Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


American Mystery Meat: Unriddling the Mince Pie

I first became attuned to the historical enigma of mince pie in the mid-1990s while doing research for my book American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age (University of Pennsylvania Press: 2005), a study of forgotten independent (i.e. non-corporate) radio stations of the 1920s and early '30s. This was way back in pre-digital times, and I was spending countless hours at the helm of a microfilm reader, blindly trolling through the period press for references to my subjects. My progress would have been slow even if my magpie brain hadn't been continually distracted by newspaper stories and memes unrelated to my task.

Chief among said distractions were references to mince pie. These I found everywhere, and always in contexts that baffled me. I still have photocopies of two exemplary items. One is a 1924 cartoon entitled “Movie of a Man and a Hot Mince Pie,” which depicts a middle-class diner in a pince-nez happily tucking into a steaming slice of mince, then going into convulsions and being whisked away in an ambulance.

The other is a 1925 profile of a doughty centenarian bearing the headline “At 107 She Is Fond of Hot Mince Pie”

American Mystery Meat: Unriddling the Mince Pie


On the Trail of Crispus Attucks: Investigating a Victim of the Boston Massacre

If American history students can name any victim of the Boston Massacre, it is almost certainly Crispus Attucks. He became a symbol of African-American patriotism for the Abolitionists of the 1800s and for civil rights activists of the 1900s. Yet Attucks' name doesn't appear in the first newspaper reports about British soldiers shooting into a violent crowd on March 5, 1770. That's just one of the mysteries that students can explore by using the Archive of Americana to examine the Boston Massacre.

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In colonial Boston, some newspapers were published on Mondays and some on Thursdays. Because the shootings on King Street occurred on the evening of Monday, March 5, the first press reports didn't appear until Thursday, March 8. The Boston Chronicle stated that among the dead was "A Mollatto man named, Johnson."

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The same day's Boston News-Letter provided more information about this victim:

A Mollatto Man, named Johnson, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonging to New-Providence, and was here in order to go for North-Carolina, killed on the Spot, two Balls entering his Breast.

On the Trail of Crispus Attucks: Investigating a Victim of the Boston Massacre


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


American Indians in Major League Baseball: Now and Then

Historically, the popular fascination with American Indian baseball players in the Major Leagues has contained an underlying strain of bigotry. Recently, however, sportswriters have been enthralled by the development toward stardom of three such baseball players—Kyle Lohse, Jacoby Ellsbury and Joba Chamberlain. And today researchers and fans can trace the development of American Indians in Major League Baseball from the game's early days to the present by using NewsBank's America's News and Readex's America's Historical Newspapers.

The first American Indian to play Major League Baseball in the 21st century was Kyle Lohse, a member of northern California's small Nomlaki Wintun tribe. In the first newspaper mention I found of Lohse—an October 22, 1994 article—he was throwing touchdown passes for the Warriors of Hamilton High School (Redding Record Searchlight, California). Lohse reached the Major Leagues as a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins in 2001. In 2008 he was an ace pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League.

During the 2007 season, Jacoby Ellsbury (Navajo) and Joba Chamberlain (Winnebago) joined the powerhouse Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, respectively, of the American League. They had met while still in the Minor Leagues and immediately developed a bond that extends beyond their shared American Indian heritage. Ellsbury and Chamberlain have stayed in touch since their first meeting.

Described as a cult hero who brings speed, defense and unbridled enthusiasm to the ball park everyday, Ellsbury was the first American Indian of Navajo descent to reach the Major Leagues. In the 2007 World Series he was a leading hitter and the centerfielder for the champion Boston Red Sox.

American Indians in Major League Baseball: Now and Then


"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.

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


Originalism in a Digital Age: An Inquiry into the Right to Bear Arms

The quest for original intent has dominated Second Amendment scholarship, a trend further solidified in the Supreme Court's recent gun case, District of Columbia v. Heller. In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia insisted that the "normal meaning" of the words of the Second Amendment must be used to understand the Framers' intent, not "secret or technical meanings that would not have been known to ordinary citizens in the founding generation."1 But how can scholars (and justices, for that matter) determine the normal meaning of words? How can we divine what the Founders meant when they recognized the right of the people to keep and bear arms?

The debate over the Second Amendment has largely revolved around whether the right to bear arms protects an individual right to self defense or a collective right to keep arms for service in a militia. To date, most scholarship has sampled select quotations from a relatively narrow set of sources to determine the meaning of key phrases like "bear arms." Readex has now made it possible to search the historical record in a systematic and comprehensive way. Indeed, digital archives with keyword search capabilities can help us understand the meaning of historical phrases with relative certainty.

Originalism in a Digital Age: An Inquiry into the Right to Bear Arms


Transcontinental Railroad Construction and Chinese Laborers in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Readex's ambitious digitalization of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set has provided unprecedented and convenient access to a mountain of valuable source materials. The abundant and wide variety of information contained in the Congressional Serial Set serves many different disciplines, including Asian Studies and Asian American Studies. The contribution that Chinese laborers made to building the transcontinental railroad is one of the many interesting topics documented in the Set.

In 1845, a proposal for building a transcontinental railroad was presented to the Congress. The significance of having a transcontinental railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific was first presented from a military perspective: "It would enable us in the short space of eight days (and perhaps less) to concentrate all the forces of our vast country at any point, from Maine to Oregon, in the interior or on the coast."[1] The railroad would also favorably affect American life in terms of both passenger and commodity transportation. "Such easy and rapid communication, with such facilities for exchanging the different products of the different parts, would bring all our immensely wide-spread population together as one vast city, the moral and social effects of which must harmonize all together as one family, with but one interest — the general good of all."[2]

Transcontinental Railroad Construction and Chinese Laborers in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set


"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.

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


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


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


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