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About This Blog

We live in the midst of New York stories, and create new ones every day. They are all around us. The sum of these stories, some familiar, some virtually forgotten, make up the history of our state. As a center of innovation, enterprise, diversity, interconnections, conflicts and leadership, New York State both reflects the entire history of the United States and provides its own special flavor to the American narrative.

New Yorkers have been accused of neglecting their past to focus on the New York [map]future. Yet the college students who study Empire State history with me are not only excited to learn about the state in which they live, but frustrated when they realize how much they were never before taught. So, as I wrap up my research and begin writing a new college textbook on the history of New York State, I set out in this blog to share with a wider audience some of the discoveries I have made along the way as I’ve researched New York’s stories. It will feature snippets of history that I find intriguing — vignettes from the Big Apple and the boroughs, Long Island, the Hudson Valley, Capital District, North Country, Southern Tier, Finger Lakes, the Niagara Frontier – and anywhere in between. Although these stories may not be news to all of you, they will be surprising to some, and will jog the memories of others.

Read and enjoy. And, if you have any comments or corrections, please share them with me.

Susan Lewis, Associate Professor of History, SUNY New Paltz

 

Return of the New York Rediscovered blog: Has Women’s History Month outlived its usefulness?

Return of the New York Rediscovered blog:  Has Women’s History Month outlived its usefulness?

Susan Ingalls Lewis

2014womenshistmonth.nwsnoaaAfter a longer-than-expected hiatus, the New York Rediscovered blog is coming back to life.  I returned from my wonderful fall leave in Florence, Italy to full-time teaching and deputy-chairing at SUNY New Paltz this term; the adjustment wrecked havoc on my best intentions.  Finally, work pressures have lessened and I’m eager to get back to blogging, though on a somewhat less frequent schedule.  This spring, my blogs may be shorter and will appear every other week, but I am committed to continue sharing stories from New York State’s intriguing past.

Since it is the end of March, I open with a question: has Women’s History Month (established in 1987) outlived its usefulness?  I’d be glad to hear readers’ thoughts on this.  I personally find the segregation of “Black History Month” and “Women’s History Month” somewhat offensive.  There is a token-ish quality in the yearly discovery that African Americans and women need to be injected into the curriculum, or public programming.  Of course, it remains true that we can use more Black History and Women’s History as part of New York State History.  Yet it is equally true that we need more Latino History, more Asian History, more history of indigenous peoples, more LBGTQ history . . . should there be a month for each?  What happens when we run out of months?  And isn’t it time that the history of all New York’s people be integrated into a single complex narrative?  One of the goals for my upcoming textbook is to tell the story of New York without subtitles and asides (versus the common textbook approach of using sub-sections like “Women in the Revolution” or “African Americans in World War II”).

womenshist.posterI’m actually afraid that highlighting women’s history in a specified month allows us to neglect it for the rest of the year.  This approach also hints at a kind of compensatory history, one that searches for examples of women (or Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Italians, etc.) simply to provide stories for the purpose of fostering gender or ethnic pride.  My viewpoint is that we do not need to inject women into history, we simply need to recognize them and restore them.  That is, all these peoples were there to begin with.  It is history itself that somehow ignored or erased them.  New York State was built by women as well as men, and what they did was important –too important to be segregated into one month a year.

Professor Kenneth Jackson has argued that New York’s history is American history, and it all happened here.  It is certainly true that the most important and influential women in United States history were either from or made their careers (or both) in New York State.  From Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, to Carrie Chapman Catt and Lillian Wald, to Eleanor Roosevelt, to Jackie Kennedy, to Hillary Clinton – most (though of course not all) of the towering figures in U.S. Women’s History have been associated with New York State.

In my previous blogs, I’ve highlighted several notable New York women, starting with Matilda Joslyn Gage (October 3, 2013).  Yet I prefer to integrate women into non-segregated narratives, as I did in New York:  Aviation Pioneer (October 10, 2013).  Next week, for my first full blog of the season, I’ll be posting a review of the recent exhibit at the New York State Museum: An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War.  I believe that this excellent exhibit (just closed after more than a year on display) should serve as a model for an updated New York State History that integrates all participants and all areas of the state into a single narrative of many voices.   More to follow next week . . .

LINKS:

It’s Women’s History Month! Cathy Pickles, National Women’s History Museumhttp://www.nwhm.org/blog/its-womens-history-month/

History of National Women’s History Month, Molly Murphy MacGregor, Executive Director and Cofounder, National Women’s History Projecthttp://www.nwhp.org/whm/history.php

The Mystery of Emma Waite

LAST BLOG OF THE YEAR:  The Mystery of Emma Waite

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

 The leather-bound Emma Waite Diary

The leather-bound Emma Waite Diary

My final blog of the year is based on my own research into the 1870 diary of Emma Waite, housed in the Manuscripts and Special Collections unit of the New York State Library. In 2005, I was the fortunate recipient of an Anna K. and Mary E. Cunningham Research Residency in New York State History and Culture at the Library, searching for any material related to nineteenth-century businesswomen in New York State.   I did find a few trade cards (which were eventually reproduced on the cover of my book Unexceptional Women: Female Proprietors in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Albany, New York, 1830-1885 , SUNY Press, 2009) – but otherwise, nothing.  As I continued my fruitless search, Librarian Paul Mercer encouraged me to look at the Emma Waite diary.  Since this was the record of a worker rather than a businesswoman, I resisted his advice.  One day, because my own efforts continued to prove futile, I decided that I might as well examine the diary.  From the first moment I opened it, I have been convinced that Waite’s story deserves a wide audience.

A page from the diary

A page from the diary

The “Emma Waite Diary” is an intriguing document, written by an African-American domestic servant and hotel cook who worked in Saratoga and New York City.[1]  Recorded on the pages of a small, leather-bound, printed daybook that Waite received as a gift early in 1870, it chronicles a single year in the life of this otherwise unknown individual.  Waite’s opening entry: “Quite mild and pleasant for the first I did not spend a very pleasant new years day, was home sick all day,” foreshadows the challenges faced by a single black woman trying to make her way in New York State.  Illness, injuries, bitter cold, exhausting work, headaches, unemployment, deadening heat, and racial discrimination plague Waite’s months in Saratoga.

 

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Giving New York Munsees their Proper Names

Giving New York Munsees their Proper Names: Tantaque and Tackapousha

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

unearthing gothamRecently, I was preparing for my History of New York City course by reading Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana DiZerega Wall’s Unearthing Gotham, a book on New York’s archeology recommended by my colleague Joe Diamond, Chair of Anthropology at New Paltz.  The book includes a story about Tantaque, a Munsee Indian, and his meeting with two Labadists in Manhattan on October 16, 1679.  The Labadists, Jaspar Danckaerts and Peter Sluyter, were scouting New Amsterdam as a possible location for their small religious sect to relocate in North America.  Like the Quakers, the Labadists believed in a radical interpretation of the gospels and split from established churches to form their own community, moving from place to place in search of a welcoming environment.

longislandtribesInteresting as the Labadists were, I was more intrigued by the fact that the authors of Unearthing Gotham named an individual Munsee—Tantaque—and were able to fill in some of his biography.  They described him as “an eighty-year-old man originally from Long Island” and “a well-known figure in early New York, for he was a generous man and, in his younger days, had often given fish to starving Europeans.”[1] This anecdote immediately reminded me of Squanto (also called Tisquantum), the famous Pawtuxet Indian who assisted the Pilgrims in their early days and is associated with the first Thanksgiving.  Yet I realized that I had never heard a Munsee Indian from this period named or personalized in any way.  In most of my readings, the Munsee people were characterized as a group.  Often defined in contrast to the Iroquois Confederacy, the Munsees (also called Delawares) were Algonquian peoples who lived in the Hudson River Valley, on Long Island, and along the Delaware River.  Within the Munsee were smaller communities, such as the Esopus (in what is now Ulster County), the Wappinger (across the river),  the Minsink (along the Delaware), the Tappans (along the Palisades), the Raritans (in present-day New Jersey), the Massapequas, Rockaways, Merricks, Matiecocks, and Secatogues (all on Long Island), and others.   The Munsees were the Native Americans whom we remember as selling Manhattan to the Dutch in a bad land deal, a group that was greatly reduced by disease, then quickly removed in a series of wars—Kieft’s War (1640-45), the Peach War (1655-56), and the Esopus Wars (1659-63).  None of them, in my memory, had individual names or lives that one could trace.

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The Eye of Theodosia Burr

THE EYE OF THEODOSIA BURR:  Aaron Burr, his daughter Theodosia, and Kingston painter John Vanderlyn

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

The Eye of Theodosia Burr

The Eye of Theodosia Burr

One of the most interesting objects on display at the Senate House State Historic Site Museum in Kingston, New York, is a miniature painting of a single female eye: The Eye of Theodosia Burr.  This delicate image symbolizes the intersecting stories of three New Yorkers:  the painter John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), his patron, Aaron Burr, Jr. (1756-1836), and his subject, Burr’s beloved daughter Theodosia (1783-1813).  All three stories represent different degrees of unfulfilled promise and unhappy endings.

The most familiar name of these three is that of Aaron Burr.  Like Benedict Arnold, about whom I wrote  in a previous blog, Burr is considered one of the great villains of New York history—most famous for killing his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.  Burr was a clever, cultured, and well-educated man who grew up in New Jersey (his father was the second president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, and his maternal grandfather was the famous minister Jonathan Edwards).  Orphaned as a toddler and raised by relatives, Burr was admitted to college at the age of 13, and studied theology and law after his graduation.  He joined the Continental Army in the early days of the Revolution, traveling with Benedict Arnold through the Maine wilderness for the attack on Quebec (see blog from October 17th, Benedict Arnold’s Boot, Part 1).

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Women Win the Right to Vote in New York State

November 6th 1917:  Women win the right to vote in New York State

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

How did women get the right to vote in New York State?  Most of my students assume that all women in the United States were granted suffrage at the same time, as the result of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1920.  To the contrary, women won the vote across the country in an irregular, piecemeal fashion.  The territory of Wyoming allowed women to vote in 1869, and joined the union in 1890 as the first state where women could vote in all elections.  By the time the women’s suffrage amendment was passed, 15 states across the country (including New York) already had full suffrage, and more had partial suffrage – that is, women could vote in some but not all elections.  For example, in some states or localities women could vote in presidential elections, primaries, municipal elections, or school board elections.

Button from 1917

Button from 1917

Often my students assume that New Yorkers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were responsible for winning the suffrage campaign.  Unfortunately, neither lived to see women gain the vote either nationally or state-wide. Essentially, they failed—not for lack of energy, organization, or compelling arguments, but because they were unable to convince the male voters of their period that women needed or deserved the vote.  Even the majority of women in the United States were probably not persuaded that enfranchising women was a good idea at the time that Stanton and Anthony died (1902 and 1906, respectively).  Surprisingly to us today, there was actually a strong anti-suffrage movement led by women, including a chapter in New York.

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Washington Irving’s Iconic New York Stories

Washington Irving’s Iconic New York Stories:  Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

John_Quidor: Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (Smithsonian)

John Quidor: Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (Smithsonian)

Despite the fact that he spent many of his productive years abroad, Washington Irving (1783-1859) was a quintessential New Yorker.  The man who coined the nicknames Gotham for New York City, and Knickerbocker for New Yorker also enshrined the Hudson River village of  Sleepy Hollow (formerly North Tarrytown) and the Catskill Mountains in the collective American memory.  His fictional characters Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane are recognizable to most of us today through various adaptations of their stories (some having very little relationship to the originals, as with the current Fox series Sleepy Hollow, a surprise hit just renewed for a second season).  What witches are to Massachusetts, the Headless Horseman is to New York State; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is New York’s ultimate Halloween story.  In fact, after the village of North Tarrytown lost its General Motors assembly plant in 1996, it actually changed its name to Sleepy Hollow to increase tourism, and the new TV series has furthered that goal.

Sunnyside_Tarrytown_Currier_and_Ives_crop_closeupIrving’s most famous stories are not just part of New York State history because he was from New York – born in New York City, died in his cottage Sunnyside (now a National Historic Landmark) in Tarrytown—but because they also reflect the history of the period in which he lived and wrote.  Rip Van Winkle highlights the difference between New York as a pre-Revolutionary provincial backwater and a growing state; after his twenty-year sleep, Rip awakes to find that the “very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility . . .”   Though Irving is exaggerating colonial New York’s lethargy for literary effect, the period following the Revolution—the Early Republican period—was precisely the time when New York began to surpass other states in population, commerce, and industrial development.  The changes Rip notices are the very changes that had happened in Irving’s own lifetime (he was in his mid-thirties when these stories were written).  Similarly, Irving’s nostalgia for the “old” New York is evident in this paragraph from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:

. . . it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New-York, that population, manners, and customs, remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.

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Benedict Arnold’s Boot (Part 2)

BENEDICT ARNOLD’S BOOT:  The rise and fall of a New York hero (continued, part 2)

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

Last week, we took Arnold through the fall of 1776, and the Battle at Valcour Island.  In the winter of 1776/77, despite support from George Washington and General Horatio Gates, Arnold was passed over for promotion to major general and threatened to resign.  Enemies—he seems to have made many—had turned Congress against him.  However, on his way to Philadelphia to discuss the matter that April, Arnold learned that the British were about to attack Ridgefield, Connecticut, and he joined the defense, led the militia, and was wounded again in the left leg—the very leg represented in the boot monument on  the field at Saratoga.

An artist's view of Arnold in the thick of the battle at Saratoga

An artist’s view of Arnold in the thick of the battle at Saratoga

In 1777, Arnold’s military career reached its zenith. He was finally promoted after his action and wounding in Connecticut, although he continued to resent that his seniority was less than others who had been promoted in the interim between when he felt the promotion was deserved and when it actually took place.  In addition, he had to defend himself against charges of corruption brought by an enemy officer.  Although Arnold threatened to retire, Washington insisted that he was needed for the defense against the British invasion of New York from the north and west.  Coming down from Canada, General Burgoyne’s army recaptured Ticonderoga in July, and Barry St. Leger’s smaller band of British soldiers, Hessians, Canadians, loyalists, and Native Americans (including New York’s Mohawk leader Joseph Brant) had set out from Niagara in the west.  If these forces could meet with an expected expedition up the Hudson from New York City, it was hoped by the British, and feared by the Americans, that New England would be cut off from the rest of the states.

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Benedict Arnold’s Boot (Part 1)

BENEDICT ARNOLD’S BOOT:  The rise and fall of a New York hero (part 1)

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

The Boot Monument at the Saratoga Battlefield

The Boot Monument at the Saratoga Battlefield

Why would I call Benedict Arnold both a New Yorker and a hero?  Arguably the most famous traitor in American history—a man whose name is still synonymous with betrayal—Arnold was born and grew up in Connecticut, and died in England.  Yet the momentous events of his career took place in New York, and Arnold was one of the most important Revolutionary War heroes before he transformed himself into a villain.  In fact, it was his fall from grace that makes his treason so notorious.  As one of the most demonized figures in our history, it is not surprising that the memorial to his service is simply a mysterious sculpture of a boot on which his name never appears.  This unique tribute, located on the battlefield at Saratoga and erected in 1887, offers a visual reference to the wounds that Arnold sustained there, and is dedicated simply to “‘the most brilliant soldier’ of the Continental Army.”

Arnold was not only the hero of the Battle of Saratoga in 1777—the pivotal battle of the war—but also contributed to the U.S. victory over Great Britain through (1) the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, (2) the building of the first navy and the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776, and (3) lifting the siege on Fort Stanwix and thus driving one prong of the British invasion back to Niagara in 1777.  In addition, Arnold’s military career was noteworthy for numerous acts of ingenuity and courage.

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New York: Aviation Pioneer

New York:  Aviation Pioneer

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

The story of aviation in the United States usually begins with the Wright Brothers and their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.  Yet the Wrights, though they were the first to successfully test a flying machine, are only a small part of the story of the development of powered aircraft.    New York State was actually at the center of aviation pioneering in the years between 1908 and 1929, with developments concentrated first near Keuka Lake, then on Hempstead Plains.  This period of aviation history highlights New York as a center of innovation, leadership, competition, and capitalism.

Curtiss Junebug

Curtiss Junebug

The first name in New York aviation was Glenn H. Curtiss of Hammondsport New York (Steuben County) in the Finger Lakes region of the state.  Curtiss became known as “The Fastest Man of Earth” in 1907, when the “Hercules” motorcycle he designed, built, and raced set a speed record of more than 136 miles per hour.  By 1908, Curtiss had moved from motorcycles to flying, and began testing his planes by taking off on the frozen surface of Keuka Lake.  When Scientific American organized a three-part contest that year, Curtiss set out to win all three competitions.  “On July 4, 1908, the publication’s editors, along with members of the Aero Club of America traveled to the tiny hamlet of Hammondsport, N.Y., to witness the first pre-announced, public flight of an aircraft in America, the ‘June Bug,’ which won the first leg of the three-part competition” by flying in a straight line for 1 kilometer (.62 miles).[1]  Although the Wright brothers had preceded Curtiss’s flight by several years, his was the first scheduled, publicized test of an airplane.  The following year Curtiss flew 25 kilometers (15 miles) in his “Golden Flyer” biplane to win the second stage of the contest.  Finally, in 1910 he won both the third leg of the Scientific American competition in “The Albany Flyer,” which he piloted from Albany to New York City.   Curtiss not only designed and flew his planes, but built the special high-powered, water-cooled V-8 engines that ran them.

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Matilda Joslyn Gage

Matilda Joslyn Gage:  New York’s Neglected Suffragist

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

Most New Yorkers probably recognize the names of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though we may not realize that these advocates for women’s rights spent most of their lives in New York State.  But few have ever heard of a third leader from New York:  Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898).  Like Anthony and Stanton, Gage began her activism in the abolition movement, but devoted most of her life to fighting gender inequality.  With them, she was a founding member of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and a co-author and co-editor of the first three volumes of History of Woman Suffrage, published 1881-1886.  Gage also became an advocate for Native American rights.  Yet even historians of women, like myself, know little about Gage’s beliefs and accomplishments.

Matilda Joslyn GageMatilda Joslyn was born in the town of Cicero, in Onondaga County, north of Syracuse and south of Oneida Lake, where her family was active in the Underground Railroad.  As a married woman and mother, Gage lived in Fayetteville, a village east of Syracuse, where her home also became a refuge for enslaved people attempting to escape their bondage.  New York’s strategic position on the way to Canada made the state a prime location for “stops” on the route from slavery to freedom beyond U.S. borders.  Gage’s antislavery sentiments were shared by her husband, a merchant, her Baptist Church, and many in her Fayetteville community, who became strong supporters of the new Republican Party and the Union cause in the Civil War.

Although Gage did not attend the famous 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls (neither did Anthony), she was a speaker at the 1852 National Convention for Women’s Rights held in Syracuse, New York.  Her speech included these words:

Although our country makes great professions in regard to general liberty, yet the right to particular liberty, natural equality, and personal independence, of two great portions of this country, is treated, from custom, with the greatest contempt; and color in the one instance, and sex in the other, are brought as reasons why they should be so derided; and the mere mention of such, natural rights is frowned upon, as tending to promote sedition and anarchy.[1]

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