Uncharted Americana from Primary Sources

- by Michael Stillman


Uncharted Americana from Primary Sources

Primary Sources has issued their Catalogue 6 of Uncharted Americana. It is a collection of 25 thoroughly described items that give us a look at America in earlier times. They range from books to photographs, letters, broadsides, maps, and other works on paper. They generally relate to major events in the country's history, though from the point of view of regular people who participated in or observed them. These are a few selections.


This is the commonplace book of a man who was eccentric but brilliant from American colonial times. Samuel Coolidge obtained two degrees from Harvard, in 1724 and 1727, but rather than achieving greatness, he drifted off into madness. His life provides a look at how insanity was treated in his time. He had some unusual behaviors, such as addressing people in Latin, and in time, talking to himself in Latin. While being nonviolent, he became offensive and perhaps threatening. He had a habit of swearing at people in an era when people did not use those words. He trained for the ministry but became an itinerant preacher as no congregation would have him. He returned to his hometown of Watertown, Massachusetts, as a school teacher and lasted a year as keeper of the Harvard library in 1734. He lost that job as a result of his profanity. He then turned to wandering from town to town. A story was told about how he would visit various clergymen, and invited to a service one night, arrived with a bunch of green apples which he would throw at parishioners who fell asleep. By 1743, he was no longer able to care for himself. As was the custom of the time, his hometown took him in and supported him. However, there were no free rides, even for the insane in those days, so he was expected to teach schoolchildren in return for being fed and housed in a local resident's house. Sometimes, he would roam around at night, at times half-dressed, which was a problem as he was expected to be teaching in the morning. The townspeople resolved this by locking him in the school house at night. Eventually, he became too far gone and he was placed in a private home where he was kept locked in his room for the last year of his life. Item 1 is Coolidge's commonplace book, mostly compiled during his Harvard student years. It contains almost 75,000 words and is the only known writing in Coolidge's hand (he did write one printed pamphlet, an 1838 sermon preached on the death of Queen Caroline). This commonplace book was from the time he was viewed as somewhat eccentric but before the time his mental illness had become clearly manifest. $16,500.


John McAffee was better known in death than in life. McAffee was an orphan, raised by a “kindly” uncle, who ran away from home as a teenager. He landed in Dayton at the age of 18. He soon met the daughter of a prominent family (her name is unknown) and the following year they were married. All seemed well for a short time but then he returned to his old ways of drinking and gambling and met up with one Miss Hetty Shoup (rhymes with doubt). She is said to have encouraged his affections though it is unclear what role, if any, she played in what happened next. Mrs. McAffee suffered from “vile fits” so one day her husband brought some “medicine” to cure her. Cure her of fits it did, but the wrong way. The medicine was poison. McAffee was concerned that maybe she was only unconscious so he strangled her for good measure. Her body was soon discovered but by then, McAffee had fled. Then, in a sign that McAffee was not the brightest bulb in the socket, he returned to Dayton. He was soon recognized, tried and convicted. While awaiting his hanging, McAffee supposedly wrote his confession, by itself plausible, but in rhyme? Here is a broadside of his rhyming confession, A serious warning to Young Men, or The Life and Confession of John M'Affee, published in 1825, naturally, the year he died. Item 5. $3,500.


Slaves in the South were rarely taught to read; in some places it was illegal. It was feared that if they could read, they might get some unwelcome ideas from books, like all men are created equal. However, there was a greater divide on whether they should be taught religion. Some felt they shouldn't be taught anything but to work hard or face the consequences. Others wanted them to hear the Good News, but this often came with an ulterior motive that was not such good news for the slaves. They could point to biblical passages condoning slavery and teach the insidious message that slavery was their lot in life on earth, but in heaven they would be the equal of the white man, but only if they diligently fulfilled their duty as slaves on earth. Item 12 is Manual of Religious Instruction, Specially Intended for the Oral Teaching of Colored persons, by Rev. John F. Hoff of Millwood, Virginia. The “oral” part confirmed that few slaves could read so they would learn strictly from the words of ministers acceptable to slaveholders. These books are generally known as “slaveholder's catechisms.” Offered is a rare 1852 first edition. It was signed August 1, 1852, by Margaret Ridgely. The Ridgely family held a massive estate, owning many slaves. $4,250.


It was a terrible low point of labor relations in America in a time when there were few high points. A long-running strike took place in southern Colorado by coal miners working for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. They worked under deplorable conditions, their safety seeming of little concern to the company. Their homes were poor, they were often dependent on the company store, and their pay minimal. The great majority were recent immigrants for whom the company held little regard. In September 1913, the miners went on strike. They built a tent city and waited out the company. There were numerous skirmishes and strikebreakers were hired. It all came to a boil on April 20, 1914, when armed guards and hired security, joined by the Colorado National Guard, ordered out by the pro-company governor, attacked the encampment. The result is what is known as the Ludlow Massacre, when 21 miners, their wives and children were slaughtered. By the end, there were battles at several southern Colorado mines as enraged miners attacked guards at other of the company facilities. At the center was company owner, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who managed from New York, and his representatives who could be brutal. The end result was the strike failed, and the company won a paper victory, but many mining reforms arose from the horrible publicity that resulted from the massacre. Most damaged was Rockefeller, Jr., and the family name. Junior would go on to visit the mines, meet with workers and implement numerous reforms, and live a life that included an enormous amount of charitable contributions. It was a long journey back attempting to erase the stain of Ludlow. Item 25 is a photograph album from Ludlow, one of the few collections of photographs from that time. The album is labeled “WAR!” It contains 135 photographs from October 1913-April 1914. It is annotated throughout. The album was created by a member of the Colorado National Guard. It contain photos from the scene and of many of the men who served with the guard. $27,500.


With the end of the Civil War and the implementation of Reconstruction, black candidates won numerous elections in the South. The expectation was that the former slaves would soon be integrated into the overall community as equal freemen. It didn't quite turn out that way. White resistance began to build, the KKK arose to terrorize blacks, and all sorts of impediments were placed in the way of blacks to prevent them from voting and otherwise enjoying society's benefits equally. Slavery was about to be replaced by Jim Crow. In the waning days of Reconstruction, a black man, Robert Gleed, ran for Sheriff of Lowndes County, Mississippi. Gleed had previously served in the Mississippi State Senate, but bowed out after some other blacks in the area were killed. In 1875, when he ran for Sheriff as a Republican, Gleed met with white Democratic leaders and tried to allay their concerns. He also issued a notice in an attempt to appease them, a broadside Primary Sources says “appears to be the earliest surviving imprint produced by an African American candidate for political office in the United States.” Gleed attempts to reassure whites that “if I am elected Sheriff, in November next, Mr. Jerry Dowsing will have charge of the office, as general deputy. From his knowledge of the business of the office, and known integrity and good judgment, the people may rest assured that their interests will be safe in his hands.” He continued, “Many of the good people of the county, having been misled by false statements, seem to misunderstand my sentiments and purposes as a candidate for Sheriff. My highest aim is to do all in my power to advance the interests, peace and harmony of all the people of the County...” Gleed must have had to bite his tongue when complimenting Jerry Dowsing, a former Sheriff who was a racist known for harassing blacks. With the threat of violence in the air when Gleed met with Democrats shortly before the election, he volunteered to terminate his candidacy if it would bring peace. It wasn't good enough. The whites demanded all blacks agree not to vote. They followed it up by shooting up Gleed's house, forcing him to gather up his family and flee Mississippi, moving to Texas. Item 20. $17,500.

Primary Sources can be reached at 734-355-2986 or primarysources25@gmail.com. Their website is found at www.psamericana.com.