Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


The Lost Prince of American Bohemians: The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Ralph Keeler, Literary Vagabond

Ralph Keeler is the most extraordinary American that you’ve never heard of—a performer, traveler and writer who blazed a trail through the heart of literary scene on both sides of the continent in the decade after the Civil War. His astonishing adventures—and, particularly, his equally enigmatic end—can be traced through the pages of America’s Historical Newspapers.

 

A potted biography can hardly do justice to the vicissitudes of Keeler’s short life: as a runaway child, Keeler became part of a minstrel troupe that travelled around the country, including a stint along the Mississippi River in a showboat. Leaving that life behind to pursue an education, he made his way to Europe where he enrolled as a student at Heidelberg University. Returning to America after the Civil War, he gravitated to San Francisco—at that moment, the capital of Bohemian life in the newly reunited nation. It was an apt choice: Keeler’s flamboyant personal style soon captured the attention of the city’s literati, and he became friends with writers like Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Charles Warren Stoddard. At first he worked as a teacher: notice of his address to the “The State Teachers’ Institute,” in his role as “Principal of the Foreign Evening School,” appeared in the Weekly Alta-California, the city’s leading newspaper, in May 1867.

The Lost Prince of American Bohemians: The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Ralph Keeler, Literary Vagabond


Early American Newspapers and the Adverts 250 Project: Integrating Primary Sources into the Undergraduate History Classroom

In January 2016 I launched the Adverts 250 Project, a daily blog that features an advertisement published 250 years ago along with analysis and historical context.  This project grew out of my current research, a book tentatively titled Advertising in Early America: Marketing Media and Messages in the Eighteenth Century.  Publishing a blog as a supplement to the book offers several advantages, including the ability to share more of my work more frequently and to broader audiences.  It also opened up new opportunities for integrating my research into the undergraduate classroom, enriching both my scholarship and my teaching.

 

 

Early American Newspapers and the Adverts 250 Project: Integrating Primary Sources into the Undergraduate History Classroom


Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers

Born on January 12, 1856, in Florence, Italy, to American parents, John Singer Sargent—one of the most important portrait painters of his time—lived all his life in Europe, including Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. He did not touch U.S. soil until 1876 when he was 20. However, his U.S. citizenship and his ancestral roots in New England were sufficient enough for historians to classify him as a prominent American artist. More importantly, Sargent himself considered it an honor to be American; he remained an American citizen all his life, although he chose to live in Great Britain from 1884 until his death in 1925. In 1912 American newspapers reported that he would have received the British Order of Merit had he become a British subject. [1]

Largely due to his American identity, in particular after he attained distinction as a portrait painter of upper-class Europeans, United States newspapers continuously carried news about Sargent during his lifetime. They were, for the most part, generous with their praise of his achievements and success, regarding him as “a master of technique, and as one of the most brilliant artists of his day, with no equal among the men of his generation.”[2] When Sargent was elected a full member of the British Royal Academy in 1897, the Cleveland Plain Dealer went so far as telling its readers that “Sargent has beaten his master, Carolus Duran, on his own ground. He has surpassed Romney in a painter’s skill, while his vivacity is only equaled by Millais. He is almost worthy of the jealousy of Velasquez.”[3]

Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers


Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers

I am finishing a history of antebellum black politics, a little-studied topic for which many of the usual sources are unavailable: white politicians did not record their correspondence with black men, and the latter rarely donated personal papers to libraries, for obvious reasons. However, America’s Historical Newspapers (AHN), used with precision, can produce extraordinary insights into the quotidian fabric of American politics and culture, evidence otherwise unavailable. 

Three examples illustrate its unique capacities.  First, AHN can be extremely productive in combination with another archival base—the decennial manuscript census of the U.S. The latter can be searched online to locate name, state, county, and municipality going back to 1790 (I use archives.com, but there are other genealogical databases).  Prior to 1850, the information is very limited, in that only heads of households were named, with numbers of household members distributed by sex and age range; race is indicated in various ways. Starting in 1850, however, much more information is available: full names of all family members, house numbers, exact ages, employment, real property, literacy, place of birth, and more. The census, combined with hundreds of individual name searches in AHN, has allowed me to construct a prosopography of the black political class in Portland, Maine; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and Providence, Rhode Island.

Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers


The Mysterious Mr. Carter: Transatlantic Adventures in Early American Finance

In August 1799, as partisan antagonism heated up in advance of the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, the Republican press worked hard to paint the Federalist establishment in the colors of an imperial court. Drawing comparisons with Caesar’s Rome, these newspapers pointed out that leading figures in the political and business elites of the new nation were tied to each other by more than just their shared social position.

“General Hamilton,” wrote a correspondent to the New London Bee, “is married to the daughter of Gen. Schuyler, of New York sister of Mrs. Church. Mr. Church then called Carter, was co-contractor in the army with col. Wadsworth, both of whom made great fortunes by the war. And the son of Mr. C.,” the writer went on, “is about to marry the daughter of Mr. Bingham of Philadelphia, the federal Senator. Thus are our advocates for war cemented together.”

The article was soon reprinted in the Philadelphia Aurora. Its message was clear: if the Quasi-War with France were to escalate, as men like Hamilton seemed to wish, it would be ordinary folk doing the fighting and the dying, while the Federalist aristocracy would be the ones to benefit.

The Mysterious Mr. Carter: Transatlantic Adventures in Early American Finance


Runaway! Recapturing Information about Working Women's Dress through Runaway Advertisement Analysis, 1750-90

Indentured and enslaved women in the American colonies provided domestic, agricultural, and commercial labor, but left behind little documentary evidence of their lives. Some women chose to abscond from service. In Figure 1 below, a runaway woman’s master has recorded details of her appearance in a newspaper advertisement which seeks her return. Written from the master’s perspective, such runaway ads often state the name of the woman, describe her visual appearance, record the clothing she wore when she eloped, and occasionally mention personality quirks and aptitudes. These ads offer intriguing glimpses of women whose story is otherwise difficult to tell through other documentary sources.

Runaway! Recapturing Information about Working Women's Dress through Runaway Advertisement Analysis, 1750-90


The "New People" in China: Using Historical Newspapers to Analyze America’s First Contacts with Asia

The Chinese themselves were very indulgent towards us, and happy in the contemplation of a new people, opening to view a fresh source of commerce to their extensive empire.
—From the journal of Major Samuel Shaw, as reported in Fowle’s New-Hampshire Gazette, 27 May 1785, and other historical newspapers

To the calls and “huzzahs” of astonished merchants, sailors, and dockworkers, the American ship The Empress of China slipped into her berth along the wharves of New York’s East River on 11 May 1785. The Empress was the republic’s first Indiaman—the first American vessel to sail “eastward of Good Hope” into the waters of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Fifteen months earlier, she had departed New York with a cargo of Appalachian ginseng and Spanish dollars. Now onlookers gaped to see the wares she had brought back from the East.

As soon as customs documents had been signed, ledgers and daybooks filled out, and cargo assigned to auction, the Empress’s business agent, Major Samuel Shaw, sent a hurried message to the corner of Great Dock and Broad Streets.  It was here at Samuel Fraunces’s tavern that the U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay, maintained his department office. Shaw believed it a matter of urgent business to frame the Empress’s journey to China as a historic achievement that catapulted the new republic into the community of civilized nations.  Shaw himself captured the country’s sense of the significance of the voyage when he prefaced his letter to Jay with the words, “It becomes my duty to communicate to you . . . an account of the reception its citizens have met with, and the respect with which its flag has been treated in that distant region.”

The


Reporting the War of 1812: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Naval Captain David Porter

During the recent bicentennial of the War of 1812, historians revisited America’s second war of independence in a spate of books that detailed the conflict on land, at sea, through cause and effect, and various other angles. One fact remains—the War of 1812, which lasted for two-and-a-half years, is as controversial and misunderstood today as it was in 1814. Often called “Mr Madison’s war” and even “Mr Jefferson’s war,” the War of 1812 remains fertile ground for historical research and analysis. In one 1983 work on the evolution of American newspapers in the years leading up to the War of 1812, Donald R. Avery concluded the war was the pivotal event in the shift of newspaper coverage from foreign to domestic news. This brief study demonstrates—through use of the digital Early American Newspapers database—the validity of Avery’s thesis by examining coverage of one American war hero, during and after the War of 1812. 

David Porter, Jr., was an American Navy officer who entered the Navy in 1798 and saw action in the Quasi-War with France and the Barbary Wars. When war was declared in 1812, Porter was promoted to captain in command of the USS Essex, a forty-six gun frigate. Porter has been the subject of military biographies but it is only through the eyes of contemporary newspaper coverage that his heroic and often exciting exploits can be best understood.

Reporting the War of 1812: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Naval Captain David Porter


Lafayette's Return: An Early American Media Event

In summer 2015, a wooden frigate named the Hermione sailed from France to the United States. It was recreating one of the voyages that brought the Marquis de Lafayette to fight in the American War of Independence. The new Hermione was a painstaking replica of Lafayette’s ship, built with authentic eighteenth-century methods. Its voyage, however, became a modern multimedia spectacle—with international television coverage, a website, and a busy Twitter account.

Advanced technology aside, something similar happened nearly two hundred years ago. In the summer of 1824, Lafayette himself, now an elderly man, returned to the United States after many years in France. Enormous crowds of Americans, many of whom were too young to remember the Revolution at all, turned out to see the legendary general in person. His tour of U.S. cities also became a national journalistic event; today, we can trace it through thousands of surviving newspaper articles. Exchanging stories through the federal postal system, newspaper editors helped their readers visualize other communities’ celebrations. By doing so, they helped Americans experience the feeling of membership in one nation.

Lafayette's Return: An Early American Media Event


Reading between the Lines: Exploring Postbellum Plantation Memoirists through Digitized Newspaper Collections

Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century plantation memoirs and reminiscences are an important, though often overlooked, genus of Lost Cause apologia. Printed by some of the nation’s leading publishing houses, these narrative sources tend to foreground a conspicuous nostalgia for the plantation-era South, adopting literary strategies that connect with discourses of paternalism and carefully fashioned vignettes on close affinities, real or imagined, between master and slave.

Despite a recent plethora of books on the southern autobiographical impulse, critical assessment of plantation memoirs and reminiscences has not been forthcoming to date. This is unfortunate, not least because the potential scope of such analysis affords an excellent opportunity to reveal the ways in which white elites used a lifetime’s memories to underpin southern regional identity and history in the years following the Civil War and Reconstruction. This absence of scholarly attention may indicate the unfashionable status of a cluster of authors who, writing many years after the events they describe, privilege fond memories of plantation life and lifestyle. Much ink was spilled in an effort to capture everyday relationships and social interactions between ruling landowners and their dependents that from today’s vantage point can appear overblown, obtuse or outdated.

Reading between the Lines: Exploring Postbellum Plantation Memoirists through Digitized Newspaper Collections


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