If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Truth About the First Thanksgiving

This week millions of kindergarteners dressed in paper Pilgrim hats or Indian headdresses. They learned how these English adventurers came over on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom, and in 1620 at Plymouth Rock, gave birth to the American experiment. They also learned of friendly Native Americans like Squanto who cheerfully helped the settlers.

It’s all a nice story. But according to the research of James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, the facts may be a mite different.
For instance, the passengers of the Mayflower were not the first settlers in the New World. Obviously, people had lived here for about 12,000 years—likely much longer.

Yeah, but weren’t they the first non-Native group? Nope. In 1526, nearly 100 years before the Pilgrims set foot in Plymouth, Spaniard left African slaves in South Carolina when they abandoned a settlement.
Okay, then. The first European settlers.  Wrong again. You’ve heard of that group seeking religious freedom, right? The Spanish Jews who made their homes in what is now New Mexico in the late 1500s? Thanks to the Spanish, America now has horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs. None of these are native to the Western Hemisphere.

First English colonists? Remember Jamestown, Virginia, 1607? Sure, you do. But they don’t get much coverage in our history books. There, instead of friendly Squanto, the English took Indians prisoner, demanding they explain their farming techniques. Instead of a great shared feast, the Virginian English offered a toast to the friendship between them and two hundred Native Americans, only to have all the Indians drop dead from poisoning. These fools never farmed. They were too busy digging random holes in search of gold. They finally had to hire themselves out to the Native Americans as servants just to survive. Not exactly the story we want our five-year-olds re-enacting in November.
Okay, okay. So they weren’t actually the first. No. And they didn’t exactly carve a colony out of the wilderness. Likely due to European fisherman off the Massachusetts coast, diseases unfamiliar to the native population ravaged between 90 and 96 percent of them. Entire villages were deserted. According to Loewen,  the Pilgrims “chose Plymouth because of its beautiful cleared fields, recently planted in corn, and its useful harbor and ‘brook of fresh water.’ It was a lovely site for a town. Indeed, until the plague, it had been a town…”

 A few other misconceptions and I’ll finish with my myth-busting. First, out of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, only 35 were actually Pilgrims. Most were seeking their fortunes like real Americans.
Also, the kindly Squanto, who “mysteriously” knew English, may have learned it when he was kidnapped by an English slave trader in 1614 and sold into slavery in Malaga, Spain.

And, as a final insult, the Indians thought the Pilgrims stank. Since they thought it was unhealthy and immodest, the Pilgrims rarely washed and resisted poor Squanto’s efforts to teach them the benefits of a bath.
Wonder if they’ll act that out in kindergarten.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Who You Calling a Paunchy Toad-Spotted Harpy?

In my book, Aroon, there’s a heck of a lot of animosity between the characters as there is in any self-respecting plot. Hence, I need tons of insults and they had to be current in 1750. You’d be surprised which of our libelous vocabulary is relatively recent.
A mild word like “jerk” has only been around since 1935. “Jackass,” meaning stupid person, only came to prominence in 1823. Can’t use it.  “Bastard” has been in use since the thirteenth century, but I need some variety in my abusive language.
Imagine my glee when I googled “Medieval insults” and found the Shakespeare Insult Kit at Check it out. They give three columns with words in each taken from the Bard’s various plays. Start with the word “thou,” then choose one phrase from each column. It’s fun. Here are two I’ve put together:
Thou frothy flap-mouthed foot-licker. (I love alliteration.) OR
Thou yeasty onion-eyed pignut.  (Now I didn’t actually know what a pignut was, so I looked it up. It’s the tuber of some European plant. Which isn’t bad either: You yeasty onion-eyed tuber!)
If this isn’t fun enough—and it is—try the Shakespeare Insulter at Here you hit a button that says “Insult me again” and a bonafide slight straight from one of Shakespeare’s plays comes up. And let me tell you, he was the master of mockery. Here are a couple I got:
“Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins!” compliments of Richard III
“We leak in your chimney.” from Henry IV, part I (Now I’m not positive what that means, but it certainly sounds gross and demeaning.)
“Thou wouldst eat thy dead vomit up, And howl’st to find it.”Henry IV, part II (Ewww)
And you thought Shakespeare was too highfalutin for you. His plays have been around for four hundred years for a reason. Needless to say, our modern-day mud-slinging now seems mundane and repetitive. Where’s our flair? Where's our creativity?

As in all areas of life, when in doubt, turn to the master.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Mystery Mystically Unmasked

My favorite part about research is the unexpected discovery. This comes in many forms and is always exciting, but what happened last week was exceptional.
I lost my mother in September. I am not ready to write about this yet, except in the context of this ironic occurrence. While we are South Carolinians now, Mom spent her first fifty years in New Jersey. Last weekend (just days before the devastation to our home county by Superstorm Sandy) a memorial service was held there in her honor.

Although I did not make the trip, the very day before the service, I was connected to Mom through a distant cousin’s email who found me through This lovely woman wrote to ask me about my mother’s family and to see if I could identify the people in an old photo she had.
I certainly could. Front and center stood my six-year-old Mom making her First Communion. I have seen very few childhood photos of her, so this is a great treasure.

Beside her is her younger sister, Margie, my aunt and godmother. The taller girls are their cousins. My grandfather, Luke Pryor, is the dapper gentleman on the right and the tall man is his older brother, John Benjamin Pryor III. Both are grandsons of John Benjamin Pryor, the trainer of the legendary racehorse, Lexington, and his ex-slave wife, Frances Bingaman. The older woman is my great-grandmother, Luke and JB III's mother.
Long-time readers will know that I have been trying for some time to definitively determine the parentage of Frances Bingaman. That’s where the unexpected discovery comes in. This distant cousin, a genealogist extraordinaire, has copies of the death certificates of Frances and her sister, Cordelia. Both list their parents as Adam and Amelia Bingaman.

This answers two questions. Yes, I am the descendant of the colorful plantation owner, Adam Lewis Bingaman of Natchez, Mississippi, but not his New Orleans placee, Mary Ellen Williams. I had determined that Mary Ellen Williams was too young to be Frances’s mother, but another descendant found “Millie” listed in their family Bible. “Millie” is obviously short for Amelia, mother of Frances, Henrietta, Amelia, and Cordelia—all mixed-race daughters of Adam Bingaman.
Mystery solved in a remarkable way at a most significant moment.