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Spy, Nurse, Cook, Commander

ON JANUARY 5 a bronze bust honoring Harriet Tubman’s daring feats was installed at the governor’s mansion in Annapolis. The Maryland native is famous for helping some 300 slaves escape the antebellum South, but her Union Army service as not only nurse and cook but as spy, scout and commander is less well known. In 1863, after she led African-American soldiers in a successful raid in South Carolina, General Rufus Saxton reported to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “Tis is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted.”

Yet Tubman was paid only $200 during the Civil War and was not considered eligible for a veteran’s pension. In 1890 she collected $8 a month as a veteran’s widow following the death of her second husband, Nelson Davis, a soldier in the United States Colored Troops. When Tubman, who could neither read nor write, pursued a pension based on her own service, she was granted, in 1899, a monthly pension of $25, which was later reduced to $20. She received that amount until her death in 1913, when she was buried with military honors.

Tubman is, at last, being celebrated as a national hero. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is slated for completion in 2016. Tat land is part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, created in 2013, which includes additional sites pertinent to Tubman’s life. And December 2014 marked the signing of legislation creating two national parks devoted to Tubman, one in Maryland, which will encompass the national monument and nearby sites, and one in Auburn, N.Y., where she lived from 1857 until her death. Yet another tribute is the Quilt Byway project, a 125-mile route in eastern Maryland marking stages in Tubman’s life. Each site displays a symbol that can be purchased as a quilt square to create a Tubman commemorative quilt. For more information on the byway project, visit

Artifacts From an Assassination

A LOCK OF LINCOLN’S HAIR. A bit of bloodstained linen. The military warrant for John Wilkes Booth’s arrest. No artifact of the Lincoln assassination failed to capture the interest of Donald P. Dow, who amassed one of the world’s largest holdings of Lincoln assassination– related artifacts. Dow, who died in 2009, began his collection in 1963, and the 302 items drew more than $803,000 in a recent sale by Heritage Auctions. The bit of hair went for $25,000 and the warrant for Booth’s arrest for $21,250. But the items that brought the top bids, $30,000 each, were a framed set of images of and autographs by Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and Boston Corbett, the Army sergeant who shot Booth; a 1907 publication alleging that Booth had escaped death; and an 1861 Booth letter to a friend. Booth artifacts are extremely rare because of the animosity toward him after the assassination.

Spirit of St. Louis Up Close

IN 1927 Charles Lindbergh had been flying for only five years when at age 25 he completed the first non-stop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in a plane he had helped design. The lightweight plane carried 450 gallons of fuel, loaded in such a way that the pilot could see straight ahead only by using a periscope. Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, has been on view at the Smithsonian since he donated it in 1928, but it usually hangs high above the floor of the Air and Space Museum. The historic aircraft— its steel and wood frame covered in silver-painted linen and its nose decorated with fags of the countries he visited on subsequent fights to South America—has been lowered and will be on view up close until September while workers deal with restoring the fragile structure.

Lindbergh, an air mail pilot with no experience flying over an ocean, undertook the 3,600-mile feat after six well-known aviators had died trying to collect the $25,000 winner’s purse for the Orteig Prize, sponsored by hotelier Raymond Orteig and the Aero Club of America. When Lindbergh landed safely in Paris after a 33-hour fight, a crowd of some 100,000 people awaited, making him a celebrity worldwide.

Brilliant Quilt Records U.S. Story

DEPICTING the 200-plus-year history of the United States in embroidery isn’t a small task, but Camille Nixdorf Phelan liked a challenge. She had taken five years to make a quilt documenting the history of Oklahoma (now owned by the Oklahoma Historical Society) and started work on a quilt about American history. The 6-foot-by-5-foot result, completed in 1937, includes the 50 states and their state flowers, notable Americans (ranging from Susan B. Anthony to Bing Crosby), dinosaurs, trains, national landmarks like the Empire State Building and Niagara Falls, and a self-portrait of the artist, all portrayed with surprisingly recognizable detail in an impossibly thick and vibrant thread. The quilt sold at a Cowan’s auction in February for $19,200.

The World the Civil War Made

THE CIVIL WAR remade America socially, economically and technologically. A recent paper by Zorina Khan of the National Bureau of Economic Research tallied the number of patents fled between 1855 and 1870 and found that, unsurprisingly, patents for military-related items and prosthetics soared during the war. Surprisingly, the number of applications by women also surged; one invention described a chemical fare that the U.S. Navy quickly adopted. Sustained innovation, however, came after the war: While patent applications hovered between 3,000 and 4,000 per year during the war, by 1867 the number had climbed to more than 12,000.

The U.S. Constitution, created in 1787, was the first document in the world to recognize the importance of innovation to economic growth and award patent rights to inventors. Unfortunately, firms today buy technology-related patents in order to sue others for patent infringement. The proliferation of these “patent trolls” has come to be regarded by some commentators as an impediment to innovation.

Coming to a Bookshelf Near You

HARPER LEE’S second novel (but really her first) will be published on July 14, with a print run of 2 million. The frail and reclusive 88-year-old author of To Kill a Mockingbird had apparently submitted a manuscript titled Go Set a Watchman, which featured many of the characters who would appear in Mockingbird, to a publisher in the 1950s. The editor who read it then was so struck with passages describing memories of the author’s childhood that she suggested the fledgling writer take up a second book focusing on that storyline. That project became the story of Scout, Dill and Boo Radley, and Lee never wrote another novel. According to the New York Times, the unpublished manuscript had come to the attention of Tonja Carter, who had recently taken over as Lee’s attorney.

Less mystery—but perhaps more amazement—surrounds the publication of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. Wilder’s memoir was rejected by publishers in 1930 and, at the urging of daughter Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder turned the story into the Little House on the Prairie series for young readers, which became an American literary treasure.

Pioneer Girl frankly recounts Wilder’s childhood years—including scenes of drunkenness and domestic violence. Commentary by Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill explores parallels to the Little House series. The book’s initial print run of 15,000 sold out, putting it atop Amazon’s bestseller list and prompting the South Dakota Historical Society Press to print two more runs.

Parks Papers Open at Library of Congress

THE PAPERS of civil rights activist Rosa Parks will be available for research at the Library of Congress for the next 10 years under an agreement with Howard Buffett, the new owner of the collection. Buffett acquired the papers for $4.5 million after learning that the boxes were collecting dust in a storeroom while Parks’ heirs and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, the school she founded in Detroit, were arguing over the rights. The collection includes 7,500 papers and 2,500 photographs.

Parks, a seamstress who served as the secretary for the Montgomery, Ala., chapter of the NAACP, had a career as a civil rights activist long before she refused on December 1, 1955, to obey a bus driver’s order that she give up her seat to a white passenger. Her arrest sparked the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that focused attention on segregation and resulted in a 1956 Supreme Court ruling that banned segregated seating on buses as unconstitutional. Both Parks and her husband, however, lost their jobs because of their activism.

Several items from the collection will be on view through September 12 in the Library of Congress exhibition “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.”

Uncle Sam Wants Your Savings Account

IN 1911 the United States Postal Service offered savings accounts to customers too poor—or too suspicious—to bank elsewhere. The innovation followed the stock market collapse and a run on banks in 1907. Immigrants flocked to the accounts: In 1917 some 70 percent of postal savings accounts were opened by newcomers, although those groups made up only 14 percent of the population. By 1966, however, the service was terminated because of a gradual decline in popularity and competition from traditional banks.

A January report by the USPS inspector general proposed bringing postal banking back as a way to solve two problems: Shore up the independent agency’s fragile finances as well as provide banking services in communities that are notoriously under-served by the financial sector. The report says that some 34 million households—a quarter of all American families—do not have a bank account, and the average household in this group spends $2,412 a year on interest and fees when using other financial services. The Postal Service already processes money orders, debit card transactions and international wire transfers.

The majority of post offices—59 percent—are in zip codes with zero or one bank branch, and post offices are positioned to fill the gap: They are widespread, underutilized and could offer services without the high fees that traditional banks charge for low-balance accounts. The inspector general concludes that postal banking could bring in an estimated $8.9 billion a year. Options range beyond savings accounts to include prepaid debit cards and small loans. The report, Providing Non-Bank Financial Services for the Underserved, is available at


Originally published in the June 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.