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.

Washington & Columbia: Forever Linked


In honor of Washington’s Birthday / Presidents Day, I give you highlights of the connections between the Father of Our Country and our former poetic namesake and guardian spirit, Columbia. With their patriotic pedigrees, these two names mingle geographically, and as cultural ideals, too.

  • In 1775, with Columbia already a popular name for the American colonies, a new secular goddess with that name was created in a poem written to George Washington.
  • In 1787, The Columbia Rediviva, the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe, was accompanied by a tender ship called the Lady Washington.
  • The Columbia River, named after the aforementioned ship, flows through and partly defines Washington State.
  • Washington State was almost named Columbia.
  • The City of Washington and the District of Columbia, while historically distinct, now share the same borders.
  • America’s former national anthem, “Hail, Columbia”, was created when a poem was penned for the tune “The President’s March”, originally written for Washington’s inauguration.
  • George Washington University’s original name was the Columbian College, and then the Columbian University. Alas, confusion between them and Columbia in New York City necessitated a name change.
  • Columbia, South Carolina, while the first place in the world to be formally named Columbia, also considered the names City of Refuge, and Washington.
  • George Washington has been called “Columbia’s favorite son”, witnessed by this greeting card here.

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.

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