Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Revolutionary War didn’t end at Yorktown

If you’re interested in early American history you probably recall that the British surrendered to George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

Hold it. The Revolutionary War didn’t end there.

In the two years following Yorktown, there were hundreds of skirmishes and combat encounters, largely in the American South, between soldiers of the Continental and British armies, and among pro-American and pro-British militias and many native American warriors.

King George III didn’t get around to issuing his Proclamation of Cessation of Hostilities until February 3, 1783.

On the high seas, after Yorktown, there were continuing naval encounters involving privateers and both Continental Navy and Royal Navy vessels as late as March 1783.

George Washington enters New York City in November 1783

The war ended officially when the Treaty of Paris was finally signed in September 3, 1783.

News traveled slowly in those days. The last contingent of British troops in North America left New York City on November 26, 1783.

 Read about the last British soldiers leaving New York here on

Read this review of Don Glickstein’s book After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence:

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Keeping track of time

North American time zones were established 132 years ago by the big American and Canadian railroad companies that decided they could no longer keep track of the different local times observed in every town on their transcontinental routes.

The four time zones we have today—Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific—were created on November 18, 1883,with roughly their current boundaries by arbitrary action of the railroads. Almost immediately there was widespread adoption of the new time conventions.

Previously, almost every town in America followed the ancient custom of establishing 12:00 pm at the time that the sun was at its highest in the sky. The railroads had the incredibly confusing task of publishing train schedules that tried to keep track of every locally designated arrival and departure time on every route.

In the early stages of railroad travel the problem wasn’t really acute, because trains moved relatively slowly. As speeds increased, the number of towns on a typical day-trip route increased, thus greatly complicating the preparation and publication of train schedules, and frustrating the highly publicized efforts of railroads to “run on time.” Moreover, a traveler faced the unprecedented challenge of covering enough distance in a short time to make it obligatory to adjust his timepiece repeatedly.

The four time zones were universally recognized but they weren’t officially endorsed by the federal government until 1918, when Congress put the administration of time zones under the control of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Children at work

It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that life was simpler in the past, “in the good old days”….

In some ways, of course, it’s obviously true: in 1215 and in 1620 and in the late 18th century no one had to worry about keeping track of the recharging cords for the iPhone and the tablet and the Kindle and the laptop.

Mostly, though, simply, life was different in the past.

Prof. Patricia Crone makes this searingly obvious in her book, Pre-Industrial Societies. She writes broadly and with insight about the differences between our contemporary industrial society and all of the pre-industrial societies that nurtured and framed the lives of all the human beings who lived before the Industrial Revolution changed almost everything, barely more than 200 years ago.

For instance, childhood.

Crone says:
“…modern society is distinctive in its perception of children as creatures who must be shielded from adult secrets…on the grounds that they are innocent, and exempted from adult responsibilities (especially work) on the grounds that they are busy with their education…Childhood is perceived as a long and glorious holiday from adult society…

But in pre-industrial societies the infantile holiday was exceedingly short…Children learnt the ‘facts of life’ by watching and hearing just as they learnt anything else…Nor could they be exempted from adult responsibility for long. There was little, if any, formal schooling for the majority. Boys would usually start participating in adult work at about the age of seven, girls might begin to acquire domestic tasks even earlier.

Coal mine workers, Pittston, PA (Photo by Lewis Hine)
Adult status was conferred by physical maturity, real or presumed, at least as far as boys were concerned…Still, they might not be seen as fully adult in either law or custom until they had married (or reached an age where [sic] they ought to have done so); and marriage was usually indispensable for social recognition of adulthood in a girl, whatever her legal position.”

N. B. Britain passed the first child labor laws restricting work hours and working conditions for kids in the early 19th century. In 1836 Massachusetts enacted the first American child labor law, requiring that young workers under 15 must attend school for at least three months each year.
Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies (1989; repr., Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 110.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014

This is a book about the history of the United States, and the concurrent histories of the indigenous peoples who lived in North America before there was a “United States.” Surely you already know, deeply or vaguely, that these are violent histories of conflict, betrayal and subjugation.

Full disclosure: this is not an easy book. If you are an American historian or a student of American history, you should read it. Don’t expect to enjoy it. Dunbar-Ortiz frankly admits that she had “grave misgivings” about her mandate to “write accessibly so it would engage multiple audiences.”  She uses the word “genocide” a half dozen times in the first few pages, and repeatedly thereafter, and this sets a tone for the entire book.

Here are selected chapter sub-headings—they’re not a representative sample, but they are illustrative:
  • White Supremacy and Class
  • Roots of Genocide
  • Settler-Parasites Create the Virginia Colony
  • Career Building Through Genocide
  • The Genocidal Army of the West
  • Greed is Good
  • North America is a Crime Scene

Dunbar-Ortiz concludes by endorsing a Native American historian’s observation that “…while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.” The author argues for “honoring the treaties…restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks…[restoring] all stolen sacred items and body parts…payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations.”

That is a conclusion of historic proportions that engages multiple audiences. Dunbar-Ortiz had grave misgivings before she wrote this book. I think many readers will feel the same.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Did the British really try to win?

I have a lot to learn. Therefore, with due humility, I ask: how hard did the British try to win the American Revolutionary War?

It's a research topic that intrigues me. I'm using the question to guide my reading. I'm careful to remind myself, often, that I don't know the answer. 

I think I know enough to indicate the validity of the question. Britain had substantial economic engagement with the North American colonies in the latter part of the 18th century. The British West Indies—the Caribbean "sugar islands"—also were an important component of the British Atlantic colonial world. Britain had additional commitments in Florida, as well as military outposts, trading posts and other dependencies in Ireland, the Mediterranean, India, Africa, Central America, the Bahamas, the Bermudas, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Hudson's Bay. Britain was intensely engaged in diplomacy and threatening entanglements with France, Spain and other European powers. Britain was an economic power, not a military titan.

King George and the British government did not have unlimited military resources. Army and naval forces were allocated to the rebellious American colonies, just as they were to the West Indies and other areas of vital interest. French and Spanish forces continually threatened the British Caribbean islands, an economic bastion of the British monarchy. There were not enough British ships and troops to establish compelling military superiority in every arena of British interest.

British admirals could not prevent a localized French naval superiority in the Chesapeake Bay that forced Cornwallis to surrender his under-sized army to Washington and Rochambeau at Yorktown in October, 1781.

Did the British government send enough troops and ships to North America to get the job done when the rebellion broke out? Was winning the war a pre-eminent priority for King George and his ministers? Doubtless the British wanted to win. How hard did they try?

I'm not looking for a simple answer. I'm interested, first, in understanding the meaningful frames of reference for considering the question.


Bowler, R. Arthur.  Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in American, 1775-1783. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Corwin, Edward S. French Policy and the American Alliance of 1778. 1916. Reprint, Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1962.

Duffy, Michael. Soldiers, Sugar and Seapower: The British Expeditions to the West Indies and the War Against Revolutionary France. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Gipson, Lawrence Henry. The Triumphant Empire: The Empire Beyond the Storm, 1770-1776, vol. 13 of The British Empire Before The American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1967.

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Seton-Watson, Robert William. Britain In Europe: 1789-1914, A Survey of Foreign Policy. 1937. Reprint, Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1955.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

“Mr. Jeppers, send a telegram to San Francisco.”

“Mr. Jeppers, send a telegram to San Francisco.”

Before October 1861, it would have been possible for a banker in Salt Lake City to say that, but anybody farther east would have been out of luck.

Just before the start of the Civil War,  telegraph lines connected the East Coast to as far west as western Missouri, and the West Coast could send messages by wire as far east as Salt Lake City. The central plains, essentially what is now Kansas and Colorado, had no poles (no trees!) and no wire.
Congress in 1860 offered a bounty of $40,000 a year to the first company that could connect the East Coast and West Coast telegraph networks. Wire, glass insulators and poles would have to be shipped by horse-drawn wagon from San Francisco to the construction zone.

The Western Union Telegraph Co. took up the challenge and completed the line to create a coast-to-coast communications channel which we have largely taken for granted for the last 154 years. The transcontinental railroad wouldn’t be complete until 1869.

Imagine the reality of 1860. Imagine that your text message to your sweetie on the other side of the country had to be copied out and carried by stagecoach or a horseman through Kansas and Colorado, weather permitting.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The first “Indian” treaty

White Europeans signed the first peace treaty with Native Americans more than 394 years ago, less than six months after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth harbor.

It was honored for more than 50 years.

The rest, sadly, is American history.

The good ship Mayflower arrived in Cape Cod Bay in November 1620, carrying 101 English settlers. Most of them were Puritan Separatists who had left the Church of England behind when they embarked for North America. (They intended to land at the mouth of the Hudson River in what is now New York, but ocean storms blew them off course).

A few months later Captain Myles Standish and his men made first contact with some of the estimated 5,000 Wampanoag people who inhabited the region. A short time later, their leader, Massasoit, visited the English settlement.

On April 1, 1621, the Pilgrims made a defensive alliance with Massasoit, signing an agreement that neither group would “doe hurt” to the other. This first treaty had a remarkable enforcement provision: if a Wampanoag violated its terms, he would be sent to Plymouth for judgment and punishment by the colonists; if a European broke the law, his case would be handled by the Wampanoags.

I couldn’t readily find any details on any breaches of the treaty and how enforcement was handled in fact.

We can take note that such even-handed, cross-cultural enforcement of treaty provisions was not the norm, and, in fact, our colonial history is filled with examples of treaties that were honored in the breach but not otherwise.

Massasoit and his sachems didn’t know what they were getting into.

Less than 60 years later, disease and warfare had killed most of the Wampanoags.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.