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 Hero honored by Columbia

Even as my parents have lived in Savannah for a decade, my visits with them centered on exploring nature out by the rivers, not in exploring the charming city. So a couple of days ago I ventured in, and found that Columbia dwells there, too.

On the monument to Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski you’ll find Columbia 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

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.