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Rare Pendant May Be Likeness of Pocahontas’ Father

Out of the haystack of artifacts unearthed at Historic Jamestowne this year—50,000 of them, in what seems to have been a slow season—archaeologists have identified an incomparable needle. What researchers call the dig’s “1607 layer,” the strata containing material from the year the settlement was founded, yielded a paper-thin copper pendant, 371/2 mm long by 251/2mm wide. It depicts the profile of what is believed to be a chief of the Powhatan Indians, who maintained uneasy relations with members of the first permanent settlement in America. Bly Straube, senior curator for the site, speculates that the pendant was used as a form of identification by the settlers as they met with the tribe, and that the finely engraved eyes, nose, chin and hairline of the profile might represent Powhatan himself, the father of Pocahontas.

“There are so few images of the Powhatan Indians, who played such a vital role in making sure this colony did not fail,” says William Kelso, Historic Jamestowne’s Director of Archaeology. “The Indians did fight the settlers, but they also brought them food. The Powhatan could see the advantage of their stone tools. They were living, essentially, in the Stone Age.”

Ancient Canoe Surfaces

Three boys swimming in the Keowee River in northwest South Carolina in July discovered part of an American Indian canoe believed to date back hundreds of years. The provenance of the canoe has not been determined, but the 21-foot fragment—nearly half of the original craft—has been taken to the Oconee Heritage Center in Walhalla, S.C., for restoration and study. It will eventually be exhibited at the heritage center’s museum with another canoe found in the Chattooga River in 2002.

Nobel Laureate Pays Homage to Slaves

In 1989, four years before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison told an interviewer that there wasn’t a suitable memorial to slavery, not even a “small bench by the road.” This summer, the author of the critically acclaimed slave saga, Beloved, got her memorial—a 6-foot steel bench, anchored in concrete on Sullivan’s Island, off the coast of South Carolina. The site overlooks the harbor where an estimated 40 percent of slaves from Africa came to the United States.

During the opening ceremony for the Bench by the Road project, Morrison took in the historic view, surrounded by 300 others, and expressed her gratitude: “It’s never too late to applaud the living who do them honor. This is extremely moving to me.”

The Toni Morrison Society, which is running the memorial project, had planned a series of 10 benches at historically resonant sites. But that number may grow, says Carolyn Denard, founder and board chairman of the society, because of the “tremendous outpouring of letters we’ve received.”

Public Housing Gets Its Historical Due

A museum for public housing? For many, who immediately think of high-rise hellholes, this may seem like a joke. But the National Public Housing Museum recently has received an abandoned three-story, Depression-era building from the Chicago Housing Authority, and the nonprofit is now raising $17 million for the renovation and transformation of the building, which sits about two miles southwest of the Sears Tower. “The idea came from residents of public housing who saw their history disappearing,” says Sunny Fischer, executive director of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, which provided seed money for the project. The C-shaped building—the only remaining structure in a once-sprawling complex named for public-housing pioneer Jane Addams—would be reworked to create a shop, a restaurant and space for temporary exhibits and educational programming. But some of the apartments would be restored to show actual living conditions in the building, perhaps over time. “The idea is to address public housing in Chicago generally,” says Peter Landon of Landon Bone Baker Architects, the lead architect on the project, “but it seems like the issues are pretty consistent with what happened around the country. The human side is about people, and people are amazingly flexible, amazingly adaptable.”

Washington’s Deathbed Docs Exonerated

George Washington’s physicians have long been blamed for his death on Dec. 13, 1799. They treated his severe throat infection, brought on by a horseback inspection of his farm in a winter storm, primarily with massive bloodletting—nearly half of his body’s supply. Writing in the journal The American Surgeon, Dr. Michael Cheatham says that even without this significant blood loss, no treatment of the day could have saved the 67-year-old Washington, and that such a severe infection has “a high mortality rate today and would have been irreversible in 1799.”

Congressional Report Reveals Relative Cost of Wars

The war in Iraq is about to pass the Vietnam War as the second-most expensive conflict in American history, according to a Congressional Research Service report that adjusts the cost of 12 military operations—from the Revolutionary War to current fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan—into Fiscal Year 2008 equivalents. That put the cost of Iraq at $648 billion—certain next year to pass the $686 billion spent in Vietnam, but still far lower than the $4.1 trillion for World War II. When these amounts were compared to U.S. gross domestic product in the peak years of each engagement, the massive outlay for WWII was even more dominant—in 1945 war expenses were 35.8 percent of GDP. The next-costliest conflict was World War I, which represented 13.6 percent of GDP in 1919. Iraq took only 1.0 percent of GDP in 2008.

Land of Lincoln Race Riots Recalled

Springfield, Illinois, wasn’t the only American city to suffer a race riot at the turn of the 20th century, but the outbreak of racial violence was all the more stunning because this was the hometown of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.

An exhibit now running at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, “Something So Horrible: Springfield Race Riot of 1908,” looks at the events of April 14 and 15, when reports of the rape of a white woman by a black man led to the lynching of two black men, the killing of four white men and major property damage before the intervention of 4,000 state militiamen.

Shock at this outrage in the land of Lincoln helped to spur the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). And many Springfield residents subsequently tried to ignore that the riot ever happened. “This was a shameful incident, and was kept out of a lot of history classes,” says David Blancette, communications manager for the library and museum.

An editorial in the Springfield State Journal Register welcomed the exhibit as a chance to address the “dirty secret” of the riot: “Even though the Springfield Race Riot is something many would like to forget, history has shown all too often the danger of willful amnesia.”

Bobbleheads Spur Historical Debate

Call it mind-bobbling. The New Hampshire Historical Society sparked controversy when it added two 17thcentury figures to its line of bobblehead dolls: Hannah Dunston (scalped Indians who kidnapped her and killed her infant son) and Chief Passaconaway (sided with English colonials against the French and their Indian allies). Some didn’t like how the two were shown—Dunston, for example, with a hatchet, but not, as she has been depicted elsewhere, carrying scalps. Some found the dolls inappropriate for a respectable institution. “We do serious things,” says executive director Bill Veillette, “but bobbleheads make history a little bit more fun.”

Mural Honors Literati Spirit

The most interesting rooms in the recently renovated Languages and Literature Building at New York University may be the ones that exist in two dimensions. The school asked New York-based Mexican artist Elena Climent to paint a mural in six panels, each depicting the space where a celebrated writer from New York City wrestled with his or her muse. The writers—not shown in the paintings—are Washington Irving, Edith Wharton, Zora Neale Hurston, Jane Jacobs, Pedro Pietri and Frank O’Hara, whose room looked out upon the street in Greenwich Village that runs past the NYU structure.

Heir Apparent vs. Founding Father

Bettye Kearse- An African-American pediatrician who believes she may be the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of James Madison Jr., the fourth president of the United States, and a slave named Coreen, who was herself the slave daughter of James Madison Sr., with another slave named Mandy. Kearse wants DNA testing of male descendants of the Madisons to see if she is a descendant as well. Further evidence would be needed to demonstrate that she was specifically a descendant of the president.

National Society of Madison Family Descendants- While James Madison Jr. kept as many as 100 slaves at his Montpelier estate, he didn’t have a reputation for infidelity, as did, for example, Thomas Jefferson. The first lady, Dolley Madison, had children from a previous marriage, but none with Madison, so some have speculated that he was sterile. The society has submitted the DNA of someone it says is a descendant of James Madison Jr.’s brother William, but they will not disclose the donor’s identity, as Kearse has requested.

America Bids Adieu to Venerable Lever-Voting Machines

The click-click-click of American democracy is fading into silence. The lever voting machine, which became a warhorse of tallying after Jacob H. Myers’ major patent in 1889, will soon be extinct. Technically, it should be entirely gone by now, but New York State couldn’t find an acceptable replacement, and therefore was allowed to use it for the 2008 election. Those votes will count for 6 percent of the nationwide total, compared with 55 percent that come from systems that optically scan paper ballots and 33 percent from electric systems. Lever machines were expensive ($5,000-$6,000) and heavy (800 pounds). They didn’t create a paper record of individual votes— required by the Help America Vote Act—but a simple number count using odometer-like devices that seemed to produce a disproportionate number of totals ending in the number 9. Like a weary candidate at the end of a long campaign, sometimes the counters were too tired to turn over.


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