Monday, May 27, 2013

A Memorial Day Post: Some Memes of American History

I took this picture of hand rock in 1991.  It is the perfect
likeness of a human hand, somehow inscribed in the rock.
There are some stories in America that just have legs.

Take, for example, the tale of the Thompson Long Gun.

At the time of Middleborough’s incorporation in 1669 by English from nearby Plymouth, the local Nemasket and their ancestors had been living in the area for perhaps 12,000 years.  When conflict broke out between the colonists and Native Americans in the summer of 1675, Middleboro’s 75 English retreated to a fort built on the Nemasket River.

In early June 1675 a group of Nemasket appeared near a rock on a hillside on the opposite shore of the river.  For several days, the story goes, the Natives flung insults at the fort until Isaac Howland, famous for his marksmanship, was selected to fire an especially long gun brought by the commander of the fort, John Thompson.  As the distance between the fort and rock was about a half mile, requiring a trajectory more like artillery than a gun, nobody expected anything more than a startled reaction from the Nemasket and perhaps some peace and quiet.  

So, much to the surprise of everyone involved, Howland fired and one of the Natives fell dead.  Legend holds that when he tumbled his hand touched the rock, leaving a perfect image and forever commemorating the event.  (The fort was later abandoned and burned to the ground, but all seven-feet-four-and-one-half-inches of the Thompson gun today resides in the Old Colony Historical Society in Taunton.)

I remember thinking, hmmm--unusual story, but I have no reason to doubt that it happened (leaving
aside, of course, the origin of that weird handprint).

My research continued later in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, about 25 miles from Middleborough, when I came upon the foundation of the Russell Garrison which stood directly across Apponogansett Bay from so-called Indian Town.  From there--you’ll be shocked to learn--the Wampanoag used to “aggravate the English” with “all manner of mockery” until one colonist with “an uncommonly long gun” fired a shot that killed one of the natives and put an end to the harassment.

Then, some years later, I visited the famous Buckman Tavern on Lexington Green and found, hanging on the wall, the (also legendary) “Long John” gun involved in a nearly identical episode on the Sudbury River a half-century after King Philip’s War.  It was then that I knew I had stumbled upon a kind of American colonial meme designed to highlight, I gather, the prowess of colonial marksmen, Western technology, and perhaps the bad form of hurling insults at opponents during wartime.

This particular meme had long legs, as “being good with a gun” has always been essential to
Site of the Russell Garrison in South Dartmouth
America’s frontier image and, you'll agree, Second Amendment defense.  After all, Daniel Boone stood his ground and shot a panther through the heart while all of his young friends scattered.  At the Battle of New Orleans, Americans celebrated (in verse like The Hunters of Kentucky and Johnny Horton's
Battle of New Orleansthe prowess of the western riflemen who had defeated the arrogant British, ignoring the fact that it was America's forges and booming cannon that did the real damage--and that General Andrew Jackson would harshly criticize his militia after the battle for their poor performance. (For a real treat this Memorial Day, don't miss the Johnny Horton video here.)

Here’s another American historical meme, this one genealogical in nature: Our most important ancestor was inevitably long-lived, very tall, very strong and a superb wrestler.  We know, of course, about strong, tall Abraham Lincoln’s success in the ring, once throwing his opponent and shouting, “Any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns.” We also know strong, tall George Washington to be another gifted wrestler. And we even have invented folk heroes, like Mike Fink, the brawling boatman of the Mississippi, who wrestled men and whipped the occasional alligator.

Needless to say, I stumble upon this particular meme again and again in my research.  At the
Earlier this month I was lucky enough to visit the
Oliver Ames and Sons Shovel Factory complex in Easton,
where an historic manufacturing site will soon be turned
into beautiful residences.
moment I am working on Oliver Ames of the famous Ames family line (of Union Pacific fame) and the extraordinary shovel works he founded just after the American Revolution in Easton, Massachusetts.  Family history reports that Oliver stood over six feet tall and was the neighborhood’s champion wrestler, never defeated, who even knocked down a misbehaving horse with a single blow.

While researching Weathermakers to the World I took some time to assemble Willis Carrier’s family genealogy.  (Willis wasn’t a wrestler, but was said to be a pretty good boxer.)  During my hunt I was not surprised to find Willis’s immigrant ancestor, Thomas, to be reported in family stories at over seven feet tall, age 109 (without becoming gray or bald) when he died, who the day before walked 18 miles with a sack of corn meal on his shoulder.

This kind of superhero American ancestor helps to explain, at least for me, the ancient lure of a Methuselah and some of the elderly statesmen of the Bible.  It surely indicates the kind of personal qualities Americans of the early Republic valued.
Eli Whitney, undoubtedly reflecting upon the time
he nearly failed to reassemble his father's watch.

Those interested in the history of technology will be aware that there are some prominent American memes that persist around our most famous entrepreneurs.  The most complicated machine in an American household for the first century was inevitably the family timepiece.  It became a sign of future greatness for a young entrepreneur to disassemble and then--under threat of time and a birch rod if unsuccessful--completely reassemble this great machine.  Willis Carrier not only had a tall, strong, long-lived ancestor, but also took apart and repaired his family’s alarm clock.  Eli Whitney, the godfather of American entrepreneurs, feigned sickness one Sunday when his family went off to church so that he could disassemble and reassemble his father’s watch.  Carrier also amazed the family when he assembled a thresher after it arrived in pieces on his farm; a pre-teen Whitney amazed his by constructing a violin that made “tolerably good music.”

This precociousness of our most famous entrepreneurs with their particular time’s most advanced technologies is especially persistent, making the leap into modern times when we find that Bill Gates was pursuing computer programming at age 13 and the father of a young Steve Jobs taught his son how to disassemble and assemble electronics in the family garage.  For some years of my career, while it still seemed exotic, I would occasionally interview a job candidate who swore he had built his first computer in his basement.  Now it is more common to hear stories of precocious grade-school software coding, or a tale about launching a high-tech business in high school.

To me, it seems all the same kind of meme, that of mastering the sexiest technology of its day at an early age, inevitably pointing to future greatness.

So, my friends, as you celebrate Memorial Day here in America--the old Decoration Day--may your family tree be decorated with an ancestor or two who died very old, shot very straight, got the clock reassembled before his or her stern parent appeared with the birch rod--and wrestled each and every alligator successfully.  Happy Memorial Day!