invention in question is designed to discourage.

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In addition to describing devices to prevent grave robbery, the article explains the latest inventions designed to indicate the buried isn’t dead yet.

‘Guaranteed to blow a body-snatcher over the highest church steeple’: Coffin Torpedoes and Other 19th-Century Burial Devices

The Great Blondin: ‘Crossing of Niagara on a Rope!’

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The acrobat whose name would become synonymous with tightrope walking was born Jean-François Gravelet in Saint-Omer, Pas-de-Calais, France. Generally known as Charles Blondin (1824-1897), the performer was also referred to as Jean-François Blondin, Chevalier Blondin, The Great Blondin, and, in his first public appearance, The Boy Wonder.

Blondin traveled to the United States in 1855, joined a circus, and became famous for crossing the Niagara Gorge, at times doing summersaults, on a tightrope. In a series of articles, originally reported in the Rochester Union and reprinted in the Washington, D.C., Constitution, the acrobat himself and his first crossing are described on July 6, 1859, this way: 

“About four o’clock M. Blondin arrived in a carriage decorated with the American and French flags, and was received with cheers from the multitude, music from the bands, and the firing of a cannon, which was answered from the Canada side. A ring was made by a rope, and within the ring was a tight rope six feet above the ground, upon which the preliminary exhibition took place.

The Great Blondin: ‘Crossing of Niagara on a Rope!’

Fish or Cut Bait: Following a Phrase in Early American Newspapers

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The derivation of the phrase “fish or cut bait” is relatively clear, but its meaning has been murky since it became popularized in the mid-nineteenth century. One interpretation is similar to a contemporary idiom more politely expressed as ‘evacuate or vacate the wash closet,’ urging one to either proceed or cease a course of action. Another reading of the expression is it is instructing one to choose between two actions required to attain a particular goal.

An April 30, 1897, New-York Tribune column encouraging Tammany Hall to take action on monetary policy illustrates both the phrase’s origin and that its common usage is incomplete. 

“She must either fish or cut bait,” says “Jimmie.” The fisherman’s formula—intended to express the idea of division of labor with no loafing—is “must either fish, cut bait or go ashore.” The omission of the last choice indicates a purpose of throwing Tammany overboard without giving her a chance to go ashore if she doesn’t either fish or cut bait.

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A Pawtucket Times article from March 24, 1920, describing a call to accomplish the multitude of tasks required to form a fish and game association, also interprets the phrase as a division of labor.

Fish or Cut Bait: Following a Phrase in Early American Newspapers

‘Politically, Morally and Personally Unworthy’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

The October release of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1765-1953, includes many letters and little-known documents tracking New Mexico’s controversial Secretary of the Territory, H.H. Heath.

An unsigned memoir from 1868 offers some background:

Mr. Heath is a native of New York, for several years a resident of Washington, he was for a time a (deputy) clerk of the House of Representatives and established here in 1849 or 1850 a newspaper called the “Southern Press” for the express purpose of defending “Southern rights.”

During the Lecompton struggle he was editor of “The North West” “which supported Southern men and Northern, too, who supported them.”

He held the Post Office at Dubuke [sic] for three years, until ejected by Mr. Lincoln.

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Heath’s service to New Mexico Territory began a year earlier in 1867 after a brief delay. Writing to Secretary of State William Henry Seward on March 15, 1867, Heath asked:

I have the honor to request permission to delay my departure for New Mexico…to afford me time to make my arrangements for taking my family and household goods with me.

Four months later Heath sent another letter to Seward, this time writing:

I have the honor to report my arrival in this place and the assumption of the duties of Secretary of this Territory.

I arrived her yesterday after a very protracted and tedious trek…of 47 days…

In August Heath wrote again to Seward, this time about documents uncovered in his New Mexico office. Describing the find, he writes:  

‘Politically, Morally and Personally Unworthy’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

‘Persons of colour excepted’: Highlights from the Territorial Papers of the United States

The September release of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1765-1953, includes several important collections of letters and correspondence between territories and the executive branch. The subjects under discussion range from suffrage in Indiana Territory to American involvement in the Mexican Revolution to the leasing of school lands in Mississippi Territory.


Bill Extending Right of Suffrage, Feb. 2, 1809

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Kentucky Senator and President pro tempore John Pope (1770-1845) read into the Senate record on Feb. 2, 1889, a bill extending the right of suffrage to certain citizens of Indiana Territory.

That the citizens of the Indiana territory, entitled to vote for representatives to the general assembly thereof, shall, at the time of electing their representatives to the said general assembly, also elect one delegate from the said territory to the congress of the United States, who shall possess the same powers heretofore granted to the delegates from the several territories of the United States.

The bill, which goes on to describe various administrative functions of the general assembly and duties of other territorial bureaucracies, would re-emerge from the committee process two years later.


Senate. No. XXV. Bill To Extend Suffrage, etc., Feb. 8, 1811

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‘Persons of colour excepted’: Highlights from the Territorial Papers of the United States

‘Florida now overrun by hostile Indians’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

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The August release of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1765-1953, includes several legislative reports related to the Second Seminole War, the costly conflict fought in Florida from 1835 to 1842. Also highlighted here is a bill authorizing the armed occupation of “parts of Florida, east of the Suwanee and south to Cape Sable.”


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House. No. 427. Bill Making Further Appropriation for Suppression of Indian Hostilities, March 10, 1836

Churchill Caldom Cambreleng (1786-1862) represented New York in in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1821 to 1839. While serving as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the 24th Congress, Cambreleng reported the following:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the sum of five hundred thousand dollars be, and the same is hereby, appropriated, in addition to former appropriations, for suppressing Indian hostilities in Florida.

‘Florida now overrun by hostile Indians’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

“A campaign against the Navajo”: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

 

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The July release of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1765-1953, includes many revealing letters between military officers, territorial officials, and the executive branch of the federal government. This correspondence from New Mexico Territory, October 1862, showcases a single episode in the wide range of military campaigns against the Navajo and other tribes covered in this digital collection. 


Captain J.C. Shaw to General B.C. Cutler. Unauthorized Indian Campaigns, etc., Oct. 6, 1862

Writing from Head Quarters, Western Military District, Department of New Mexico, Captain Shaw reports his observations and requests orders:

Sir: In the instructions for the guidance of the Officer commanding this District it states that all parties not legally authorized will be prevented from campaigning against the Navajo Indians etc., and that due notice of any such force being authorized would be furnished to the Commanding Officer of the District.

The Alcalde of this place is now enrolling militia men to be ready to march on the 15th of the month against Navajos. I have seen the Governor …. in relation to the movement, but have no official notice of it.

The attention of the General Commanding is respectfully called to this subject, and his orders, thereon requested.

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“A campaign against the Navajo”: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

‘Those Unfortunate Strangers’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

The June release of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1765-1953, includes several legislative reports on bills relating to policies toward indigenous peoples of North America. Also found in this release are a number of documents pertaining to the Territory of Orleans, which became the State of Louisiana when it was admitted to the Union in 1812. Two of these documents of particular interest are a report on a House bill titled, “Further Providing for Government of the Territory” and a letter from William C.C. Claiborne, Governor of the Orleans Territory.


Orleans, February 26, 1803 - December 26, 1815

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Following sections authorizing the establishment of a state government in the Orleans Territory, the bill contains a section detailing how the census will be performed. This version of the bill includes a curious amendment that could result in a lower official population and delay in the path to statehood.

The handwritten changes to the printed bill indicate the bracketed portion of the following is to be omitted; additions to the bill’s language are in bold.

‘Those Unfortunate Strangers’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

‘Subject to Removal’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

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The May release of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1765-1953, includes an array of diverse documents chronicling the nation’s westward expansion in the nineteenth century.


Special List of Cartographic Records Relating to the Territory of Wisconsin; Entry 1, Manuscript and Annotated Maps and Related Cartographic Records, 1839

These large maps of Wisconsin Territory, “Exhibiting the Position of the Lands Occupied by Indian Tribes in Amity with the United States; and also The Lands Ceded to the United States by Treaty with various Indian Tribes,” are but two examples of the valuable cartographic records found in this collection.

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Segregated Records Relating to Ratified Indian Treaties, 1836-1847; Treaty No. 242, Nov. 19, 1842

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Treaty 242 is representative generally of the United States’ method of acquiring lands under Manifest Destiny and is but one of many such examples in this collection of that doctrine’s codification. 

‘Subject to Removal’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

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