Sunday, November 19, 2017

NARA's Prologue To End Print Version

I have a glorious week off from Teaching for Thanksgiving, something to be thankful for, surely. It's a great time to catch up on some reading and writing of my own choosing. ;-)

Prologue is the quarterly journal of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It has been in publication since the spring of 1969, highlighting programs and news about NARA. The articles are all based on the holdings of NARA in and around Washington, DC., the regional archives located around the United States, as well as the Presidential Libraries

I have been a subscriber to Prologue off and on for a little over ten years. Needless to say, I enjoy this publication very much. So I was very sad that my Fall issue came in the mail recently with a letter that stated that the next issue (Winter 2018) will be the last print issue. Of course, they will continue to put content on the NARA website, but no longer will I be able to hold a printed copy. 

So along with the letter, there is only a one-line statement on the journal's website that says, "The Winter 2018 issue will be the last printed edition." I did a quick Google search and did not find any news release, there is not even a statement in the NARA news on the archives.gov website. Moreover, I haven't found any statements of shock, surprise, or disappointment. 

I won't go into a lament on the switch from print to online content. Business is business and I'm sure it's hard to keep a print publication like a history journal on a paying basis. Additionally, I am sure that NARA will come up with an engaging way to present the content that was once provided exclusively in the print medium. In fact, their notification letter asks for input on what that content should look like. I'm just sorry to see Prologue (for me anyway) get lost in the flood of online information that comes at me every day. I will miss the print version coming up in my reading stack. Which is where I go to escape that flood of electronic noise at the end of the day. I just thought someone should mark the passing.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Point Reyes and Drake's Bay

It is 308 steps down to the
lighthouse, and 308 back up!
One of our recent day trips was to Point Reyes National Seashore which is about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. We had never been to this area before and were not disappointed with the beautiful views there. Even though it was a weekday, there were plenty of people visiting. There is a nice visitor center there, but really, the star of the show here is nature. Plenty of walking and very little in the way of services. The highlight of the visit is a walk down hundreds of steps to the lighthouse. Unfortunately you have to walk back up!

So what does this trip have to do with history? Well, it's not about the lighthouse, although I do love them. If you look at a map of Point Reyes (Google Maps will do), you will see that the point wraps around a body of water named "Drakes Bay." Remember the story of Sir Francis Drake from elementary school? From 1577 to 1580, Drake and his ship, the Golden Hind, sailed into the Pacific to raid Spanish shipping, with the full
Waysides at the visitor center tell the
story of Drake's stay in California.
consent of Queen Elizabeth I. On June 17, 1579, Drake sailed into this bay on the northern California coast to make repairs to his ship before continuing across the Pacific ocean and eventually home. Drake and his men stayed for thirty-six days and by all available sources had pretty good relations with the local Miwok. Oh, yes, and he claimed the land for England. A brass plate that is believed to be made by the crew was later found in Marin County, along with other archaeological evidence to support journals kept by members of the crew.

The cliffs along this bay supposedly
reminded the English sailors of home.
On the day we visited, the only beach goers on this fairly remote beach was a number of elephant seals. So as not to disturb them, the humans didn't mingle. Regardless, it was a bit of a thrill for me to come to this place. First, there are very few places where you can go in California to see what the area might have looked like when Europeans first arrived. The remoteness of this seashore makes it one of the few. Also, Drake claimed this area for England nearly two hundred years before the Spanish would found a settlement on land that would become California and forty years before the English started colonies on the east coast.
The only visitors to the beach on the day
we visited were some elephant seals.
This makes Drake the first European to claim lands that would become any part of the United States.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Back Over There

Yes, I know I have been a very poor blogger this spring and summer. It's not that I've stopped being a history fanatic. It's just that I'm in the middle of learning how to be a math and science teacher! I know, can you believe it? Last year I taught social studies at a continuation high school here in the central valley of California. As you might have seen in the news, there is a definite shortage of math teachers. There was a need at the alternative education high school where I teach and I have a math and science background from my undergraduate days (35 years ago!). So I stepped up, or stepped in it, depending on how poorly I do teaching math and science during the next school year. However, I still made time to read some history, so here's a recommendation for you.

Book R & R: "Back Over There" by Richard Rubin.

Back in 2013 I read Richard Rubin's first book on WWI titled "The Last of the Doughboys" and really enjoyed it. In that book Rubin described interviewing the last few remaining WWI veterans who were still alive (must to most people's surprise). In "Back Over There," the author goes to France and tours the battlefields of the Western Front of World War I. Both of these books are very timely since we are currently in the one hundred year anniversary of the war.

I have to admit that I am jealous of Richard Rubin. You can tell by his writing that the author truly enjoyed his research. One of my favorite things to do is to walk a battlefield. In "Back Over There" Rubin travels on his own to the ground where battles of the "Great War" happened, not just American Expeditionary Forces but also our allies, the French and British. These battlefields are near the French border with Belgium and Germany, in many cases what is today and was then, in rural areas dotted with small farming villages. Often he makes contact with locals who know the history of the ground as well as any park ranger would at a National Historic Site in the United States. But the majority of the fields that Rubin walks are not protected national parks. They are farm fields where people continue to find artifacts, typically in the form of unexploded ordinance. The interesting thing about Rubin's trip to France is that while we have largely forgotten the battles and sacrifices made by our soldiers WWI, but other nations have not. They continue to That is evidenced strongly from Rubin's description of the formal remembrance ceremony at Belleau Wood to his interactions with the locals who drop what they are doing to take Rubin on a tour of a battlefield near where they live.

"Back Over There" is an enjoyable read with good pacing. The author seamlessly switches back and forth between historical background and travel narrative. He provides self-deprecating humor in describing his poor French language skills and the occasions where he gets lost looking for the spot where a particular event happened. These are two things that everyone who travels can relate to. So you see that this book is both historical and travel narrative. During this 100-year anniversary of an event that changed the course of history and our standing in the world, "Back Over There" is a good book to read and reflect on. Find out the sacrifices made by us, and more so by our allies. Ask yourself why other nations honor and remember, and are still grateful for what past generations of Americans have done, but we seem to have forgotten.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park

One of my favorite historical fantasies includes the wonder of what certain places in California looked like before the modern world took over. I would love to be able to go back in time as an immigrant to California in the 1840s and be able to experience the sight of the Sacramento Valley before there was a city of Sacramento. Well, a trip to Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park doesn’t make that visualization any easier. The park is located in a quiet neighborhood on the corner of L Street and 28th, just a block or so west of Interstate 80. The fort used to be in the middle of rolling grassland in sight of the American River to the north and the Sacramento River to the west. Now it is surrounded by residential streets of Sacramento, less than two miles from the state capital.

Johann Augustus Sutter left his family in Switzerland and came to America in 1834 to escape debts and gain a fresh start. He was reportedly a huckster with a tendency to inflate his own resume, but by hook or crook he made it to California in 1839. When Sutter saw the land around the American River, he started making plans to build a farming and ranching empire. He sold his plan to the Mexican government of California and not only won Mexican citizenship in 1840, but also a land grant of 48,827 acres the following year. All he had to do was maintain order among the local Indians. He was also authorized to issue land grants and passports to American immigrants to California.

With the help of Native-American labor, Sutter built his fort with adobe walls that were two and half feet thick. The compound was reported to be 425 feet by 175 feet. Inside the fort there were carpenter and blacksmith shops, a gunsmith, a distillery, bakery, grist mill, and a blanket factory. Over the next several years, Sutter welcomed immigrants arriving over the California trail. Many new arrivals went to work for him. Eventually Sutter’s “New Helvetia” would encompass approximately 191,000 acres.

When James Marshall brought the gold nuggets to the fort in1848, Sutter initially tried to keep the discovery a secret. But once word got out, the flood of fortune seekers overwhelmed him and his holdings. Sutter lost his empire faster than he built
it. By the 1850s Sutter’s Fort was in ruins. The site was bought by the Native Sons of the Golden West and the fort was rebuilt in the 1890s. It then became part of the California State Park system in 1947.

Although the park was surrounded by the growth of Sacramento long ago, don’t let that give you the impression that this is not an enjoyable park to visit. And if I was going to recommend a starting point for a California Gold Rush trip, this would be the place, followed by a drive up to the Marshall Discovery site. For one thing, the drive up to Coloma would give you a feel for the expanse of land that was under Sutter’s control, if even for a brief time. The fort itself is a real treat to walk through. It is on par with the mission at La Purisma for the re-creation of the shops. There are plenty of artifacts in each to view as well as a period wagon. Check the park website for a schedule of events. If possible, visit on a day when one of the “living history” events is taking place. And while outside the fort there is a quiet modern neighborhood, inside it is easy to transport yourself back to the 1840s. Imagine what an oasis this settlement must have been after arduous months on the trail. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Russians in California? Our Trip to Fort Ross State Historic Park

I've wanted to see Fort Ross State Historic Park for a long
time. The village is not represented, but the recreated 
stockade and interior buildings are awesome to explore.
We had a rather warm couple of days after Christmas, so Sheila and I took the opportunity to drive up the coast to Mendocino County and check out Fort Ross State Historic Park. This place has been on my radar for several years, and since it is too far for a day trip from our house, we made a weekend out of it, staying in Mendocino and visiting the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park (which I’ll tell you about in the next post).

Fort Ross is located on the northern California coast, an approximately 2-hour drive north of San Francisco along Highway 1. The area receives about 44 inches of rain a year, 35 of it between November and April. So typically a visitor in the winter would take the chance of encountering coastal storms with rain and gale force winds. However, on the day that we visited we hit the weather jackpot with the sun shining, highs in the upper 50s and a very gentle breeze.

The weather was perfect on this winter break. Check the
forecast before you go.
Russians had been crossing the Bering Strait in search of furs since the middle of the 18th century. By the end of the 1700s, the Russian-American Company had settlements from Kodiak Island in the Aleutians to Sitka in present-day Alaska. Operations expanded with the contracting of American ship captains to use native Alaskans to hunt sea otters along the California coast. To help in these operations, the Russians chose to build a settlement at Metini, 18 miles north of Bodega Bay. The Russians arrived in 1812 with 25 Russians and 80 Alaskans, who built the first houses and a stockade. The site was populated with a native American village, plenty of fresh water, forage, and pasture. There were nearby forests for an ample supply of wood, and best of all, since they were technically encroaching on Spanish territory, the site was defensible. They named it Fort Ross, to honor Imperial Russia, or Rossiia.

I have never seen so many hand tools!
As it turned out, a defense was not necessary. The site was about sixty miles from the nearest Spanish mission, in Sonoma, and eighty-five miles from the Presidio at San Francisco over rough terrain. Moreover, the Spanish (and later the Mexican Californios) seemed to be more interested in trading with, rather than expelling the Russians. Which is a good thing, since the marine mammal population began to be depleted by over hunting by 1820. Along with trading and hunting fur, the settlement also farmed and ranched. They were productive enough to send foodstuff to their outposts in Alaska. In 1841 the Russian-American Company sold their holdings to John Sutter, of Sutter’s Fort fame. After the Gold Rush and the American annexation of California, the area was ranched by a succession of owners that ended with the property being transferred to the State of California in 1906. This makes Fort Ross one of the oldest California State Parks.

Did I mention the weather was perfect? The coast the best 
part of the trip.
Fort Ross is definitely a destination. I highly recommend a picnic lunch, which is what we chose to do. The nearest inexpensive restaurant is more than an hour’s drive in either direction. But picnicking is really the way to go if the weather is nice, which it was on the day we visited. Besides the drive, give yourself a half a day to go through the visitor’s center and the grounds. Along with the buildings and the stockade, take the time to walk out to the sea cliff and sit on the bench for a little while.