Illuminating the American Revolution / French in Newport

Several weeks ago, a Revolutionary War reenactment was held at the Colony House in Newport, RI to welcome the tall ship Hermione.

One of five rotating capitals in early Rhode Island.

Newport was one of five rotating capitals in early Rhode Island.

The date: July 10, 1780. Newport had been occupied by the British for three years since December 1776 until the fall of 1779. The British brought chaos and destruction and over half of the town’s population fled. From July-August 1778 French forces under the command of of the comte d’Estaing attempted to help American troops and planned a siege of Newport from the British. First they miscalculated and then a large storm blew in so the French were forced to retreat. They tried again two years later. On July 11, 1780, the Marquis de Lafayette arrived on the Hermione with 5500 French troops to march with the Comte de Rochambeau.

Reenactors in the guise of townspeople gathered at Newport’s Colony House for a day of events. I tried to aim for the reading of the Town Council Proclamation, but due to getting carsick on the bus, had to sit down in the Visitors’ Center for awhile before walking over to Colony House. (Carsickness also prevented me from taking a water taxi to Fort Adams to see L’Hermione).

Newport citizens mingled with each other and guests speaking about the Revolutionary War time period in Newport from the perspective of their character.

Reproductions of colonial newspapers helped visitors get a feel for what was going on in New England at the time. The articles on the French arrival in Newport are especially fun to read.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

click to see the full size picture and read the articles.

colonialnewspaper3The “townspeople” distributed candles to all the guests and led an illuminated procession across the square to the Brick Marketplace gift shop/museum. The candles managed to stay lit despite the ocean breeze.

“Three cheers for King Louis!”

In addition to the reenactment, Colony House had a display of archival material and museum pieces relating to the French in Newport. I especially liked seeing the original handwritten documents. It was amazing to read the actual documents that helped contribute to the formation of the United States.

A promissory note from the War department of the American Army of Rochambeau 26 August 1782

A promissory note from the War department of the American Army of Rochambeau 26 August 1782

Col. Henry Sherburne’s Military Logbook, 1778 displays an entry from August 8, 1778, the eve of the Battle of Rhode Island. Sherburne was in Tiverton, Rhode Island, the headquarters for the American troops. He recorded the hierarchy of command, including which regiments will be under Lafayette’s control. His handwriting is surprisingly easy to read for a time period when spelling was creative and handwriting vastly different from our own.

click to see full size photo and read Sherburne's log.

click to see full size photo and read Sherburne’s log.

click to read

click to read

A letter from Gen. Rochambeau to an unknown correspondent. 27 June, 1782

A letter from Gen. Rochambeau to an unknown correspondent. 27 June, 1782

The sign states :  “This letter describes the movement of the French and American troops and artillery along the York River in June 1782. . . . Writing from Williamsburg, this letter demonstrates Rochambeau’s concern for new defenses at Yorktown and a reinforcement of troops along the seaboard in the event of another British offensive.”

Reproductions of maps from the Library of Congress provide a better idea of what the city looked like in 1780, where the defenses were and where troops were located.

French map showing locations of French troops in Newport.

French map showing locations of French troops in Newport.

French map showing French squadron entering Newport under battery fire and forcing its way through on Aug. 8, 1778.

French map showing French squadron entering Newport under battery fire and forcing its way through on Aug. 8, 1778.

French map showing the different operations of the French fleet and American Troops commanded by Major Gen. Sullivan against the English land and sea forces from Aug. 9, 1788 to the night of Aug, 30-31when Americans made their retreat.

French map showing the different operations of the French fleet and American Troops commanded by Major Gen. Sullivan against the English land and sea forces from Aug. 9, 1788 to the night of Aug, 30-31when Americans made their retreat.

Colony House also had an exhibit of items from the Newport Historical Society, such as this silver spoon.

Rochambeau spoon

1730-1750. Sterling silver. L. 12-1/4 in. Acquired from Mrs. May H. Bowen, 1964.3.

This is a spoon engraved with the Rochambeau crest and presented to Jabez Bowen, the deputy governor of the new state of Rhode Island and his family by Rochambeau to commemorate Rochambeau’s stay in Providence. It look just as beautiful as it must have in 1780. It must have been a great treasure for Mr. Bowen to save and pass down with the wonderful story. (Spoon, Joseph Gabriel Agard (French), ca. 1730-1750. Sterling silver. L. 12-1/4 in. Acquired from Mrs. May H. Bowen, Newport Historical Society1964.3.)

Panel displays also explained more background information. A sign displaying quotations from the diary of Baron Louis de Closen, an aide de camp to Rochambeau, was especially interesting. The Baron noted many differences between French and American manners. He saw Americans as more uncouth than the French, except for the women, of course! The courage of American men is also duly noted, despite their indifferent appearance and more slovenly manners.

Newport Through French Eyes

Thousands of French soldiers came to occupy the city. Many Newporters were excited to welcome the liberating strangers, but others worried the French would be a repeat of the British – bad guests. Those who were happy about the arrival of the French held an evening illumination in which citizens of Newport put candles in their windows on all the streets leading out of town. These quartering notices inform Newporters of the French occupation.

Quartering notices for citizens to house the French Army during the winter 1780-1781.

The French stayed in Newport until 1781. In March 1781, George Washington arrived in Newport and met with General Rochambeau to plot out their next move. Rochambeau and his troops left Newport and met up with Washington and his troops in Yorktown, Virginia, ultimately securing a victory over General Cornwallis and the British. Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown marked the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary War.

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Boston University’s Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center

A week ago I had the pleasure of visiting Boston University’s Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center located in BU’s Mugar Library. The staff was very friendly and accommodating. The Howard Gottlieb operates a little differently from the archives I am used to. They do not publish finding aids online but they do have descriptions of collections. Upon arriving at the Howard Gottlieb patrons are assigned an archivist to work with them. The archivist is responsible for bringing down the materials into the reading room and assisting researchers. My companion requested her materials in advance, knowing exactly what she wanted to look at. I was given a folder containing the inventory list of the collection I wished to look at Bortman, Mark and Llora and Foxcroft and Mayhew Family Papers. I wanted to look at some manuscripts from the Mather family and from John Eliot, important colonial ministers.
Appletons' Eliot JohnJohn Eliot is best known for his missionary work with the Indians and translating the Bible into the Algonquin language.

Some of my ancestors were followers of John Eliot and others related to the Mathers.Cotton Mather

There were two important letters by Cotton Mather and John Eliot about converting Indians to Christianity and the success of the program. The letters reveal sincere attempts to reach out to the Indians and make them understand Christianity. The letters sounded respectful of the so-called “praying Indians” and condemned the British who provided the Indians with liquor, making them unfit for anything. Eliot’s handwriting was very tiny and difficult to read due to the size but the script of the time was not difficult to decipher. A typescript helped me to read the letter. The most successful Indian conversation program was in Natick, which coincidentally I happened to visit the next day!

I also discovered that a distant cousin, Eleazar Wheelock, whose great-grandfather Rev. Ralph Wheelock was my 12-greats grandfather, founded Dartmouth College. A biographical booklet of him was a nice surprise.
Also included in this collection are numerous important documents on the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, the war and the aftermath. There was even a memoir of someone who witness the Battle of Lexington and Concord first hand. Too bad he was 80+ years old when he wrote it but according to him, his memories were clear. As I looked through the folders I discovered signatures of none other than John Hancock, George Washington, Samuel Adams and the Marquis de Lafayette! Even my companion was impressed!

My companion looked at the papers of popular 20th century writer V.C. Andrews and will summarize her findings for online fan groups. This writer is outside my field of expertise and interest but my companion was excited to read unpublished material by her favorite author and view a draft of a novel. We both had a successful visit we won’t forget. I am sure I will be back there soon to look at something else.

What Cheer Day

Saturday, 25 October 2014 became Saturday 25 October 1800 when the Rhode Island Historical Society presented What Cheer Day. The beautiful John Brown House transformed from a regular museum to a hive of activity as reenactors portrayed members of the Brown family and their servants. As soon as Kitty, the housekeeper, opened the door, the visitor was transported back in time to 1800.

KittyJohnBrownHouse

At that time, the house was quite full with John Brown’s family in residence. Mr. Brown was away at Congress in Philadelphia and his son was not at home but the rest of the family was there.

Mrs. Brown was trying to visit with her sister and work on their sewing in the parlor and visit with their guests but all the noise and activity of her young adult children made that quite difficult. She ranted about all the visitors that day, including a tradesman who dared come to the front door! I expressed my shock at that transgression of propriety, for every Downton Abbey/Jane Austen/Queen Victoria wannabe knows the lower orders visit the tradesman’s entrance in back! I suggested perhaps because this is America, he thinks he’s republican. Mrs. Brown stated that “We are federalists in America.” She questioned her daughter Sally’s suitor, Mr. Charles Hereshoff about the French Republic. He is originally from Prussia and Prussia was lately at war with France.

I chatted with Mr. Hereshoff. He has been courting Sally, the middle daughter of John Brown, for several years. Mr. Brown does not approve. Mr. Hereshoff is Prussian and he has no business prospects. Mr. Hereshoff remarked he hopes some business opportunity presents itself soon, but the Napoleonic wars were ruining trade. I asked if he was a gamester but he said no but Sally’s brother-in-law Mr. Mason is.  None of the family approves of Mr. Mason. He’s a gamester and a rake. He was awake all night carousing and kept the whole household awake. He left the house a mess and is only just waking up at almost 2 of the clock in the afternoon! Mrs. Brown lamented that her daughters love the bad boys. She said it was all right to love them but not marry them! While Mrs. Brown went out to see what all the noise coming from across the hall was about (her daughters brought in a fortune teller and were quite giggly), her sister explained that they were raised as Quakers and Mrs. Brown doesn’t always approve of her children’s activities.

Upstairs I visited with the mantua maker. She had some lovely fashion plates from Paris.  The French fashions this year are quite daring, with deep decolletage and filmy skirts that cling to the legs.  The dresses feature trains, demi-trains and all manner of ornamentation. The ladies sometimes are shown wearing scarves or turbans on their heads. Mrs. Brown’s sister looking longingly at the fashion plates, hoping for a new dress. She thinks her sister would approve of something in a more sober color like dark red or green and something without such deep decollete. She liked the same pattern as her niece, Alice, and Alice was very proprietary about “her” dress. Mrs. Brown’s sister also coveted a new bonnet but since she had just purchased a new bonnet so she thought perhaps she had to wait awhile for new clothes. She’s a spinster and though she enjoys some manner of freedom, she is sometimes subject to her brother-in-law’s rules.

Frenchfashionplate1 Frenchfashionplate2 Frenchfashionplate4 Frenchfashionplate3

Next I called on the Masons. Alice is John Brown’s youngest daughter who married Mr. John Brown Mason, the rake. Some visitors remarked they heard that Alice was able to arrange her romantic matters to her own satisfaction by becoming with child. Alice was quite adamant that she was married when her baby was born – by one day – and that’s all that matters. She demanded to know if we had heard the whole story and when she was told we hadn’t, she wanted to know who told us. She thought the maid had gossiped about her and was determined to get rid of Eliza. Her first plan was to borrow some of Mr. Mason’s winnings and her second plan was to frame Eliza with a novel. I questioned whether it was one of those horrid gothic novels all the young ladies love (read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey for a parody of the popular fiction of the day). She was shocked and asked if I was implying she had actually READ the novel. She assured me it was the finest French literature. I doubt her mother would approve of gothic novels. It didn’t appear to be a Minerva Press novel at any rate. Perhaps she was hiding one novel in another.

Alice realizes her husband probably married her more for the money and less for herself, but she doesn’t mind because it gets her out from under her father’s thumb and gives her more independence and freedom. That’s an interesting way of looking at marriage. She must have felt having her own home was freedom enough. At the moment they are living with the Browns along with their baby Abby. Baby Abby is out taking an airing with her nurse, as is good for her health. Alice can not be expected to take care of her own child! She spent an hour a day with her baby and will spend an hour later on and that’s plenty.

Back downstairs, I saw the fortune teller. I don’t believe in fortune telling but I was prepared to play along. She didn’t tell my fortune but she told my character through reading my face. She said I’m independent, something of a free spirit, unconventional.  She was spot on but I don’t know how she knew that!

I stopped by the woodshed on my way out and sampled some of the 18th century foods someone had made. There were ginger cakes, a crispy gingersnap very different from the soft, cakelike ginger cakes sold at Colonial Williamsburg. My preference is for the soft, cake-like kind but the harder ones were good too. There was also Diet Bread, which I think comes from Amelia Simmons. It was more like a coffee cake sliced very thin than bread. It had a hint of sweet cinnamon and was quite tasty. Also available were Jordan Almonds. gingercakes

Diet Bread.

One pound sugar, 9 eggs, beat for an hour, add to 14 ounces flour, spoonful rose water, one do. cinnamon or coriander, bake quick.

Back outside, I looked at the games but there was no one to play with. My friend Susanna found a hoop nearly her size and enjoyed rolling it down the hill.

SusannarollinghoopJohnBrownHouse

It was such an enjoyable experience, like visiting a Jane Austen novel for a day! (I’d rather visit Jane Austen’s world this way and not actually live in the 19th century). I had fun last year and this year was even better. There were more visitors and more activity so I didn’t get to chat as much as I would have liked but it was still a lot of fun.

Concord Museum

Concord Museum signOn Saturday last, I had the pleasure of visiting the Concord Museum. The museum collections date to the mid-nineteenth century when America was celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Concord had a long history of celebrating the past and also of rebelling against the status quo beginning with the Puritans of the seventeenth century. This museum tells the story of this rebellious town.

Puritans arrive in Concord

Puritans arrive in Concord

The Puritans arrived in this swampy wilderness seeing freedom from religious tyranny but found a community of Algonkian Indians who called the place “Musketaquid” (“grassy plain).

Algonkian Concord

Algonkian Concord

The Puritans saw the Indians as Satan’s instruments and sought to Christianize them and make them “civilized.”

Algonkian rituals

Algonkian rituals

Concord Indians

Map of “praying Indian” town and pamphlet exclaiming the success of the missionaries

A special gallery specifically on the Battle of Lexington and Concord brings together artifacts from many different locations in one spot. The exhibition concludes on 21 September. It’s a must-see if you can. It’s very awe-inspiring to see objects that old as so important to the history of the United States. Artifacts include numerous artifacts from the Battle of Lexington and Concord, including Paul Revere’s lantern made famous by Longfellow; flints; muskets; powder horns, engravings and more

Battle of Lexington and Concord Photoengraving

Battle of Lexington and Concord Photoengraving 1903, after Dootlittle

These engravings are particularly interesting, having a copyright date in the early 20th century.

copyright on the photoengraving

copyright on the photoengraving

publisher's mark

publisher’s mark

These photoengravings were sold by Charles E. Goodspeed, a Boston bookseller. This is one of a series of four done after Amos Doolittle (Connecticut, 1754-1832). Read more about them at the Concord Library‘s website.

Another special exhibition features photos of the Revolutionary generation, people who survived into their 80s and beyond and sat for a photograph, a brand new invention at the time. It’s amazing to see the faces of the men and women who lived through that period in history. I felt very connected to the past seeing those photos.

Photos of the Revolutionary generation

Photos of the Revolutionary generation

Not only is the museum decorated with interior decorations salvaged or reproduced from area homes, they also have a series of period room scenes.

leaded glass window

Seventeenth-century leaded glass window saved from an area home

Reproduction early nineteenth-century wallpaper

Reproduction early nineteenth-century wallpaper

I especially enjoyed the  period rooms.  I love seeing how people lived in different times in history. Currently the museums has set up an early eighteenth century room; a mid-eighteenth century room; a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century lying-in chamber and an early nineteenth-century dining parlor. I learned quite a bit about how wealthy merchants in Concord lived at those times.

early 18th century room

An early eighteenth-century parlor/bedroom with original period furniture.

 mid-18th century room

Mid-eighteenth century bedroom/parlor with original period furnishings

 lying-in chamber

A late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century lying-in chamber for mother, baby and visitors

I really loved the attention to detail in each and every room. They copied the wallpaper and textiles from actual period furnishings.

Concord was also home to a number of furniture designers and manufacturers in the eighteenth century. The museum retains original period pieces made by local craftsmen.

Concord-made furniture

Concord-made furniture

 inlay clock

An inlay clock made by a local firm in the eighteenth century

There’s so much more to experience in this museum. I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area. I’ve been to Concord more times than I can count but had never been inside the museum until Saturday.

Concord, Massachusetts

On Saturday last I had the pleasure of visiting Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is the birthplace of the American Revolution (Battle of Lexington and Concord, 19 April 1775) and also the birthplace of American Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was a literary, religious and philosophical movement that had it’s grounds in the Unitarian church. This group of like-minded individuals struggled to make sense of a changing world. They wanted to incorporate modern ideas with traditional spirituality and sought a new kind of freedom. They believed  people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. “It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.” [1]

Emerson quote self-reliance

Emerson quote on self-reliance

Most of the Transcendentalists were involved in social reform movements, especially anti-slavery and women’s rights. They believed that “at the level of the human soul, all people had access to divine inspiration and sought and loved freedom and knowledge and truth.” [2] They urged a return to nature and the pondering of philosophical truths.

The major figures in the movement in Concord were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Amos Bronson Alcott.

Concord reformers

Susanna, my research assistant and traveling companion, poses with images of the Concord reformers

 

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Marble House

Marble House exterior

I recently visited Marble House, one of the famous Newport mansions, built between 1888-1892 for Alva Vanderbilt as a 39th birthday present from her husband, William K. Vanderbilt. William originally gave Alva full control over the design of the house but she only agreed as long as he gave her the house outright. Alva was interested in issues of women’s rights and she saw her home as a reflection of herself and her role as a woman in a patriarchal society. Her home was essentially her branding; her way to make a mark on society the way businessmen and others great men became known.

Alva declared Marble House her “temple to the arts.” The house, designed by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt in the Beaux Arts style, is a showcase of the Vanderbilt wealth. According to the Newport Preservation Society, Hunt drew his inspiration from “two famous historic buildings dedicated to women: the Parthenon (5th century B.C.E., Athens, Greece), temple to Athena the goddess of wisdom and war, and the Petit Trianon (1760-1764, Versailles, France) built by Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour, a powerful figure in shaping 18th century European art and culture.” It was the first of the grand summer “cottages” that transformed Newport into the social center of the summer season.
Marble House classical frieze

The front of the house features a temple-front portico with Corinthian-style columns inspired by the east façade of the Louvre and faced in white Westchester marble.
Marble House frontMarble House column

A semi-circular fountain with grotesque masks spouting water spans the entire western facade. Around the exterior walls are various friezes inspired by classical mythology.
Marble House fountainMarble House frieze
Guests enter the house through French Baroque-style bronze doors featuring monogram “WV” set into an oval medallion. The doors were made at the John Williams Bronze Foundry in New York and on display before the house opened. The public was eager to get a glimpse of the elegant mansion but plans were kept secret and only the most sneaky of reporters could gleam details through underhanded methods.
Marble House gateMarble House monogram

The inside of the house is the very definition of opulence. Designed after le Petit Trianon by Jules Allard and Sons of Paris, the ground floor walls are made of the finest creamy Siena marble (with matching painted faux marble upstairs). The matching staircase features a wrought iron and gilt bronze staircase railing based on models at Versailles.

Alva Vanderbilt collected classical interiors from Europe. The stair hall features an 18th-century Venetian ceiling painting featuring gods and goddesses on the ceiling. The classical theme continues throughout the house, even into Alva’s lilac silk wallpapered bedroom, where the ceiling features a circular painting of Athena.

See some sample photos of the interior (not my personal photos) at My Pinterest Site

The back of the house features a marble portico with classic arched windows. More classical friezes adorn the exterior walls. The theme of women and children is prominent throughout.
Marble House backMarble House classical frieze
The grounds slope down to the Cliff Walk and the ocean below.
Marble House ocean viewWhen Alva Vanderbilt divorced William in 1895 and married his best friend, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont in 1896, she closed Marble House (except for the laundry) and relocated to Belcourt Castle. After Belmont’s death in 1908, Alva reopened Marble House and added the Chinese Tea House and hosted rallies for women’s suffrage. These women’s suffrage rallies were a place where working women could sit shoulder to shoulder with socialites and well-known figures such as Julia Ward Howe. For $5 they could tour the house.
Chinese Tea HouseIn 1914 Alva Belmont erected a Chinese tea house designed after ancient Chinese temples and guarded by stone lions. The tea house was used to host special events and features Chinese antiques.
Chinese Tea House interiorAlva Belmont closed Marble House permanently in 1919, and later sold the house to Frederick H. Prince. In 1963, her son Harold provided funding for the Preservation Society of Newport County to buy the house from the Prince Trust. The Trust donated the furniture for the house directly to the Preservation Society.

The architectural details are stunning. Every little thing is exquisitely designed.
Marble House lamp
To see more of my photos please visit my Flickr album Marble House