Saturday, November 12, 2005

New Philadelphia

So I'm sitting in the bathroom this morning reading Archaeology Magazine to try and wake up, when I read an article about a town in Illinois that was built by a former slave who 17 years after purchasing his own freedom. In 1836, "Free Frank McWorter" bought a 42 acre parcel and sudivided it into 60 x 120 foot house lots. It was a typical planned community, with roads laid out in a grid.

To make a long story short, the town was open to whites, blacks and people of mixed heritage in an era when slavery was still an issue elsewhere. The town thrived, only to be crushed economically in 1869 when the railroad bypassed it, the fate of many frontier towns. It was unincorporated in 1885 and the last resident left in the 1930's. What is significant about the town is the way it was founded: by a freed slave.

What bugs me about the article is that there are strong hints of modern views tainting the interpretation of the archaeological finds there. There are two camps in this battle: one side wants to celebrate the story of a slave who plans ahead, buys his own freedom, saves enough money to buy land enough to start a town that had racial freedom as one of it's ideals, and uses the proceeds from the sale of lots to buy freedom for ten other family members. The other side of this has people who are out to prove that the only thing of importance in the New Philadelphia story is that it was built by a free slave, and that after that, blacks were still treated as second class citizens.

Archaeology is supposed to be based on science and facts. How the facts are interpreted is when things can go wrong. As an example, here are exerpts from three paragraphs in the article, they came one after the other:

Overall, the artifacts indicate a good quality of living for a frontier town...porcelain ceramics and a pewter toy set were among the finds. Sherds of contemporary English pottery reveal New Philadelphians' ability to acquire imported pottery from merchants along the Mississippi. It has been found in lots owned by residents of all races, indicating a similar access to markets and trade.

But ethnic differences between households will be informative as well. These will probably emerge from the faunal and botanical remains. Last year, a refuse-filled cellar on the the property once owned by the Butlers, an African American family, yielded nearly 1,000 faunal remains that show a dietary pattern called Upland South: lots of pig, chicken, and very little beef...

...the dietary remains are slim, says Terry Martin, who is back at the Illinois State museum, where he and students are analyzine the faulal and botanical remains..."We haven't really gotten any large faunal samples..."

What I see in the middle paragraph is an attempt to make a statement based on the adjenda of the author. The concepts are introduced with the words "will" and "probably". The first paragraph tells us that the physical evidence shows affluence being fairly equal across racial lines, based on recovered trade goods. The last paragraph says that there really haven't been enough dietary finds to prove anything one way or another. But the second paragraph dares to suggest that the lack of beef in the Butlers' diet suggests that there is a different standard of living for them.

Let's think about this a moment. You have a 60' x 120' lot. Can you keep chickens there? Yup, a bag of grain goes a long way. Can you keep a pig or two there? Yup, another bag of grain and your kitchen slops. Can you keep beef cattle there? Nope, not without hauling in all of it's feed. A century and a half later, what will remain of your meat animals in an environment that has very rich soil? Some bones. When you eat chicken, it is cooked on the bone, that's how it comes from the market. Some cuts of pork are on the bone as well. Only the most expensive cuts of beef are on the bone when you bring them home from the market.

This article really tweaks me because it is such a good example of "acadamia" twisting around our history. It's bad science and bad research.

Free Frank McWorter rose above his circumstances and performed an amazing feat. even by his death he continued to free others with his estate that was used to buy the freedom of six more people. By trying to prove that Free Frank's town was just another segregated frontier place, the hate-mongering left wing "intelectuals" out there are just insulting his memory.

Once upon a time our group was called upon to give a presentation on the Lewis and Clark expedition to a local school. Since it was out of our usual sphere of reenacting, I did some research on just what exactly 5th graders were supposed to know about it. The Federal guidelines said that they should know about how the Corps of Discovery were sent west to take land from the natives and how one of the goals was to spread racism because Clark brought his slave along. Revisionist BS!!!! Of course, we just did our own thing, and were pleasantly surprised when we got to the school and the kids were ready for us with all sorts of good technical questions.

History is full of both good things and bad. We can study them and learn from them, but when we change the facts and ideas to align with 21st century values we are just lying to ourselves and the people who we seek to teach. It is a disservice not only to our listeners, but also to our forebears. For some odd reason it is in vogue to bash heroes. Lewis and Clark are famous enough to stand on their own, but Free Frank is not and deserves better.


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