Richard W. Hoover: Uncovering what is now forgotten

Pearl seashell scrimshaws. Photo courtesy of Richard W. Hoover

Much of what comes down from the past– whether in movies or contemporary histories and novels– badly misses the mark in terms of “telling it like it was.” What was once wildly important to our forbears is often lost in the descent. Pick up any 19th century newspaper, for example, and I wager that even today’s well-informed will have little clue about many of the people and events contained therein, no matter how noteworthy they were back in that day.

Richard W. Hoover[/caption]I suppose that the disappearance of what was once wildly important may be laid to changing generational values, to shifting currents of political correctness, or to the failure of historical events and persons to culminate in the big developments which excited contemporaries had expected. On another level, what was once wildly important is important no more if, today, publishing it doesn’t pay!

So, effective communing with the sacred past requires delving into contemporary books, newspapers and accounts, depends upon listening directly to our forbears, upon taking them up on their own terms. Little wonder that antiques, those hardy and expressive witnesses of the past, are also of tremendous help in uncovering what is now forgotten.

Take these two pearl seashell scrimshaws. I am still in historical shock after turning them up in an Indiana antique shop back in the mid-1960’s (knowing me by now, you know that it doesn’t take much to produce historical shock!). On one, an early 19th century American Eagle surmounted by stars, crossed U.S. Flags and oak leaves (symbolizing strength). On the other, a paddle-wheel steamship, all ablaze, heading toward a roaring falls. The legend above reads: “Destruction of the Caroline.”

Neither my history professor nor I had a clue about the Caroline. Nor did I have time and resources to concentrate on the mystery until, over a 1980’s home leave, I found the right book: Volume IV of Page Smith’s multi-thousand pager, “A People’s History of the United States.” The Caroline had a page and a half — a needle in the haystack of this eight-volume work. What Smith imparted would become well-supplemented in the later “Age of The InnerNet!”

The long and short: in 1837, the American steamer Caroline was running men and arms to Navy Island on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, the headquarters of a joint invasion force of American irregulars and French Canadian rebels. Americans had been whipped to an anti-British frenzy over a contested border between Maine and Canada, by heated memories of the War of 1812 and by the bubbling up of the old dream of annexing Canada. To make the storm perfect, French Canadians were in open rebellion against the British colonial administration of upper Canada, today’s Ontario. They asked for American help. Border towns in Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Michigan collected money and provisions for the two forces.

On the night of Dec. 20, 1837, Canadian militia, led by Royal Navy Captain Edwin Drew, crossed to the American side of the Niagara and seized the offending Caroline. Amos Dufee, a black crew member, and cabin boy “Little Billie” Johnson were shot dead. The dead and living were removed. Cut loose, set in the current and ignited, the Caroline sank to the bottom just before she reached Niagara Falls. Subsequently, Dufee’s corpse was carried to Buffalo and set up in front of a recruiting tavern! America went mad!

It was, in fact, a mini-Pearl Harbor. Raids, counter raids, skirmishes, battles, court cases, international accusations and recriminations raged for the next four to five years before it was all brilliantly laid to rest by Secretary of State Daniel Webster and the Brits, in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.

So, the Caroline is a powerful example of how the living can forget what was wildly important to the dead — a phenomenon for us to ponder and guard against. Because her destruction did not lead to our third war with Great Britain, nor to America’s annexation of Canada, nor to a successful French-Canadian rebellion against British colonial authority, we have simply dropped the Caroline from our national historical consciousness. But for having found this talkative pair of engraved antiques, she would have been lost to mine.