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January 20, 2008
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They sought escape on the high seas Common-place uncovers hidden lives of black mariners

Worcester, MA––They may never achieve the mass appeal of fictional seamen like Jack Aubrey or Jack Sparrow, nor will their lives likely be as well-documented as the iconic 18th century colored mariner, Olaudah Equiano. But thousands of black men who sought to escape slavery via the sea are now accounted for in a database soon to be available on the web.

Writing in the winter 2009 issue of Common-place, the online history journal, Charles R. Foy tells of seven years of painstaking research in more than 30 archives on both sides of the Atlantic to compile the Colored Mariner Database (CMD) that identifies and traces the lives of more than 9,100 colored mariners from the 18th century. Foy's "Uncovering Hidden Lives" is in Common-place's Tales from the Vault.

His research into musters, pay books, and pension records of the Royal Navy in England demonstrated that colored mariners were on almost every naval vessel in North America.

Foy also found that during the American Revolution, while patriot ship captains often hired colored seamen, they also proved quite willing to enslave colored mariners, with American Vice-Admiralty courts approving the sale of hundreds of colored mariners captured on British vessels, regardless of their legal status.

The CMD "will open up the world of colored mariners to family historians and genealogists," Foy writes, and "will help to recapture the details of maritime fugitives' lives."

In Ask the Author, Scott Casper tells how he discovered an untold chapter of African-American history in the story of a nineteenth-century employee at Mount Vernon. His book, "Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon," tells an alternative history of American historic preservation, one in which the leading characters aren't elite white women.

The story is based on the life of Sarah Johnson, born at Mount Vernon in 1844 as a slave, returned after the Civil War to work there for 27 years, steadily rising in authority, esteem, and pay until she retired in 1892. Johnson was one of about 200 who lived at Mount Vernon from 1815 to 1861; many of them became employees there after the Civil War.

Casper notes that his account of this community of African-American families who lived and worked at Mount Vernon through the nineteenth century is "a story about life going on there long after the apparent lead character, the Father of his Country, was laid to rest."

Turning to the current worldwide economic crisis, Common-place's Talk of the Past questions whether the demise of relationship banking contributed to global financial troubles. Edwin Perkins' article, "The Rise and Fall of Relationship Banking," explains how relationship banking—longstanding commitments between financial institutions and their wealthy customers—coincided with the birth of the nation's commercial banking sector in the 1790s.

Deregulation of numerous sectors of the U.S. economy starting in the post-World War II era eventually severed these longstanding commitments, and Perkins notes a generational trend within the leadership of banks as "younger hotshots frequently moved up into advanced executive positions in their 30s and 40s. The new bankers saw the old-fashioned guidelines as the hallmark of thousands of unimaginative old fogies whose days at the helm had rightfully passed."

Will global financial troubles revive the greater stability of the relationship model? Perkins asks.

In other Common-place articles, Christopher Grasso's "Skepticism and Faith" discusses a relationship played out again and again from the first American republic to its dissolution in the Civil War. "For most people in this period, skepticism was more than the anxious uncertainty of doubt; it was doubt elaborated as a tool of inquiry and critique," Grasso writes. "The skeptic, however, stepped outside the whole belief system, examining it from a critical distance and finding it wanting."

Ellen Carol DuBois' "Seneca Falls in Santa Cruz" chronicles the life of Eliza W. Farnham, 19th century writer, erstwhile feminist, and Manifest Destiny proponent.

That women are superior to men and only they can lead to way to America's true Manifest Destiny in the new western lands were views that Farnham espoused in several books based on her life and travels in California.

DuBois notes that Farnham, once a prophet of women's glorious future (but subsequently a minor figure) is perhaps once again useful as an indicator of grand and influential visions of the interrelated possibilities of women's and the nation's expanding boundaries.

Brian F. LeBeau's article, "The Mind of the North," offers a glimpse into public attitudes towards the Civil War through the prints of Currier and Ives. The lithographers, who called themselves "Printmakers to the American People," produced more than two hundred prints of the American Civil War—the vast majority of which purported to illustrate the great battles of the war.

What is clear, LeBeau notes, "is that the printers freely exploited the conflict for commercial gain. And that meant, above all, tracking the attitudes of Northern middle-class consumers. One finds little moral ambiguity in the prints from this period; on the whole, the Civil War prints of Currier and Ives plainly reflect the ideals of the North, the Republican Party, and its leader, Abraham Lincoln."

In "Frederick Douglass and George Teamoh," Rafia Zafar traces the distant relationship between her great-great-great-grandfather and the literary ancestor to his much lesser known autobiography.

While Douglass' slave narratives are well known, Teamoh did not publish—perhaps was not able to publish—his postbellum autobiography during his lifetime, Zafar writes. "Whether or not the two men actually had conversational exchanges, there is no disputing the commonality of their experience."

Both men spent time in the mid 1850s in New Bedford, MA as fugitive slaves. Douglass, Zafar writes, left New Bedford to rise within the ranks of antislavery activists, propelled by his talent for oratory, good looks, youth, and perhaps good fortune; Teamoh would leave in search of work and connections, lonely for the family sold away from him down south.

Writing in Common Reading, Edward Gray considers in "Surfing and Navigating" whether the Internet has changed how we read and challenges the popular assumption that the ideal reading experience—sustained, engrossed investment in a single book—has been replaced by an impatient kind of reading, one that makes sustained attention to a single text very difficult.

Gray offers as an alternative his own obsessive relationship with books, reading—at least 200 pages a week—but also collecting, displaying, and endlessly thinking about them.

For him, reading is "a broadly relational exercise, facilitating kinds of networks of knowledge not unlike those described long ago by that philosophical progenitor of the Internet, Marshall McLuhan."

Considering the historical view, Gray notes that as the universe of print expanded and as people found themselves having to navigate an ever-expanding textual realm, the basic habits of reading associated with the Internet have long been in place. "As long as there have been books, there have been readers surfing and navigating," he concludes.

In Common School, Jim Cullen's eloquent essay, "Artificial Light" builds on a class discussion of a Tammany Hall politician defending "honest graft" to consider broader issues of curriculum, democratic principles and the process of education.

In The Web Library, Dave Neumann reviews The National History Education Clearinghouse.

Book reviews in the current issue of Common-place include the following: Gordon Sayre's review of Mapping a Continent: Historical Atlas of North America, 1492-1814, by Raymonde Litalien, Jean-François Palomino, and Denis Vaugeois; Erik J. Chaput's review of For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s, by Ronald P. Formisano; Elizabeth Kelly Gray's review of American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation, by Matthew Pratt Guterl; Meredith Neuman's review of The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell; and Robert G. Parkinson's review of The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870, by Trish Loughran.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Florida State University Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world. The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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