Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Our Work Thus Far

Greetings all,

So it's been a few weeks since my last post and I thought it would be a good idea to update fans on our progress thus far. I now have the pleasure of saying we because two new members have joined us in the archives; Danielle Segall is interning here as part of the Student History Intern for the Manhattan Borough President and Brandon McNeil, who is here volunteering on his own time. They are both great additions to the Archives with most of their time being spent aiding me in our research and developing the next phase of our project, which I will get to shortly. Part of the enjoyment I get out of this internship is working alongside colleagues my age that I have the benefit of teaching and learning from in an environment that is academically conducive. Guiding them through the collections, showing them features of Staten Island I learned of only a few weeks ago, and answering their questions helps me to affirm my passion for history.

But enough about what motivates me for now; let's get into how we've been spending our time here. The focus of our project has now shifted from exhibition entries into lesson plans, and not just ordinary lesson plans; we intend to make comprehensive lessons for students and teachers that are accessible online for free.

The lesson plans themselves are designed with content from our collections. This includes images, photographs, maps, newspaper articles, poems, and other primary source material than can be used to enhance the overall narrative of our lessons. Although it will not be absolutely necessary, we strongly recommend that these lessons are accompanied by trips to local museums and cultural institutions such as Tottenville’ s Conference House or Historic Richmond Town. As any student will confess, it can be boring at times to learn the history of a topic that bears no connection or relevance to your life; we seek to change this by exposing students to these excellent institutions. By immersing students in these topics they will gain more than the information needed for their exams; they can see how these stories can be represented physically.

We have chosen to cover popular topics in American History; however, our lessons will be viewed through the lens of Staten Island. Therefore, the Civil War will be characterized by the Island's discourse throughout the war as well as the contributions of Islanders. This time is especially controversial for Staten Island as many residents were sympathetic to the Southern cause, best expressed by the Draft Riots and fierce opposition to abolitionist sentiments. The Abolitionist movement and particularly the prominence of certain Islanders to this national cause are often ignored by the pages of history and that is exactly why we chose to include this as part of our project.

We want to create a full depiction of the events in discussion; that includes narratives and stories from not just the most well-known names, but from ordinary people who lived on Staten Island and have left evidence for us to share. In addition, documents and primary sources that do not make the cut for a specific lesson plan but hold a degree of relevance will be added to the website for anyone to view if they wish to read or see more about these topics. For the archives, this is just one of the ways we can share some of our information with the public without them having to come all the way here to access our files. There is a wealth of knowledge within our vaults and it's our responsibility to facilitate people's realization of this diamond in the rough. 

I remember coming across a book in our collections called Italians - Past and Present and after reading through this book, discovering that one of the heroes of Italian Unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi, had close ties to New York and spent time on the Island. During his exile from Italy he lived with the controversial inventor of the telephone, Antonio Meucci, in the neighborhood of Clifton; there is a museum dedicated to the lives and achievements of both of these men on Staten Island. I learned about Garibaldi in my sophomore year of high school and I recall being captivated by ear of European history; if only my lesson about Italian Unification came with a visit to the Island's Garibaldi-Meucci Museum!  That is the point of our work here; we want students and teachers to see the potential pool of resources this Island has to offer people of all ages. Museums, archives, historical societies, and the rest of Staten Island's cultural institutions should be utilized by educators in order to enrich learning, but more importantly to see the connections between this Island and actual history. 

We have already discussed the paradox surrounding Staten Island and its history for native Islanders. To realize that some of the names that resonate throughout the ages -- Verrazano, Meucci, Garibaldi, Curtis, Vanderbilt, Emerson, Seton --  and cement their place in the halls of history relate to Staten Island, is a substantial discovery that might change a native or foreigner's impressions about this little place some of us call home. It did for me so the chance to make this potential opportunity available to the next generation, as well as my own, is impetus enough for me.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Staten Island Skirmish

This past week was huge for American History as we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Battle at Gettysburg and our annual Independence Day. I hope your 4th was filled with friends, family, and moments of revelry under a firework lit sky. If you had lived in Staten Island in 1776 then your day may have been a little different; you may have felt like you were in Afghanistan instead New York City's 'forgotten borough.'

After reading Professor Phillip Papas' book, That Ever Loyal Island, which brilliantly documents Staten Island during the Revolutionary War, I was surprised to learn our Island’s role during the struggle to found this country. I knew that Staten Island was known to be pro-English but I had no idea the extent to which this was true. Once I learned of the circumstances surrounding this phenomenon, and the reasons the Island’s people favored English sovereignty, I could not necessarily blame them for their loyalty to the crown.

By the time of the Revolution Staten Island was predominately inhabited by small communities of farmers and their slaves, fishing crews, and others who lived a similarly agrarian lifestyle. Islanders sold their surplus goods and produce in regional markets across the Arthur Kill in New Jersey, as well as in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Although the Island was often considered to be isolated from the rest of the world, local residents participated in interstate and international trade. The Island's location and coastal features made it very accessible to ships coming and going from the American colonies. It was these same features that also made Staten Island a key strategic point for military forces wishing to launch an invasion of New York and by extension, New England as well.

English commercial policy favored the agrarian lifestyles of many Islanders and this granted them a degree of comfort. In addition, local residents retained elements of English culture, best demonstrated by the large Anglican community of church goers who continued the same religious traditions as their English forefathers. The lack of partisan and craft professionals, who were deeply angered by imposing English taxes and governing policy found throughout the rest of the colonies, set Staten Island apart. These combined factors led to a deep running Loyalist, pro-English, sentiment to be held on Staten Island, even as relations between England and her colony grew strained and open conflict seemed inevitable.

Once the war started the high commander of the English army, General William Howe, knew that New York had to be captured so that his army could move to capture Lake Champlain; with the assistance of the mighty English Navy, New England could be cut in half, isolated, and forced into submission. After suffering a humiliating tactical defeat at Boston by Continental forces under the command of General George Washington, Howe withdrew his army and planned the next phase of the war, which would bring Staten Island directly into the fray. In June of 1776, after anchoring near Sandy Hook New Jersey, English forces entered the New York Bay area and briefly landed in Grave's End Brooklyn, before they decided that Staten Island had a greater strategic and logistic advantage

At this point, Islanders were becoming increasingly ostracized by independence seeking Whigs and colonists, whose economic boycotts and mistrustful attitudes towards islanders made them all too willing to accept English liberation. Upon arrival, English forces quickly removed the few troops set to guard valuable geographic assets, such as the island's many fresh water spring; islanders greeted the English with joy and immediately began supplying them with essential resources such as lumber, livestock, produce, and fish. Many residents experienced English occupation during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and expected to profit handsomely from trade with the English once again. Some residents hid their Whig, pro-independence views or fled in advance to parts of New Jersey. However, most islanders choose to stay; as many as 500 men swore an oath of allegiance to the crown and formed a local militia to protect their home as well as aid their English allies.

From his launching point in Staten Island, Howe was able to outmaneuver Washington's defenses in brilliant tactical moves that forced Continental troops to withdraw while he captured vital strategic waterways including New York Bay, and the Hudson and East Rivers. Had it not been for the warm welcome the English received and the failure to properly defend Staten Island, the English may not have been able to effectively invade and wrestle control of New York City.

Now here is where it gets ugly. Once they established a base on Staten Island the English employed spies and other agents to gather intelligence on nearby towns in New Jersey, which would soon become the targets of frequent raids. Staten Island and the surrounding area become home to skirmishes between Loyalists, Whigs, and English forces; guerrilla style warfare became increasingly common. Small bands of paramilitary fighters, some of whom a year ago were tending their fields and  maintaining amicable relations with their neighbors, crossed the Arthur Kill from New Jersey to set up ambushes, raid outposts, ransack local farms and steal supplies, and destroy whatever provisions could be used by English troops. These sorties produced high numbers of captives on both sides, who were imprisoned or more commonly sold back for ransom or exchanged for other prisoners.

Local residents suffered tremendously from this type of unconventional warfare. Much of the island's population experienced mistrust from both patriot and English forces concerned that these locals could be doubling as spy, providing critical intelligence to their enemies. Staten Islanders underwent instances of humiliation and violent interrogations because of their Whig, Tory, or Loyalist views. On many occasions islanders' watched their families tortured by raiders, who desperately sought supplies that were hidden or already taken. The waterways surrounding the island saw increased banditry as partisan, as well as privateers interested in benefiting from the instability captured ships and looted supplies. By the end of the war, much of the Island's population wore the scars of war and wished that their English 'liberators' would leave them alone.

This type of combat was not as common amongst the large European armies that clashed in open fields and plans. Rather, it was known by colonists to be the way of Native Americans, who were deemed savages for their dishonorable customs, fought. These very tactics implemented by native tribes were adopted by patriots to better help them undermine the English's ability to effectively wage war: necessary provisions were destroyed; soldiers suffered psychologically from the impacts of this style of fighting; it was nearly impossible to score a decisive victory against an enemy who fired from cover and fled before they could be targeted. Had it not been for these ruthless and cunning tactics, patriot forces may not have been able to eventually defeat the world's superpower, the English Empire.

I find it particularly ironic that nowadays some of our military's weapons of mass destruction derive their names from Native American ones: Tomahawk Cruise Missile, Apache and Blackhawk Helicopters, and a new line of UAVs (unpiloted aerial vehicles, Grey Hawks, to name a few.  We can take a lesson from history by drawing connections between the past and the present. Granted technology has changed warfare significantly but in essence the same tactics American forces struggled to combat in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are the same tactics when implemented against the English Empire, allowed our descendants to overthrow their oppressors and establish The United States of America. We rebuke paramilitary bands of insurgents for conducting this style of warfare abroad and associate these tactics with 'terrorism,' but they came in handy when we were the underdogs.

Have we now, like the English, become the empire who can readily deploy immense military might, yet cannot crush small and effective groups of cunning insurgents? Read up on the ongoing, escalating Syrian Civil war to find out more about this unconventional type of combat, which has increasingly become more conventional. The United Sates isn’t the only nation that suffers from this paradox; it seems to be a phenomenon experienced by large empires, from the Romans to the English that face smaller, yet fiercely determined rebels in distant theaters of war.

See you next time!

Joe the intern

Monday, July 1, 2013

150 Years Later

Friends, Americans, Countrymen,

Today makes the 150th anniversary of the first day of conflict at Gettysburg, possibly the most pivotal battle in our nation's history, I'd like to take a lesson from the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and reflect on our past, present, and future. Similar to a Christmas Carol, there are ghosts that our nation must confront; by doing so, we can gain a clear, hindsight perspective on situations and events that majority of Americans were once unaware of. Before I begin, I must clarify that  I do not intend to make sweeping generalizations about the topics and groups mentioned. Rather, I am speaking to threads that represent majority and minority alike. Nor do I intend to discuss this nation's history through a wonderful lens that hides some of the unfortunate realities we have created. My intentions are to show my readers how I've grown to view our nation, past and present, so that we may remove our distractive blinders and consider our future.  

For any great civilization that wishes to preserve its prosperity it is essential to actively study its history; the hard fought lessons that were once bitterly learned retain a degree of relevance that cannot be ignored. A civilization is the living embodiment of its people; they, citizens and senators alike, constitute society and form government, establishing a social bond that binds men, women, and fellow human beings to a common identity. An analysis of the past forces members of that society to acknowledge the current state of affairs and turn upon their nation with introspective scrutiny that seeks to rectify wrong, both apparent and covert, and heal wounds caused by apathy, detachment from the past, and willfully accepted malevolence. Once the past is remembered and the present is thoroughly examined, it is of extreme importance for the people to direct their gaze upon the future with the courage to sound their voices, express their opinions, and take hold of the direction in which they are headed by casting off the shackles of ignorance. It is crucial that we, the people, do what is decidedly in the best interests of the people, not in the interests of those who rule through fear and manipulation, readily supplying misinformation to turn brother upon brother with hopes of distracting the masses from their deceitful plots and machinations.

Back to Gettysburg for a moment - from July 1st to 3rd, the fields, ridges and streets of a small town in Pennsylvania were set alight by the flames of war in a desperate struggle that would determine the future of our continent. Both Northern and Southern soldiers, Unionist and Confederate, answered the call of their leaders and fixed rifles and bayonets on one another, knowing full well this matter of life and death had more at stake than of their own individual lives. It would decidedly lay to rest the issue of which lifestyle had the right to prosper - that of slavery or of freedom. While northerners rioted in cities and cried out against forceful drafts, southerners suffered through starvation and the destruction of their homeland. The same people who had prospered together in peace endured the horrors of conflict.

Why did they sacrifice themselves? For what purpose did they kill and die? Was it freedom, or the right to self-sovereignty? The end of institutional slavery? I'm sure the answer would vary depending on who was asked, but I imagine that soldiers would disregard the ideological struggle at hand and present more basic responses: for their families, homes, and battle brothers. Wether of not it was realized individually, each man who took to the field those pivotal days would cast their lives in the name of a future they sought to shape.   

150 years later and the North and South are no longer at war with one another. Instead, it is a war of a different kind between different groups of people: the Republican and Democratic parties. Conflict is willfully sought between fellow countryman instead of comprise and congress. Politically, this nation is divided so bitterly that is is nearly impossible for polar opposite ideologies to communicate. This is exacerbated by a media that constantly reminds us of the divisions between our political groups. Instead of working together, we are shown by example of our elected officials how to oppose one another, how to beat your opponents and, if you cannot force your way, either manipulate the system at whatever cost necessary or turn upon the host itself and inflict wounds to spite everyone. Instead of changing their beliefs to adhere to the desires of more people, many political leaders try to eliminate people's fundamental right to express their will. This is just one example of the injustice that has been brought into existence and strengthened by ignorance and manipulation; there are many more that must be treated as such, and thereby removed from our society.   

This aliment runs deeper than political alignment and, like a cancer, it is spreading; the seeds of infection have taken root in the heart and poisoned the mind with it.  Increasingly, it is becoming a matter of which group you or I falls under, liberal or conservative, and that dictates everything about us. This determines who we vote for, who we agree with, who we converse and share opinions with. It sheds light on how we see the world, what we desire from our leaders and how they should shape our future. Almost comedically, citizens have publicly presented the idea of succession with hopes of inspiring other dissatisfied Americans to join them; don't take my word for it, a few minutes on the internet will bring this issue to life. This is a very dangerous phenomenon that echos the antebellum era with striking similarities.

Having conflicting beliefs is one thing - natural at that - but to vehemently oppose your fellow countrymen's beliefs to a point that you threaten treason, is an entirely different story. The same chords that were ringing out in the prewar years are resonating once again. I do not think it will come to war, but the existence of this fierce opposition to change is a problem we must all come to terms with. How can we walk forward with one leg turned back, trying its hardest to propel us back where we have been? We cannot effectively govern this way; we have all seen how partisan politics has brought not only progress, but prosperity, to a screeching halt. This cannot be. We must learn from our past mistakes and move forward together, as one nation.

The purpose of these words is not to spread gloom and despair but to remind us of our infinite potential, for both great and terrible things. We must reconcile ourselves with the reality that we are often detached from, in hopes of preserving the benevolence this nation has offered humanity.
The United States of America is a empire just like many that have come before it. Like all empires, it is subject to growth, stagnation, and decay over the span of its lifetime. Whether out of indifference or hubris, it is foolish to ignore the natural progression that pervades all facets of life from the tiniest organism to the most spectacular social achievement of mankind, the empire. We are unique in our short history and youthful ambition. Our power and military prowess is unmatched, our economic development allows for a historically high standard of living, and the great minds who have played their parts on history's stage have endlessly stoke the embers of innovation and technological achievement. Providence has guided our leaders to benefit not just citizens of this nation, but human beings throughout the world, by striving for peace and communion with one another.

150 years later it is time for all citizens, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative alike to remember what brave men had the courage to fight and die for; a future which their struggle gave them a role in. Although no one can foresee what is to come, what is definite is that there will be many pressing challenges for us to face. How we handle our future will be determined by our ability to collectively deal with obstacles and changing circumstances, an indicative factor of our nation's well-being. We, the people of the United States of America, must come together to settle our differences and move beyond petty political grievances in order to ensure our prosperity and protect our future. Let us not forget the past, ignore the present, and shy away from the future but instead strive towards perfection.