GARRT Day 3

*Record scratch, freeze frame*

Voice over: “I’m sitting on a train to New York in a full-sized bedroom, neither of which I booked.  You may be wondering how I got here.  Well, you see, it all started in Sandpoint, Idaho…”

Previously, on GARRT:

“….we were stopped in a siding just outside Sandpoint, ID. As it turns out, we had been sitting there for about two-and-a-half hours (it would be three before were moving again) due to a disabled freight train on single track ahead of us…”

“We are now almost four hours delayed as we zip across North Dakota. For some reason, the app expects us to make up about three hours of time between here and Chicago, arriving only 45 minutes late. We’ll see how true that turns out to be…”

Which brings us up to this morning.  I woke up in time for breakfast and reprized the omelet meal I had yesterday.  My companions at both breakfast and lunch were Katherine and Jon—no relation to my parents—a United Church of Christ minister and an electrical engineer.  I remember that they were lovely company, but I can’t remember for the life of me what we discussed.  We had made up maybe half an hour overnight but were still quite behind schedule.  I settled down in my room as we wound our way through Minnesota.

The make-or-break moment came at Minneapolis/St. Paul which is built into the schedule as a final buffer before Chicago.  My connection was two hours, forty five minutes.  Arriving in St. Paul we were three hours and two minutes behind.  Leaving the Twin Cities we had cut it down to two hours and fifteen minutes.  Victory.

And then we had another station stop, and our delay increased.

Another station, another couple minutes added to the delay.

A smoke stop added five whole minutes.

I watched as station by station we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory until we arrived in Milwaukee.  In the Brewery City our conductor told us that because we were now operating in Chicago’s metro area during rush hour, we should expect even more delays since Metra gets priority.

As if to put a final button on the reality that I would not be making my connection, minutes after crossing into Illinois, the train’s emergency brakes engaged and we were left stopped in the middle of a highway grade crossing.  In short, one of the train’s safety systems tripped the brakes automatically (I have theories as to why, and none of them are the “for no apparent reason” we were told by the conductor) and required a manual reset before we could move again.  My sympathies to those driving on IL State Route 22, but also lol @those who decided to 4×4 over the median to complete a u-turn.

Transiting through the switch yard coming into Chicago, a superliner train passed us going the other way.  It was the Capital Limited, the train I was meant to be on.  We arrived almost exactly at 7:00pm; only twenty minutes after my train departed, three hours and five minutes late.

Next comes the blur and banality of bureaucracy.  I went inside, stood in a line, was handed a new ticket and a partial refund, and directed to the Metropolitan (sleeper passenger) Lounge.  I was rebooked for a later train going a different route but that would nonetheless put me in Newark tomorrow evening.  All I had left to do was two hours to kill in my least favorite city in America (possibly the world, I haven’t actually traveled much internationally).  Did you know that there are no restaurants open at 8:00pm on a Tuesday night within two blocks of Union Station?  Yet another reason Chicago is the worst.

Returning to the lounge unfulfilled I had a dinner of two rice crispy treats and a cup of tea.  My train was called and most everyone still in the lounge at 9:00pm went out to the track.

And that’s how I find myself on the Lakeshore Limited (Train 48) in the Accessible Bedroom.  It is absolutely palatial in here.  I have my own private bathroom (with shower), slightly-larger-than-twin sized bed, luggage rack, and windows on both sides.  I am beyond pleased with my accommodations. 

We should be arriving in New York at about 6:30, giving me around 3.5 hours to futz and putter in NYC.  Not quite enough time for a show, sadly.  At least I have tickets to the Spokane productions for this year.

I even had the pleasure of having a last drink with Mr. Freelance Gay, who is also on this train on his way to visit his parents.  We compared notes on the Metropolitan Lounge, breaking up, and vulnerable fish populations to be protected by responsible catch-and-release fly fishing.

I want to return briefly to the scenery of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  I noticed that the towns were all distinctly Michigan-esque, which I suppose it to say I realized today that Michigan-esque is actually just the way Midwest towns look.  Relatedly, the rolling, deciduous hills of WI and southern MN reminded me distinctly of rural Pennsylvania along the turnpike.  Why they didn’t call me back to Indiana (you know, where I literally taught in and about the outdoors), I do not know.

Lastly I also want to admire Union Station, Chicago.  It, truly, is a cathedral of infrastructure, a tabernacle of transportation.  The great hall is awe-inspiring and one almost craves to see it in its full hustle-and-bustle of rush hour.  Almost.  I am still an introvert.

And now it is time to turn out and enjoy my royal suite.  I have new great lakes and upstate New York to see in the morning.

GARRT Day 2

Today was (is) my only full on-the-train day.  I woke up far too short a time after I fell asleep while we were stopped in a siding just outside Sandpoint, ID.  As it turns out, we had been sitting there for about two-and-a-half hours (it would be three before were moving again) due to a disabled freight train on single track ahead of us.  Deciding there wasn’t really anything to do but get on with my day, I waited 40 minutes for the shower and went to breakfast.

After my three-egg omelet, potatoes, and croissant, I wandered to the observation lounge, decided my room was really just as good, returned to it, and hunkered down with my camera.  One benefit of the delay is it meant we got all of the Bitterroots and Glacier fully in the daytime.  The scenery was, as expected, spectacular, and really to say anything more on the subject would be a disservice to it.  I look forward to going through my photos from the good camera.

Lunch was timed nicely for me to enjoy the views in the dining car just as we were going through the central and eastern parts of the park.  My chicken Caesar was… well, a chicken Caesar, but at least it also came with dessert.  While my breakfast table-mates had been your standard upper-middle-class folks from Edmonds who were acceptable conversationalists, my lunch company was more interesting if less talkative.  It seemed to be a young lady, her Spanish-speaking grandmother, and her English-speaking boyfriend.  There was some across-the-table talk, more talk between her and her grandmother, and a lot of quietly eating together while looking at hills and valleys.

I tried the sightseer lounge again, again decided it just wasn’t better enough than my room to make me want to give up the ability to close my door on the world, and again sat a photographer’s vigil at my own seat.  Shortly after I determined we were definitely out of the mountains and into the “endless” portion of Montana (near Shelby), I set up the bed and went down for a nap.  I woke up a couple hours later as we were coming through Havre, MT, much refreshed and unable to tell the difference in scenery.  Just saying: adults like to be rocked to sleep too, we just have to get more creative about it.  The room was again reconfigured and I proceeded to watch the world go by.

My dinner reservation came and I was sat with a very traditional retired couple from Des Moines, IA and one of the fellows from dinner the night before.  This couple just could not understand how “young folks” (the other guy is probably in his late 30s) could take the time to do a trip like this; after all, hadn’t they worked their whole life so they could retire to things like long train journeys?  After disabusing them of their antiquated work-life notions and watching Mrs. Traditional order a well-done steak (this was the moment I truly knew I had nothing in common with her) then complain that it was both too tough and not done enough, Mr. Married Gay and I waited them out until they excused themselves.  Then we caught up, talked about the scenery, our cats, failed old relationships, and the like until, again by whatever strange magnetism had attracted us the first time, Mr. Freelance Gay showed up as well and joined us!  He came seeking refuge from his own dinner company who, upon learning he was from Portland, proceeded to tell him about how terrible the People’s Socialist Anarchy of the Willamette was.  They, after all, didn’t watch the lame-stream media and so knew all about the truth of the Antifa-riddled hellscape that used to be the Rose City.  We commiserated.  A wonderfully half-discreet conversation about the Cult of 45 ensued.  #AmtrakActivism.

Perhaps the most sublime part of today was that I had no great, deep thoughts.  There were no revelations, epiphanies, or ekphrastic moments.  I simply existed and enjoyed.  I listened to my audio book, I ate good food, I drank good wine, I saw pretty things.  It was peaceful.  And that was enough.

We are now almost four hours delayed as we zip across North Dakota.  For some reason, the app expects us to make up about three hours of time between here and Chicago, arriving only 45 minutes late.  We’ll see how true that turns out to be.  For now, enough to call it a night and set up my bed again; it’s dark, and there really wouldn’t be much to see anyway.  But I do get to be rocked to sleep again.

GARRT Day 1

The Belltown Inn is perfectly comfortable and I slept remarkably well.  I even woke up well, which is unusual for me.  After the normal morning things and getting packed, I discovered that the place I had planned to have breakfast (Biscuit Bitch) was fresh out (as announced by their sign proclaiming “Bitch, we closed!”), so I set off for the station a little early.  Taking the RapidRide E line, as instructed by the almighty Google, proved challenging as King County Metro had most unkindly not informed our data-mining overlords of a detour, putting me a couple blocks out of position.  Mastering the traumatic flashbacks to a time when King County Metro did the same thing to me at the age of 16, I relied upon eleven years of wisdom, experience, and a much better smartphone to get me to the station.  I dropped off my bag and proceeded to wander.

My wander took me to Occidental and Pioneer Squares, an absolutely delightful gastropub where I had a good chat with the bartender, and then, as a moth drawn to flame, towards the water.  At the water, I gazed longingly at the ferry boats.  Ah, my ferries.  I have missed my ferries.  I’m writing my thesis on ferries, but not these ferries.  Other ferries.  Have I mentioned that I quite enjoy ferries?  My ferry fix sated, I decided to do something I haven’t done in years: I went to the Seattle Aquarium.

The fish were fishy.  The jellies were jelly-y.  The octopus was octopussy.  The otters and seals were mammally  The birds were rather avian, however.  My favorite part was the salmon stream because it brings home the concept of their life cycles and the necessity of healthy riparian areas better than most anything else, which makes my little environmental educator heart happy.  But that’s not what I want to dwell on.  I want to dwell on the spirally, spindly corals and intricately bizarre sea cucumber I saw.

Recently, I had the privilege of revisiting the Maryhill Museum of Art near Goldendale, WA.  One of their current pushes is for ekphrasis—art that inspires art.  Seeing these creatures, this was the concept that came to mind.  Nature is art.  Its art inspires my photography, where I but merely capture what has already been wrought.  Its art has inspired countless generations of poets and painters and knitters and dancers.  Looking and these creatures with an artist’s eye bordered on the transcendental for me today; I may find some time in the Dakotas to return to my memories of them and write.

Wandering back to the station involved taking too many stairs up to Pike Place Market, nope-ing the heck out of an intensely crowded tourist trap, and finding the Link to take back to King Street (try diverting the light rail, I DARE you Metro).  I bought some shnacks at Bartell Drug across the street, claimed my bag, and waited for the train.  I watched it roll in, the conductor come triumphantly through the door, and I couldn’t understand a word he said because of the echo.  Eventually, I got the gist of where sleeper passengers were supposed to go; I went there, I boarded, I lugged my suitcase up a very narrow flight of stairs, and I gazed upon my accommodations for the next three days.

My bag and pillows were later stowed elsewhere.

My first impression is that the room was delightfully cozy.  It is absolutely perfect for one traveler and would probably be fine with someone else if you enjoy them quite a lot.  While there is room for a full-sized suitcase, I found it is much more comfortable to stash the clothes I’ll need for the trip in the closet and put the bag back downstairs.  I have really only to places for improvement: it would be nice to have a way to lock the door from the outside (for when you go to dinner, the bathroom, etc), and it would be nice to have more than one power outlet.  Come to think of it, there may be another in the stowed upper berth, but I haven’t examined it thoroughly.

Crossing the Cascades took place in daylight, which was a major reason I chose a summer trip (at least for the first time).  Anyone who has driven US-2 to Leavenworth knows it is one of the most scenic trips in Washington, and the ability to enjoy it with a full picture window and someone else driving is a true treat.  One of the few downsides of a roomette is that your view is limited to one side of the train; along the water it was slightly a bummer, but I have no complaints about the mountains.  Just before coming into Leavenworth I went back to the dining car for dinner.  Dinner on the train is a three-course, restaurant-style arrangement, and included in one’s sleeper fare.  Tonight was lobster crab cake followed by tortellini with chicken and pesto cream sauce followed by an absolutely decadent chocolate torte.  The breakfast and lunch menus look similarly excellent.

Amtrak, by some dark alchemy, managed to seat three solo-traveling gays together for dinner and it was (to coin a phrase) fabulous.  One of us was a married, Indian born software engineer who shared stories that compared train travel in the US against the subcontinent.  Another was a freelance graphic artist embarrassed by his trust fund who talked about how bizarre it is to see homophobia at home in Portland.  And then there was I, who could talk rail history and poverty policy with equal ease (because, for some reason, we talked about poverty reduction at one point).  The moment realized we all batted for the same team was beautiful: a happy burble of affected lisps and limp wrists before laughter and a return to our normal mannerisms.  They were delightful gentlemen with whom to dine.  We only got up from the table when we arrived at Wenatchee, our first “fresh air” (i.e. smoke) stop of the night.

The last haunting of sunlight and warm, Eastern Washingtonian air awaited at the station.  Sadly, the platform was not long enough for me to get a picture of the full train, but I did get from the baggage car down.  Now we’re back on board and rolling towards Spokane.  I’m still debating whether I want to stay up; there’s a train bridge I’d quite like to see.  Glacier NP should be starting around 7:30 tomorrow morning, which, coincidentally, is when breakfast starts.  I’m looking forward to my full day on the train, which I fully anticipate being even more magical than today.

GARRT Day 0

A number of years ago, I set out on my Great American Road Trip (lovingly shortened to the beautiful sounding “GART”) in which I drove from Washington to Indiana (via Michigan) in late February in a determined little ’97 Civic.  This was the trip where my wiper fluid froze in Bismarck and didn’t thaw until March.  This was the trip where I decided to try pushing the pedals with my hands on some back road in Minnesota because I was bored.  This was also the trip where I drove triple digits for the first time—not while hand-peddling, for the record.

Tomorrow I set out on an even greater adventure, going fully coast-to-coast.  I can see Puget Sound—which is basically the Pacific; fight me—from my hotel’s roof garden as I write this.  By Wednesday evening, I will have seen the Atlantic.

Tomorrow I begin my GARRT: the Great American Railroad Trip.

I will be taking the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago, the Capital Limited from Chicago to DC, and the Acela from DC to Newark on my transcontinental journey.  Three nights in a sleeper car, eight meals on board, fifteen states and one federal district (that should be a state; again, fight me) await.

Today was Day Zero, the necessary puddle-jump from Spokane back across the mountains to Seattle so I can do the thing “properly” per my own definition.  I did, however, puddle jump in style as this was my first time ever in first class.  I crossed my legs.  It was the most amazing thing.  Do rich people constantly cross their legs on airplanes just because they can?  Or is it something only us coach-flyers realize is a luxury?  I digress.

Proof of my leg-crossing

The first class flight was, ironically, about as economical as coach.  My bag would have cost $30, first gets two bags free, and the ticket was about $30 more than just flying economy.  Win-win.  My seat-mate and I discussed how grass type Pokémon constantly get dished on undeservedly (#TeamTreecko).  We also admired how her very cute dress had pockets (!).  She was delightful.

I took the Link light rail and bus RapidRide from the airport to the hotel and thoroughly enjoyed being in the Seattle transit bubble.  I got Beecher’s Mac and Cheese, two gyros, took a nap, and vibed at a tiki bar.  It’s been a day, man.

The Lava Run. Might have been ooze, not run. Lava Swirl? Whatever it was called, it was very good.

Happy Birthday Robert F. Williams

As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, I’d like to spotlight the late Robert F. Williams on what would have been his 96th birthday.

Williams was born Feb. 26, 1925 in Monroe, NC. As leader of the Monroe branch of the NAACP back when the organization was considered radical and a communist front, Williams was a vocal player in the Freedom Movement. He is perhaps best known for advocating armed self-defense by African Americans, and successfully repelled a number of attempts at violence by mobs and night riders. His life story then takes on the character of a Cold War thriller when he was forced to flee to Cuba and then China to avoid Jim Crow “justice” in Monroe.

Williams was instrumental in creating the foundation for the later Black Power movement, though he did not take an active leadership role in it. While he was most certainly not opposed to nonviolence, he disagreed that was the best tactic in all circumstances, later saying “we had to resist, and that resistance could be effective if we resisted in groups, and if we resisted with guns.” Nevertheless, he remained adamant that “The weapons that you have are not to kill people with—killing is wrong… Your guns are to protect your families—to stop them from being killed.”

The life of Robert F. Williams is a case study not just in the violence and injustice of the Jim Crow South but also in the active debate in the Freedom Movement about how to liberate themselves. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is rightly remembered as a great man and a leader of the nonviolent arm of the movement; Robert F. Williams deserves commensurate respect as a Civil Rights leader, and studying him and his tactics is just as important to a full understanding of the movement as studying King is.

After finally returning home to the US in 1969, he settled in Michigan near family who had left the South. On October 15, 1996, Robert Williams passed away in his bed. Rosa Parks spoke at his funeral.


For further reading, I highly recommend Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power by Timothy B. Tyson (University of North Carolina Press, 1999). At 308 pages of content, it’s not exactly short, but it is extremely well written and as enjoyable as any history of a traumatic era can be.

Data Mining

Data mining is one of those buzzword concepts that doesn’t seem to immediately apply to the humanities, let alone History.  Typically, references to data mining pertain to corporations like Facebook or Google using personal information for commercial purposes or occasionally to political groups wielding it for semi-nefarious purposes.  But just as atomic energy can be put towards both productive and destructive purposes, the humanities have found uses for this incredibly powerful tool.

A marquee project of digital humanities engaging in data mining is that which catalogued the tattoos of convicted persons in 19th Century Britain.  A truly vast endeavor part of the Digital Panopticon, Zoe Alker and her team used criminal justice records to create a database of tattoos.  They employed pattern-recognition and learning algorithms to “chunk” and categorize the data into a machine-readable format to which they could apply human interpretation.  Alker has stated that the portion of the project requiring greatest interpretation was categorizing the tattoos into themes such as love, religion, national identity, sex, pleasure, and names/initials.  Simple (but most certainly not unvaluable) analyses can be applied to the data in this state: the prevalence of tattoos in the total population, the absolute numbers and relative proportions of each theme, whether men or women were more likely to get a tattoo pertaining to “love,” etc.  Next, the team began to take into account colocation of tattoos; an example to which Alker returns in both her writing and conference presentation (full video below) is a glut of designs on men commemorating Buffalo Bill’s exposition in London being immediately collocated with romantic symbols or the names of sweethearts.

Good, qualitative analysis can now be applied.  The team looked at who got tattoos (everybody), where they were placed on the body (“public” areas), the most prevalent themes (love, loved ones, and simple pleasures), and how all of the above changed over a century (they increased in popularity).  From these, we learn that tattoos seem to have been relatively well-accepted, meant to be seen, and commemorative of “positive” themes.  More importantly, however, we are able to gain a window into the lives of ordinary folk—a class sadly underrepresented in archives, literature, and traditional scholarship.  In this record of a necessarily transitory pictorial record of culture, the researchers found the ordinary concerns of working folk.  They “appeared to wear tattoos for much the same purpose as today — commemorating their loved ones and family and the pleasures of working-class everyday life.”[1]

A project which involved less organizing the data and more playing with it was that of a Harvard-led team working with an early version of Google’s N-Gram viewer.  In searching a database of five million digitized books, the team found simple points of interest like the linguistic flip from “throve” to “thrived” as the past tense of “thrive,” the relative fame of certain people, and how much people write about various years.  As above, however, the interesting happens when one starts asking questions of the data.  For instance, sudden otherwise-unexplained drops or surges in popularity of an author can indicate government suppression or promotion and it seems that we stop writing about past years sooner nowadays than we used to.  These kinds of insights serve as starting points or tools for additional research.

Data mining is quite apt to find and describe networks.  The project “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon” is one that does just that.  The initial visual when viewing this project is an overwhelming mess of connected lines hopping betwixt various notables, but after reading the tutorial, the power of the tool is revealed.  One can query it for shared acquaintances to how people related to each other, filter connections by profession, and view timelines of correspondence.  Analyses looking at how groups interact (or not) with other in- or out-groups, the extent to which various figures may have known one another, and a variety of other such research projects are enabled by tools such as this.

Other projects require supercomputers.  In order to adequately analyze the 800,000 documents in the HathiTrust and JSTOR databases to create a picture of the experience of black women from the Eighteenth to Twentieth Centuries, researchers pulled a selection of 20,000 and created a model of them using the Blacklight supercomputer.  As with other projects, this yielded more data to be sorted through.  Researchers found connections between the Black Women’s Club and the New Negro movement along with inroads to several other questions.  A project that required collaboration between scholars of different disciplines, a particularly gratifying (at least, from the humanist perspective) realization by a team member was:

“Humanities and social science researchers have to be worried about not just what the numbers mean at a surface level. They have a whole theory behind how you go about interpreting things as they relate to the larger society”

-Mark Van More, quoted in Ken Chiacchia and Aaron Dubrow, “Rescued History,” News, National Science Foundation, accessed November 30, 2020, https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=137797&org=NSF.

Organized data is rarely the end of the answer.  It is, however, frequently the avenue to new answers.  We are fortunate to be in an era where the tools at our disposal are matching pace with our desire to ask new questions of the past.  Where our traditional sources for producing history have failed us, Big Data seems to offer ways to fill some of those gaps.  Data mining is one of the more useful additions to historical methodology; in that spirit, hi-ho, hi-ho, off to work we go!


[1] Zoe Alker and Robert Shoemaker, “Convict Tattoos,” Digital Panopticon, accessed November 29, 2020, https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/Convict_tattoos.

Digital Mapping for History

Digital mapping is one of those delightful tools in digital history that allows new avenues for research and not solely new communication.  Computers allow for the compilation and visual organization of mountains upon mountains of data; from these organized data, human interpreters can recognize patterns that were previously obscured by noise.

ArcGIS Story Maps provide a new opportunity for scholars to create interactive projects without them having to know the intricate technical details that have long been a hallmark of GIS software. Created in much the same way as a WordPress website, one can make a Story Map to present findings from an array of disciplines.

This conference clip shows the ease with which an ArcGIS Story Map can be made.

Sean Fraga demonstrates the versatility of digital mapping with a variety of valuable interpretative graphics based upon a single (albeit data-laden) source alone.  In his examination of the Puget Sound Customs District’s ledger, he and two research assistants complied the handwritten document into machine-readable spreadsheets.  From this document, Dr. Fraga applied a number of lenses to the data from simple origin/destination studies to more complex correlations with tonnage and its use in identifying individual vessels in the data set.

“Looking at thousands of voyages in the aggregate turns our attention away from the significant, the important, the charismatic—the usual subjects of histories. Instead, it reorients us to the larger currents of movement and exchange that shaped this place and this period.”

-Sean Fraga, “Waves of Ink.”

As a data-driven bureaucrat, this kind of history is right up my alley.  Knowing the sort of insights that can be gleaned from seeming noise, projects like these excite me for the ways we will be able to employ digital tools going forward in the discipline.  While Fraga is quite right that digitizing what are effectively analog spreadsheets is distinctly unglamorous work, putting data in machine-readable formats is an endeavor that yields many times over the insights one might originally have hoped and is a gift not only to the current generation of researcher but future ones as well.

Also by Fraga, “Digitally Mapping Commercial Currents” goes further in its examination.  Using not just geographic tools, Fraga generates tables and other media from the digitized data allowing him to write a convincing narrative in article format.  He reviews steam-powered vessels against sail, origins against destinations, and shows connections to other historical events not directly captured by the ledger.  From a digital standpoint, particularly interesting is his inclusion of an animated map showing the development of trade over time.  In a traditional publication, this could only be shown by putting each individual “slide” of the map next to the others, taking up space on the page and the reader’s time in making “A/B” comparisons.  By animating the map, the development of relative hotspots are readily apparent.

Some projects, like this map comparing an 1812 map against one from 2013, are effectively novelties, or at best, tools for telling broader stories.  They are limited in that they tend to require additional interpretation; the story is not apparent from the graphic itself.  Such a creation stands in stark contrast to a project like the “Neolithic Mystery Tour,” which is almost inundated with interpretation to the point that one almost has to search for the map.  Of the two extremes, however, it seems wise to err on the side of interpretation.  Curious folks can always skip over what they find uninteresting, but it is hard to invent an explanation where there is none.  Nor is the story map a tool solely of historians: archeologists, geologists, and geographers are more than happy to employ it as well.  The story of “London’s Lost River: the Tyburn” is heavy with archaeological data, computer modeling, and hydrological debates, and yet because of its story map structure it can hold the attention of a lay person with relative ease.

The San Francisco 1906 Earthquake & Fire, by Chris Ingram.

The middle ground between pure interpretation and pure graphic can be found in the story map of the 1906 San Francisco fire.  This piece takes users through the official report of a San Francisco Fire Department captain, locating the places mentioned within.  This tour through shows how the fire spread and, importantly, provides some temporal context in addition to spatial.  By anchoring the primary document to an interactive medium, not only is the accessibility of the resource expanded but the source of historical knowledge is exposed and non-historians may be subtly shown how historians do their work.

For me, the most exciting part of emerging digital mapping tools for history is the ability to conduct research in new ways that more readily reveal otherwise latent patterns.  Its utility in communicating history to others, while clearly of great potential, needs additional experimentation and refinement to truly come into its own as a medium.  GIS has for years been obscured behind a veil of training requirements and technical limitations; it is exciting to see some of these old obstacles be overcome and a powerful technology made more readily available.

George Pickett’s Commute

Here’s another piece of content that may appear alongside an IslandHistories.com story about Fort Bellingham! I took this footage that traces the modern journey from the approximate site of Fort Bellingham to still-standing “Pickett House” in Bellingham’s Lettered Streets neighborhood to give an idea of the distance between the two. Pickett, as the commanding officer, enjoyed certain privileges that his subordinates did not, even as he would end up experiencing personal tragedy in the old town of Whatcom.

Mrs. Roberts and Fort Bellingham

Mrs. Maria Roberts of Whatcom County, Washington Territory found herself evicted by Capt. George Pickett, US Army in order to make way for a northern fortress for the American government. Here’s an audio clip that may accompany a future IslandHistories.com article about Fort Bellingham.

Sound effects obtained from https://www.zapsplat.com; music is “Sailor’s Hornpipe Medly” by Charles D’Almaine retrieved from www.freemusicarchive.org under a CC 3.0 non-commercial attribution license.

See: Vouri, Mike. The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay. Seattle: Discover Your Northwest, 2016.

The Pig War

The Pig War was not so much a war and was only coincidentally related to a pig.  A story of how a nascent empire and an established one nearly came to blows, the Pig War crisis reveals the lengths to which bureaucratic systems can go to preserve the status quo; thankfully, in this case, that was a good thing.  In short, the ownership of the San Juan archipelago, and San Juan Island in particular, was left unclear after the ratification of the Treaty of Oregon between the United States and United Kingdom.  British and American colonizers jointly occupied the island for a number of years in peace (with both sides claiming the other was doing so illegally) until an American named Lyman Cutlar shot a pig owned by the British Hudson Bay Company.  Fearing reprisal, American General William Selby Harney ordered troops to be landed on the island, to which British Governor James Douglas dispatched the Royal Navy (RN).  Tense months of demands and counter-demands followed while the national governments were slowly informed of the circumstances.  Eventually, a stand-down occurred, and life returned to a new joint occupation until the question of ownership was finally decided by a commission appointed by German Emperor Wilhelm I.

The Pig War was not so much a triumph of individuals choosing peace as bureaucracies restraining individuals from pursuing war.  It seems clear that Gen. Harney and Gov. Douglas were both perfectly content with colliding their two nations headlong into armed conflict.  Harney had instigated the creation of a petition from American colonists that gave him a pretext to send a company of soldiers to San Juan Island, to which Douglas dispatched a 31-gun ship of war.[1]  Their continued bellicose posturing throughout the crisis was restrained only with great effort by the likes of Rear Adm. Baynes (RN), Capt. Hornby (RN), and Secretary of War Drinkard (US), and Secretary of State Cass (US).   These retraining actors also reveal that the peaceful resolution of the incident was due more to British forbearance than to American compromise.  An American shot a British subject’s pig, and the injured party sought legal recourse rather than “frontier justice;” the Americans landed a company of infantry in disputed territory, the British sent a warship to monitor and prevent further landings so diplomacy had time to occur; the Americans refused to return the island to the status quo while awaiting a final outcome, the British abided; when additional American troops did finally land, the British didn’t flinch; once the immediate tensions had stabilized, the British even invited Washington Territory Gov. Gholson aboard HMS Satellite for tea.[2]

The chaos Harney and Douglas were inciting was exacerbated by slow communications back to the respective national capitals in Washington, DC and London.  No transcontinental telegraph line yet existed on either the American or British (Canadian) sides of the border, so messages were carried by ship to Panama, across the isthmus by railroad, and thence up the coast again by steamer.[3]  Complicating communication further for the Americans was the decentralization of political/civilian and military centers of power.  While Washington, DC had hosted Congress since 1800 and the President since 1801, Army headquarters was elsewhere.  A distinctly unmoored and mistrusted governmental organ at the time, “army headquarters were in New York because Winfield Scott, the commanding general, wanted to live there.”[4]  Indeed, it appears this decentralization of power was intentional on the part of Scott.  Vouri writes: “But most of all he [General Scott] liked being as far as possible from Washington City, which, to his mind, had for too many years been overrun with Democrats.”[5]  The overt politicism and patronage that existed in the old army is startling to a modern reader used to the army being, at least ostensibly, non-partisan.  William Harney was permitted to carry on with his “shenanigans” because of his Democratic affiliation, resulting in his outright protection by both Presidents Jackson and Polk in the face of courts-martial.[6]

While centered on Griffin Bay, San Juan Island, the story of Pig War touches places from Victoria, Bellingham, Olympia, Port Townsend, and Vancouver (WA), all the way to the major cities of the Atlantic seaboard and the isle of Great Britain.  Within the geographic purview of IslandHistories.com, the place-based story-telling runs as deep as one is willing to dig.  The Haro and Rosario Straits can tell not only what defines the word “channel” in the context of a treaty, but, can be used as a vehicle to reveal histories of shipping and military traffic by sea, the voyages of Quimper, Eliza, and Vancouver, and the prosperous transportation networks of First Nations peoples.  Indeed, further location and shared interpretation of First Nations’ settlements in and around the islands is critical to the work of reconciling our Euro-centric present with our indigenous past.  Stories of American settlement are rich in Bellingham and its environs where interpretation opportunities exist for “Pickett House” (the home that George Pickett had constructed for himself and his wife) and old Fort Bellingham.  Similarly, Victoria tells stories of British/Canadian settlement.  The home of Gov. Douglas, the seat of the Legislative Council, and its famed Inner Harbour all make for fascinating narratives.  Nearby, Esquimalt Harbour homeported the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station, an interesting choice of location given its potential provocation to American sensibilities.  Taverns, shops, and houses of ill-repute were soon erected near the military encampments, perpetuating the eternal story of vice’s tight grip on human life (pun intended).  Of course, if the Royal Marines had decided to land on Orcas Island instead of sharing San Juan with the American army, would the human geography of the islands be noticeably different today?

The Pig War incident generated countless stories and experiences worth sharing and allows the historian insight into the United States’ and United Kingdom’s diplomacy and imperialism in the mid-19th Century.  Individuals made choices, systems and institutions responded, and ultimately no human life was lost.  A terrifyingly close brush with war was averted in spite of powerful men’s offended pride.


[1] Mike Vouri, Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay (Seattle: Discover Your Northwest, 2016), 68 and 91

[2] Ibid., 52-53, 69, 91, 110-111, 129, and 138

[3] Ibid., 173-174.

[4] Ibid., 183.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 174.