Jim Remsen

AUTHOR AND FREELANCE EDITOR

SUBSCRIBE TO THE BLOG


It's simple.

-- You can either click on the Bookmarks tab on your browser and choose 'Subscribe to this page.'

-- Or, if you have a RSS reader, add this URL:
http:/​/​www.jimremsen.com/​blog.rss

Our Undying Past

''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…)

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 powwow with a purpose

April 24, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Lenape, powwows, history, Pennsylvania


Ron Williams at the Lenni-Lenape burial ground (Reading Eagle photo by Susan Keen).

History glows underfoot wherever we walk. Some people feel it, others not so much.

Ron Williams is the sort who does. He’s part Apache, an educator from the Southwestern U.S. who now lives in Pottstown, Pa., near Philadelphia. It seems a certain spot along the Schuylkill River in Pottstown has called out to him. It’s a small lot behind a factory—but sacred because of the Lenni-Lenape remains and artifacts found there in 1859.

Mr. Williams began visiting the burial ground, marked with a memorial boulder, to meditate, and “I made a promise to the souls laid to rest here that their place would be useful and remembered,” he (more…)

Reclaiming the Wyalusing cliffs

April 9, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Delaware, Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, Lenape, Moravians, Christians, missionaries, history

The stunning, strategic, sacred site.
One of the most gorgeous spots in Pennsylvania is the Wyalusing Rocks overlook. Looming high above the upper Susquehanna River, it offers a breathtaking vista of the winding river and its broad alluvial plain. As a boy from that Northeastern Pennsylvania region, I remember going there with my parents and beholding the view in awe. Wouldn’t you know, in my historical novel Visions of Teaoga, my modern young protagonist and her dad pull over at Wyalusing to absorb the historical setting before them.

Go to Wyalusing today and, mixed among the roadside tourists, you may find Native Americans, there to pray and pay their respects. They know that this was far more than a lovely overlook. It was a strategically important sentry post, a site of tribal councils, and sacred ground. Fifteen years ago, the Eastern Delaware Nations coalition managed to buy 14 acres of the cliffs, and one of the group’s chiefs, John Taffe, tells me seekers of all ages go there to conduct traditional vision quests.

Wyalusing has been on my mind because I’ll be traveling (more…)

Preserving Queen Esther's Town

March 27, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, archaeology, preservation, Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania, historyonaries, history


The riverfront site, on the far shore, is going to be protected by the Archaeological Conservancy.

News flash: The important American Indian village site where the protagonist of my historical novel Visions of Teaoga once ruled is gaining the protection of the national Archaeological Conservancy.

The nonprofit conservancy identifies, acquires, and preserves significant archaeological sites around the country. It has preserved 465 sites thus far – and now is happily adding Queen Esther’s Town in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

After more than a decade of effort, the group said, it recently signed an option to purchase 92 acres of the riverfront site. That will make it the conservancy’s largest preserve in the Eastern U.S.

The archaeologists were exultant. According to the conservancy, the site “contains the heart of Queen Esther’s Town, a very significant sprawling series of contact period villages.” It said the floodplain where the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers meet “has staggering research potential for future scholars” not only because of Esther’s 1700s native village but also the centuries of prior habitation there.

White settler accounts say Queen Esther’s Town – also known as Queen Esther’s Village or Esthertown – contained about seventy “rude houses.” (more…)

Dancing through dark times

October 27, 2014

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, powwow, Lenape, Nanticoke, Munsee, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania

If you haven’t experienced an Indian powwow yet, I recommend you seek one out. They’re colorful extravaganzas that occur East and West for much of the year. Every powwow I’ve attended has been welcoming and family-friendly. They tend to be multicultural and intertribal, meaning different styles of drumming and dancing are on display. Don’t be surprised by the rainbow coalition of complexions, too--evidence of the Indians’ complicated history of mixing and mingling with whites and blacks.

I experienced the Indians’ warm ways most recently when I attended a Nanticoke-Lenape powwow in southern New Jersey to sign and sell my new book, Visions of Teaoga, which delves into Eastern Woodlands history of the 1700s. The tribal organizers welcomed me, a white man (a yengwe in the parlance of Visions of Teaoga) to the event, promoted my book to the crowd, and even bought copies for themselves and their bookstore. To top that off, they invited me back to introduce the book to teachers at an educator showcase they held a few weeks later.

This particular group calls itself the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation. Headquartered in Bridgeton, N.J., the group traces its lineage (more…)

About that mascot ...

October 10, 2014

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Iroquois, Redskins, Senecas, Pennsylvania, New York, mascots

This weekend I’ll be heading off on a book tour along the New York-Pennsylvania border. Being on the fringe of Iroquois country, it’s the very territory that’s featured in my historical novel Visions of Teaoga. It’s also an area touched by a hot national debate – about the term “redskin” and its use as a sports nickname.

You no doubt know about the pressure on the pro football Washington Redskins to change its team name, and the organization’s refusal to do so. Critics call the term an anachronistic slur, while the other side argues that it's benign, even respectful.

Slur or not, the Redskins name is still in use by several dozen high schools around the country, most of them majority-white. And one of them is Sayre High School, located just four miles north of Tioga Point, the epicenter of the Indian-settler conflict zone that Visions of Teaoga captures.

North of Sayre, in upstate and western New York, seven other schools have mascots with Indian references: the Watkins Glen Senecas, the Southern Cayuga Chiefs, and the Indians of Candor, Groton, Odessa-Montour, Owego Free Academy and Stamford. This is according to an article two weeks ago in the Elmira Star-Gazette. Only one school in that region, Sayre High, keeps the R-word.

The Redskins nickname is a thing of the past now on the collegiate scene since the last two schools gave it up a few years. (more…)

Marking Pa.'s Last Indian Removal

September 26, 2014

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Iroquois, Seneca, treaties, land, New York, Pennsylvania

The blow-by-blow of how our Eastern Woodlands Indians were dispossessed gets sorely limited treatment in history classes, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. This weekend, a painful chapter in that history will be commemorated by the Seneca Nation along the New York-Pennsylvania border.

The events of “Remembering the Removal, 50 Years Later” will mark the Army Corps of Engineers’ ouster of the Senecas from their very last toehold of ancestral land in Pennsylvania. In the late 1950s, the Corps set out to build a hydroelectric dam that would effectively flood 10,000 acres of the tribe’s so-called Cornplanter Tract, which is about 70 miles east of Erie, Pa. The Supreme Court cleared the way, allowing a treaty to be broken and forcing the relocation of more than 600 Seneca families north to New York.

Not familiar with the story? You’re hardly alone.

The Seneca Nation wants to raise public awareness about the Kinzua removal. (more…)

Why Teaoga? It's in history's vortex

September 12, 2014

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Iroquois, Revolutionary War, New York, Pennsylvania, education

During the recent virtual-blog tour held as part of my Visions of Teaoga book launch, I was asked to reflect on why I wrote this historical novel. A fine question. Here's my answer:

Teaoga is a place that smacked me upside the head. Grabbed me and shouted, “Listen!”

Seriously, I wrote Visions of Teaoga because of the story it has to tell. Multiple stories, in fact – a crazy cavalcade of stories. Ever since I was a boy, I’ve been the type to lie back in the grass and sense the mysterious hum of the land and the people who came before. If you’re at all like that, you know what I mean. Not that I’m all supernatural. I’ll feel a place’s vibe--but I’ll also study up on the facts of its history.

So when a road trip a few years ago took me into Teaoga, now the quiet, seemingly idyllic riverfront community of Athens, Pennsylvania, its past reached out and smacked me. You may not have heard of this town, but it stood on the front lines of many of the conflicts and upheavals that swept the Eastern Woodlands in the colonial and Revolutionary era. It was at various times an Indian stronghold, a Christian mission field, a treaty ground, the launching site for several scorched-earth campaigns, the last bastion of a failed breakaway state, and more.

That’s why I wrote about it—because Teaoga was truly a microcosm of our nation’s turbulent beginnings. I wrote about it because (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.

Quick Links

Find Authors