About Francis Smith

Marshalling his creative insight, boundless curiosity, and tireless work ethic, Francis Smith started creating his portrait of the United States and its use of the name Columbia, America By Another Name, in early 2011. A full-time photographer for the last nine years, Smith is a monthly contributor to American Fine Art and American Art Collector magazines. He is grateful and proud that he uses his Vassar College art history degree everyday of his life and career. Interests in American and natural histories further animate his world-view. Born and raised in Connecticut, the photographer has deep American roots: his ancestors, who eventually fought on both sides of the American Revolution and Civil War, settled here in the New Netherland, Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and Virginia colonies. Some of these Virginians later helped settle Columbia, Tennessee. His last immigrant ancestor came in 1852: a soon-to-be-prosperous Irishman, this man married the great-granddaughter of a Hessian-turned-Patriot soldier who had settled in Columbia County, New York. Smith's great-grandfather, of another Irish descent, was football coach at Columbia University. America By Another Name is his first major photography project. Please speed this American journey with a tax-deductible donation.

American Master, George Bellows

If you reside or travel near the District of Columbia, you have until 8 October to visit the National Gallery of Art for an immensely gratifying retrospective of work by the great American painter, George Bellows.

“Both Members of This Club”, 1909. NGA, Washington, Chester Dale Collection.

Even despite the fact he died at 42 years of age in 1925, George Bellows is one of the greatest artists our country has produced. He was an American original: weened on Methodism and baseball Continue reading

The Poet-Slave and American Liberty

On 11 July 1761, a recently kidnapped West African girl of seven or eight saw her journey into slavery end at the home of a Boston tailor and merchant named John Wheatley. She received her master’s surname, with her first name made Phillis—the very same name as the slave ship that carried her to Massachusetts.

Her slavers, taken by her precocity and character, gave her an excellent Classical and Christian education. While a slave, Phillis Wheatley became a poet of international repute. Relieved of most of her domestic duties, writing poetry was her vocation. Her poems must be read within the context of her life: that of a slave from Africa, of delicate health, marked by imagination and compassion, who is entirely dependent upon her slavers / patrons for her livelihood. Her protestations against the injustice of slavery are present, if not at the volume we moderns would want.

In a poem entitled to “His Excellency, George Washington”, she created a new vision: a classically inspired goddess figure whose sole purpose was freeing the Colonists from the yoke of British oppression. She called this goddess Columbia.

She wrote her poem and sent it to Washington in October 1775, when his tenure as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was barely six months old. His prospects for success were far from certain. She implored him:

Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide

Literate colonists would have known of Columbia as a name for the colonies, dating from the 1730s. It’s used in a 1761 poem, by an unknown Harvard graduate and published in Boston, honoring the accession of George III:

Behold, Britannia! in thy favour’d Isle;
At distance, thou, Columbia! view thy Prince,
For ancestors renown’d, for virtues more

With its local provenance, we can surmise Wheatley knew this poem. View the words about George III, above, and compare them to her words about Washington here:

Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more

Britannia, one of England’s poetic names, also denoted a goddess figure dating from the Roman Occupation. To Colonials with a Classical world-view, it might follow that the American Colonies likewise deserved a guardian spirit. Until Wheatley’s tribute to an upstart colonial general, it seems no writer had developed the figure so completely.

According to one analysis, Wheatley created Columbia as an amalgam of Pallas Athena and Phoebus Apollo. Pallas Athena is the armed warrior strategist, and Apollo the god of the sun and poetic inspiration. Columbia’s hair is bound with Athena’s beloved olive branches, and also with laurel, made by Apollo into the poet’s crown. The writer’s assertion that it follows that Columbia comprises Wheatley as poet and Washington as warrior-strategist is interesting but harder to prove.

Some harshly judge Wheatley for encouraging Washington in his fight; after all, the man enslaved hundreds. We do know that Wheatley’s disdain for slavery was published in a letter found in the Connecticut Gazette in March 1774:

…for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call love of Freedom; it is impatient of oppression, and pants for Deliverance….

She speaks not just of her own heart here, but of all human hearts. The rest of the letter shows her to be an incrementalist for African-American liberty. But we must note her sarcasm when she writes that the hypocrisy of liberty-hungry slave owners “does not require the penetration of a Philosopher to determine.”

We see that Wheatley would recognize Washington’s hypocrisy, but more importantly, she would recognize that the very same principle of freedom living in her heart lives in his. We can imagine the young slave’s identification with this new leader: here is another person who feels oppression—but who actually is in a position to risk all (including a gruesome death for treason), take up arms, and fight.

Columbia, offered by Wheatley to Washington as his guide, is not unlike the poet and the general. Even for Columbia

freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms.

With Columbia’s help, Washington may win the freedom that Wheatley hopes eventually will inspire herself and her fellow Africans in America. Perhaps Columbia really does fuse Wheatley and Washington—one fights for freedom with her pen, the other with his sword.

In February 1776, Washington responded to Wheatley’s letter, offering his praise and an invitation to meet.

In that same month he penned a diffident letter to a friend and associate in Philadelphia, including a copy of Wheatley’s laudatory letter and poem. He was aware of the poem’s excellence, and most certainly, that its publication would aid his esteem as a leader.

By April, Thomas Paine published it in The Pennsylvanian Magazine. Herewith, the idea of Washington as Father of Our Country gained currency, and the birth of Columbia as American Liberty was announced.

Phillis Wheatley and George Washington met at the Continental Army’s headquarters at Cambridge in March 1776.

Further Notes:

A view from balcony of the Old South Meeting House in Boston, where slaves typically sat for services. Wheatley was a devout Congregationalist. Kieltyka-Brown Photography, Image Courtesy of Old South Meeting House.

  • You can find information on the end of Phillis Wheatley’s life (she died in 1784) in links below.
  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, an excellent study of her reputation both in the 1770s and in academia today. In it, he recounts that her poem for which she’s most reviled as a toady could actually be an ingenious indictment of slavery.
  • Here is a searchable, online copy of the 1773 edition of her book of poetry. Look in particular in the first few pages, with the attestation of Boston’s power élite before whom the poet-slave defended her poetic abilities.
  • The only contemporary image we have of Wheatley, shown above, was made by Scipio Moorhead, a similarly enslaved painter, and poet, too. Wheatley’s poem to Moorhead “To S.M., a young African Painter, on seeing his works” seems infused with the sweet hope of escaping the toils of this world into the world of imagination, or Heaven. She closes her vision with a return to reality: “Cease, gentle muse! The solemn gloom of night / now seals the fair creation from my sight.”
  • Here is a fine piece that discusses the alienation that must have characterized Wheatley’s life, and the circumstantial complexities that perhaps prevented her from being the freedom fighter we moderns would wish her to have been.
  • Here is an essay on Phillis Wheatley and her contribution to the mythical aura around George Washington, and generally places Wheatley’s poem to the commander in its social context.
  • A webpage that discusses the difficulties of living in Boston as a freed slave, and of various efforts to ameliorate this condition.

Columbia and the Flag

Happy Flag Day!

This photo is from Bunker Hill Day, 17 June, in the year 1917. The United States went to war in Europe on 6 April of that year. Columbia and Uncle Sam made many appearances during the Great War, particularly in recruiting posters. Alas, when folk look at these posters today, they know who Uncle Sam is, but who’s that lady wearing the liberty cap? America By Another Name‘s goal is to correct this state of affairs.

I honor Flag Day as a person with a particularly intense relationship with the flag. Months after 9/11 I felt such frustration—countless drivers, who in a fit of patriotism had attached a cloth flag to their car, blithely displayed dirty, tattered flags rippling at 70 miles an hour. Old Glory so abused—and so ubiquitously! While at the World Trade Center site on later anniversaries, I silently bristled as teenage boys in cargo shorts wore the flag as some sort of cape. Continue reading

Yale and Columbia—Peace at Last?

While on a family visit last week in Fairfield, Connecticut, I volunteered to help my sister shelve books in the library at my niece’s elementary school. I went to tackle the backlog of Dewey decimal books, and ended up making two very impromptu presentations on Columbia.

I heard that she would be presenting on Washington, DC that day, so I told her about my project and she asked me to speak! The first presentation, completely off the top of my head, flowed well. The second group got more information, but with less flow. Considering I had prepared nothing, and had never spoken to a group of 2nd graders about Columbia or anything else, I did pretty well!

This whole event would have been so much more “perfect” had I presented in another part of town, at the Timothy Dwight Elementary School.

Timothy Dwight was the pastor at Greenfield Hill Congregational Church. While a chaplain in the Connecticut Continental Brigade in 1777 he wrote a song all about the promise of America—called “Columbia“. The song was so beloved by soldiers throughout the Continental Army that it soon resembled a national anthem. This is how Columbia, as a name filled with the promise of liberty and progress, spread throughout the land. Dwight went on to become president of Yale, as did his namesake and grandson. Yale’s Timothy Dwight College, built in 1935, bears their name.

Of course, Columbia became the name of a great university in New York City (more on that naming later in the year). Luckily for any particularly prideful and rivalrous alumni of Columbia University, Dwight became president of Yale after he wrote the song. And thinking of things collegiate, I left from Connecticut to go to my 25th Vassar reunion. Once upon a time, Yale proposed that Vassar move to New Haven. Happily, she pursued co-education in Poughkeepsie.

This Timothy Dwight story, and the story of the naming of Washington, District of Columbia, will both be covered in America By Another Name. I’m starting my IndieGoGo fundraising campaign soon. Donations will be tax-deductible. Please wish me good fortune!

Rolling in the Wheat

On Monday I had the distinct pleasure of accompanying Ken Bowling and some George Washington University undergraduates on a trip to nearby Mount Vernon. We visited the estate’s gristmill and distillery, as well as a slave cabin and threshing barn. These sites elucidated food production at our first president’s estate as part of their class, “George Washington and His World”.

I first met Ken last winter when I interviewed him for my video documentary on the history of the Columbia name. His book, The Creation of Washington, DC, particularly suited him to explaining the origins of the District of Columbia. Since then, I have enjoyed stopping by to see him and his fellow historians at the First Federal Congress Project in downtown Washington, DC.

I hope you enjoy these images and the notes that accompany them.

The Greek Revival in Columbia County, New York

My great-great-grandmother, Martha Brandt, grew up in Ancram, Columbia County, New York. The Brandt’s neighbors possessed a good Dutch surname—Kipp. Just this October I was two towns north from Ancram, in Claverack, and stumbled upon an 1847 Greek Revival farmhouse for sale, and photographed it with the owner’s permission. Their last name is Kipp.

This line of the Kipp family had purchased the farm around 1900 from the Van Rensselaers, who had built it (see note below about my own descent from the early Van Rensselaer family). I had the pleasure of meeting two of the grown children who are selling the property—I thank them for the opportunity to record this place! The realtor, Tammy Molinski of Coldwell Banker, was also wonderfully gracious and patient as I pored over every detail of this remarkably preserved Greek Revival home.

The Greek Revival style was popular during the Early Republic, both as a show of solidarity with Greece as it fought its own war for independence, and as means of imbuing our new country with a semblance of history. Miss Columbia, America’s secular goddess symbol, was born from this same urge toward creating an American culture rooted in European history.

Background on me and Columbia County: Though my paternal grandmother’s farm in Pine Plains, New York was just 10 miles south of the Columbia County border, I’d never crossed that line until this year. The Shekomeko Creek passed through her land on its way north through Dutchess County to rendezvous with Columbia’s Roeliff Jansen Kill. The word kill, Dutch for creek, highlights the region’s history.

The Roejan, as it’s locally known, flows through the Town of Ancram. My maternal grandmother’s grandmother, Martha Brandt, was born and raised on Ancram’s west side, which could place the Brandt farm on the Roejan.

My mother’s mother had said that the Brandt family was Hudson River Valley Dutch. My own research showed this was mistaken: just as the Pennsylvania Dutch should be called Pennsylvania deutsch, Martha’s ancestors were born in Germany. Martha’s great-grandfather was a Hessian soldier hired by the British, who then defected to the Patriot side of the Revolutionary War. He settled in Ancram at the cessation of hostilities.

While the Brandts are on my maternal grandmother’s side, as noted in a previous post, my maternal grandfather descends from the Van Rensselaer family. The Van Rensselaer name passed from my lineage when Maria Van Rensselaer married Pieter Schuyler in 1691.

Columbia: First in Peace, First in War

In Columbia, South Carolina, on 10 November 1860, the state general assembly called for a convention to consider seceding from the Union. Just days before, Republican Abraham Lincoln claimed victory with a platform that, at the very least, opposed expanding slavery into new states. Indeed, two years before, Lincoln predicted that with its current condition untenable, the nation would soon be either all-slave or all-free.

Gathering in Columbia weeks later, on 17 December the assembly voted to secede. With smallpox spreading in Columbia, the assembly reconvened in the state’s port city of Charleston. Secession was ratified on 20 December 1860. Charleston, of course, heard the first gunshots of the War Between the States the following spring.

South Carolina’s capital was the very first place in the world ever called Columbia. In a richly symbolic turn, it was in a place named for the United States that the nation’s tenuous unity met its most organized challenge.

As you may remember from a previous post, secession complicated the South’s relationship to Columbia-as-symbol; South Carolinians banned songs referring to it, but other states maintained their attachment.

I eagerly look forward to visiting Columbia, South Carolina. It’s the most populous political entity bearing the name in question, with a long and fascinating history. Here are two images of it: one depicting the ruins of war, and the other showing the thriving metropolis of today.

The Columbian Press: the Apple Computer of its day?

I like the word adventure, especially in its older sense: that which “happens by chance, fortune, or luck”. Today we’d typically call this serendipity. Adventure’s meaning grew to include taking a risk, “a trial of one’s chances”. The word adventure implies much greater agency or intent than serendipity. Going toward risk makes things happen.

When I set out in the morning seeking America By Another Name, I never know what I’ll find. One trip to the New York Public Library supplied my first knowledge of a patented creation called the Columbian Press. Many months later, I had a mere five hours to explore the northeast corner of Columbia County, New York. To my immense delight, there I met a man who actually owns a Columbian Press.

The man is Don Carpentier, founder and owner of Eastfield, a school for historic preservation in Rensselaer County. Amidst the buildings on this beautiful museum-of-American-architecture compound, Don has a print shop featuring the Columbian Press. The building itself came from Columbia County, just a few miles to the south. You can just make out the letters “Columbia Co. Agency” below the eave facing the lane.

The Columbian Press provided excellent pressure to the paper with little exertion by the pressman. It seems only five were sold in its namesake country; with the East Coast market already supplied with presses and the frontier market demanding portability, the Columbian Press made its mark in Europe. As an early and great American technological export, it was produced in the markets that it supplied.

The Columbian Press I photographed was purchased by Mr. Carpentier in England, place of its manufacture. As a device for communication marked by ease of use and unforgettable aesthetics, I suggest, with some irony, that it was the Apple Computer of its day.

Here are photos of the press and of Eastfield from that rainy October day last week. My first time excursion into Rensselaer County also had personal significance: the Van Rensselaer family are among my early American ancestors. I am particularly proud of Maria Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, the patrooness at Rensselaerswyck. Of all the women in the Dutch Colony of New Netherlands, perhaps more is known of her than any other.

Days of September

As September 2011 closes, we are reminded that it was three years ago this month that the United States’ economy took a nose-dive from which we still seek to recover. The economic difficulties started that month deeply inform my will to create this project exploring life in America in her places called Columbia.

Columbia was America’s poetic name, and the name for a secular goddess symbol for the United States. Cartoonists depicted this figure in different ways to suggest the mood of the American people.

Grant & Columbia

The country’s mood was definitely battered by the events of the September one hundred-thirty-eight years ago that are now called the Panic of 1873. In fact, it was on 30 September 1873 that the stock market reopened after a ten-day closure. The economic downturn started that year was unmatched until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some historians believe our current economic troubles more closely resemble those of 1873 than those of 1929.

This Harper’s Weekly cover from October 1873 shows President Grant assisting Miss Columbia out of the ruins of Wall Street. I first saw this image at our very excellent National Portrait Gallery; a history-savvy curator placed it next to their portrait of this president. Thomas Nast, he who gave us a fat, well-fed Santa, is the cartoonist.

To view the Library of Congress webpage on this image, click here.

And, if you haven’t done so already, please click the like button here to follow my project on Facebook!

A personal note: Ulysses Simpson Grant and I are both descended from Matthew Grant. Matthew Grant was the second man to be clerk of the Town of Windsor in the Connecticut Colony. His diary is in the Connecticut State Library; a passage therein has Colonial America’s first reports execution for witchcraft.

The last Grant in my lineage was Aruma Grant; her grandson Halsey Fitch Northrup married Mary Adelia Lansing, who was descended from same Schuyler family as Grant’s first vice-president, Schuyler Colfax. Halsey and Mary are my great-great grandparents.

Martha, Columbia, America, Britannia

On Sunday a friend suggested we visit Tudor Place, a remarkable home and museum in Georgetown, District of Columbia. The day was stiflingly hot, and walking up the drive from the street one realizes that in 1805, wealth purchased access to the breeze. The home was designed by the architect of the United States Capitol. It has a storied history, and is handsomely interpreted with many objects from the nearby home of George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon.

It was Martha Parke Custis, granddaughter to America’s primary first lady, who built Tudor Place with her husband Thomas Peter. An $8,000 inheritance from step-grandfather George Washington funded the husband’s land purchase. As a woman, Martha was not allowed to own land.

Martha and Thomas had eight children, including five girls. They christened their first child as Martha. Their second child was born in 1797 and they named her—do you wanna guess? That’s right—Columbia.

Next came two boys. The next child, a girl, was christened with another patriotic name—America. In 1808, eight years after the death of their first Martha, the couple named another daughter the same. They buried this child six months later, while three months pregnant with their next and final child. This little girl was baptized Britannia in February 1815.

You may remember from the New York Times blog entry referenced here, Columbia, as a personification of the United States of America, was in part modeled on Britannia, the secular goddess who personified Britain since Roman times.

So, Britannia? you may puzzle. Just five months before Mrs. Peter had stood at her bedroom window, watching the handiwork of British arsonists on the new nation’s Capitol. What’s up with this new name-giving?

Though she couldn’t vote, Martha Custis Peter considered herself, in the family tradition, a staunch Federalist. Federalists favored strong ties with their erstwhile mother country, admiring their political system, even if disliking monarchy. Britannia’s middle name—Wellington—may hold the key to the parent’s intent. Wellington, recently made Duke of, was pursuing the tyrannical Napoleon around Europe, and would defeat him at Waterloo months after this little girl’s birth.

Columbia’s middle name is both familial and patriotic—Washington. Sister America’s middle name was Pinckney, after Revolutionary War officer and friend to George Washington, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. He was the Federalist presidential nominee in 1804 and 1808.

In this period, the newly organized United Kingdom’s government was slowly becoming more representational. Considering their naming the youngest child Britannia Wellington, you see that Martha and Thomas Peter were naming all their daughters after lands that love liberty, and men who fight tyranny.

The British heritage of the United States shows conspicuously in this list of surnames culled from the 1990 census (and yes, you see names from the historically concurrent Spanish Colonial period of Latin America is catching up).

As for girls names in the 1990 census, America herein ranks at 1702 out of some 4000, and Columbia is not found. The name Britannia is likewise absent, but the prefix “Brit” shows up 13 times. So, even if Britannia may no longer rules the waves, she just might, on the sly, be ruling the names.

This cartoon shows Columbia, personification of the United States, teaching Napoleon and Britain (as John Bull) lessons about freedom of the seas and the exercise of power. I do not know if this illustration shows a point of view that is either Federalist or Democratic-Republican.

Columbia and the Powers Abroad