Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Civil War Sword Discovered

Fitz John Porter is seated in the chair.
PORTSMOUTH — An American Civil War-era sword once belonging to Portsmouth native Fitz John Porter and recently discovered for sale online was unveiled at Strawbery Banke Museum Tuesday morning.

The artifact, which dates back more than 125 years, will be the star attraction of a new exhibit at the museum entitled “Fitz John Porter: Portsmouth's Civil War Hero or Coward?”

The U.S. Army presentation sword, which is mentioned in Porter's letters while he sought exoneration from his 1862 court-martial, was discovered online earlier this year by curator Kimberly Alexander and was purchased for the museum by a local benefactor.

Opening on Sunday, May 1, in the Rowland Gallery, the exhibit will offer a glimpse into Porter's past, which historians say is full of political intrigue and controversy.

The exhibit is just one part of how Strawbery Banke plans to commemorate New Hampshire's role in the Civil War, according to president Larry Yerdon.

Source Article: This article is from the Portsmouth Herald, by Charles McMahon, April 26, 2011

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The First Casualty of the Civil War?

It is often difficult to determine the first casualty of a war. What date do you use to begin your discussion? In order to count as the first, is it necessary that the person died due to wounds inflicted in battle? What about freak accidents? How about non-soldiers who were "worked to death" as a consequence of the war? (Enslaved people come to mind when discussing this particular war.) Well, if we use the Battle of Fort Sumter as the beginning point of the Civil War, then we can at least say with certainty that Private Daniel Hough was the first soldier to die at Fort Sumter.

From the Fort Sumter National Monument's website:

How many men were killed at Fort Sumter? One Union soldier was killed and another Union soldier was mortally wounded during the surrender ceremony. Fifty two Confederate soldiers were killed there during the remainder of the war. While a number of slaves were killed while working at the fort, unfortunately the exact number is unknown.

Were any men buried at Fort Sumter? We don’t know for certain, but it is generally believed that the first soldier to die at Fort Sumter, Pvt. Daniel Hough, was buried on the parade ground. It is unknown if he is still buried there, or was perhaps relocated during the course of the Civil War (if he was ever buried there at all). It’s interesting to note that Hough died an accidental death when a cannon discharged while he was loading it. This occurred the day after the battle ended, during a surrender ceremony.

For more information, go to the Fort Sumter National Monument's website.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Money Diggers

This (non-Exeter) man is dowsing for water.
The latest "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the April 1st issue of the Exeter News-Letter.

by Barbara Rimkunas

Tucked away in the back of Charles Bell’s History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, is a small anecdote about a group of treasure hunters who were duped by a transient rogue named Rainsfield Rogers. Bell was a cautious historian who wouldn’t have included the story if he wasn’t sure it was true, but he also didn’t want to embarrass the people involved. And so we have a somewhat funny story which, due to Bell’s reticence, has few verifiable elements.

In the tale, Rogers arrives in town and is able to convince about a dozen Exeter men that there is treasure buried somewhere within the town limits. The men formed a work gang and night after night they followed Rogers into the woods and swamps to dig for gold. That they never found anything didn’t seem to have discouraged any of them – nor did it make them question Roger’s ability to pick the sites for digging.

In 1800, around the time this incident seems to have occurred, Exeter was still a strict Protestant town. Parish taxes were collected and church membership was considered a civic duty. But within this stringent society there was still an undercurrent of the occult. “White magic” practitioners were occasional visitors to the landscape and were granted a certain amount of credibility. These people, sometimes known as cunning folk, were contacted to help find lost items or to locate water by dowsing. Among the many types of cunning folk were money-diggers. Tracing their trade back to ancient alchemistic traditions, it was commonly believed that mists and gasses deep within the earth produced hordes of precious metals – particularly mercury and gold. Or the belief might have been that there were piles of gold coins buried by the ancients, or even pirates. However it may have gotten there wasn’t as important as the absolute fact that there was gold in them thar hills.

The New Hampshire Sentinel reported in 1822, “Every country has its money diggers, who are full in the belief that vast treasures lay concealed in the earth. So far from being a new project, it dates its origin with the first man who ever wielded a spade. Even in these latter days, we find men so much in love with the ‘root of all evil’ and so firm in the belief that it may be dug up, that they will traverse hill and dale, climb the loftiest mountain, and even work their way into the bowels of the earth in search of it. Indeed digging for money hid in the earth, is a very common thing; and in this State, it is even considered an honorable and profitable employment.” So perhaps it’s not too surprising that Rogers was able to convince the treasure hunters in Exeter that quick riches only required some digging.

What the Exeter men didn’t know was that Rainsford Rogers had a long history of swindling gullible people out of their own money. He’d been involved in a well-publicized scheme in New Jersey that was published in a book called, “The Morris-Town Ghost: An Account of the Beginning, Transactions and Discovery of Ransford Rogers, who seduced many by pretended Hobgoblins and Apparitions, and thereby extorted Money from their Pockets,” in 1788. He slipped away from Morris County, changed his name to “Rice Williams” for a while and continued to ply his trade as a dowser of gold until he arrived in Exeter sometime around 1800. Charles Bell picks up the story from there, “he came to Exeter, bearing his true name of Rainsford Rogers, which had, perhaps, not acquired so bad an odor in New England as in some other quarters.” He asked the men to wear white caps while digging, perhaps to make it easier to spot them all in the dark.

At one point in the Exeter escapade, Rogers used a tactic he’d used before – he dressed up as a ghost to further convince the diggers that they were in the right place. The ghost muttered something unintelligible, to which one of the men inquired, “a little louder, Mr. Ghost; I’m rather hard of hearing!” The men dug with renewed enthusiasm.

Bell continued, “After a time Rogers disclosed what he declared to be the reason of their want of success. The golden deposit was there, beyond question; but they needed one thing more to enable them to find and grasp it. That was a particular kind of divining-rod.” Naturally, this would cost money. The men raised several hundred dollars, loaned Rogers a horse and off he rode to Philadelphia (or so they thought) never to be heard from again.

Exeter, being a small town, had long been aware of the midnight digging sessions of the “secret” little group. When it was revealed that Rogers was gone, the men involved received no end of ribbing from the population and were thereafter branded with the moniker “white caps.” According to Bell, “The deaf man who required the ghost to ‘speak a little louder’ never heard the last of his unfortunate speech.”

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Exeter High School Students Win New Hampshire History Day Contest for Documentary on Portsmouth Peace Treaty

Five students from Exeter High School traveled to Plymouth State University on April 2nd to compete with 110 other students from 14 school districts (an all-time high for the contest) around the state for honors in the 8th annual New Hampshire History Day competition. The Exeter students won first place in the Senior Group Documentary category for their 10-minute film, “The Portsmouth Peace Treaty: A Victory for the World.” The Exeter High group also earned a special certificate from the National Archives in Boston for their “Outstanding Use of Primary Sources.” They are now eligible to travel to the National History Day competition in Maryland, June 12-16, 2011 and will be working between now and then to raise the funds necessary for the trip.

The students, who spent eight months researching, filming and editing their winning entry, are: Chandra Boudreau, Ian Smith, Charles Rickarby, Zachary Keefe and Ariel Fleischer. Their teacher is Molly Stevenson.

In addition to research in original source documents related to the Portsmouth Peace Treaty that was negotiated at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard over nearly 30 days in August 1905, the students toured the Shipyard Building 86 Peace Building Museum and the Portsmouth Peace Treaty exhibit in downtown Portsmouth. They interviewed US Navy Public Affairs Officer Gary Hildreth at the Shipyard, Charles B. Doleac, chairman of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty Forum and author of An Uncommon Commitment to Peace: Portsmouth Peace Treaty 1905.and Barbara Rimkunas, curator of the Exeter Historical Society. The students’ documentary includes clips of the interviews and historic photographs of the Russian and Japanese envoys in Portsmouth in 1905 and their welcome by local citizens.

Zach Keefe spoke for the team in crediting all of those who assisted with the project.It was a true team effort to research, interview, and construct the film,” he said. “We hope the film can raise awareness about New Hampshire's role in establishing multi-track diplomacy and the possibility of peace.”

In congratulating her students, Ms. Stevenson said, “As this competition was not part of any course, the students should be especially commended for their hard work and ceaseless desire to make the best documentary possible. Not only have they learned so much in the process, but they have also produced an engaging, quality documentary teaches about the Portsmouth Peace Treaty.”

The film was shown to an audience of more than 500 participants, faculty and guests at the Awards Ceremony at Plymouth State.  National History Day NH co-director Dr. Patrick May commented, “I’m always pleased that projects that focus on local history are entered. It’s exhibiting to see students using our state’s historical resources.”

Dr. John Krueckeberg, NHDNH co-director, noted that recent research on National History Day participants shows that students who participate in the NHD program do better in college and in their later careers. He said, “While not everyone receives a medal, you all leave here today with a unique and important educational experience.”

Dr. Cynthia Vascak, Dean of the new College of Arts & Sciences at Plymouth State University, host for the event, quoted Albert Einstein, saying ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’ and continued “This experience has allowed you to engage critically with the past, to observe closely, wonder and envision… You are each engaged in the challenging scholar’s journey… and can now vision forward with a deeply rooted understanding of our past.”   The winning Exeter High School team will present their documentary during the annual Youth Day program at Exeter Historical Society on April 21st at 7 pm.

The Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest in June is the final stage of a series of contests at local and state levels. The contest is named for Mr. Behring in recognition of his support of NHD. Each year roughly 2,400 students and their parents and teachers gather at the University of Maryland, College Park for the week-long event. These enthusiastic groups come from all over the United States, Guam, American Samoa, Department of Defense Schools in Europe, and even Shanghai, China. “The National History Day excitement can be felt across the campus,” says the National History Day website. “After spending months on research and preparing their projects, and competing at local and state contests, these students are eager to show their hard work at the national level.” For more information on National History Day, visit www.nationalhistoryday.org
For more information on the Portsmouth Peace Treaty see www.portsmouthpeacetreaty.org and to help the students raise the funds needed to participate in National History Day, contact Molly Stevenson at msteveson@sau16.org or 603-395-2574.