Podcast review: American Revolution Podcast

I love history. History teaches about the past and illuminates the present. It focuses on events and people but often reveals things about current situations and oneself. History done well can challenge assumptions and widen one’s perspective on the world. It can broaden horizons and deepen knowledge. The American Revolution Podcast lives up to this historical legacy.

A couple years ago, I stumbled across the well-established Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan. I decided to start at the beginning, rather than jumping into the most current episodes. When I got to the American Revolution, I was surprised by what the podcast illuminated—both about events and people I knew and those I didn’t. After completing the episodes on the American Revolution, I searched for historical works to learn even more.

And then I learned about the American Revolutions Podcast by Michael Tory. (Full disclosure: Tory alerted me to his podcast in a comment to my blog post about the Revolutions podcast. Intrigued, I subscribed to his podcast and started to soak in his talks.)

I am still winding my way through his podcast, trying to catch up to the present episodes. (I’ve listened to 13 episodes so far.) I’m hooked. It is a completely different animal than Revolutions. True to his word, Troy goes into more detail about the revolution than Duncan does. (Of course, American Revolution Podcast is focused on the American Revolution whereas Duncan goes in-depth about a particular revolution for dozens of episodes before moving on to a different revolution.)

Troy begins by laying the groundwork for the revolution a few decades before the revolution technically begins in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. His focus is decidedly on military aspects. He gives wonderful blow by blow accounts of military expeditions—who was involved, the strategies used, the outcomes reached, and the implications. The sheer amount of information that he shares (and that is completely new to me) is staggering. Thirteen episodes in and I am not yet to what one typically thinks of the start of the revolution.

Troy walks listeners through the relations between the British, the French, and the Native Americans in the decades prior to the revolution. I suspect that many of the places and the people will resurface later, and that knowing about pre-revolutionary America will deepen my understanding about the colonies, our relations with others in the world, and the revolution itself.

I am patiently waiting (ok, maybe not so patiently) for if/when present-day Indiana enters the discussion on the Ohio River Valley. After my travels to historic sites in Vincennes and reading fiction set in the time of George Rogers Clark, I am finding the descriptions about skirmishes between the British, French, and Native Americans (aka the French and Indian War) enlightening.

Interesting tidbits in the episodes routinely jump out at me. I’ve learned why Washington was not the magnificent military leader early in his career—a fact alluded to in the musical Hamilton. Spoiler: Washington failed miserably at an expedition in the Ohio River Valley.

King George I (not The King George during the revolution—that was King George III) was actually originally over 50th in line to the throne, but as he was the only next in line who wasn’t Catholic, he got the throne. (You know that whole bloody mess they had in England over Catholicism.)

Delaware was originally a Swedish colony. (I didn’t know the Swedes were some of the early colonists.)

The Forbes Road—a military path in Pennsylvania—later became the basis of the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, a highway that spanned the US in the early 1900s.

Both American Revolution Podcast and Revolutions contain information on military exploits but the latter focuses more on political history. American Revolution Podcast focuses more, at least so far, on military history. Troy’s podcast is filling in gaps in my knowledge (or entire lack of knowledge) about pre-revolution America.

Troy’s episodes are so rich—I could easily listen to them multiple times and learn more each time. I am looking forwarding to continuing past episode 13…and seeing what I learn next.

Vincennes State Historic Site: Sugar Loaf Mound

It was a little bit underwhelming. Though I’m not sure what I expected. My destination was a small green open space on the side of a winding road nestled among a residential area. A gravel drive acted as the parking lot.

I got out and wandered toward the sign. I looked up at the mound and then around me. The guy mowing his lawn across the street caught my eye. Huh. So this was a sacred spot for Native Americans? A place used as a burial mound of the Late Woodland Indians around 600-1000 A.D.?

Unlike other Native American burial mounds, Sugar Loaf Mound is a naturally occurring mound. In other words, the Native Americans did not create the mound. Soil samples show bones in the middle of it, so the Native Americans used the existing geological structure to bury their dead. (Which dead? All dead? How were they buried?—This isn’t a large mound.)

Signs spoke of its sacredness and reminded visitors not to desecrate the site. No sledding. No vehicles on the mound. Apparently, climbing to the top was OK though. I looked around and spied stone steps nestled along the side and hidden by trees.

Although not huge—seems more like a swell than a mound, the mound was large enough to serve as a marker for travelers heading to Vincennes along the Buffalo Trace from Louisville and for runaway slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad. However, to my modern eyes, it seems small enough to easily miss.

TV movie review: Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana–Birth of a State

Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana is a PBS documentary series based on the book of the same name by Indiana historian James H. Madison. The documentary series is split into four parts: Birth of a State, Split Rails to Steel Rails, The 20th Century, and The Next Indiana.

Birth of a State covers the period of time from when Indiana lobbied for statehood to just before the Civil War. The documentary is narrated by Madison and includes interviews with various people, like the President of the Levi Coffin House Association (Janice McGuire, who was my docent when I visited the historical site—by the way, she is outstanding!), the Director of Historic New Harmony (Connie Weinzapfel), and a retired Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court (Randall J. Shepherd).

Indiana was originally part of the Indiana Territory, which included Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota. The capital of the territory was Vincennes. (You can visit many historic sites there.) The Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison was pro-large landholdings and pro-slavery—positions that didn’t sit well with others in southern Indiana.

In 1813, a vote moved the capital east to Corydon on the Ohio River (and away from Harrison’s nexus of power, I’d argue). In 1816, 43 delegates met in the new courthouse in Corydon for a Congressional Convention. In December 1816, Congress recognized Indiana as a state. (Side note: You can visit the grave of Robert Hanna, one of the delegates and signers of the state constitution, in Crown Hill Cemetery.)

At the time, Indiana was home to numerous Indian tribes: Potawatomi, Wea, Miami, Delaware, Kaskaskia, Shawnee, Piankashaw, Huron, Wyandot, Ottawa, Seneca, Kickapoo. Eventually the Indians were either removed from the land or killed. Probably the most famous violent confrontation is the Battle of Tippecanoe of 1811, when Harrison decimated the Indians led by Tecumseh and the Prophet.

But also instructive is the 1824 Fall Creek Massacre of nine Indians that shockingly led to the trial of the white perpetrators and the execution of three of them. Unfortunately, this trial and conviction of white violence on non-whites didn’t set a legal precedent.

The documentary weaves a history through key places, people, and events throughout Indiana, mostly focused on southern Indiana as that was the first part of the state to be settled. Originally the inhabitants were Native Americans and French trappers and fur traders. Whites and blacks moved into Indiana from Kentucky and North Carolina—both slave states. However, the migrants from North Carolina were Quakers from Guilford County who left North Carolina due to slavery. The Underground Railroad thrived in Indiana.

The documentary discusses important early settlements like Vincennes (as the territorial capital) or Madison (as an international commerce hotspot on the Ohio River) or New Harmony (as the location of utopian societies: first German millennialism and then utopian socialism) or black settlements (Beech Settlement, Walnut Ridge, Corydon).

People, some well-known, some not, are discussed as being influential to Indiana history. William Conner, whose homestead exists as an historical park, went native, marrying a Native American woman. Later, he helped negotiate deals with the Native Americans that led to their removal (along with his wife and child) to Oklahoma. He then married a white woman and became a respectable businessman, clearly riding the wave of commerce moving from trapping and trade with the Native Americans to commerce with white settlers and landownership.

Lincoln, regularly touted as hailing from Illinois, lived his formative years (ages 6 to 21) in southern Indiana. Sophia Ramsdell Fuller left a detailed diary of her pioneer life in Vigo County. Mary Bateman Clark had a profound effect on the lives of slaves and former slaves in Indiana, setting a legal precedent about indentured servitude.

The Ohio River was key to the early settlement of southern Indiana—rivers being an important mode of transport for people and goods. The rivers allowed commerce and prosperity (for some). Canals, like the Wabash and Erie, were created for the same economic and commercial purpose. The financial woes brought on by the canal led to a revised constitution.

The original constitution borrowed language from the Ohio and Kentucky constitutions. The Indiana version became a model for later state constitutions. The 1816 constitution stressed the importance of education, legally proclaimed Indiana as a free state (though not always in practice), and gave all white men the vote regardless if they were landowners.

The constitution revised in 1851 prohibited debt (being debt-free even if that means not investing in the future seems to be a long-standing source of pride in Indiana), granted free education, and prohibited African-Americans from moving into the state (!). African-Americans already living in Indiana were required to register—a horrible idea but a fascinating source of historical information about African-Americans living in the state.

The documentary continues with a second part that looks at Indiana from the Civil War to World War I.

Red Skelton Museum

I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, but the Red Skelton Museum in Vincennes is really well put together and an enjoyable museum to wonder through. Red Skelton’s last wife, Lothian Toland, donated many items for the museum, which opened on July 18, 2013 on what would have been Red’s 100th birthday.

I knew Red Skelton from my childhood, but I didn’t know anything about him. His slapstick humor seemed to be from another era. The museum walked me through his personal and professional life—starting with a short video about his life. We, the audience, were seated in movie seats from the set of The Muppets—in other words, the museum was off to a good start!

Red didn’t have an easy early life. His father died the year he was born. (Incidentally, his father was a graduate of Valparaiso College, now called Valparaiso University—that bit of trivia caught my eye.) Red got involved in entertainment on the radio and then on TV. He was inspired by the early physical comedy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

The museum includes audio and video exhibits of his work, which show his goofy nature and quick wit. In one radio sketch, he mentions to a cohort that his wife told him to expect the pitter-patter of little feet—so he set out mousetraps.

He starred in movies, many movies, thirty-five in total. He co-starred in several with Lucille Ball. Two of his most successful movies are Southern Yankee and The Fuller Brush Man. Ten of his movies were translated or dubbed into other languages.

When TV arrived on the scene, he moved from radio to TV and reigned there for twenty years. (Johnny Carson actually wrote for Red Skelton on his show before becoming the host of The Tonight Show in 1962.) Red received three Emmys: Best Comedian (1952), Best Comedy Show (1952), and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy for 1960-1961.

In addition to his show, Red was busy—to the point that his health was suffering. For example, in 1958 he toured Korea to entertain the troops with Jamie Farr—yes, that Jamie Farr of later MASH fame. This was the same year that his son Richard succumbed to leukemia.

In 1971, his TV show was cancelled. The American public was changing. In the words of the museum, there was a rural purge. The audience was younger, more sophisticated, and intellectual (ouch!). But Red didn’t stop. He moved to the stage, continuing to perform well into his 70s.

The museum highlights many of the characters he used in performances, displaying costumes and showing video clips. Many originated during his radio days and moved with him to TV. Some of the characters on display: San Fernando Red (a shady real estate agent), Deadeye (an inept sheriff), Cauliflower McPugg (a punchdrunk boxer), Freddie the Freeloader (a bum clown), George Appleby (a henpecked husband), and Clem Kadiddlehopper (wise fool, or country bumpkin depending on your perspective).

Red was much more than a variety show performer. He was an artist and—to my surprise—a musician. He started painting in 1943 and is best known for his paintings of clowns. He also sketched and created children’s books. And he composed 8,000—yes, 8,000—pieces of music. The museum exhibits some of his paintings, music, and other artistic works.

Although his sketches don’t appeal to me—being of the more urbane post-1970 crowd—I can appreciate his talent and creativity. The museum did a wonderful job of telling the story of his life through different forms of media and with items from his shows. As a bonus, his childhood house still stands nearby at 111 W Lyndale Ave. You can’t miss it. A large sign announces the house’s pedigree.

Red was the consummate clown, seeking to make others laugh. “If by chance some day you’re not feeling well and you should remember some silly thing I’ve said or done and it brings back a smile to your face or a chuckle to your heart, then my purpose as your clown has been fulfilled.” ~ Red Skelton

If you are in Vincennes or its environs, spend a couple hours wandering through the Red Skelton Museum. You won’t be disappointed.

The Old Cathedral Library

Unsurprisingly, the oldest Catholic parish in Indiana houses the oldest library in Indiana. Early Catholic priests were often the only educated people in an area. What is surprising is that almost half of the 11,000 items in the library come from the personal library of Simon Bruté (1779-1839), the first bishop of the former Diocese of Vincennes. On second thought, maybe it is not so surprising considering that President John Quincy Adams, no intellectual slouch himself, called Bruté “the most learned man of his day in America.”

In 1794, Fr. Benedict Joseph Flaget—a priest at the St. Francis Xavier parish (1792-1795) and an educator in the community—set up the library. In its present form, the library is housed in a separate building behind the Old Cathedral in Vincennes, Indiana. The building is small (clearly not all documents are on display) and only open for limited hours during the summer months, but it is worth a visit.

The library contains an eclectic collection of religious, historical, and political documents. The majority of the documents are in French (60%)—the language of the early Jesuits and community—or Latin (25%)—the language of the church. But Bruté was an incredibly well educated man and had in his possession books in other languages.

The oldest document in the library is a 1319 papal bull (from Pope John XXII urging Christians to help the poor). The oldest book is The Book of Psalms from the 11th or 12th century. The oldest printed book using movable type is Michael de Carcano’s Sermonarium Triplicatum (1476).

The library contains Francis Vigo’s prayer book. Vigo, who hailed from Mondovi, Sardonia, was instrumental in helping George Rogers Clark capture the fort at Vincennes and push the British out of the area during the Revolutionary War—he backed Clark by loaning him the money he needed. (The government never made good on the loans and Vigo died in poverty on March 22, 1836.)

The library includes two complete sets of polygot bibles that were published in Paris in 1645. The bibles are written in 7 different languages: Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Hebrew, Chaldean, Samaritan, and Latin. The library also includes bibles in a variety of other languages: Gaelic, Welsh, Spanish, and Hebrew.

Bruté collected books across the religious spectrum: St. Augustine’s City of God (1620), a Koran (1684), a book on the Episcopal Church (1817), a book on Armenian rites (1642), and a book by John Calvin (1561). He also owned books important to political and philosophical discourse of the time, witness a book by Locke (1695) in the library.

In addition, the library houses documents of historical significance.

  • A letter from Fr. Petit, who traveled with the Potawatomi during their removal from Indiana, to Bruté dated November 16, 1838
  • A document showing that in 1794 Congress approved $200 for a teacher of sciences and Christianity for the Indians. As a result, Fr. John Francis Rivet was sent to Vincennes on May 1, 1795 to teach. (In 1801, Fr. Rivet was asked by the Indiana Territorial Governor Harrison to teach at the new Jefferson Academy.)
  • The oldest document written in Indiana—a marriage record dated April 21, 1749
  • The 1767 British census of Vincennes and the Byelaws of the President and Trustees of the Borough of Vincennes (published by Elihu Stout)
  • Rivet’s will

The Old Cathedral Library is clearly a treasure trove of information about the early church, early Vincennes, and early Indiana—located in an old French trading town on the Wabash River, an important hub in the 1700s.