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How Did Meriwether Lewis Die?

Descendants of Meriwether Lewis, depicted in a contemporaneous painting, want to know conclusively how the great explorer died in 1809, at an inn along the Natchez Trace. Some say it was suicide, others murder. Creators of a new Web site ( seek to exhume Lewis’ body to try to determine the cause of death.

Dolley Madison’s Life Goes Digital

Dolley Madison is going digital, and in the process she’s coming into clearer focus. The third installment of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition, an online collection of her letters, has just launched, taking us through 1838, two years after James Madison died at age 85. To highlight the dramatic tensions of this period, during which her in-laws took her to court over her husband’s will, the third release includes the full text of the proceedings of the contentious trial—a wealth of contextual material no book could ever feasibly provide. “What we are seeing as we move slowly and carefully through her documents is a picture that contradicts Dolley as the happy hostess and the woman who could win over friend and foe,” says Holly Cowan Shulman, a research professor at the University of Virginia who is the director of the Dolley Madison Project and editor of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition (available by subscription at

NASA Analyzes Jamestown Etching

At the end of the first decade of the 17th century, a well in Jamestown, Va., went bad—its sweet water tainted by ocean salt—and the hole in the ground became a dump. Among the trash was a piece of slate about the size of a large notepad covered with multiple etchings, including the figure at left. NASA scientists have digitally analyzed the object in an attempt to isolate each generation of tiny grooves, but William Kelso, director of research and interpretation for Historic Jamestowne, says, “It’s a jigsaw puzzle we’ll be deciphering for a long, long time. It’s a personal view, perhaps, a look at the world through their eyes.”

Wartime Landmarks Get Facelift

Valley Forge and Gettysburg have become historic fixer-uppers. Walls in the stone house where General George Washington headquartered in 1777 have been painted, shutters have been replaced and furniture has been restored. The work is part of a $6 million project, the biggest renovation at Valley Forge since the Bicentennial. Meanwhile, with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaching, more than $1.5 million will be going to restore buildings and other structures in the Gettysburg National Military Park, such as the Daniel Klingel house in the center of the battlefield and the John Blocher farmhouse near an important crossroad.

New Deal Recipes Uncovered: Squirrel Stew, Anyone?

Call it the food blog that never was. Thousands of American writers from late 1939 to late 1941 gathered information on what people ate, how they cooked it and how it all fit into their lives. Their short, often pungent missives, organized by the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, were intended for a book to be called America Eats. But as the federal project waned, so did the book, and with the attack on Pearl Harbor the idea went kablooey. Now food historian Mark Kurlansky has collected much of this long-lost writing into The Food of a Younger Land, and it comes off like a great course of appetizers, from a treatise on the Automat in New York City to a controversy over mint juleps in Kentucky to a poem about the wiener eaters of Nebraska to a diatribe over mashed potatoes in Oregon. “In 1940 this was the food of America,” says Kurlansky. “Not all of it is lost, but now you have to be a detective to find it.”

Well-Traveled Envelope Fetches Half a Mil

A used 1873 envelope with a rare 90-cent Abraham Lincoln stamp recently sold at auction for $431,250. The one-of-a-kind collectible came with a yarn reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon: mailed from a New England ice magnate to a Calcutta icehouse, bought by an Indiana collector in the 1960s for $6,500, stolen in 1967, recovered in 2006 from an elderly couple in Skokie (who had nothing to do with the crime) and returned to the collector’s heirs by court order.

Wrong !

On June 8, 1959, the Navy submarine USS Barbero, sitting off the coast of Florida, launched a missile that carried 3,000 pieces of commemorative mail instead of a warhead. Twentytwo minutes later, the payload arrived at the naval air station in Mayport, Fla., and Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield proclaimed, “Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” Unfortunately, that threshold was too expensive to be crossed.

Smithsonian Showcases Scarlett O’Hara Costume Send-up

Perhaps the funniest outfit in the history of TV now belongs to the Smithsonian. In a 1976 episode of her variety show, Carol Burnett poked fun at the Gone With the Wind scene in which a quick-thinking Scarlett O’Hara fashions a gown from a pair of drapes. Carol’s costume, like the movie original, was made out of heavy emerald-green fabric, but the Bob Mackie design featured shoulders connected by a curtain rod. “The way it was originally written was that I was just to come down the stairs with the draperies hanging on me, which would have been funny enough,” Burnett remembers. “But when I went into costume fitting…Bob Mackie said ‘I have an idea.’ And he took me into the costume room and held up the curtain rod with the drapes attached. Well, I fell on the floor laughing.”

Tattoo Traditions Bared

Tattoos have a long history among old salts, as well as carnies like Captain Elvy, shown above in 1943. As an exhibit at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum through January demonstrates, the love of body art in the British navy found a safe harbor in the maritime New World. “Skin & Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor” shows the art’s many functions (identification, decoration, group bonding, superstitious “protection”) and the many forms it took (numbers, personal icons, political symbols, talismans). The tradition lives on: A 2009 photo shows a sailor with the image of a pig on his left foot and a rooster on the right. The animals, known for surviving shipwrecks, were believed to keep a sailor from drowning.

Prehistoric Art Surfaces

A bone fragment found in Florida may prove to be the earliest example of art in the Western Hemisphere. Found two years ago in Vero Beach by an amateur collector, the 15-inch fragment is decorated with a faint drawing of a mammoth or mastodon. Testing cannot pinpoint a precise date, but the incision apparently was made shortly after the animal died, making it at least 13,000 years old. According to Barbara Purdy, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Florida and curator emeritus of archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, “The only reason I still have doubts is because it’s so rare and unique and spectacular.”


Originally published in the October 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.