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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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.

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

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

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 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.