Skip to main content

News of History

News Of History

July 2024
6min read

The gray, water-soaked, mud-stained skeleton of one of America’s first warships has been raised from the bottom of Lake Champlain and is now on the beach below Fort Ticonderoga. After thorough drying and protection, the hulk will form the nucleus of a naval museum to be erected on the shore below the towering battlements of the fort. Other naval relics will be on display with it.

The hulk is that of the Trumbull , one of the fleet of sixteen ships built by order of General Benedict Arnold in 1776 to contest the British invasion which, one year later, culminated in Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga.

On October 11, 1776, Arnold’s makeshift fleet, manned by land-lubber soldiers, met a British flotilla of five major warships and a number of gunboats. The action succeeded in imposing an expensive delay on the British invaders, but all save three of the American ships were either sunk in action, captured by the enemy or scuttled by their crews. The three which remained escaped to Fort Ticonderoga and were sunk in a rough semi-circle near the base of the fort in an attempt to keep enemy ships out of firing range and thus to compel the British to make their attack by land. In the end, winter came on and there was no attack. Late in the following spring, the Americans evacuated the fort.

The Trumbull is one of the three sunk near the fort. One of the other two was raised in 1909 but has since been badly damaged by weather on its exposed exhibition site. The third is still under water.

Five big inflated pontoons were used to lift the Trumbull from the bottom, and at first sight the hulk bore little resemblance to a warship. The long oak side planks of the old vessel were rotted through at the seams, and the thick iron spikes that held her together protruded, bent, from the hull. Only one of the two huge foot-square timbers that formed her bow remained, and broken ends of oak ribs rose like enormous fingers above the muddy deck.

The new naval museum project in which the hulk of the Trumbull will take its place is being financed by the Fort Ticonderoga Foundation, a non-profit organization which maintains the historic fort. John H. G. Pell, a Wall Street investment broker, whose family has supported historical restoration in the area since 1816, is director of the Foundation.

Back in 1710 an English bureaucrat cleaned out his desk drawers and files preparing for his retirement from public office, and thereby—quite unintentionally—did a great favor for present-day American historians.

William Blathwayt, the bureaucrat in question, was colonial administrator, having served for forty years under three kings. When he collected personal letters and papers to take home with him, he helped himself to a generous portion of official government papers as well: more than 2,000 documents dealing with the early history of the American colonies.

Included in these are letters from colonial governors—Sir William Phips, of Massachusetts, blamed the witchcraft trials on the devil and his deputy governor, and William Penn wrote fondly: “I like the land, aire and food very well. I never eat better in England.” There is material on Indian raids, on the capture of Captain Kidd, and on the strained conditions in early New York during the transfer from Dutch to English rule. There are rough drafts of letters arid official papers in Blathwayt’s own hard-to-read scrawl. One of the drafts is the Pennsylvania charter from King Charles II, signed in March, 1681, with numerous additions and corrections in the margin.

All in all, Blathwayt’s papers include material on most of the continental American colonies as well as the West Indies, Jamaica and the Bahamas.

The American Blathwayt papers are owned by Colonial Williamsburg, the non-profit organization restoring WiIliamsburg, Va., to its pre-Revolutionary setting. They are carefully preserved in a vault there for research work.

The Philadelphia Antiques Fair this fall marked the 75th anniversary of a widely popular American fad which had its origin in Philadelphia.

One of the attractions at the great Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 was a free exhibit called the New England cottage. During the six months exhibition, some 10,000 visitors a day visited the New England cottage, which was completely furnished with antiques. Most of the visitors—judging by the tremendous growth in the popularity of antique furniture thereafter—went home to raid their own attics and put the plunder in their best rooms. Those who had no attics haunted country auctions and second-hand furniture stores.

As a result, apparently, within three years the game of antique-hunting was in full swing and the first dealers were setting up shop. Now, 75 years later, there are some 8,000 antique shops in the United States, more than 150 of them to be found in Philadelphia itself.

We may eventually get a microfilm edition of the Papers of the Continental Congress. The project is being considered by the National Historical Publications Commission, whose purpose it is to promote the publication of historical source materials. This Commission has been working to considerable effect since 1950, when Congress granted it life-giving-funds; but because its income is still limited it tries primarily to encourage and aid in the initiation of historical publishing projects under non-governmental sponsorship.

Thus far the Commission has participated in planning for editions of the papers of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Archbishop John Carroll, Bishop Asbury and John Wesley Powell, among others. It has also begun assembling materials for two major publications that are badly needed and that should properly be issued under the Federal government’s auspices—a documentary history of the ratification by the states of the Constitution and its first ten amendments, and a similar work embracing the debates and proceedings of the first Congress under the Constitution, 1789–1791.

Perhaps the most important task the Commission has undertaken so far is a Guide to Archives and Manuscripts in the United States. This will be a one-volume directory of all institutions known to hold historical manuscripts, together with brief descriptions of their holdings and references to more extended descriptions in print. More than 1,800 depositories have now been listed.

The Detroit Institute of Arts has established the Archives of American Art, for the collection in one central place of documentary material on American painters, sculptors and craftsmen. The Archives will consist of original records or reproductions of records preserved permanently in other collections.

The big idea here is to assemble everything that will ultimately make the collection the most effective center for research on American art. Whatever may throw light on the arts in America, from the first landings of Europeans down to date—letters, journals, sketchbooks, clippings, biographies, monographs, catalogs, periodicals and photographs of works of art—will be included. The Archives will be administered by the Institute’s reference library and will be open for free reference by accredited scholars under proper safeguards.

Records of collectors, dealers, critics and historians will be selected largely as they pertain to American art, and those of institutions and societies will be concerned with art and artists rather than with the records of the institutions themselves. The epithet “American” is intended to cover North America through the colonial period. After the revolution, the scope is confined to the United States. Native Indian art will be excluded unless the artist is known by name.

The Archives is supported by private contributions under the management and framework of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Funds are on hand for a preliminary survey of available material in leading institutions, and an initial gift of original letters from a number of American artists has been made.

Under the supervision of the director of the Nebraska State Historical Society’s museum, an archaeological field party has finished its study of a prehistoric Indian village site which presently will be lost to view forever under the rising waters of the Missouri River, impounded in the Fort Randall Reservoir near Chamberlain, South Dakota. The work was carried on as a cooperative project with the U. S. National Park Service.

The village site contains depressions marking the existence of some fifty house floors, all enclosed by a deep ditch dug by the original inhabitants for defensive purposes. On a lower terrace, an earlier group of people had built houses, overlaid now by the remains of the later people. Houses of both groups were rectangular in form; both groups were farmers as well as hunters, and their storage pits contained charred corn cobs and the remains of other crops.

The work done here is an example of an attempt being made by state and federal institutions to salvage the early history of Missouri Valley people before extensive river improvements submerge lands where ancient village sites are to be found.

An extremely unusual course in American history is offered this year by the State Teachers College of Oneonta, State University of New York, in cooperation with the New York State Historical Association and its Farmers’ Museum at Cooperstown. This course, titled “History of New York Folk,” carries three hours credit each semester, and meets Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings in Fenimore House and the Farmers’ Museum to study the way life was lived when New York State was a frontier. It deals with the origins, migrations, folkways and habits of life and thought of early New York settlers, takes students into museums and crafts shops, and apparently represents the first time that American museums and history resources have been used by a college course in this way.

A fifteen-year publishing venture centered around the papers of four generations of the Adams family is under way.

Announced at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the work of editing and publishing this unparalleled private collection of 300,000 manuscript pages of diaries, letters and other writings, will be carried on under the joint auspices of the Society, the Adams Manuscript Trust, Harvard University and Life , Lyman H. Butterfield, director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., who was associate editor of the Thomas Jefferson papers from 1946 to 1951, will serve as editor-in-chief.

The collection, of which less than one-third has been published, covers four complete diaries of John Adams, John Quincy Adams and two Charles Francis Adamses, dealing with subjects, according to Mr. Butterfield, “as far apart as the campaigns of the French and Indian War and the political parties of the Garfield-Cleveland era, and with the whole vast sweep of American life in between.”

Thomas Boylston Adams and John Quincy Adams, the present trustees of the Adams Manuscript Trust which was formed in 1905 to run for forty years, made the decision to open the record. They plan to give the papers to the Massachusetts Historical Society and the complete collection will be placed on microfilm and made available to scholars in major research libraries throughout the country.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.