Anniversary Tea Party winners: Shannon McNear's winner is carrie, Carrie Fancett Pagels' winner is Laurie Kilgore, Debra E. Marvin's -, Janet Grunst's winner is Caryl Kane - Denise Weimer's winner - Melissa M. for an e-book of The Witness Tree (contact Denise). Naomi Musch supplied a free download for everyone - Pegg Thomas's winner is Betsy Tieperman, Gabrielle Meyer's winner is Rory Lemond - Congratulations, all! Please private message your e-mail or mailing address to the authors.

Friday, May 22, 2020

History I Shouldn't Write - Vol. I

Chippewa men Bad River.jpg
I love to do research. In fact, sometimes I get so wrapped up in the research for a book that I have to set a timer so that I'll stop and get back to writing!

One of my favorite finds while researching is first-hand accounts, generally in the form of journals. In researching for my current projects set in Colonial America during the mid-1700s, I've read four of these journals - so far.

But I can't write about some of what I learned.

Some of what I've learned while researching is that the history "everyone knows" is often not the truth. For instance, the idea that the Native Americans never lied, never cheated, never mistreated anyone, that it was the European invaders who brought all that to these shores ... is not true.

In my research into Pontiac's Rebellion, reading from first-hand accounts, it is glaringly obvious that Pontiac lied to the British, lied to the French, lied to the other native tribes, and even lied to his own tribesmen. He was a driven and ambitious man. He bullied, threatened, stole, and killed whenever it suited his purposes. His goal was to annihilate the British any way he could. By hook or by crook, as my grandmother used to say.

We've been conditioned to think of the Native Americans of yesteryear as somehow above the fault and foibles of the rest of the human race. They weren't. They were as severely flawed as the rest of us. That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone since we all fell from grace with the same bite of that piece of fruit, right?

Yet from grade school on I was taught - and I'm assuming many of you were too - that it was the European invaders who were always at fault for everything bad that happened in Colonial America. They were evil, greedy, dishonest ... oh, wait. That sounds like Pontiac! 

People are people no matter the color of their skin. They come short & tall, skinny & fat, sweet & mean, happy & bitter, honest & cheats ... the whole spectrum of humanity in every color there is. To think that any people could be otherwise is to think them not fully human. Let that sink in a moment. By lionizing one race of people above the rest, you run the risk of dehumanizing them.

How does this relate to my writing the truth of history in my books? Because of what we've been taught to accept as "truth" ... I can't write about the Pontiac who lied and cheated and stole without poking the literary bear of political correctness. Without risking being raked over the coals of Amazon's reviewers. So the choice for me is:

Do I honor the history - warts and all - and face the consequences? Or do I play it safe?

I guess we'll all have to stay tuned!

Monday, May 11, 2020

Hyson Tea: A Small Adventure in Historical Research

Hyson tea was even a favorite of Thomas Jefferson
"February 8," the jail receipt read, "1/4 lb. Hyson tea, 3s. 9d., 1 lb. sugar, 1s. 6d. for Betsey Walker
she being brought to bed by a son the previous night, 5s. 3d."

The receipt goes on to list ginger and more sugar two days later and the cost of the midwife. Later notations document tea and sugar and midwife expenses for Susanna Harpe, and then tea, sugar, and whiskey for Sally Harpe, after each of them gave birth in the Danville Jail, Kentucky, in February, March, and April 1799 respectively.

I've covered the saga of the Harpes and their unfortunate women elsewhere--and give a full fictionalized treatment in my most recent book The Blue Cloak--but while researching their story I ran across this notation and immediately wondered, just what is Hyson tea?

Well. Turns out Hyson was a well-known and much-loved variety of green tea, dating at least to the 18th century, sometimes considered a mediocre variety but valued enough by the British to carry a higher tax rate than others. It reportedly accounts for 70 of the 300+ cases of tea destroyed during the Boston Tea Party.

Tea instead of coffee for the sake of research is no hardship
Further investigation revealed that part of the tea's charm comes from the slow unfurling of entire leaves, twisted and dried whole, and the light, delicate green tea flavor. (See this short but informative article at The Right Tea, explaining its origin and extolling its virtues.) To my surprise, the variety of tea is still available, and though more of a coffee drinker than tea, I caved to my curiosity and bought some. I also found a sampler offering all the tea varieties dumped into Boston Harbor, but sadly waited too long before purchasing and now it's no longer available. At any rate, Hyson tea does indeed have a pleasing taste, even without milk or sweetener, but especially when not forgotten and oversteeped. :-)

It's curious that the tea, with sugar, was considered part of the care and courtesy extended a postpartum woman, even one forced by the nefarious deeds of her "family" to give birth in jail. Maybe not surprising, given the reported benefits modern-day science has found of green tea in general. Regardless, the notation from jail and court records of the time provides a fascinating glimpse of the material culture of the past. And it's been just plain fun to taste a tea that just may have been very similar to that enjoyed by our colonial and Federal foremothers ... and even offered comfort and sustenance to three hapless new mothers in a Kentucky jail in 1799.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Colonial Williamsburg ~ Dressing For Success

Last fall, I had the pleasure of attending the 84th Anniversary at Colonial Williamsburg’s Costume Design Center. It was fascinating to wander through the large building located adjacent to the Historic Area. The large rooms are filled with men’s and women’s clothing, as well as a vast variety of accessories. Costume production, mending, and cleaning all take place here.

While the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg began in 1926, it was 1934 when costumed hostesses first appeared in the former capital. The occasion was when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visited for the dedication of the Duke of Gloucester Street. These first costumes were such a hit that it was decided to begin the manufacture of costumes for all the hostesses. The largest living history museum in the country initiated the largest costuming endeavor. Each interpreter would need clothing for the different seasons for each of their roles so a permanent costume department became necessary. The Design Department grew steadily, eventually moving out of the stables at the Governor’s Palace to its current location.

By 1936 there were 53 interpreters and their clothing needed to be cleaned, mended, and maintained. The use of the costumed interpreters expanded throughout the historic district, but most were dressed as gentry. That changed over time with the addition of coachmen, trade interpreters, the fifes and drums, waiters, kitchen workers, gaolers, and in the 1990s African American and domestic trades. All interpreters wore clothing appropriate to their station in life.

Over time, more attention was given to the authenticity of fabrics, design, and fit as a result of continuing research of documents, portraits, and old collections. Even the shoes and glasses interpreters wear are accurate for the period. Rationing during WWII halted the costume operation, but it picked up again after the war. Additional characters, like children, militiamen and actors were added bringing the number of interpreters to 230 by 1952 and 533 by 1968. Many interpreters play multiple roles. 

Today, over 600 staff members play 1,122 different roles. That’s a lot of costumes to be made and fitted to each individual for summer and winter, cleaned, and maintained. No small task.

There is more about the Colonial Williamsburg costumes in my interview with Colonial Williamsburg interpreter, Jane Hanson in my March 13th post.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The “Great Fires” of American History—and the Deadliest of All: Peshtigo

Springtime is notoriously one of the worst times of year for wildfires. Here in places like the one where I live, the snow is gone, but the greening up hasn’t begun in earnest. The ground is covered with dried leaves and brittle pine needles. Branches and other wooded detritus make for tinder that needs only a spark to ignite. Here in Wisconsin, in fact, the Department of Natural Resources has suspended burning permits for the foreseeable future. The concern is that, since more wildfires begin in the spring, eliminating ignition sources on the landscape will reduce the wildfire risk which can lead to more person-to-person contact and possible higher vulnerability to certain populations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Viruses aside, this got me wondering about the so-called “Great Fires” that raged across the land and our nation’s early history.

There is a lot of study and speculation about whether or not and why those native to the continent may (or may not) have used burning to clear the forests. We do know for sure, however, that when the first European settlers came to this continent, it didn’t take long for fire to begin taking its toll on the colonies.

In January 1608, a devastating fire destroyed most of the colonist's provisions and lodgings. Captain James Smith made a concise assessment of the situation:

"I begin to think that it is safer for me to dwell in the wild Indian country than in this stockade, where fools accidentally discharge their muskets and others burn down their homes at night."

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin—who had a lot of first-hand knowledge of volunteer fire-fighting by this point—founded the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia, which became the standard for volunteer fire company organization in many other places. And firefighting was needed all throughout the colonies.

November 18, 1740, Charleston, South Carolina suffered a horrendous conflagration fueled by turpentine, tar, and rum that moved quickly, swallowing up wharves, commercial buildings, and houses in its path. The wasn’t Charleston’s first licking by fire. Founded in 1689, “Charles Towne” experienced its first blaze in 1698 and lost one-third of its settlement’s buildings. The city went on to suffer other fire catastrophes in 1778, 1788, 1796, 1799, 1810, 1819, and 1826.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, the night of September 20th, 1776, fire burned New York’s West Side at the southern end of Manhattan Island. This was during British occupation of the island during the Revolutionary War, and there was much debate and blame cast over whether the fire was started by the British or the revolutionaries. 10-25 percent of the buildings in the city were destroyed and other parts were plundered in the chaos.

Artist's Depiction of the Great Fire of New York (1776), Wikipedia Commons

In spring of 1788, fire swept through New Orleans, destroying 856 of its 1100 structures. If that first “Great Fire” wasn’t bad enough, only six years later, another fire roared through the area now known as the French Quarter destroying 212 more structures, including the jail, in what became known as the Great Fire of 1794. The schooner Nuestra Señora del Cármen, anchored off-shore, was rented as a jail for several months following.

The 1800s saw fire’s devastation in many American cities and across its vast countryside. New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco—and who could forget Chicago—saw the massive affects of fire on populations crowded together in wooden structures. In all of these fires, there was some loss of life, making the stories even more tragic.

But of all the fires of our history, none was so destructive and deadly as 
The Great Peshtigo Fire. 

Peshtigo—called the worst wildfire in history—happened when? 
In 1871, on the night of October 8th. 

But isn’t that the night of the Great Chicago Fire, you ask? 
Why, yes, it is. 

But I’ve not heard of this fire, you say. 
That is highly probable, because Chicago was a much bigger city, and resources had been directed from Wisconsin to Chicago to help. 

Meanwhile, tiny little Peshtigo, in the northeast corner of the state near Lake Michigan, not only saw 1.2 million acres go up in flame, but the entire town was turned to ash, and more than 1152 people were killed, compared to Chicago’s loss of life of some 300. Many estimates say that the Peshtigo death toll was likely closer to 2500, and some say 3000. It was difficult to account for the many lumberjacks, railroad men, farm family immigrants, and others who populated the north woods and were itinerant.

"Making for the River", Artist's Depiction of The Great Peshtigo Fire, Wikipedia Commons

Horrifically, the Peshtigo Fire claimed more lives than any other forest fire in US history, before or since. Many of those people lie together in a mass grave. Many others’ bodies dissolved to ash and were never recovered, such was the total annihilation across the landscape.

I have always wanted to tell Peshtigo’s tragic story through the eyes of characters in a work of fiction. Using the recorded stories of several actual survivors and other historians, I’ve tried to be true to their accounts, while also sharing a love story. My novel THE RED FURY re-released this week. I hope you’ll visit my website, or check out the book on Amazon to learn more about it.

The characters in The Red Fury are some of my favorite I’ve ever written. When lumberman’s daughter Lainey Kade, and brothers—Civil War veterans—Zane and Kelly Beaumont, stepped into my writer’s heart, I felt as if they were actually there in Peshtigo, in the past.

The Red Fury can be read alone, but it would be better to read The Green Veil first.

Take care now, and God bless,
Amazon author page

Friday, April 24, 2020

The History of Blacksmiths

Next Friday - May 1, 2020 - is the official release date for The Blacksmith Brides. This project has been a long time in the works for me because I wrote my story back in 2015. It was originally supposed to be in a different collection, but that one fell through. It turned out for the good because it allowed me to work with the three awesome authors who joined me in making The Blacksmith Brides!

Blacksmiths have always fascinated me. As a child, my granddad's cabin was a short walk from the tiny town's old "smithy." Granddad would tell me stories about growing up on the farm, working behind horses, and the necessity of a nearby blacksmith to keep everything working on the farm.

Did you know that the first blacksmiths existed in 1500 ... B.C.? The Hittites were the first known to heat and temper iron for use in tools. When they were scattered due to wars, they took their knowledge with them and 1200 B.C. gave birth to what we know as the Iron Age.

The early attempts at forging the raw metals were not scientifically understood, and thus some tools were too soft, others were too brittle so that they broke easily, but some were - as Goldilocks once said - just right. The legendary weapons rendered by blacksmiths to be true steel were famous. Most were named and handed down from generation to generation. As the science of blacksmithing improved, the smiths were essential to every community. Even so, in some areas, they were viewed as using magic to ply their craft and held in suspicion.

Blacksmiths kept their key role in society until the end of the 1800s when the Industrial Era started. They rallied briefly to do architectural ironworks in the early 1900s, but the Great Depression put an end to that.

Image may contain: outdoorIn recent years, there has been an increase in interest in the blacksmithing trade as a hobby. My husband and I enjoy attending the Black Iron Days in Grayling, Michigan. We also attend the Rendezvous at Mackinaw which includes a number of blacksmiths working their portable forges during the event - as seen in the photo here.

If you have a chance to visit a blacksmith shop at a heritage park or at a festival, do it! Enjoy the sounds and smells of a skill that built civilization as we know it.

Pegg Thomas
Writing History with a Touch of Humor