Category Archives: History

History Undusted: The Wild Women of the Old West

Often unsung heroines, the women who trailblazed (alongside their husbands, or on their own through the loss of said man along the trail, or who headed west on their own to forge a new way of living) were the backbone of settlements.  Without the women, there would have been no way for a man to survive for long.  I grew up in Kansas, and my father’s ancestors were immigrants from Denmark who travelled west to Kansas in covered wagons in the 1880s; the farm which my great grandfather built was eventually inherited by my grandfather, and many of my happy childhood memories are associated with that farmstead.  Looking back through family photos, there’s not a photo of a weak woman among them; weak women (and men, for that matter) simply didn’t survive the trail.  They became the strength that built the West.

For a 46-minute documentary on the importance of the pioneer woman, and the legends that grew up around the likes of Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Belle Starr, please click on the image below.  It’s well worth the time to watch, when you have a moment!

 

Annie Oakley

 

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The Icelandic War Bride Mystery

I haven’t posted for a while, and I apologize; sometimes I just need “percolating” time: Those are times when I might not do much writing, but I’m thinking about it, gathering ideas and creative input. One idea or article or film leads to the next, and the next. An article that I came across recently was an amazing story called “The War Bride Mystery”:

A young Icelandic woman named Ragna Esther Sigurdardottir married an American GI just after World War 2; she was only 18 and married against her family’s wishes. Once in America, she found out that the man she married was a “bad apple” – a violent man who beat her through two pregnancies. The daughter would be mentally handicapped until her death at the age of 49. When Ragna was hospitalized from a beating, she finally obtained a divorce; the children were taken from her and placed in state care, and she disappeared. For 60 years.

What makes the story fascinating is that she went on to marry again, and have a second family. That second family knew nothing of her past until her daughter discovered on her own birth certificate that her mother had given birth twice before. Likely out of shame for past mistakes, and not wanting to hurt anyone, she’d kept the secret to herself. But her Icelandic family had never given up hope of finding her, and with the help of a stranger with skills in research, they were finally able to put the puzzle pieces together and connect with Ragna’s American family.

The story was published in the Oregonian newspaper in a series of articles; if you’d like to read the whole story, click here.

World wars opened up the possibilities for many cross-cultural relationships, and brought men and women into positions of both opportunity and vulnerability; being far from home, one could reinvent oneself, for good or bad. Ragna was unfortunate in the choice of her first husband, but her second appears to have given her a happy ending, and the story goes on as her Icelandic and her American families connect the dots, and come to peace about the story of the missing war bride.

 

Ragna Esther Vickers - credit, Lou Ann LeMaster

Ragna Esther Vickers with her second family’s children, in 1957; credit, Lou Ann LeMaster (right)

 

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History Undusted: Mary Seacole

Have you ever heard of Mary Seacole? Probably not – I hadn’t, and I’m a history fan. Have you ever heard of Florence Nightingale? You probably had something taught to you in school about her.  In reading about the two, the most striking difference, and perhaps the one that made all the difference in the paths their lives took, was that Florence was born into a rich, upper-class and well-connected English family; Mary was the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican woman, who first taught her about medicine.

mary seacole

 

Mary Seacole. Source: Wikipedia

 

While Florence was famous for training nurses during the Crimean War, the English authorities refused Mary’s request to be sent there, too, even though it was known that the nursing care was far too inadequate; so she scraped the money together herself, travelled to the front lines on her own, and established a hotel in order to provide meals, a place of rest, and medical treatment for the wounded. She would often go out to the battles to bring in the wounded, and as mortars flew past, a soldier would shout, “Down, mother!” and she would hit the dirt, then pick herself back up and continue on. To tell her whole story would be a lengthy one here, but she has told it in her own words by writing a book: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, available for free as a Kindle or other formats here. You can also read more about Mary herself in the following links:

 

Wikipedia

BBC

YouTube

Her story is well worth reading, because it truly was an adventure, and it neither started nor stopped in Crimea. Kudos to the woman who overcame a triple-prejudice (being a woman of mixed race from a poor background) to achieve her calling and change the lives of the men she helped. It’s a history gem worth undusting!

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Columbus’s Egg

1200px-columbus_breaking_the_egg'_(christopher_columbus)_by_william_hogarth

Columbus Breaking the Egg, by William Hogarth, 1752

At the end of December, I began a new training course in crafting short stories; this has renewed my interest in finding good writing prompts. By focusing on something, you usually begin to see things related to it everywhere you go. For instance, if you’re doing a puzzle and focus on the edges, you’ll begin to see them right under your nose where they’d been all along – you just hadn’t seen them before because you’d been focused on a specific colour or a particular section.

My brain is usually on rapid-fire mode; in any given second, dozens of topics flash through my thoughts. Reaching into this stream and pulling out one particular topic to focus on can lead to interesting, related issues, and Columbus’s Egg is one of the results.

The original thought that I plucked from the stream this morning was, “How do you actually spell Kobayashi Maru?” (I know, right? I’m sure you had exactly that thought as soon as your feet hit the ground this morning; it’s just that my “morning” began this afternoon as I wrote through the night and got to bed at 9:30 this morning…) By looking it up, I came across the apocryphal story about Columbus:

The story goes that Christopher Columbus, while attending a dinner, was confronted with Spanish scoffers who said that, had he not been the first to discover the Americas, someone else would have done so. He made no answer but asked a servant to bring him an egg (presumably a boiled one). He then challenged everyone present: They must try to get an egg to stand on its end, with nothing to support it in that position. Everyone tried and failed; when it was Columbus’s turn, he tapped the tip of the egg on the table, and the crushed, flat end made the egg remain upright. the moral was that a solution is obvious to everyone, but only once it has been found by someone else.

brunelleschi's dome, duomo of florence

the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral

The story is recorded in Girolamo Benzoni’s History of the New World, published in 1565, as he related it to Columbus, but it is likely apocryphal as the same anecdote was circulating 15 years previously about the architect of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, Italy.

My original thought’s term, Kobayashi Maru, is a term that any Trekkie will be familiar with: It was a no-win scenario designed to test Star Fleet cadets’ characters in the face of certain defeat. The term has gone beyond Star Trek and is used in business to illustrate the importance of changing the rules of the game in order to win, i.e. re-evaluating the foundation of a particular business scenario.

There are other such related terms, such as the Gordian KnotCatch-22, and the Archimedean point. All of these concepts are about thinking outside the box, which is exactly what I try to do as a writer.  If you’re also a writer, catch those thoughts – write them down, and let them foment into something interesting! Keep writing!

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History Undusted: New Year’s Day

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year VintageOn such a day more than any other time of the year, one tends to think of time. Time has been personified through Father Time for centuries, with the New Year usually being a baby. But what we assume is a universal start of a new year actually isn’t. By the Julian calendar, today is 19 December 2018; by the Gregorian, 1 January 2019.

Perhaps it would help to review the Julian and the Gregorian calendars:

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC as a reformation of the Roman calendar, which had months of 29 or 31 days (except February, which must have confused even the contemporaries of the system – it had 28 days or 23 or 24 some years). The Julian calendar has been gradually increasing in discrepancy to the Gregorian calendar, which means that currently, it is 13 days behind. It is still used today by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and the North African Berbers.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The corrections spaced leap years to a set rule, making the average year 365.2425 days long. The rule is that every year exactly divisible by 4 is a leap year except those exactly divisible by 100; of the years divisible by 100, if it is exactly divisible by 400, it is a leap year. For example, the year 2000 was exactly divisible by 400, so it was a leap year; 1900 was not, so it wasn’t a leap year (it is exactly divisible by 100 but not 400).

Even though the Gregorian calendar is the only one most westerners have grown up using, it is not the only calendar in use – not by a long shot. There are many religion-related calendars, so some people grow up with 2 calendars (Ethiopian Coptics, Hebrews, and Chinese, to name a few). Added to the confusion is the civil interpretation of the leap year day of 29 February: If you were born on 29 February, in China your birthday in common years would be 28 February but in Hong Kong, it would be 1 March.

When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, imagine the confusion it must have led to (as it was not implemented everywhere at once): Pope Gregory XIII had no authority beyond the Catholic Church and the Papal States of the time, yet he was proposing changes to the civil calendar; this required adoption by the governing rulers of every individual country to have legal effect. It meant that, for the countries which adopted it, they had to have dual dates for clarity with neighbouring states and for their own people who were still adjusting to the fact that they’d just lost nearly 2 weeks. Other countries made a gradual transition, which must have confused things even more; for instance, Scotland adopted 1 January as the beginning of their New Year (previously, around 25 March) in 1600 (making 1599 a very short year), but didn’t switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, whereas the rest of the United Kingdom made both switches in 1752, meaning that for 152 years, Scotland’s dates were out of sync with their neighbouring countries.

So the next time you wish someone a Happy New Year, remember the privilege of sharing a mutual understanding of the same date with that friend. Even in our global village, it’s not something we can take for granted!

New Year 2019

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History Undusted: Agafia Lykov – Surviving in the Taiga

Agafia Lykov - Siberian Times

Agafia Lykov. Photo credit: Siberian Times

I recently came across a documentary about a woman, Agafia Lykov. I’d come across information about her family years ago, and had intended to write an article about them;  life happened, and I forgot about it, so I’m glad to do it now.

 

The Lykov family were part of what is known as the “Old Believers” – Eastern Orthodox Christians from Russia who refused to submit to the new regulations laid out by the Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, between 1652 and 1666. At a time when religious affiliation was political power, they were viewed as a threat and were shunned and persecuted. In 1936,  Karp Lykov’s brother was killed by communists during Stalin’s religious purgings, and he fled with his wife and two children into the Taiga wilderness, an inhospitable region of Siberia. In this isolation, 250 km (160 miles) from the nearest settlement, two more children were born; Agafia was born in 1944.

The family was a living time capsule; they weren’t aware that World War 2 had come and gone; they missed the birth of the Space Age, though they knew that something had taken place when rocket chunks began raining down in the Taiga near their home, as they are under the flight path of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (if you have Google Earth, just search for her name; her homestead is marked). Survival was difficult, and they had to work constantly; in 1961, the mother, Akulina, starved herself to death in order to give the children a fighting chance of survival when food was scarce. At one point, they were forced to eat their leather shoes to survive. Agafia’s teeth have been worn down from eating such tough foods.

In 1978, they were discovered by accident when a geology team’s helicopter was searching for a place to land in the remote wilderness; they saw the homestead and decided to trek to it when they’d finally landed. Most likely as a result of contact with outsiders, in 1981, three of the four children died of pneumonia. At first, the geologists thought the children were mentally disabled, as they spoke a strange lilting and chirping language; but they soon realized that it was simply the isolation and family dialect that had developed a shorthand between themselves; Agafia actually speaks two languages: Russian and Old Slavic, which modern Russians cannot understand (it would be the same for English speakers to hear Old English; it’s related, but unrecognizable to its modern version).

Born into such isolation and alone since 1988, Agafia is surprisingly informed about the wider world; she has left her homestead for populated areas only six times since contact with the outside world began, but she prefers her home – the world is too busy for her, too many cars, bad air in the cities, and no peace. Her beliefs are also a time capsule; she only knows what her father taught her, and has had no teaching beyond that; her prayer book is over 400 years old, a family heirloom, and one she uses every day.

In January 2016, she was airlifted to a hospital in Tashtagol, Russia, due to pain in her legs caused by the cold. Before the end of the month, she had returned home – all the time she was away, she was worried about her goats and chickens, and about Georgy, and Old Believer who had come to live with her to help in her old age.

I find her life fascinating; she is an example of the unquenchable human tenacity to survive, and thrive in any environment; she is content with her simple life, as hard as it is, because it is what she knows; she knows of modern conveniences, and has accepted some things – learning how to make bread, or accepting supplies such as salt and flour (as long as the products don’t have barcodes on them, which she considers a “mark of the beast”); but for the most part, she wants nothing of the modern world.

To watch a 35-minute documentary (made in 2013) of her daily life, just click on the image below.

Agafia Lykov - Titlovi-com

 

 

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History Undusted: The Japanese Schindler

I believe that people who have made a significant impact on the lives of individuals and nations not only deserve being honoured by remembrance but need to be brought into the spotlight for each new generation.

Though you may have learned something about Oskar Schindler through the books or film about his deeds, chances are you’ve not heard of Chinune Sugihara, whose conscience would not allow him to look the other way when Jews came under the persecution of the Nazis during World War 2. As vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania, he was in an ideal position to save thousands of lives by issuing travelling visas, but at the risk of his own career by disobeying orders.

His story is worth taking a few minutes to read; please click on the two links below, to get a picture of the man who became the only Japanese Righteous Among the Nations.

Lessons in Manliness: Chiune Sugihara

“Sempo” Chiune Sugihara (Wikipedia)

Chiune Sugihara

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History Undusted: The Evolution of the Zipper

zipperA zipper is something one rarely thinks about until it breaks.  It’s something we use every day, from trousers to jackets to purses to zip-lock bags.  Yet the actual modern zipper has only been around 101 years!  The idea began forming as a practical design in 1851 in the mind of Elias Howe, who patented an “Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure” (no wonder that name never caught on).  He was not a marketing whiz, and the idea petered out.  At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a device designed by Whitcomb Judson was launched but wasn’t very practical, and again, it failed to take off commercially.  In 1906, a Swedish-American electrical engineer by the name of Gideon Sundback was hired by (and married into) the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company (Meadville, PA), and became the head designer.  By December 1913, he’d improved the fastener into what we would recognize as the modern zipper, and the patent for the “Separable Fastener” was issued in 1917.  In March of that year, a Swiss inventor, Mathieu Burri, improved the design with a lock-in system added to the end of the row of teeth, but because of patent conflicts, his version never made it to production.

The name “zipper” was coined by the B.F. Goodrich Company in 1923, when they used Sundback’s fastener on a new type of rubber boot.  When they first came into production, zippers were mainly used on boots and tobacco pouches, only making it onto leather jackets in 1925 (produced by Schott NYC), trousers in 1937 (beating out the traditional button method for men’s trousers).  The next time you use a zipper, stop and think about what you would have had to use 100 years ago!

And in the meantime, here are a couple idioms that have arisen using “zip” or “zipper” or which refer directly to that imagery:

Zip it (up) – close your mouth

Zip your lip/mouth

Zip Your Lip

Euphemisms about undone zippers are numerous; here are a few of the better ones (IMHO):

Barn/stable door’s open

It’s six-thirty

Bombay’s open

Fly time

What do birds/airplanes do?

You’re advertising

Flag’s at half-mast

Front/trap door’s open

Your horse/colt’s gonna bolt

Mind the gap

Zip code

XYZ (PDQ) – “Examine Your Zipper (pretty darn quick)” – Your zipper is open

 

 

Originally posted on History Undusted,

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History Undusted: Celebrating Amalie Noether

The celebration of this relatively unknown figure highlights her brilliance in the face of staunch sexism.  As a woman, I still feel sexism today, though it’s far more subtle – the glass ceilings still need to be broken through, and the duplicity of definition needs to be redressed (name any male characteristic, and often the negative reverse is applied to women, whether stated or subconscious; e.g. a man may be assertive, but if a woman shows the same spirit, she’s often labelled as aggressive). Though they paved the way for a better path for many women, Amalie and her female contemporaries faced brick ceilings and walls.

Born in 1882 in Erlangen, Germany, Amalie was born into a family of brilliant mathematicians, yet had to beg to be allowed to study at University; when she aced her audited courses, they only reluctantly acknowledged her achievements. She was an unpaid, unsung heroine for years, yet Einstein himself referred to her as “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced.”  To read more about her story, and details of her scientific breakthroughs, please click on the image below.

 

Amalie Noether, Mathmatician

Amalie Noether  (Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 23 March 2015, by Stephanie Huesler

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History Undusted: The Shilling

1 Shilling front

Numismatics is an interesting field, and in doing research for the Northing Trilogy, I wanted to know just what currencies would have been used at the time (1750s, England), and what the value of the currencies were:  How much could be purchased or earned?  Would a Stirling pound have made a pauper a land owner or not?  That brought me to the current book I’m reading, called “The Splendid Shilling” by James O’Donald Mays.  Here are a few bits and bobs:

The Shilling was a form of currency used in Britain up until the 1970s; even after that, the coins continued in circulation as smaller denominations (1 shilling was 5 p, and 2 shilling was 10p) until 1990, when it was demonetized.  I remember using them until they were phased out and replaced by the smaller coins of 5p and 10p values, and I kept a few for my coin collection.  One shilling coins were called “bobs”, and that led to programs such as “bob-a-job” fund raisers by the boyscouts, starting in 1914.  Two shillings were known as Florins, or “two-bob bits”.

1 Shillings reverseThe word shilling most likely comes from a Teutonic word, skel, to resound or ring, or from skel (also skil), meaning to divide.  The Anglo-Saxon poem “Widsith” tells us …”þær me Gotena cyninggodedohte; se me beag forgeaf, burgwarenafruma, on þam siexhund wæs smætes goldes, gescyred sceatta scillingrime...”  “There the king of the Goths granted me treasure: the king of the city gave me a torc made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence.”  Another translation says that the gold was an armlet, “scored” and reckoned in shilling.  The “scoring” may refer to an ancient payment method also known as “hack” – they would literally hack off a chunk of silver or gold jewellery to purchase goods, services and land, and the scoring may have been pre-scored gold to make it easier to break in even increments, or “divisions”.  From at least the times of the Saxons, shilling was an accounting term, a “benchmark” value to calculate the values of goods, livestock and property, but did not actually become a coin until the reign of Henry VII in the 1500s, then known as a testoon.  The testoon’s name and design were most likely inspired by the Duke of Milan’s testone.

 

Duke of Milan's Testone

Duke of Milan’s Testone

 

 

Henry VII Testoon

Henry VII Testoon

 

 

 

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 15

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