The Call to Adventure

When little is known about an historical personage, that person becomes like an ink-blot test: we project onto them perceptions born of our current beliefs.

In her very informative book called America Discovers Christopher Columbus, historian Claudia Bushman studies how Americans have used Columbus to their own cultural ends. Early on, Columbus was seen as a visionary who foretold the American Experiment, and later he became the “first immigrant.” Today, many see him only as the man who brought slavery, genocide, and disease to an idyllic New World. His earlier reputation, for these many, is voided.

While keeping the modern image of him in mind, I see Columbus as the proto-immigrant. He sailed off toward his illusion of where Asia and its riches lay; this illusion sustained him through his voyages. Even with his intimacy with the Caribbean and its peoples, the explorer spent the rest of his days believing he had found a new route to Asia (to his credit, he died young). His obsession with finding this route cost him naming rights for the “New World”: we could refer to this hemisphere as the Columbias, but instead we call it the Americas, after Amerigo Vespucci.

Similarly, many of our ancestors set off with illusions of what they’d find once they reached the Western Hemisphere. Having been lured across the Atlantic by letters describing great natural abundance to be found here, one early American colonist later mused that such letters must have been written during wild strawberry season. The hope behind the immigrants geographic change is the same that sustains us all everyday: it’s that a day’s toil somehow improves our lives, and if so endowed, the lives of our dependents. That said, immigrating is a greater adventure than commuting to the office park.

All our ancestors answered the call to adventure. The strange land called, but something also pushed them out. Was it eviction by a landowner? Religious oppression? Hunger? Indeed, some came here with no beckoning from the New World at all, but instead at the prod of slave traders.

My Columbia journey came when my landlord in Brooklyn announced he was kicking everyone out so he could renovate that three-storey brownstone and move in with his family. Within days I was saying: “This is great!” I was too comfortable in my New York life, and for an artist, comfort can be life-sucking. I’d already been wondering—how will I make that body of work that will move my career to the next level? That knock on the door was my answer, and my call to adventure.

No matter how we view Columbus’ actions once he arrived in the Western Hemisphere, nothing can take away from his daring act of sailing off in a direction toward which none of his peers had ventured. When I think of judging his later actions, I recall that my ancestors were among those who enslaved Africans and murdered Native Americans.

Columbus and these ancestors were products of their times, but I also see that many of their contemporaries chose differently. Humbly knowing that no one is immune to the influence of their surroundings, I can only hope that were I living then, I would follow that alternative path.

A Son of Columbia & Musician 1st Class

On Memorial Day, I ask my friends to remember a young man buried at a ghost town’s edge in Columbia County, Pennsylvania.

John B. Carmitchell died, twenty years of age, on 15 November 1942 aboard the USS South Dakota, in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. We don’t know the exact circumstances of his death, but we know that in the pre-dawn hours the ship was under attack from the Japanese. An error in the engine room left the South Dakota without power and radar. Enemy fire destroyed her radio. In the dark of night and the fog of war, she had neither eyes nor ears, and suffered considerable damage.

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Though back in March the flag was tattered, the grave evinces the pride John’s family had in him, his patriotic sacrifice, and his musicianship. They buried him next to his younger sister who had died eight years before. It appears that our sailor-musician grew up in the mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, in Columbia County’s southern tip.

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Columbia, Tennessee!

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Next week I leave my home in Columbia Heights here in Washington and drive to Columbia, Tennessee. I’m totally psyched!

While I wish I were going there for Mule Day, I just feel in my bones that this Tennessee city will do a good job of blending the spirit of Columbia and Christmas cheer.

Columbia, a city of almost 35,000 people situated on the Duck River, is the seat of Maury County. The Polk home in Columbia is the only extant residence of President James Polk, and is now a museum.

My ancestor, Russell McCord Williamson, settled there, and was friendly with the Polks. The Sons of Confederate Veterans is also headquartered there in an antebellum mansion. I claim descent from J.W. Phillips, a surgeon in the Confederate Army. You can find something about both these men here (Grace Estes, noted in the article, is my great-grandmother). Continue reading

Inspired by a Visit to the Library of Congress

It’s my express goal that my Columbia America By Another Name will have me photographing in the homes of Americans from all walks of life—the rich, the poor, and the in-between. My day job, though, brings me into the homes of a very particular and passionate bunch: collectors of art. 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.

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 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.

And speaking of fruit…

One of those particularly human things that I’m quite good at is finding significance and pattern in various events where no such pattern may exist. On 21 June 2010, two nights before I’m vacating my Brooklyn apartment, I go out to the small grocer at Seventh Avenue and 10th Street in Park Slope. Greeting me at the door was a display of blueberries—that’d been grown by Columbia Fruit Farms of Hammonton, New Jersey!

Boy oh boy, did that feel like a sign! Yes, with my creative resolve in place, so too was my sensitivity to all things Columbia. In days past, maybe I was numb to the name? No matter, seeing blueberries thus labeled helped me feel my path was open and waiting.

So last night, I’m in the District of Columbia and I walk down from Columbia Heights to the grocer at 14th and W and there they are once more. The week before I’d been eating blueberries from another Hammonton grower and wondered if the Columbia label would jump out at me again. And man, let me tell you—that it did right after I started my blog, you know that means something…or not. I now want bigger signs affirming my path—fiscal sponsorship would be a great one!

Columbia Fruit Growers (seen in Columbia Heights)

It seems that Columbia Fruit Growers gets their name from Hammonton’s nearby Columbia Road (the name Airport Road seems to be usurping the Columbia name). Columbia Road is crossed by Union Road. This may suggest this area was developed right after the Civil War. Geographic naming patterns following that great conflagration will be a topic in and of itself for a later date.

And you may ask yourself, why was this guy checking out whence came his blueberries? I’m a blueberry geek. I watch the blueberry provenance march up the coast from Florida, into Georgia and North Carolina. New Jersey’s cultivated blueberries are delicious, but in Maine they can be harvested from the wild (a delicacy I have yet to enjoy). When I see a box labeled Nova Scotia—well, I know it’s all over until next year.

I hope to someday stop by and say hello at Columbia Fruit Growers. And, I look forward to going to Columbia, Maine, where I see reference to something called a blueberry barren. A blueberry barren?  Man I wanna see one of those!