The Weston Meteorite

Judge Thomas Douglas, image from Florida Supreme Court

I just came across this interesting account of the Weston Meteorite, a rather famous extraterrestrial visitor to the early republic, in The Autobiography of Thomas Douglas, late Judge of the Supreme Court of Florida, published in 1856. Douglas grew up in Connecticut, relocated to Indiana, where he served as a judge at the age of twenty-five before he was even licensed to practice law, and then made his way to East Florida in 1826. Douglas was a young man of seventeen “lying wakeful and musing upon [his] situation” when the meteorite lit up the sky overhead. His memory of the event is a little suspect–the meteorite is supposed to have fallen early in the morning, rather than late at night, for example–but this sort of thing is usual in historical testimony and gives us a picture of the older man remembering his youth as much as it illustrates the event itself. Here’s the account:

“In the winter… one clear, beautiful, star-light night, I was lying wakeful and musing upon my situation, when I heard a tremendous roaring like distant, but heavy thunder, on the approach of a severe storm of wind and rain, and my room suddenly became so light that I could have seen a pin upon the floor. I called to my father, who was sleeping in an adjoining room, he rose and on looking out of the window told me it was a large meteor. This erratic visitor was traveling from northeast to southwest, and its immense size may be judged of from the fact that a gentleman, who standing in his yard at Westerly, in the State of New York, saw a piece fly off, which appeared but a spark, while the main body looked as large as a hogshead. This spark fell near where this gentleman was standing. He had it taken up, and found that its weight was about seventy pounds. It was afterwards sent to Yale College and analyzed by Professor Silliman, who found it composed principally of iron. Where this came from is a question which the wisest philosophers have not yet been able to determine.”

The Autobiography of Thomas Douglas, late Judge of the Supreme Court of Florida. New York: Calkins & Stiles, 1856: 24.
This fragment of the meteorite, housed in the Yale meteorite collection, “appeared but a spark, while the main body looked as large as a hogshead.” Image from Wikipedia.

Seminole Wars Heritage Trail

I’m working on a project based on the Florida Seminole Wars Heritage Trail. Because the Trail is primarily spatial, I started by creating a Google Earth layer listing all of the points by region. I just learned that disallows kmz uploads, so I imported the map into Google Maps instead. Here’s a link to the map on Google My Maps. Happy (but reflective) travels!

Roman Generals

Reading tonight and thinking about what a bunch of dickheads Roman generals were.

Listen to this nugget, from Colin Wells’s history of the Empire:

“Another of Octavian’s successful generals, Lucius Cornificius, took to arriving at his host’s house on an elephant when he went out to dinner.”

Colin Wells, The Roman Empire

Or this bit from Suetonius, describing a thin-skinned Julius Caesar:

“he had ridden past the benches reserved for the tribunes of the people, and shouted in fury at a certain Pontius Aquila, who had kept his seat: ‘Hey, there, Aquila the tribune! Do you want me to restore the republic?’ For several days after this incident he added to every undertaking he gave: ‘With the kind consent of Pontius Aquila.'”

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (trans. Robert Graves)

What a bunch of jerks.

Information at “Indian Key,” 1840

If you ever find yourself bored with the internet, tired of movies and music and magazines and books and so on, take a moment and think about the world of information available to Henry Perrine’s teenage children on a tiny, 12-acre island in the Florida Keys in 1840.

We had an abundance of books and papers, but only a monthly mail. This mail we generally had brought in a bushel basket & had our arrangements so made that for at least a week after its receipt our household duties should not seriously interfere with our enjoyment of it.

Hester Perrine Walker, 1885

A whole week to bask in the glory of the monthly mail! I spend less than a second with most of the things I see online. For young Hester, each piece of information must have been a treasure, a thing to be turned over and over in her mind and discussed again and again. It’s difficult for me to imagine as I go about my historian’s work of empathizing and visualizing.

We are blessed and cursed with information. Blessed by abundance, maybe we don’t take the time to really process the things we read and see. I know I don’t.

p.s. — in light of last night’s post, think about what it means that the first group of settlers in this extremely remote area decided to put down roots in a place they called “Indian Key.”

Continuity in Settler Colonialism at Marco Island

Even though millions of tourists and residents have traipsed across this peninsula year after year for well over a century, Florida still seems like a new place. Digging just a little beneath the surface, however, reveals a history as deep as the Roman past undergirding the streets of London, or the history of the Pharaohs looming over Giza in Egypt. The account of anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing below, for example, reveals the remarkable similarities between the mounds, middens, and channels the Calusa people left behind on Marco Island with the canals and houses where people on the island live today.

Cushing, a wunderkind anthropologist who took over the ethnology department of the Smithsonian at the the age of 19, “explored” the area in 1896 based on a second-hand account of the mounds and artifacts he heard from a British Army officer at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. It didn’t take Cushing very long to find what he was after. Cutting through the very fist mangrove he encountered on the fringes of Marco Island, Cushing “dimly beheld, in the sombre depths of this sunless jungle of the waters, a long, nearly straight, but ruinous embankment of piled-up conch shells.” This led him to one of the most significant areas of Native settlement in the State of Florida.

“Threading this zone of boggy bins, and leading in toward a more central point, were here and there open ways like channels. They were formed by parallel ridges of shells, increasing in height toward the interior, until at last they merged into a steep, somewhat extended bench, also of shells, and flat on the top like a platform. Here, of course, at the foot of the platform, the channel ended, in a slightly broadened cove like a landing place…. In places off to the side on either hand were still more of these platforms, rising terrace-like, but very irregularly….”

“It was apparent that this had actually been a central court of some kind, had probably been formed as an open lagoon by the gradual upbuilding on attol-like reefs or shoals around deeper water, of these foundations or ramparts as I have called them….”

“Here… had been a water-court, around the margins of which, it would seem, places of abode whence these remains had been derived–houses rather than landings–had clustered… or else it was a veritable haven of ancient wharves and pile-dwellings, safe alike from tidal wave and hurricane within these gigantic ramparts of shell, where, through the channel gateways to the sea, canoes might readily come and go.”

– Frank Hamilton Cushing, “A Preliminary Report on the Exploration of Ancient Key-Dweller Remains on the Gulf Coast of Florida,” 1896

Notice any similarities in the aerial photos of the island below?

Marco Island Today
Marco Island Area Today

There are similar examples all over Florida. Maybe I’ll share some more some time, unless I finish my dissertation on this subject–among many others!–before I get around to it.

Jill Lepore and Publishing “Big” History

Many of the historians on Twitter have been dunking on Jill Lepore’s interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education since it was published. I posted a thread on Twitter about this earlier and decided to post it here, too. Twitter is so ephemeral, and this is something I’d like to think more about.

Working outside of the university, I’m not as ready to jump on the Bash Jill Lepore bandwagon as many #twitterstorians seem to be. Can we get past the Twitter hot take and engage her interview on its own terms?

Everyone’s arguments about historians engaging the public sphere through op-eds and teaching are valid, but they seem to ignore the context of the interview, which is mostly about publishing. In this context, Lepore is right. “Big” history books, the kind of Hofstadter syntheses Lepore is talking about, don’t have the cachet they once did. I think this is a good thing for scholars, but probably bad for civic culture.

It’s good for scholars because it means we’ve truly eschewed the sort of grand narratives that were en vogue at midcentury in favor of the complexity and ambiguity that followed from the late-sixties critiques aimed at this vogue. It’s probably bad for civic culture, though, for all of the reasons that Lepore mentions–especially the decline of the “fact.” When everything is too complex to sum up with a simple answer, like a math problem or popular science anecdote, it’s much harder to convince people to pay attention to the answer. What many readers seem to hear is that truth is relative to the observer, which doesn’t align with anyone’s moral compass. I think what readers often encounter, too, is a thicket of academic platitudes–like “the ways in which” or “to be sure.”

I think Professor Lepore is right on the money, therefore, to argue that scholars need to introduce complexity to the public with style. Thankfully, many are doing that in the past few years. The number of trade books I see on the general history shelves at Barnes & Noble penned by academic historians is growing. And it is exciting! Moving away somewhat from Lepore’s interview and down to the ground level here in flyover country, I think a bigger challenge faces all of us: how do we get these books on the shelf at Walmart or Target or the drug store?

Moving away somewhat from Lepore’s interview and down to the ground level here in flyover country, I think a bigger challenge faces all of us: how do we get these books on the shelf at Walmart or Target or the drug store? This is where they are most needed, because this is where the majority of intelligent but casual readers browse books. These are people, I believe, who are hungry for serious scholarship and complexity if the read is worth their time. Publishers and scholars should be reaching out past the booksellers to the big boxes serving the places without Barnes & Noble. Perhaps this will help restore historians to the town square.

Women’s Rage

The Cut is featuring an excerpt from Rebecca Traister’s forthcoming book, Good and Mad: the Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger this afternoon and it is a doozy. If you’re interested in American history, in politics, or pretty much anything, you should definitely go read it. As a historian, I’m intrigued by the argument Traister lays out:

Look to the start, the germinating seeds, of nearly every major social and political movement that has shaped this nation — from abolition to suffrage to labor to civil rights and LGBTQ rights to, yes, feminism — and you will find near its start the passionate dissent of women.

I’m inclined to agree, but very much looking forward to working through the book. The historiography of women’s dissent has the potential to completely reframe our understanding of American political history. The book will be out October 2nd.