Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Lake Erie by Way of Guangzhou: Or, The Other Canal Boom

What do you do when you can’t stop yourself from falling into a ditch?

In my case it was “Clinton’s Ditch”—better known as the Erie Canal, opened in 1825. It seemed that every time I went to America’s Historical Newspapers to research my dissertation—I write on the politics of early American trade with China—every query, no matter how carefully constructed, returned discussions of canals. With every “search” button clicked, I felt De Witt Clinton (he of “Ditch” fame) drag me a step more away from the salty tea-clippers at Canton, and further into the freshwater depths of the New York backcountry, yammering all the way about locks, average elevations, and the glorious future of the wheat flour trade.


De Witt Clinton, A Man with a Plan (for a Ditch)
(Source: Rembrandt Peale, Portrait of DeWitt Clinton
oil on canvas, 28 5/8 x 23 3/8, 1823, Wikimedia.org)

Clinton, a political impresario who served as a U.S. Senator, mayor of New York City, and Governor of New York State, was the chief force behind the creation of the Erie Canal, the new nation’s most ambitious and successful infrastructure project. In the early nineteenth century, waterways were the quickest and most reliable way to move freight. Unfortunately, nature did not always provide—but building canals to the hinterland, it was thought, would shrink the distance between pioneer farmers in the West and the hungry urban markets of the East. Boosters predicted that new canals would create a virtuous cycle of agricultural expansion, population growth, and increasing wealth—a recipe for national greatness.

Lake Erie by Way of Guangzhou: Or, The Other Canal Boom


Directing Student Research in Original Sources: A Radical Republicans Experiment


As a full-time high school teacher who aspires to be an independent scholar and a mom, I am always multitasking. My lesson plan for teaching about the Radical Republicans of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era was conceived to serve more than one purpose. On the one hand, it would provide the core of our class discussion and individual engagement with the subject of the Civil War Era. Students would employ and develop their skills for research, writing, and presentation. They would work alone and in groups. Best of all, they would make contributions to my own research project—about Radical Republicans—turning up original documents and making connections that I can hope to include in my forthcoming book, The Revolutionary Republicans, which will be published in 2014 by Hill and Wang.

Directing Student Research in Original Sources: A Radical Republicans Experiment


Images of Women on Clipper Ship Sailing Cards

Introduction

In the mid-nineteenth century, ship owners and shipping lines used sailing cards to advertise voyages of clipper ships. These cards, slightly larger than today’s postcards, announced that Ship A would leave Departure Point B for Destination C on or about Date D, and that you should contact Agent E if you had goods and/or yourself to transport. Shipping managers sent cards by private courier to commission merchants and exporters, and these cards were posted any place that might catch the eye of a potential customer. Most clipper cards advertised sailings from New York and Boston to San Francisco.

The casual observer might associate clipper cards with the California Gold Rush. While the discovery of gold had certainly kicked the building of clipper ships into high gear, the Gold Rush ended in the early 1850s. People and goods continued to come to California, but increasingly this was by steamship and, later, railroads. The heyday of the clipper card was between about 1856 and 1868, a time when the clipper ship industry was actually in decline.

Just about anything imaginable was pictured on a clipper ship sailing card at some time or other. Illustrated cards often sported nautical imagery, knights and warriors, characters from mythology, patriotic scenes, historical figures, and Native Americans.

And, there were women. Sometimes they assumed one of the roles just listed; often, they were just . . . women.

Images of Women on Clipper Ship Sailing Cards


Murder! Or the Remarkable Trial of Tommy Jemmy, 19th-Century Seneca Witch-Hunter and Defender of Indian Sovereignty

Click for more info on Dennis' bookI never read murder and mayhem stories in the newspaper. Such sensationalist accounts have been a mainstay of the U.S. popular press since it was invented in the early American republic, and they remain a prominent feature today. But the tawdry details of homicidal doings, breathlessly recounted, hold little appeal for me. And yet a few years ago one such story caught my eye and drew me in, sending me on my own investigative journey.

I read of the nefarious deed, not surprisingly, in the New York Post. Actually, the story appeared in the New-York Evening Post, not the well-known contemporary Gotham tabloid, and it recounted an event that had occurred nearly two hundred years ago, in western New York. (The Evening Post’s story was reprinted from Buffalo’s Niagara Journal of May 8, 1821.) The “crime” reported was murder, allegedly committed by a Seneca Indian man, Soonong-gize, commonly known as Tommy Jemmy. Death, even violent death, was not uncommon on the frontiers of the early republic, and Buffalo in 1821 was a frontier town. But the snippet account revealed this to be no ordinary homicide, nor was the case a simple whodunit. Tommy Jemmy never denied taking the life of the victim (a Seneca woman identified elsewhere as Kauquatau), but his defense would center on a surprising claim—that the act was not in fact “murder.”

Murder! Or the Remarkable Trial of Tommy Jemmy, 19th-Century Seneca Witch-Hunter and Defender of Indian Sovereignty


The Untold Talent of Joseph Redding: Profiling a Polymathic Chess Expert

The ability to access newspaper databases such as America’s Historical Newspapers has revolutionized research in the history and culture of chess. Some aspects of this research require detailed chess knowledge; for example, finding specific games of old masters or tracking changes in chess styles over the years. Other aspects of chess research require no specialized knowledge to appreciate: the atmosphere of chess clubs; rivalries between players, nationalities, and ethnic groups; and the often peculiar personalities of individual players.

Some interesting traits of individual chess players fit with common stereotypes; great masters frequently combine brilliance and unworldliness in a fascinating mixture. As James Mortimer, a 19th-century chess writer, said: "It will be cheering to know that many people are skillful chess players, though in many instances their brains, in a general way, compare unfavourably with the cognitive facilities of a rabbit." Thus, it is said (I believe apocryphally) that world champion Emanuel Lasker's attempt to run a poultry farm failed because he did not realize that this required animals of both sexes.

With access to America’s Historical Newspapers, I sought to learn about chess players who made news in areas ignored by the chess press. Chess was popular in the 19th century, but there were few opportunities for players from different parts of the United States to compete against each other. It was believed that except for a handful of players who would visit the East Coast, all the best players lived in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. Players occasionally found surprisingly strong opponents in Chicago, New Orleans, and St Louis, but these were considered exceptions.

The Untold Talent of Joseph Redding: Profiling a Polymathic Chess Expert


The Nanjing Atrocities Reported in the U.S. Newspapers, 1937-38

Click for more info on bookThe German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, is conventionally regarded as the starting point of World War II. However, war broke out much earlier in Asia. On July 7, 1937, after claiming that one of its soldiers was missing, the Japanese launched attacks at the Chinese positions near the Marco Polo Bridge in a Beijing southwestern suburb. During the following weeks, the Japanese continued with their attacks in North China, capturing Beijing, Tianjin, and other cities in the region.

While Japanese forces were engaged in conquering warfare in North China, tension built up down south in the Shanghai area. Shots were fired on August 9, 1937, in a clash in which two Japanese marines and one member of the Chinese Peace Preservation Corps were killed near the entrance to the Hongqiao Airfield in a Shanghai suburb. After rounds of unsuccessful negotiation, the clash led to the outbreak of hostilities in Shanghai on August 13. Street fighting soon escalated to ferocious urban battles when both sides rushed in divisions of reinforcements.

With heavy casualties inflicted on both sides, the war continued for three months before Shanghai fell to the Japanese on November 12, 1937. Even though Chinese troops fought persistently for months in and around Shanghai, they failed to put up effective resistance west of Shanghai, due to a chaotic and hasty evacuation. Taking advantage of the situation, the Japanese swiftly chased fleeing Chinese troops westward, reaching the city gates of China’s capital, Nanjing, on December 9.

The Nanjing Atrocities Reported in the U.S. Newspapers, 1937-38


Loving the "City of Homes" and its Historical Newspaper Archives

Many years ago my first drive through the residential neighborhoods of Springfield, Massachusetts, hooked me into a lifelong passion to know more of her and her people. From viewing the 1870’s brick row houses on Mattoon Street to the gilded age mansions of Ridgewood and Maple Hill, it did not take a lot of imagination to conjure up a vision of the city’s glory days. The architecture and beauty of the homes spoke clearly. My research began.


Court Square, c. 1910, the downtown heart of the City of Homes

The Registry of Deeds launched my exploration with a legal skeleton of house information: names, dates and land descriptions. The local history room at the Carnegie-built public library offered a variety of volumes, but, best of all, scrapbooks. History buffs and library staff over the decades had filled un-indexed volumes with clippings from newspapers. Browsing through the random pages, I became acquainted with the individuals that gave the city life. Microfiche of newspapers were then available on bulky readers, and occasionally I stumbled upon specific information I sought, but Lady Luck played a large role in such fortuitous events. Eventually the computer age came to the rescue with digitized records, search engines and printing capabilities.

Loving the "City of Homes" and its Historical Newspaper Archives


Pirates, Spies and Dark Nights of the Soul: Entering the Wacky World of Early American Studies

A few years ago, a graduate student told me, "I'm changing fields. I'm switching to the wacky world of Early American Studies."

A few weeks earlier, I had sent her to the microfilm rooms in the University of Minnesota's library with assignments she could complete only by plunging into documents she found there in the two Early American Imprints microfiche series. Commonly called "Evans" or "Shaw-Shoemaker" after the authors of the authoritative bibliographies on which the series were created, they include more than 70,000 items—all extant material printed in the colonies and early republic from 1639 to 1819.

After many hours peering at those curious old documents and their funny typefaces, she surfaced and announced that, despite expecting a wasteland of dry and stupefyingly boring texts, she had discovered in the microfiche a nearly unexplored world of writing that she called wacky but nevertheless found oddly wonderful. Her phrase recalls a famous article about student reaction to early American studies that Daniel Williams published in "Early American Literature": "Not enough Rambo Action."

I find that if I can get students into the actual early documents, they discover that it's all Rambo Action: pirates, soldiers, spies, kings, queens, revolutions, dark nights of the soul, invasions, war and peace, politics, captures and escapes and what we too casually would call religious fanatics. I could have told her so beforehand, but she probably wouldn't have believed me.

Pirates, Spies and Dark Nights of the Soul: Entering the Wacky World of Early American Studies


Early Radio Broadcasting: Solving Mysteries with America's Historical Newspapers

I have been a media historian for several decades, with expertise in the history of broadcasting. For years, I did my research the traditional way, using old magazines, old newspapers, and lots of old microfilm. It was fun, but often very tedious, since few of those materials were indexed, and I had to go page by page to find the information I was seeking. Still, I managed to write three books and a number of articles that way. But as I did my research, I accumulated a long list of unanswered questions. Sometimes I would find an article that mentioned a person or an event well-known in a given city, but not well-known enough to be explained in any resources available to me. I hoped that at some future time I might solve some of those mysteries, so that I could write a more accurate piece and tell the full story.

Early Radio Broadcasting: Solving Mysteries with America's Historical Newspapers


Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture

In 1800, the population of the U.S. was five million, but it was about to explode. By 1820 it had doubled. The population was not only growing, but moving: in 1820, eight million Americans lived east of the Appalachians; by 1860 the population was more than thirty million, but half of them lived in the West.

Newspapers themselves grew dramatically during this period—from fewer than 200 in 1800 to more than 3,000 by 1860. Like no other primary documents can, American newspapers published during the first half of the 19th century vividly capture this dramatic expansion of the nation and movement of its peoples.

During the early 19th century, the first "penny papers" were published, ushering in a democratization of the industry that would open new windows onto all levels of society. Widely regarded as the greatest of these penny-paper dailies, the "New York Herald" had the largest newspaper circulation in the world for many years in the 19th century.

Science and technology played a large role, too, in the ability of newspapers to capture 19th-century life in ever more detail and frequency. Steam ships now brought European newspapers to the East Coast every day; railroads took them west overnight.

Then, in 1846, the telegraph made possible the instantaneous delivery of information. This, alongside the formation of the Associated Press, transformed the news industry as never before. It was also during this period that newspapers themselves began to change, in the process opening up significant new avenues for research into gender, race and society in general.

Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture


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