Digging History Blog

Book Review Thursday:  The Mapmaker’s Children

Book Review Thursday: The Mapmaker’s Children

I really enjoy books like this one: historical fiction with a goal of writing not only a compelling story but educating the reader about a little-known or long-forgotten historical figure.  Such is the case with The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy as she juxtaposes the Civil War era with a strikingly similar modern story set one hundred and fifty years into the future. The narrative alternates between two women: Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson.  Sarah is the daughter of abolitionist John Brown, afflicted with a childhood illness which left her barren.  Similarly, Eden is struggling with infertility in the twenty-first century world of hormone injections and the unsuccessful and frustrating attempts to conceive via modern technology. As the story unfolds the reader will eventually get a sense as to the direction it’s heading as the two women’s lives (and their struggles) intersect.  Faced with the inability to bear children, both women struggle to find purpose in life.  For Sarah, she continues to champion her father’s cause by using her artistic skills to paint maps for slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad. On the other hand, Eden struggles with her marriage and the failure to conceive.  Her husband Jack purchases a puppy for her, and although she regards it initially as insensitivity to her emotional needs, she eventually embraces the pet (named Cricket) and finds a way to move on with her life and later become an entrepreneur.  Through a series of clues found in her new home Eden begins to piece together an important historical link to not only the house, but the townspeople who have befriended her.  As... read more
Military History Monday:  Hello Girls of World War I

Military History Monday: Hello Girls of World War I

During World War I they were officially known as the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, but more informally known as “Hello Girls”.  The United States had been reluctant to join its European allies in the conflict, but when Germany began an all-out effort in early 1917 to sink American vessels in the North Atlantic, President Woodrow Wilson’s hand was forced.  He asked Congress for a declaration of war, “a war to end all wars”.  On April 6, 1917 Congress officially did so, engaging the Germans and hoping to make the world once again safe for democracy. The British had been at war with German for nearly three years when the United States joined the effort.  With their men away fighting the war, large numbers of women were working in munitions factories throughout Britain.  Their work was dangerous as explosives and chemicals caused deaths.  The greatest single loss occurred in early January 1917 when a munitions factory in Silvertown, England exploded due to an accidental fire – seventy-two women were severely injured and sixty-nine perished. President Wilson’s cousin John Wilson was in England at the time and described it as a “terrific crash, accompanied by a red glow in the sky.”1  Another American observed that London was shaken from one end to the other – windows within a twenty-mile radius were shattered.  Perhaps this catastrophic event compelled British officials to find a safer way for women to contribute to the war effort. By early March the decision had been made to find ways for women to serve in other capacities such as cooking, mechanical and clerical tasks.  The women... read more
Book Review Thursday:  1924: The Year That Made Hitler

Book Review Thursday: 1924: The Year That Made Hitler

In a sane world it would seem a serious mistake to draw attention to and republish Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler’s autobiography first published in 1925.  For years the book was purposely kept off the shelves of bookstores and libraries, thought to have been too dangerous for the general public.  The copyright, held by the state of Bavaria, finally expired in December 2015. In late February 2016 the Washington Post reported the newly republished book, now heavily annotated to explain Hitler’s comments, was ranked number two on Der Spiegel’s bestseller list.  It seems fortuitous that this book by Peter Ross Range was released in late January 2016, perhaps serving as a counterbalance. Heaven knows the voluminous tomes which could be (and have been) written about Adolph Hitler.  Range chose to focus on a brief period in Hitler’s life to give us a glimpse into the mindset of the monster who later perpetrated so many horrific crimes against humanity. Hitler spent most of 1924 in prison after being tried for treason as a result of his attempted beer hall coup in early November 1923.  The “prison” was hardly what one would imagine for a prisoner accused of such crimes.  Instead, his private quarters and the year he spent there made it seem more like an extended spa vacation.  After being sentenced to five years in prison for his failed coup attempt, the judge immediately reduced the sentence to approximately six months (if he behaved himself). Hitler, surrounded with like-minded prisoners, enthralled the captive audience with his speechifying in the weeks before the trial.  However, following the trial he set himself to... read more
Ghost Town Wednesday:  Whitehorn, Colorado

Ghost Town Wednesday: Whitehorn, Colorado

According to a Fremont County, Colorado web site the population of Whitehorn was less than ten as of 2014.  Accounts vary, however, as to who founded the town in the mid-to-late 1890’s.  In one account prospector Dennis Patno came to the area in February of 1897, struck gold and started a rush to the area in the mountains northeast of Salida.  In yet another account the town was founded in May of 1897 by Arthur L. Whitehorn – according to a 1901 article published in the Whitehorn News, he was indeed the founder. Whitehorn had recently been appointed as U.S. Deputy Mineral Surveyor in Pitkin County, having also mined around the Tin Cup area.  He set up his assayer’s tent at the camp some miners humorously referred to as “Suckerville”.  However, the specimens he examined were promising enough and soon the town named in his honor began to be laid out. As soon as word spread of a gold strike, miners began to flood the area.  Initially, forty plots priced at fifty cents each were laid out and drawn by lots.  In those days gold strikes were reported throughout the region, especially in the Denver and Colorado Springs newspapers.  It was big news and correspondents were sent to cover it firsthand. By June there were already about two hundred miners living in tents and shacks or in the twenty-some buildings which had already been erected.  Edward M. Kraus was appointed as postmaster by the end of July, more than enough to make the town of Whitehorn “official”.  By that time about one thousand people were receiving mail there. The... read more

Early American Faith: The Wild Man of Goose Creek

By the late eighteenth century John Wesley’s Methodism, having spread to the American colonies, was formally established as the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore in 1784.  While the Congregationalists and Episcopalians remained along the Eastern seaboard of America, Methodism began to spread with the push into uncharted territories to the west. Methodists weren’t shy about their faith as circuit-riding preachers accompanied patriots who received land grants for their war service, crossing the mountains and heading to Tennessee and Kentucky.  Often the first person settlers met along the way was a man on a horse with a Bible in his hand.  While Francis Asbury is widely credited as the most famous circuit rider and responsible for Methodism’s early exploding growth (1784-1816), there is another man who made his mark in a much briefer period of time (1800-1804). John Adam Granade, a descendant of French ancestors . . . NOTE:  This article will soon be available in a Special Edition of Digging History Magazine.  If interested, please subscribe to the blog (to the right of this post) and you will be notified when both regular and special edition issues of Digging History Magazine are... read more
Feisty Females:  Sara Payson Willis, aka Fanny Fern

Feisty Females: Sara Payson Willis, aka Fanny Fern

March is Women’s History Month and what better way to kick it off than to highlight the accomplishments of first female newspaper columnist and highest paid nineteenth century newspaper writer Sara Payson Willis, a.k.a. “Fanny Fern”. Sara was born in Portland, Maine on July 9, 1811, the daughter of Nathaniel and Hannah (Parker) Willis.  Her parents had planned to name their fifth child after Reverend Edward Payson, pastor of Portland’s Second Congregational Church (five years later they named a son after the reverend).  Instead, she was given the middle name of Payson. NOTE: This article is being re-purposed and may be included in a future edition (or Special Edition) of Digging History Magazine. After January 1, 2018 it can also be purchased as an individual article. If interested, please subscribe to the blog (to the right of this post) and you will be notified when the new Digging History Magazine web site is launched.... read more
Book Review Thursday:  Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles

Book Review Thursday: Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles

After reading this book I have to wonder how I, having lived almost two decades in Southern California, never heard about this tragic man-made disaster which occurred on March 12, 1928.  I vaguely knew about someone named Mulholland who made a name for himself in Los Angeles and had one of the most scenic drives in Los Angeles named in his honor.  It’s almost like the City and County of Los Angeles swept it all into the dustbin of history, that is until author Jon Wilkman wrote this detailed account which was voted one of the best books of January 2016 by Amazon. Although I’ve never seen the movie, fans of the 1974 movie Chinatown would have an idea of the background of the story.  The water wars of the early twentieth century which pitted the burgeoning city and county of Los Angeles against the farmers and ranchers of Owens Valley were marked by rancorous disputes and what we would today call acts of domestic terrorism. Los Angeles had big plans to expand and grow and Owens Valley had abundant water resources.  William Mulholland, an Irish immigrant, had been involved in Los Angeles water matters since his arrival there in 1877, eventually becoming chief engineer and manager of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply.   Mulholland, a self-educated civil engineer and dam builder was well-respected, yet made some fatal mistakes when he oversaw the building of the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon in the mountains north of Los Angeles. The story of the dam breaking and creating a harrowing floodpath to the Pacific Ocean... read more
Tombstone Tuesday:  Zilpha Etta Scott Dockery (1796-1903)

Tombstone Tuesday: Zilpha Etta Scott Dockery (1796-1903)

She was born on September 8, 1796 in Virginia and moved with her family to Spartanburg, South Carolina at the age of three, an event she remembered vividly in 1902 when interviewed by the Dallas Morning News.  John Scott was a farmer and the father of three sons and eight daughters. While most of her family appears to have died young, Zilpha would more than outlive all of them, her life spanning three centuries.  When she was born George Washington was serving his second term as the first president of the United States.  Although Napoleon Bonaparte had just married Josephine his rise to power had not yet evolved. “My people were hard-working people,” she declared.  “We worked in the fields with plows drawn by oxen and made crops that way for my father the year before I was married.”1  Her childhood dresses were made of flax cloth, although she fondly remembered the first calico dress she made. “Calico was so skeerce and expensive we couldn’t afford any flounces and frills and trains them days.”  Instead, Zilpha wove flax cloth and traded it yard for yard for calico.  It was “purty”, she remembered in 1902, and she herself was “naturly purty”.  In those days folks didn’t wear their shoes on the way to church, corn shuckings, logrollings, weddings or fairs.  They would walk barefoot until reaching their destination, put their shoes on and take them off again before walking home. Zilpha married William Hiram Dockery in 1818, with whom she had nine children – six sons and three daughters.  From Spartanburg, they moved and settled among the Cherokee Indians in... read more
Book Review Thursday:  The Golden Lad:  The Haunting Story of Quentin and Theodore Roosevelt

Book Review Thursday: The Golden Lad: The Haunting Story of Quentin and Theodore Roosevelt

After reading several books in the last two years about the Roosevelts – Franklin, Eleanor, Alice and Theodore – I believe this one is perhaps the most poignant one of all as it explores the relationship between Theodore and his youngest son Quentin.  He adored his children, and they adored him right back (with the exception, of course, of his first child Alice with whom he had a sometimes-strained relationship). This book by Eric Burns focuses on Theodore’s special relationship with Quentin, or Quenty-Quee as he liked to call his youngest son. Perhaps more than any other of his children, Quentin was most like his father.  They shared on particular thing in common – both suffered from one childhood malady or another – so much so that it pained Theodore to see his offspring suffer, especially “golden lad” Quentin who would be the frailest of all his children. Quentin was the one who “got away” with more than the older children.  When the Roosevelts occupied the White House, Quentin and his friends were known as the “White House Gang”, running up and down the halls, playing pranks, making mischief.  His spirit and joie de vivre were so much like his father’s it’s no wonder the two had such a special relationship. Many books have been written about Theodore Roosevelt, he being one of the most fascinating and colorful people to occupy the White House.  I expected this one to focus more on Quentin, given the title of the book.  Burns, however, spent a fair amount of time writing about Theodore while interspersing stories which highlighted their special relationship. Theodore... read more
Feisty Females:  Sarah Jane Ames

Feisty Females: Sarah Jane Ames

When she died in 1926 Sarah Jane Ames was hailed as one of Boone County, Illinois’s “most virile, energetic, and withal most interesting citizens”.1 She was born Sarah Jane Hannah in Montreal, Canada on December 4, 1843, and in 1854 migrated to Belvidere, Illinois with her parents (Thomas and Jane) and two brothers. Save for a few years she spent pioneering in South Dakota, Sarah remained in Boone County the remainder of her life.   NOTE: This article is being re-purposed and may be included in a future edition (or Special Edition) of Digging History Magazine. After January 1, 2018 it can also be purchased as an individual article. If interested, please subscribe to the blog (to the right of this post) and you will be notified when the new Digging History Magazine web site is... read more

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  1. Belvidere Daily Republican, 22 May 1926, p. 2
  2. Denver Post, 16 Sep 1897, p. 6
  3. Denver Post, 16 Aug 1898, p. 3
  4. Topeka Daily Capital, 30 Mar 1918, p. 10
  5. Soldiers (U.S. Army Magazine), World War I’s Hello Girls: Paving the Way for Women in the U.S. Army, Elizabeth M. Collins, 15 Nov 2013
  6. The Deseret News, 29 May 1979, p. 2
  7. Soldier Magazine