History, particularly popular history, need not be dull, something that Cormac O’Brien demonstrates readily in his book, The Forgotten History of America. Written in a conversational tone and broken into vignettes, old history is made new when written this way. Even so, it’s not the standard stuff taught in schools. It’s about wars and both sides in those wars, reaching back to the country’s colonial beginnings in the 16th century. With personalities writ large on both sides and a good understanding of the differences in modern and historical society, O’Brien leads his readers on journeys back in time:
It begins with the first permanent European settlement in North America:
Pedro Menedez de Aviles anxiously paced the deck of his flagship, San Pelayo. Two days earlier, off the coast of Florida, he had gone ashore and met with Indians who offered valuable information about the prey he was desperately seeking. Now, confident of success, he led his five vessels northward along the coastline, scanning the beaches for any sign of European settlement. The day was September 4, 1565, and Menendez was hunting heretics.
When I began began doing genealogical research many years ago, like all beginners I focused on marriage records, birth and death records--when they were available, and wills. Then came deeds and other land records, and through using them I discovered the world of "courts of chancery" and "chancery records."
Not all Virginia courts judged cases the same way, you see. Some courts decided cases based on written laws that either specifically allowed or specifically prohibited various actions in certain circumstances. There was in these courts no latitude for judicial interpretation; there were no "grey areas."
Other courts, however, dealt with issues of equity or fairness in a much more flexible way--Chancery Courts. These courts decided cases which codified law could not readily accomodate, and these cases were usually land disputes, divisions of estates, divorce petitions, and business partnership disputes.
Chancery Court files are filled with subpoenas, depositions of witnesses, affidavits and other items of enormous interest to genealogists!
The Library of Virginia in Richmond has been diligently digitizing and indexing old chancery records, covering cases from the early eighteenth century through World War I. The database now includes hundreds of thousands of items. Several jurisdictions of interest to us are already completed! You may now find and view online the scanned chancery records for Westmoreland County, 1753-1913; Caroline County, 1787-1849; and Culpeper County, 1829-1913. Others will be made available in due course.
The American Revolution didn’t start with the Tea Party.
For more than 100 years before that, the immigrants who came to America had very cogent reasons for leaving the civilized world. Many were hotheads—rebels against the king and his policies on religion. Others had come to the colonies hoping to make their fortunes and discovered much to their dismay that the king was very interested in taking a cut of their profits through high taxes, particularly on tobacco.
In Virginia, high taxes meant that the small farmers were left landless when they could not pay. Their farms were taken by wealthier landholders and the dispossessed went to the frontier to find new land to support them and their families. Not surprisingly, this meant clashes with the native population, some of which were quite bloody. Royal Governor Berkeley’s refusal to support the frontier farmers with soldiers—and his obvious friendships with the wealthier Tidewater land barons--led to Bacon’s Rebellion against the king’s most powerful representative and was but one example of the tension felt between the colonists and their royal masters’ representatives.
Multiple-choice standards of learning tests are not concerned with the details that fill out American history. Who wants to know that those who disagreed with the Revolutionary patriots risked their lives and fortunes in a time of mob rule? What state examiner wants to hear tales of men of honor who refused to break their oaths of loyalty to the king and were whipped, tarred and feathered, or "smoked out" of their homes, as happened to 65-year-old Israel Williams, a respected Loyalist legislator, whose signature in support of the rebel cause was only gained after a night of gasping for air inside his smoky home? In Thomas B. Allen's Tories, many of these stories from across the colonies are well-preserved and well-told so that they might be well-remembered.
They say every family has its black sheep.
As my cotton-gloved hands examined the woven fabric, I felt the thrill of encountering a link to the age of discovery. Over a hundred years old and probably unseen and untouched for decades, this artifact of the Cook Islands was being carefully prepared by us technicians to be moved to the Smithsonian Institution’s storage facility. Some twenty years later, Professor Nicholas Thomas’ Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James A. Cook has given me much better perspective on these pieces of the past.
In colonial days, Baptists, Methodists and other dissenters from the Church of England might be jailed for preaching in the streets or fined for keeping their own churches. Evangelical Christians were an important factor in the American Revolution's success.
If your early education taught you something about Thomas Jefferson, it likely included facts on his part in authoring the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson was an ideas man—a deep thinker. Well-educated in the classics at the College of William and Mary, he stayed out of the usual undergrad troubles by keeping at his studies and socializing with the professors while classmates spent their time drinking, gambling, and racing their horses through the streets. As historian Michael Kranish relates in Flight from Monticello, he made plenty of friends, but they were from the same landed gentry class as himself.
The Northern Neck runs from Falmouth in Stafford County all the way down to Windmill Point in Lancaster County, bounded by the Rappahannock River to the south and the Potomac River to the north. Now it’s a sleepy section of Virginia but it was once called the Athens of the New World.
From a Scottish port to colonial Fredericksburg to the royal courts of France and Russia, the little man who famously refused to give up the fight was perfectly at home in both cottages and elegant salons, but he was always eager to set sail for adventure and glory.