Monday, April 4, 2011


In days of yore, people wrote volumes of long newsy letters to far-off friends and loved ones, and these missives might travel for many moons and endure a series of perilous journeys by land and sea before ever reaching a recipient. So it's no surprise that letters tended to be treasured and saved by their readers.

It was also common practice in some circles to pen daily journals, transcribe trial testimonies and political debates, dream up scandalous pamphlets and outrageous slogans, or write out speeches on onion skin paper or on the backs of envelopes. Naturally, these items were stored away as well. And it’s a good thing for me that so many have survived, because whenever I write about history, they turn out to be the most colorful and entertaining and revealing sources I use. So today I thought it might be fun to serve up a few short outtakes showing how people dealt with some troublesome matters.

Take the gold miners during the California Gold Rush, for example. They were a bunch of jokers.

“I hate to desert. I am almost crazy, as I have the gold fever shocking bad.”
B. P. Kloozer, a California soldier

“The big excitement swept all Tennessee like a fire in prairie grass. Some men that was tied with families actually set down and cried ‘cause they couldn’t go.” J. H. Beadle

Here's what a couple of guys said on board the sailing ships headed for the gold fields:

“The water is becoming bad. I don’t mind it much. I have a way of killing the bugs before drinking them.” Anonymous

“The ship gave a lurch and threw me down. I rolled and pitched and tumbled against one side of the room and then turned two or three somersets and struck my shoulders against the other side.” Horace C. Snow

The journey by land wasn't much better:

“Hail exceeded anything I ever saw, being as large as pigeon eggs. There may be fun in camping, but we haven’t discovered any.” Elisha Douglass Perkins

Life in California's boom towns wasn't altogether user-friendly either:

“In Stockton we slept on barrel stays with scanty blankets and well filled with athletic and courageous and determined fleas.” Horace C. Snow

Here’s an excerpt of some testimony in 1692 that convinced a panel of judges to hang Bridget Bishop, a woman from Salem who was accused of being a witch:

“ I did see a black thing Jump into the window & stood Just before my face…the body of itt looked like a Munky only the feete ware like a Cocks feete w'th Claws… I strook at it with a stick butt felt noe substance … then it vanished away and I opened the back dore and Espied Bridget Bushop in her orchard goeing to wards her house. I Againe did see the creture … itt sprang back and flew over the apple tree flinging the dust w'th its feet against my stomake, upon which I was struck dumb…” John Louder

Go figure.

When America’s 13 Colonies wanted to break away from British rule, colorful oratory abounded. Benjamin Franklin always had a way with words. Upon signing the Declaration of Independence, he told his compatriots:

“We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

And when the war finally ended and he helped work out the peace treaty, he said “There never was a good war or a bad peace.”

When the American Revolution was heating up, Patrick Henry famously said:

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Samuel Johnson, the greatest English writer of his day, made this response:

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”

(There were slaves in all 13 Colonies)

Scientist Charles Darwin was vehemently opposed to slavery, and during his journey around the world as a young man, he decried the practice in his journal every chance he got:

“How weak are the arguments of those who maintain that slavery is a tolerable evil! The Corcovado is notorious for runaway slaves. We met three villainous looking ruffians armed to the teeth. They were slave-hunters & receive so much for every man dead or alive whom they may take.”

And finally, Lewis and Clark overcame dangers galore, but this ever-present danger wasn't their fave or their most glam. Here’s William Clark on June 17th 1804 (note the different spellings) :

"The ticks and musquiters are verry troublesom"

and on July 26: "the Boat roled in such a manner that I could do nothing & was Compelled to go to the woods and combat with the Musquetors"

and on September 7: " 8 falloe deer & 3 Buffalow killed today. Muskeetors verry troublesom."

On July 15 1806, Meriwether Lewis said: "the musquetoes continue to infest us in such manner that we can scarcely exist ; for my own part I am confined to my bier at least 3/4ths of my time. my dog even howls with the torture and we frequently get them in our thr[o]ats as we breath."

Sorry, Lewis and Clark, but I love this stuff.


Steve Sheinkin said...

I'm with you, Rosalyn. One of things that drove me crazy about writing textbooks was that editors never let me use great quotes like these. I once tried to include part of an Abigail Adams letter to John in which she reported on the kids: "The little folks are sick and puke every morning, but after that they are comfortable." No one's saying this is important, but it's funny and real and kids would love it. So keep finding those quotes!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Love your style, Steve. lol... What better way to turn kids on to history anyway?