Hidden Histories


Having taught American History for over twenty years on the academic level, it continually surprises me how so many individuals erroneously believe, that European immigration to the New World resembled to a marked degree, tourist-type ocean voyages as enjoyed on such present-day luxury liners as the 'Carnival Cruise Line,' and that only African slaves suffered hardship & deprivation during the 'Middle Passage,' or the voyage across the Atlantic. The opposite was of course the reality of immigration.
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When one thinks of the 'Revolutionary War,' it is natural to recall the stirring renditions of its various battles & participants, but such recollections generally invoke famous officers and soldiers, not female heroines.
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During the decade of the 1820's, John Fanning Watson, the intrepid antiquarian of early Philadelphia history, interviewed 'Billy' Brown, a free & aged Black man in his 93rd year, residing within the Frankford section of the city, whom he describes as being "quite intelligent," as well as being "possessed of an observing mind & good memory."
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The term 'hermit,' generally conjures up in one's mind, a recluse, a person whose self-induced isolation has occurred primarily as the result of mental instability or enhanced eccentricity. Yet individuals have become 'hermits' for a variety of reasons throughout the ages. Those in America's past often became such out of tragedy, in an attempt to flee from those sites and individuals which reminded them of their loss, pain, or crime.
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Many individuals like myself, have various souvenirs or mementos, which have been found or passed down through the family, relative to the American Civil War. These may come in the form of oral traditions, letters, diaries, journals; or they are artifactual in nature, items such as saddle-bag 'rosettes,' swords, minie-balls or other heirlooms.

However, there were many Civil War soldiers, who carried with them, for many years after the conflict, unintentional 'memorials' of the service rendered to their country or cause.
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During the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of travelers would visit the United States from the Near or Middle East, such as "Sheick Shedid Allhazar," (usually referred to simply as 'Sheick Sidi'), said to have been an 'Emir' or Prince of Syria, who visited New York & Pennsylvania, and was said to have received from the Society of Friends, "one hundred pistoles," during his Philadelphia visit in 1739.
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Captivity narratives abound in early Colonial and post-Colonial American history. Numerous European women were captured by Native-American tribesmen for centuries, some adapting or assimilating within Indian culture, others successfully escaping bondage and thus returning to family & friends, while a few, after long abscences, were ill-received by husband, father or kin, since they had become 'with child,' by their former captors.
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Though many may be unaware, November 2008 is 'National Indian Heritage Month,' an opportunity for myself and others to reflect on the diverse role 'Native-Americans' have played in our nation's history.

Later this month, I'll relate a couple of narratives or examples from our collections here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, relative to our Native American materials, but within today's post, I'd like to take you on a personal journey or reminiscence.
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Almost no one today has heard of Capt. Henry Bell, an English military officer, well-known in aristocratic circles, who traveled throughout Europe in the early 17th-century, and is described by official British records as having, "no equal in Christendom as a brave and experienced soldier."
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The history of African enslavement, as portrayed by scholars and interpreted by the general public, has been represented, discussed and defined, in far too often simplistic generalizations, without recognizing the intriguing 'exceptions to the rule' that exist in primary source materials.

One prime example is that concerning an English slaver trader, an African Prince and the contemporary records of the period reporting their activities, from Africa, to England and as far West as Philadelphia.
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