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…)

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…)

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…)

'Indian-German Commonwealth'

March 17, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Lenape, Moravians, Christians, missionaries, history

An engraving of Moravian Indian converts being baptized in virginal white robes.
During the colonial era, the Christian group that historians say had the greatest success evangelizing to Native Americans was not the Baptists, nor the Presbyterians, nor the Quakers. It was a group that many people outside Pennsylvania are clueless about – the Moravians.

This German-speaking pacifist sect found refuge from persecution in William Penn’s new colony, establishing the lovely little city of Bethlehem, Pa., as its new base. It turns out I’ll be making an author appearance at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem this Saturday afternoon, March 21, and will happily highlight the Moravian history that runs through my book Visions of Teaoga.

And run through it, it certainly does.

The book’s real-life protagonist, the 18th-century Shawnee matriarch known as Queen Esther, was attracted to the Moravian missionaries and made numerous visits to their “prayer towns” on the Susquehanna River. The record shows that three of her children even converted to Christianity during (more…)

At last, a slavery museum

February 27, 2015

Tags: African Americans, South, slavery, museums, racism, history, plantations

The Louisiana museum includes a number of tableau including this one of children.
America finally has a slavery museum. And it’s right in the belly of the beast, rural Louisiana.

But what took long? Our country was founded on two pillars of shame – the enslavement of black people and the dispossession of Native Americans – so why did it take us until 2015 to open a museum focusing on the enormity of what’s been called our “peculiar institution”?

Walter Johnson, a Harvard professor, has a theory about this societal avoidance. “Slavery gets understood as a kind of prehistory to freedom rather than what it really is: the foundation for a country where white supremacy was predicated upon African-American exploitation,” he says. “This is still, in many respects, the America of 2015.”

Johnson is among the people quoted by The New York Times in a Feb. 26 feature story about the new slavery museum. The article walks you through the museum grounds, located on the original Whitney Plantation west of New Orleans. Whitney is far different from other restored sugar plantations in a region where, the Times states, “mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black human beings.”

At Whitney, the visitor finds not only slave cabins and exhibits (more…)

Truth-Telling on White Terrorism

February 13, 2015

Tags: African Americans, South, racism, lynching, murder, history

The Equal Justice Initiative's new report shows how lynchings were open spectacles at the time, but have been edged out of our public history.
One of the most outrageous – and suppressed – parts of our nation’s history is racial lynching. You probably knew that sadistic murders of African Americans happened across the South. Perhaps it was a paragraph in your history textbook about the Jim Crow era. Maybe you stared at one of the gruesome old photos of dangling corpses. But did you know lynching’s full scope, and just how openly and even gleefully it occurred, with impunity for the perpetrators and a bottomless grief and rage for the victims’ terrorized communities?

This month, an intrepid Alabama-based rights group called the Equal Justice Initiative issued a monumental report on lynching that’s designed to grab us all (more…)

Saving the Lenape Language

January 18, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Lenape, Delaware, language, linguistics, University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore, history

A sample of transliterations from the Swarthmore College linguistics project.
The game efforts to keep the Lenape (Delaware Indian) language alive has been on my checklist of good blog topics from day one. Other ideas kept crowding it out, however, so it stayed in later-soon status. But it’s time now, past time, to jump in.

What brought the issue back to mind is a language controversy currently embroiling the Navajo people in Arizona. Perhaps you read about it in this week’s New York Times. The Navajo Nation just installed new leaders – except for elected president Chris Deschene. It seems that fluency in the cherished Navajo (Dine) language is a requirement of leadership, and a court challenge over Deschene’s lack of proficiency led to his being disqualified from office. The future of the tribe’s leadership, and of the fluency requirement, sadly remains up in the air.

Back in Pennsylvania, the descendants of the region’s indigenous Lenape people (more…)

Red, Black, and Sometimes White

January 2, 2015

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, African Americans, slavery, history, outcasts, Philadelphia


This new group taps into many African Americans' newfound interest in their native roots.

New Year’s Day brought a fascinating article out of Atlanta about black Native Americans. It should be no surprise that the two groups mixed over the centuries. Both were marginalized and persecuted by Europeans, with many American Indians being enslaved along with Africans in the early decades of contact, and with blacks sometimes being enslaved by Native Americans.

In the 1970s I delved into this complicated phenomenon when researching a story about an organization called United American Indians of the Delaware Valley. The coalition, now defunct, was dominated by a North Carolina group known as the Haliwas. Many of its members were triracial – black, white and red. Haliwa is an invented name that refers to the two rural counties, Halifax and Warren, where the group was concentrated. For generations, the Haliwas were what anthropologists term “triracial isolates” – subsisting on a toehold of isolated land, until many of them departed on the Great Migration north (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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