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Historic Breeds Played Important, If Forgotten, Roles in the American South

Thanks to the American Water Buffalo Association, the water-friendly beasts of burden have returned to Middleton Place. The association recently donated two calves, Adem and Berk, to the restored house museum located 12 miles from Charleston, S.C.

Williams Middleton first imported water buffalo from Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, to his South Carolina rice plantation in the 1850s. They are believed to be the first water buffalo ever brought to the United States. Middleton, who signed South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession in 1860, realized that their large hooves and a knack for swimming made water buffalo ideal for tilling swampy rice fields. His plantation was destroyed in the waning months of the Civil War. Soldiers from the 56th New York Volunteer Regiment butchered five of the buffalo and sent three others to be displayed in the Central Park Zoo.

Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, plans to train Adem (Turkish for “earth”) and Berk (Turkish for “solid”) to work in its demonstration rice field.

An effort is also underway to save an endangered breed of horse in South Carolina. The Spanish first brought the Marsh Tacky to the New World in the 1500s, where the powerful yet gentle breed was well suited for both pulling plows and traversing swamps. Marsh Tackies soon became the most popular workhorses in the coastal marshlands of South Carolina and Georgia, and they were the horses of choice for the region’s native tribes as well as for “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion’s troops during the Revolutionary War. According to oral histories, when Union troops liberated the slaves of Hilton Head Island, S.C., the freedmen were offered 40 acres and a Marsh Tacky. Modern development encroached upon the horse’s breeding grounds, namely barrier islands like Hilton Head. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) estimates that fewer than 150 pure Marsh Tackies still exist. The ALBC and Equus Survival Trust are trying to document all the surviving horses and formulate strategies for saving the breed.

D.C. Mystery Solved

In September Smithsonian researchers Deborah Hull-Walski and Randal Scott announced that they had finally solved the two-year-old mystery of the boy in the iron coffin. Construction workers unearthed the coffin in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of northwest Washington, D.C., in 2005. It contained the skeleton of a young boy wearing a white burial suit. The Smithsonian spent the next two years trying to identify the boy using computerized facial reconstructions and DNA samples.

Now, the researchers have confirmed that the boy was William T. White, a 15-yearold native of Accomack County, Va. Hull-Walski and Scott compiled a family tree for White comprising 788 relatives. They eventually tracked down one of those relatives, Linda Dwyer, a 64-year-old convenience store clerk in Lancaster, Pa. She agreed to submit a DNA sample, which matched that of White. Adding another twist to the story, it turns out both White and Dwyer are descendants of Anthony West, an original Jamestown settler.

White was a student at Columbian College, a precursor to George Washington University, when he died of pneumonia on January 24, 1852. Columbian had a cemetery in the vicinity of where the coffin was found. The cemetery was moved in 1866, and White’s body was accidentally left behind.

Nantucket Lighthouse Relocated

The Sankaty Head Light- house, the last original lighthouse on Nantucket Island, Mass., has been moved to safer ground. Storm erosion has destroyed much of the cliff where the lighthouse has stood since it was built in 1850. The 450-ton structure was moved 405 feet to its new location beside the fifth hole of the Siasconset Golf Course. The U.S. Coast Guard transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the Sconset Trust, which is raising $4 million to fund the move and a planned restoration.

English Colony in Maine Turns 400

 Three months after the founding of Jamestown, another English colony was settled in present-day Maine. In August 1607, George Popham and Raleigh Gilbert led settlers to what is now the community of Phippsburg, where they built Fort St. George. Because of a lack of food, the settlers abandoned the Popham Colony, as it’s remembered, and returned to England. Today, the town of Phippsburg commemorates the largely forgotten Popham Colony with museum exhibits that feature artifacts recovered during a 10-year archaeological excavation of Fort St. George. A nonprofit group, Maine’s First Ship, is raising funds to rebuild Virginia, the 50-foot ship that carried the settlers back to England. The reproduction ship will cost about $2.2 million.

 Sitting Bull Artifacts Returned to Family

 Sitting Bull’s closest living relative now has possession of items from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that once belonged to the great Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief. Sitting Bull was killed in North Dakota by tribal police in 1890. His body was sent to Fort Yates, where Dr. Horace Deeble cut off locks of his hair and pilfered his wool leggings. Deeble later donated the objects to the Smithsonian. In 2002 Sitting Bull’s great-grandson Ernie LaPointe appealed for their return. After a five-year study, the museum confirmed that LaPointe and his sisters were the closest living relatives. The family plans to bury the artifacts with their great-grandfather.

Expensive Crockett Letter Might Be Fake

The Texas Historical Commission paid nearly $500,000 for an unauthenticated Davy Crockett letter because its funds were about to expire. The Austin American-Statesman reported in October that a Houston antiques dealer contacted the commission about the letter in mid-August. The commission then had two weeks to commit to a purchase before the end of the fiscal year on August 31, when the money in its Texas History Artifacts Fund—some $800,000—reverted back to the state treasury under a budgetary “use it or lose it” rule.

The letter is alleged to be the last written by Alamo hero Davy Crockett. Addressed to Crockett’s children, and dated two months before his death at the Alamo in 1836, the letter describes Texas as “the garden spot of the world.” Two experts in historical documents note that the good handwriting, grammar and punctuation do not match other existing Crockett letters. The commission has 120 days to authenticate the letter before the sale is final. So far, it has paid $17,000 for forensic analysis of the document. At press time, bids for handwriting analysis were still being solicited.

Shipwreck Dates to Alaskan Purchase

A dive team has located the oldest American shipwreck ever found in Alaska. The wreckage of Torrent was discovered in Cook Inlet off south-central Alaska. The find is significant because Torrent dates to the beginning of U.S. ownership of the Alaskan territory. In 1867 the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.

A year later, about 130 soldiers were dispatched to the region aboard Torrent to build the first U.S. military fort there. Heavy currents crashed the ship into a reef off the Kenai Peninsula. All 155 people on board, including wives and children of the soldiers, managed to escape before the ship sank. The dive team discovered two anchors and sections of the large bronze rudder hinges. Funding is being raised to continue the search.

Washington “Baseball Card” Turns Up on eBay

The Topps Company recently offered a bizarre gimmick to baseball card collectors—three cards featuring the likeness of the first president…and actual strands of his hair. Card dealer Ken Simonis of Phoenix was lucky enough to get one of the Washington cards, which was part of Topps’ classic Allen & Ginter series designed in the style of 19th-century trading cards. Topps obtained the hair from John Reznikoff, who holds the Guinness World Record for “Largest Collection of Hair From Historical Figures.” In September Simonis sold the card on eBay for $7,499.99. Simonis said he received many comments on the item, but the strangest was from a potential buyer who wanted to use the hair to clone Washington.

Rare Battle Flags Displayed

Four battle flags captured by British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton during the Revolutionary War will go on display at Colonial Williamsburg on December 22. Three of the flags were surrendered by Colonel Abraham Buford’s 3rd Virginia Detachment at the 1780 Battle of the Waxhaws, also known as Buford’s Massacre. A fourth flag belonging to the Continental Army’s 2nd Light Dragoons had been captured by Tarleton in New York in 1779. The Tarleton family retained possession of the flags, which are reported to be in excellent condition, until they were sold at auction in 2006.

College Gets Literary Archive

 Middlebury College in Vermont has acquired a large collection of letters, diaries and other material belonging to Ernest Hemingway and the Hemingway family (left). The collection includes an alternate first chapter to The Sun Also Rises, which Hemingway omitted at the suggestion of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

World War II Secret Interrogators Honored

During World War II, nearly 4,000 German POWs were questioned at Fort Hunt, a top-secret installation near Alexandria, Va., known at the time only by its postal code, P.O. Box 1142. The prisoners— mostly scientists and submariners—were interrogated for weeks before their presence was reported to the Red Cross, a violation of the Geneva Conventions. The interrogations were a secret until a few years ago when staff at Fort Hunt, now part of the National Park Service, discovered the site’s important role in the war. One by one, they identified surviving interrogators, and many of those veterans were recognized for their work during a ceremony at Fort Hunt in October. Some used the occasion to comment on controversial interrogation techniques currently in use. George Frenkel, now 87, said, “During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone. We extracted information in a battle of the wits.” Arno Mayer, now 91, refused to accept an honor from the U.S. Army Freedom Team Salute program, saying, “I feel like the military is using us to say, ‘We did spooky stuff then, so it’s okay to do it now.’”

Flying Tigers Cemetery Found in China

Chinese researchers have found a long-forgotten cemetery containing the graves of some 300 members of the famed Flying Tigers squadron killed during World War II. About 500 Chinese airmen are also buried in the cemetery, located near Kunming in Yunnan Province. The American squadron was formed in 1941.


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.