Jim Remsen

AUTHOR AND FREELANCE EDITOR

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Our Undying Past

"The Slave Trail of Tears"

October 25, 2015

Tags: history, slavery, racism, African Americans, Civil War, abolition, fugitives

Smithsonian magazine has done a great service to our national self-understanding by publishing an article in its latest edition about what it terms “The Slave Trail of Tears.” Schools today teach about the other, outrageous “Trail of Tears” that Native Americans endured. Now, add to your understanding “the great missing migration,” which author Edward Ball describes as “a thousand-mile-long river of people, all of them black, reaching from Virginia to Louisiana. During the 50 years before the Civil War, about a million enslaved people moved from the Upper South—Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky—to the Deep South—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. They were made to go, deported, you could say, having been sold.

“This forced resettlement,” Ball tells us, was to stock large plantations in the newly opened states of the Deep South with slave labor. The move “was 20 times larger than Andrew Jackson’s ‘Indian removal’ campaigns of the 1830s, which gave rise to the original Trail of Tears as it drove tribes of Native Americans out of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. It was bigger than the immigration of Jews into the United States during the 19th century, when some 500,000 arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe. It was bigger than the wagon-train migration to the West, beloved of American lore. This movement lasted longer and grabbed up more people than any other migration in North America before 1900.”

I’m currently hard at work on a book about the fugitive-slave settlement in my hometown, Waverly, Pa., in Northeastern Pennsylvania. At least two of the escaped slaves who landed in Waverly, George Keys and William Diggs, had their chattel families broken up in Maryland and quite probably “sold down the river” as part of that trail. Keys’ story has come down to us through his son, who told a Scranton newspaper years later that Keys had been a favored slave of a Dr. John Hawkins in tidewater Maryland. As I summarize it in my manuscript, “Hawkins ‘mated’ Keys to a slave woman and provided a special cabin. But hard times came and Hawkins summarily sold Keys’ common-law wife and their two infants to a planter somewhere in the Carolinas. Keys was absent at the time and never got to bid his chattel family goodbye. Instead, he was handed some money and a signed travel pass and was told to disappear north. That would have been George Keys’ heart-wrenching testimony, about being used for breeding, then having his loved ones discarded to a new plantation, never to be seen again.”

Smithsonian writer Ball goes into agonizing detail about the forced marches. “The drama of a million individuals going so far from their homes changed the country,” he writes. “It gave the Deep South a character it retains to this day; and it changed the slaves themselves, traumatizing uncountable families.”

You can read the full article at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/slavery-trail-of-tears-180956968/#Qd2uEaP93Oq4hcWf.99

''Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania''

October 2, 2015

Tags: history, slavery, racism, African Americans, Civil War, Pennsylvania, fugitives

If you saw the film Twelve Years a Slave or read the memoir it’s based on, you know that prior to the Civil War, free-born black people in the Northern states were at risk of being kidnapped and illegally sold into Southern bondage. Mercenaries were carrying out the horrific practice throughout the early decades of the 1800s, and they really upped their game once the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. The new law let slave-catchers come North to capture suspected runaways, with the Northern authorities and public required to cooperate. A quick hearing would be held at which the suspect couldn’t testify. If no one else would pay his bounty, he’d be ordered South with his captors.

This period is included in a Pennsylvania history book I’m currently writing. During my research in the Harrisburg archives, I came upon a powerful article from the Conneautville (Pa.) Courier headlined “Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania.” It drives home just how systematic and conniving the abductions were. Unfortunately, because I have so much other information to use and my primary focus is across the state in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I doubt the article will make it into the book. Still, I’d like to share it because it’s memorable. (more…)

The Slave As 'Crushed Vegetable'

September 19, 2015

Tags: slavery, history, abolition, Underground Railroad, Pennsylvania

In researching the Underground Railroad past of my hometown, Waverly, Pa., I came across a fascinating explication of the abolition mission, at least as it was understood by white participants in the 1830s. I’m at the point in my book manuscript when the quote fits in---when white Waverly was helping to set up its own settlement of fugitive slaves—and I recently shared the lengthy quote with a key supporter of my work. I want to share it with you, too.

They are the words of John Mann, president of the Anti-Slavery and Free Discussion Society. On July 4, 1836, Mann gave a keynote holiday address at the Montrose Presbyterian Church. Montrose, thirty miles north of Waverly, was a haven of abolitionism, and its newspaper, The Spectator and Freeman’s Journal, proudly printed the text of Mann’s speech. Here’s his message for you to savor:

Emancipation, Mann said, “is not what many of its enemies would have you believe. It does not mean the uncaging of a menagerie and letting out a force of wild beasts, to ravage the country and commit depradations on society. ... It means to restore the oppressed children of Africa to that niche in the architecture of society (more…)

A Mass Slave Sale, So Cut-and-Dried

September 1, 2015

Tags: history, slavery, African Americans, Civil War, Pennsylvania, Slate

An engraving of a Southern slave auction.
As fresh evidence of the bloodless manner enslaved black people were auctioned in antebellum America, the library system at the University of Pennsylvania has digitized a 1855 sales brochure that a brokerage firm issued to buyers at a New Orleans auction. It’s entitled “178 Sugar and Cotton Plantation Slaves!” Entries describe the individual slaves and family groups, and payment options are spelled out. Very helpful and enticing--as long as the customers remained dead to human compassion.

The brochure hit home because one of the main figures in my research about the fugitive slave settlement in my hometown of Waverly, Pa., was a Maryland runaway who’d seen his master sell off his chattel wife and two youngsters to a slaver in the Carolinas in the early 1840s. The runaway, George Keys, fled north, resettled in Waverly, and later became a Union soldier during the Civil War. I’m writing a book about Waverly’s Underground Railroad era and its dozen unsung black men including Keys who enlisted and fought in the war. (more…)

How Choctaws aided starving Irish

August 17, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Choctaws, Irish, famine, history, Revolutionary War

This monument in Middleton, County Cork, Ireland, honors the Choctaw.
A major antagonist in my book Visions of Teaoga isn’t a person but a stone monument. Its plaque commemorates a Revolutionary War assault into the Iroquois Indian heartland--a march it says “destroyed savagery” and opened the region to “civilization.” Dedicated in 1902 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the monument perfectly captures our country’s then-imbedded mindset that native peoples were mere savages with no redeeming values.

So I loved learning the other day about one tribe’s beautiful and little-known good works on behalf of white people a half-century earlier. What a redeeming story it is.

The Choctaw Indians were one of the first tribes to be uprooted and forced west on the horrific Trails of Tears in the early 1830s. Untold numbers died from hunger and exposure on the long, cold march from their Mississippi homeland to faraway Oklahoma, where they faced new hardships. Sixteen years later, the Choctaws learned of the Irish potato famine and of how the British overlords would not provide any other food than the blighted potato to the thousands of starving Irish. “Only sixteen years had passed since the Choctaws themselves had faced hunger and death on the first Trail of Tears, and a great empathy was felt when they heard such a similar story coming from across the ocean,” (more…)

A hard historical truth

August 1, 2015

Tags: Civil War, racism, abolition, Copperheads, Pennsylvania, American history

A hickory pole, symbol of the race-baiting Jacksonian Democrats.
“MORE THAN SIX THOUSAND PRESENT! THE GREATEST ENTHUSIASMS PREVAILED.”

I just came upon that breathless headline while doing research for my next book, which will delve into 19th century black life in the section of northeastern Pennsylvania where I was raised. My hometown, the lovely hamlet of Waverly, north of Scranton, takes pride that it once harbored a settlement of fugitive slaves. I’ve been drilling down into that history, with a focus on the dozen remarkable black men from the settlement who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

My goal in this latest round of road research was to find verification for a report I recently ran across online (thank you, newspapers.com!) about a rally in Waverly in October 1861, in the early stages of the war. According to the Adams Sentinel of Gettysburg, the rally was held in support of Lincoln’s policies, and it featured speeches by two gutsy officials of the opposition Democrats, representing the faction of “pro-war Democrats.” The article said ten thousand people attended and cheered loudly. Who else spoke, I wondered. Waverly’s black residents must have attended. Did one of their leaders perhaps get a spot on the platform as well? And where could such a massive event even be held in little Waverly?

I hoped the answer might pop up in one of the old Scranton newspapers, which would presumably have covered such a major event in its area. Unfortunately, the archived newspapers at the Scranton public library only go back to 1863, so that part of my search is thwarted for now.

Meanwhile, I dove into newly added microfilm for another Scranton newspaper, The Lackawanna Register, beginning in early 1863. The Register was a hard-core, Lincoln-hating Democratic house organ—and wow, the invective and racism! Its pages were filled with accounts of large antiwar demonstrations throughout the region in the summer of 1863. There was one in Greenfield, and in Scott, in Lenox, in Harford, in Dundaff, in Fleetville.

Wait a second. This picture runs directly counter to the impression I’d gotten before-- that the area was in Lincoln’s camp and that its Southern-sympathizing, abolition-loathing “Copperheads” were fringe crackpots who were few in number.

Even if you figure The Register was inflating the size of the turnouts (more…)

Indian-settler shuttle diplomacy

July 16, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Pennsylvania, history, Revolutionary War, diplomacy

"Penn's Treaty With the Indians," by Edward Hicks.
The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia has been adding some fine entries lately, particularly regarding the region’s Native American history. The latest installment takes a fascinating look at one of the most ragtag yet important sets of characters roaming the early borderlands – the intermediaries. These were ad-hoc diplomats and interpreters pressed into duty to facilitate talks between the Indian tribes and the Colonial authorities.

As the article’s author, Calvin College history professor Stephen T. Staggs, writes, “They ranged from a French-Shawnee fur trader to a German pioneer, from an acculturated Delaware to a Polish-Prussian missionary, and from an Oneida living in a Shawnee village to a Delaware captive.”

I was pleased to see the online encyclopedia focus on these go-betweens because they’re a factor in my historical novel about the Eastern woodlands, Visions of Teaoga. An interpreter is a constant presence at the 1790 Seneca-U.S. peace council (more…)

Legend of The Bloody Rock

June 20, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, history, Revolutionary War, gore, legend

The Bloody Rock lies beneath a protective grate on the west bank of the Susquehanna River.
You’ve heard of the Bloody Rock? Sometimes called Queen Esther’s Rock? No?

I’m accustomed to getting blank looks when I ask. It’s such a shame, and one more example of how we’ve forgotten so much of our amazing local history. As the anniversary of that gory event nears, allow me to explain what’s still there—on the roadside in northern Pennsylvania--for you to see.

The incident occurred 237 years ago, immediately after a Revolutionary War fight on the banks of the Susquehanna River near present-day Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Because that area is known as the Wyoming Valley, the fight is officially called the Battle of Wyoming. The Patriot side, however, termed it the Wyoming Valley Massacre because of how their militia was overrun and slaughtered by a joint British-Indian force that afternoon of July 3, 1778.

I recounted the gruesome event during an author talk last week at the Rydal Park senior residence outside Philadelphia. Accounts of the battlefield mayhem had already sobered my 45 listeners, and they really began cringing when I started describing the Bloody Rock. On the evening of the battle, I told them, (more…)

'Cataclysmic Change'

May 31, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Delaware, Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, history, Revolutionary War, Gettysburg College

An elegant summary of Pennsylvania’s fraught history with its original people has just been posted on the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. A good friend who runs a Philadelphia tour-guide business alerted me to the new essay, and now I commend it to your reading as well.

The author, Gettysburg College history professor Timothy J. Shannon, highlights many of the points that come through in Visions of Teaoga, my historical novel about Indian-settler conflicts in the 1700s. His opening passage captures the problem: “Relations between Pennsylvania’s Native American and European peoples underwent cataclysmic change (more…)

A momentous land sale

May 13, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Munsee, Lenape, history, New York, Dutch, treaties

Chiefs treat with New Amsterdam's Dutch.
The online journal Slate provided a small-world moment for me the other day. It posted a compelling history article that combined the New Amsterdam Dutch (my very forebears), the Munsee Indians (major players in my historical novel), and even native condolence ceremonies (a powerful aspect of the book’s plot). Let me explain.

The article takes a close and fascinating look at the sale of Staten Island to Dutch and later English settlers in several transactions in the 1600s. Author Andrew Lipman, a Barnard College history professor, notes that the indigenous people who sold the island were known broadly as Munsee because of their common dialects. (more…)

Selected Works by Jim Remsen

Nonfiction
The chronicle of a group of fugitive slaves and the world they encountered in the wary North. Despite serving bravely in the Civil War, their battle for respect was never-ending.
A comprehensive, immensely practical self-help book for intermarried families and those who love them.
Historical fiction
A tween girl visits a seemingly out-of-the-way town on a summer vacation and has close encounters with its amazing past. This saga blends history, suspense, and a coming-of-age journey.

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