The Winner of a “Sea Witch Voyages” Book

Richard Sutton has won his choice of a title from Helen Hollick’s “Sea Witch Voyages” series. Congrats to Richard Sutton!

Thanks to Helen Hollick for a brief, entertaining history of whiskey. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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The Water of Life…or Whisky to you and me

Helen Hollick author photoRelevant History welcomes Helen Hollick, who lives on a thirteen-acre farm in North Devon, England. Born in North-East London, Helen started writing pony stories as a teenager, moved onto science fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published in the UK with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the era of 1066, she was selected for publication by Sourcebooks Inc in the US, and became a USA Today best seller with Forever Queen. She also writes the “Sea Witch Voyages” series, nautical pirate-based fantasy adventures. As a supporter of Independent Authors she is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and inaugurated the HNS Indie Award. To learn more about Helen’s books, check out her web site and blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


My forthcoming novel, the fifth ‘Sea Witch Voyage,’ On The Account, has my ex-pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne being offered an illegal sideline of smuggling…something. I was going to use brandy, but wanted something different. After some research I decided whisky would be the perfect solution.

So what is whiskey?
‘Whisky’ (‘whiskey’ in Ireland and US) comes from Gaelic Uisge beatha meaning ‘Water of Life.’ Uisge beatha became uisge, then ooshki and finally whisky.

WhiskeyModern whisky is made with barley: Scotch barley is dried over peat fires giving a distinct smoky taste, while Irish is dried in closed ovens where a lack of smoke makes a smoother taste. Scotch is usually distilled twice, Irish, three times. Both by today’s laws are required to mature for at least three years.

Irish whiskey was recorded in 1405, being distilled in the 12th century, the technique brought from the Mediterranean around 1000 A.D. Scotch whisky (just called ‘Scotch’ today) was made from malted barley with earliest records dating to 1494 in the Exchequer Rolls—the tax records of the day. (So I was quite safe for On The Account, set in 1719.)

In these early lists for Scotland it is recorded that ‘Eight bolls of malt’ went to ‘Friar John Cor at Lindores Abbey, Fife to make aqua vitae.’ This would have produced 1,500 bottles. A ‘boll’ is a measure of not more than six bushels—one bushel equivalent to 25.4 kilograms.

The quality and purity of the water used is an integral part of making a fine whisky today, but originally it was a way of using up rain-soaked barley. It is a highly potent spirit. By the 16th and 17th centuries the skill of production had greatly improved. Mostly, as with Friar John Cor, monks were responsible for spreading the distillation skills. Initially whisky was consumed for its medicinal uses, prescribed for good health, long life and the relief of colic and smallpox. Indeed, if I have a cold, hot water, honey, lemon and a dram (or two) often sees it off!

From Tudor times
The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII contributed to the spread of distilleries as many of the monks had to find alternative uses for their skills—whisky and the knowledge of how to produce it spread.

Dated to 1618 there is a reference to ‘uiskie’ in the funeral account of a Highland laird, and a letter to the Earl of Mar from 1622 mentions the spirit. Written by Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy, he reported that officers sent to Glenorchy had been given the best entertainment, for they ‘wantit not [for] wine nor aquavite.’

Aquavitae formed part of the rent paid for Highland farms and became an intrinsic part of life, appreciated during long winters, and providing an offered welcome to guests.

However, popularity attracted the attention of the Scottish Parliament. The first taxes were introduced in 1644, fixing the duty at 2/8d (13p) per pint, (the Scots pint being approximately one third of a gallon.) This, inevitably, resulted in a rise of distilling illicit whisky.

Part of the agreement of the Union between Scotland and England in 1707 was that English taxes would not be enforced north of the border, but in 1724 Parliament introduced a tax, which caused riots in Scotland, and distillers were driven further underground. Distillers and smugglers saw no reason to pay for making whisky, especially with such a lucrative and relatively easy market for selling it at a profit. These markets were taverns and big houses: agents were confiscating around 10,000 stills per annum. A lot of money was being made from non-collected taxes!

By 1780 there were eight legal distilleries and over four hundred illegal ones. Smugglers organised signalling systems to warn of approaching excise men. Smuggling whisky had become a standard practice for over 150 years. (Ideal for my pirate!) Every conceivable storage space was used to hide illicit liquor, including using coffins for transportation.

This eventually prompted the Duke of Gordon, on whose land some of the finest illicit whisky in Scotland was being distilled, to propose in the House of Lords that it should be made profitable to produce whisky legally. In 1823 the Excise Act eased the restrictions on licensed distilleries while making it harder for illegal stills to operate. It sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon. Smuggling almost completely died out as it was no longer profitable. Many present-day distilleries occupy sites of original illicit stills.

American rye
In the Colonies, whisky (or whiskey) distilleries emerged with the rum business, an integral part of the slave trade. Dispatched by ship to Africa, rum was traded for slaves who were transported to the West Indies to grow sugar, to make molasses, to make more rum.

More whiskeyWhisky appeared occasionally in Colonial taverns before the American Revolution, but approximately 250,000 Scotch/Irish settlers migrated to America in the fifty years before Independence in 1776. When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, rum distillers produced whisky instead. Rye became an all-American drink, being made in America from American grain, unlike imported beverages, which were heavily taxed. Frontier farmers who had an excess of rye distilled whisky from the surplus. A bushel made approximately three gallons and was worth more as liquor than as corn.

In 1789 Virginian farmers began making whisky with corn instead of rye, making it distinctive by aging it. They had discovered that charring the inside of oak barrels gave a better flavour and a darker colour. By 1792, western Virginia became the State of Kentucky and in the 19th century, Kentucky Corn Whiskey began to be called Bourbon.

I think Captain Acorne can smuggle whisky to a Virginian Tavern or two with historical accuracy, although not safely if excise men or the British Navy get to hear of it.



Sea Witch book coverA big thanks to Helen Hollick. She’ll give away a trade paperback copy of any currently released title in her “Sea Witch Voyages” series to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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Nevada’s 20th-Century Mining Camps

Quinn Kayser-Cochran author photoRelevant History welcomes Quinn Kayser-Cochran, who writes historic fiction set in the western U.S. and travels extensively throughout the West researching events, characters, and settings. His series follows a PTSD-afflicted veteran of the Philippine War who is a company detective in the mining camps of early 20th Century Nevada. The first novel, Glorieta, centers on the 1862 Confederate invasion of the New Mexico Territory. To learn more about Quinn’s fiction, check out his web site and follow him on Twitter.


In the late 19th Century, the Silver State was in trouble. Existential trouble. Since its discovery in 1859, Nevada’s Comstock Lode had produced staggering volumes of silver and gold, but its output peaked in 1877 (that year producing bullion worth nearly $800M at 2015 prices [1]) and thereafter dropped steadily. Without mining, what was left?

Timber, ranching, etc., employed relatively few. Gambling was widespread but accounted for just a fraction of Nevada’s economy. Slowly, Nevada hollowed out. The 1880 Census lists 62,262 residents, but just 42,335 in 1890, with five counties accounting for most of this diminished total.[2] More populous states resented this wasteland’s two Senatorial votes, and newspaper editors back East began calling for the revocation of Nevada’s statehood.

Sporadic strikes raised the state’s hopes, but few—such as Edgemont and Delamar, both in the 1890s—amounted to much once their shallow mineral deposits pinched out. Then in 1903, James L. Butler (according to eminent Nevada historian Sally Zanjani, more probably Tom Fisherman, a Shoshone Indian and possibly the state’s finest prospector) discovered an enormous silver deposit at Tonopah.[3] The resulting boom rekindled interest in Nevada’s mines, and waves of people and money followed.

Latecomers fanned out across the desert. Over the next two decades, strike followed strike: Rhyolite, Manhattan, Wonder, and, grandest of all, Goldfield (where, again, credit for discovery goes to Tom Fisherman [4]). The 1910 U.S. Census of Nevada lists 81,875 residents—proof that the state recovered all of its lost population and then some.

Valley Mines, Lincoln CountyWhat I find fascinating about this era is how the Old West and the new often collided. Staid Mormon colonies and wide-open mining camps existed within a few miles of each other; some towns ran on wood stoves and springwater while others had electric lights, water lines, and telephones; and mine owners and stockbrokers grew rich, while miners—lacking what we recognize today as basic workplace rights and safeguards—were maimed and killed at alarming rates. Add conflicting political and philosophical outlooks, Indian and race-related issues, and major cataclysms such as the Spanish-American War and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and it is apparent how tumultuous this era must have been.

Technology, Philosophy & Politics
Tunnel Camp, Pershing CountyNevada’s complex geology and relative isolation spurred technological innovations: square-set timbering—a system of interlocking timbers that enabled miners to span and support enormous voids inside the earth; braided-metal cables; and the use of compressed air-driven machinery, among others. After 1900, gasoline engines found use powering small mine hoists, and automobiles slowly began to supplant both railroads and horse-drawn wagons. Deep mines required vast reservoirs of capital to develop and operate, and owners went to great lengths to protect their returns.

Some hired private detectives or convinced the governor to use Federal troops to suppress the Western Federation of Miners, whose members demanded safer working conditions and a share of the profits. Colorado’s 1904 labor wars resulted in an exodus of radicalized miners from that state, many of whom relocated to Nevada. Having seen firsthand what businessmen would do in order to protect their positions, they formed aggressive unions, ran their own candidates for public office, and battled with those they considered too rich and too out-of-touch for the health of the republic.

Lone Mountain Mine, Eureka CountyPedantic, I know, but I don’t like how movies and fiction usually portray frontier-mining camps. Anachronisms are blended into a pastiche of bat-wing saloon doors, gunfights, and prostitutes—closer to that era’s pulp novels than reality. The Nevada of my stories places mines and miners front and center.

Here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming novel Silver State that addresses some of the interplay between miners and company security:

…normal operations require miners to exit through change rooms up top. There, company officials watch ’em change out of their work clothes, looking for evidence of highgrading. Miners and their unions say it’s humiliating, having to strip in front of suspicious eyes, but the Association estimates that it’s reduced ore theft by more than eighty percent. I’ve worked shifts as a watchman in the change rooms, and let me tell you, the embarrassment and resentment are mutual.

Location, Appearance
Cerro Gordo, Inyo County“Like a tin can, a mining camp often lies where it is thrown.”[5] This quote from a 19th-century newspaper editor suggests that camps were built where they could best support nearby mines (indeed, Nevada is dotted with “Old” and “New” versions of the same town—Reveille and New Reveille, old and new Fairview, and Old Bullion and New Bullion, et. al.—rebuilt once residents determined that the original locations were inconvenient to the mines). Movie sets, on the other hand, typically are built on flat land with mountains in the distance—no mines in sight. This is wrong.

Boom & Bust
The archetype of a lonely prospector hoisting a gold nugget and shouting “Eureka!” was far outside most miners’ experiences. Most toiled for twelve-hour shifts in the smoky gloom of poorly-ventilated tunnels, drilling and blasting ore containing minerals invisible to the naked eye. Many companies—indeed, many camps—were just one bad month from oblivion. I’ve tried to inject some of that precariousness into Silver State:

Atop one rise, I stop, put the Welch in neutral, and set the hand brake—wedge rocks under the wheels for good measure, too. There’s a small mining camp just north of here and while I believe it’s deserted, I want to be sure. Taking binoculars, for several minutes, I lean across the hood and study a cluster of ramshackle buildings. Condensation from my breath keeps clouding the optics. Up on the hillside, though, no smoke rises from any stovepipe; no lights shining through the windows; no dogs or chickens in the yards. The camp’s a ghost. Nevada’s interior is full of little settlements like this, intermittently active according to the appetites of the smelter trusts; busy one year and completely deserted the next. Luckily for me, this is an off year.

Hopefully these details help evoke the gritty reality of Nevada’s 20th-Century mining camps.


1. Wikipedia, Comstock Lode, Later Years
2. Forstall, Richard L., Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990, 3/27/95, All population figures quoted are from this document.
3. Zanjani, Sally, Goldfield, the Last Gold Rush on the Western Frontier, 1992, Swallow Press/University of Ohio Press, pp. 9-13. While traditionally, Harry Stimler and William Marsh are credited with Goldfield’s discovery, even these stories acknowledge that they were following up on Fisherman’s initial find.
4. Ibid.
5. Paher, Stanley W., Nevada’s Ghost Towns & Mining Camps, 1970, Nevada Publications, p. 257, Unattributed quote used in a photo caption.


A big thanks to Quinn Kayser-Cochran. He’ll give away a $25 Amazon gift certificate to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET.


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Caps, Kerchiefs, and Common Sense

I admit to watching the Starz production of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, set in eighteenth-century Scotland, with one eye on the characters’ clothing. I’ve been a history buff and Revolutionary War reenactor for so long that I cannot help it. Hollywood revels in dressing actors for historical productions. However, we all know better than to believe that those costumes are completely accurate. Right?

Claire Randall, OutlanderHere’s the character Claire Randall out of doors. Most of her clothing is fairly accurate for the time period. However none of the three pieces around her neck and shoulders is correct. For an eighteenth-century woman in the out-of-doors, especially a woman who isn’t wearing a shawl, cape, or cloak, Claire is missing several very important articles of clothing. Common sense articles of clothing.

The bodices of eighteenth-century gowns tended to be low-cut, so a woman wore a neck kerchief for modesty when she left her home—and often when she was indoors. The neck kerchief came in several variations and could be worn outside the bodice or tucked into it. Outdoors, it protected a woman’s chest from exposure to cold and blistering sunlight. It also shielded her skin from the bites of disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes and ticks.

She wore a mobcap to cover most of her hair. The mobcap prevented the buildup of grease and dirt in her hair and kept the hair from having to be washed often. It also saved her from spending a lot of time fussing over her hair every day. Indoors, on certain occasions, she might opt out of wearing the mobcap. But when she went outside, the combination of the mobcap and a hat kept the sun out of her eyes and off the top of her head, and it acted as a barrier to those nasty bugs. In the winter, it helped keep her head warm.

Mobcap and kerchiefI’ve reenacted in living history events in the summer and winter. The kerchief does protect my chest. The mobcap and hat do protect my head. Eighteenth-century people knew what they were doing by using all that clothing. People of Western cultures in the twenty-first century think nothing of Claire’s bare head and bare chest. However if she were truly in the eighteenth century, venturing outside without a neck kerchief and at least a mobcap would tell people that she’d lost her wits, or was sexually promiscuous, or both.

Enjoy those lovely “Outlander” costumes. But do remember to take them with a grain of salt.


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Finding the Revolution’s Last Men

Don Hagist author photoRelevant History welcomes back Don Hagist, an independent researcher specializing in the demographics and material culture of the British Army in the American Revolution. He maintains a blog about British common soldiers and has published a number of articles in academic journals. He has written several books including The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs and British Soldiers, American War, both from Westholme Publishing, and is on the editorial board of Journal of the American Revolution. Don works as an engineering consultant in Rhode Island and also writes for several well-known syndicated and freelance cartoonists. For more information, check his Facebook page.


The American Revolution was fought by thousands of soldiers, as most wars are, and as in most wars only a few of the participants achieved fame. As individuals, most soldiers played only minor roles in a long and wide-ranging war, but together their efforts were vital in shaping the course of events. With few exceptions, it was the leaders and policymakers who were remembered, while the soldiers remained almost anonymous.

A quirk of fate changed that for six men who were only teenagers when they served in the war that created their nation. In 1864 an innocuous budget report from the Federal government revealed that only a handful of Revolutionary War veterans were still alive and collecting pensions. When a photographer and a clergyman-activist learned how few of these men remained, the race was on to capture their images and words before the opportunity was lost.

The result of this quest by photographer Nelson Augustus Moore and Reverend Elias Brewster Hillard was the book Last Men of the Revolution. Published at the end of 1864, it contained biographies of the last six Revolutionary War pensioners and, more remarkably, a photograph of each one.

New technology for old veterans
The book was innovative. While daguerreotype photography was already a quarter-century old, the technology to make prints from photographic negatives had been introduced only a few years before 1864. There was still no way to put a photograph onto a printed page, so each copy of Last Men of the Revolution contained individual prints of each man pasted by hand onto the pages. It represented the very latest technology for sharing images, capitalizing on the sensation of photographic image collecting that was sweeping the nation.

The book had great visual appeal, but the biographical content was sorely lacking. Reverend Hillard interviewed five of the six men but did no research to corroborate their garbled tales based on fading memories. Indeed, his goal was not to record history but to inspire the current nation, at the time torn by civil war, with the stories of heroes that had seen first-hand the nation’s founding.

Finding the soldiers behind the photographs
The images captured in 1864 have continued to captivate generations of history enthusiasts ever since. Unfortunately, the error-ridden biographies that were published with those photographs have also been repeated without question, even though much of the information ranges from implausible to impossible. The book has been reprinted verbatim several times, and the images with summaries of the biographies are readily available on the Internet. A new study of these six veterans has been long overdue.

Two years ago, Westholme Publishing asked me if I could research the men profiled in the 1864 book and compose a new volume telling their real stories. It was an interesting proposition; although I’ve researched and written extensively about British soldiers in the American Revolution, that’s a completely different discipline than researching American soldiers. The organization and administration of the army was completely different, and the archival sources used to study it is also completely different. But, unwilling to turn down a book project, I accepted the challenge.

The Revolution's Last Men book cover imageIt was quite an adventure. Extensive research revealed a wealth of previously unpublished information about each man and also a new perspective on the 1864 photographs and the 1864 book. It has finally come together in The Revolution’s Last Men: the Soldiers Behind the Photographs (Westholme, March 2015). This new volume presents all of the information that was in the original book but gives it a thorough examination using the pension depositions of the soldiers themselves and men who served alongside them, as well as muster rolls, orderly books, and a host of other primary sources. This is the most complete look at each soldier ever published.

William Hutchings, elderly and youngTo supplement the textual information, The Revolution’s Last Men includes six original drawings of the men as they may have looked when they were young soldiers, based on extensive study of period military clothing and equipment. Rendered by artist Eric H. Schnitzer, these images put into perspective the photographs taken six decades later, providing new visual context for each man’s military service. [Suzanne Adair’s note: Photograph and sketch are of William Hutchings.]

The research for The Revolution’s Last Men revealed many unexpected surprises. Besides additional recollections by the veterans not published in 1864, I discovered several photographs taken by other photographers after the men became celebrities due to the publication of the original book. These photographs, along with the drawings and extensive text, make The Revolution’s Last Men a valuable study of memory as well as of history. Creating this book was a remarkably rewarding experience for me, and I hope that you’ll find it enjoyable and informative both to read and to look at.

William Hutchings, young man, corrected[Suzanne Adair’s note #2: Don accidentally sent the wrong drawing for William Hutchings. Here is the correct sketch.


A big thanks to Don Hagist.


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The Winner of In a Milk and Honeyed Land

Michele Drier has won a copy of In a Milk and Honeyed Land by Richard Abbott. Congrats to Michele Drier!

Thanks to Richard Abbott for taking us on a journey to the origins of our alphabet. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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Stamped On These Lifeless Things

Richard Abbott author photoRelevant History welcomes Richard Abbott, who writes historical fiction set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200BC. His first book, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan. It follows the life, loves, and struggles of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath. He continues to explore this world in other novels. Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance. When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District. To learn more about Richard’s books, check out his website and blog. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


“Which yet survive…”
In 1817, the poet Shelley wrote the sonnet Ozymandias, speaking of sentiments

“Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.”

Shelley was inspired by the British Museum’s acquisition of massive fragments of a statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II. His words apply to written records as much as physical ones.

Our modern alphabet is derived from Egyptian glyphs, via the indirect route of Canaanite, Phoenician, Greek and Latin. The earliest link—Egyptian to Canaanite—has only become apparent in the last decade or so, and often surprises people. As well their quite different appearance, Egyptian signs are syllable-based, typically pairs or triplets forming a sound cluster. From Canaanite through to English, we are dealing with a true alphabet. The discovery of this link has raised many profound questions.

Limestone record of workmen's absences, EgyptWhen it was thought that Canaanite arose as a new invention around 1200BC, the appearance of written texts using alphabets about 300 years later made sense. The older, more elaborate scripts like hieroglyphic or cuneiform were thought to be barriers to literacy, with a very large set of signs, and complex links between sign and sound. Their use, it was said, ensured that writing was kept for the elite. Conversely, once alphabetic scripts appeared, literacy would boom. Enthusiastic opinions were expressed, like that of W.F. Albright: “…the 22-letter [Hebrew] alphabet could be learned in a day or two by a bright student…I do not doubt for a moment that there were many urchins in Palestine who could read and write as early as the time of the Judges.”

This happy picture has vanished. Comparative studies worldwide have shown that high literacy rates can be enjoyed with a complex script and high sign-count such as in Mandarin Chinese. Conversely, low literacy rates exist in the presence of a simple alphabet such as Latin or Greek—or English. Real literacy means more than memorizing twenty-two symbols—twenty-six for English. It means knowing how to use these symbols flexibly, accurately, and reliably to capture information and pass it on to others. Learning how to be a writer requires more than learning your letters.

“The hand that mocked them…”
Inscribed sphinx, SinaiMoreover, the recognition of the link to Egypt has pushed back the appearance of the first alphabetic writing by something like half a millennium. We now look back to about 1800BC as the time when Canaanite letters became distinct from Egyptian signs. Short monumental inscriptions or assertions of ownership using alphabetic scripts appear in the later parts of the second millennium, but we do not find a lengthy text until around 840BC. If alphabets were so easy to learn and so compellingly clear, why did it take nearly a thousand years before they are employed to display national pride and propaganda?

Of course the picture is not that simple. Some items—stone monuments, clay tablets, interior wall paintings—survive much longer than others—wax slates, wooden boards, cured leather. Perhaps the early writers in the alphabetic tradition used materials which were inherently perishable? Or perhaps some kinds of writing were reckoned to be peculiarly suited for some topics and not others? At Ugarit, on the Syrian coast, a form of alphabet existed alongside traditional Akkadian cuneiform, and each was used only in some contexts and not others. Religious epics were written in the alphabetic script, and formal diplomatic letters and records in Akkadian—but not the other way round.

“The heart that fed…”
Dream interpretation papyrus, EgyptIn most of the world’s history, writing has been the preserve of a few individuals, mostly men, and the topics they tackled were the concerns of the wealthy. Royal annals, battles, tribute, religious events, trade and so on fill most of the written content of the past. But sometimes we come across something more personal. The royal workmen’s village near the Valley of the Kings in Egypt was home to highly skilled craftsmen and women, and it is refreshing to read their comments about everyday concerns.

“Write to me what you will want since the boy is too muddled to say it!”…“The chief workman Paneb: Kasa his wife was in childbirth and he had three days off”…“I found the workman Mery-Sekhmey son of Menna sleeping with my wife in the fourth month of summer”…“Bring me some honey for my eyes, and also ochre that has been freshly moulded, and real black eye-paint”…“I won’t let you do singing. It is Pasen who has been assigned to do the singing for Meretseger”…“Seek out for me one tunic in exchange for the ring”…“Go and pick the vegetables, for they are now due from you.”

Many of the senders and recipients are men, but there is a good representation of women as well. The full spectrum of everyday life is captured by these letters—families, friendship and rivalry, legal proceedings, employment records, and so on. There are even shopping lists and laundry manifests. Most were inked hastily using hieratic writing on pieces of broken pottery, and passed by hand from person to person. They have a direct, intimate connection with the people of that age, and their preoccupations. But the workmen’s village is unusual, and these insights into everyday life are rare.

Writing is a strange thing. We make little marks of various shapes and use them to transmit complex and often highly personal information to other people. The story of writing continually throws new questions at us, and often challenges preconceived ideas about former generations. What we write, and how we write, tell the reader as much about the writer as about the subject matter.

And, as Shelley said, these fragments have long outlived their original personal and social context. They offer fascinating, and often perplexing, insights into the world of the past.

(The three images are publicly available from the British Museum web site.)


In a Milk and Honeyed Land book coverA big thanks to Richard Abbott. He’ll give away a trade paperback copy of In a Milk and Honeyed Land to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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Commodore John Paul Jones and the Battle at Flamborough Head

Michael McCloskey author photoRelevant History welcomes Michael C. McCloskey, who has spent the last ten years studying American History at Millersville University and received his MA in 2013. His focus is on the colonial Atlantic world, and the development of American identity. Currently courting several doctorial programs, Michael looks forward to the day he will have a classroom of his own. He has also been active in Public History programs serving as historic interpreter at the Army Heritage Education Center during their time line events and guest lecturing on revolution and its causes, bringing alive the past for the next generation. For more information, connect with him on his web site at Millersville University.


John Paul Jones as depicted by his enemiesIn looking at the American War for Independence, one of the more uncommon aspects is that of the United States Navy, and no one was more famed of that arm than Commodore John Paul Jones. Perhaps most famous for uttering the immortal words “I have not yet begun to fight…” in the Battle at Flamborough Head on the eastern coast of England touching the North Sea.[1] The war had not been going well for the colonists in 1779, and they needed a victory to help bolster their spirits and carry them on to fight until Cornwallis was defeated in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. That victory came in the form of Commodore Jones at the Battle of Flamborough Head. Outgunned and even in the face of treachery by one of his captains, he managed to escape what could have been an ignominious end and emerge the hero in a contest which seemed mismatched once the engagement began.[2]

The Engagement Begins
On the afternoon of 23 September 1779, a flotilla of supply troops arriving from the mouth of the Thames River was ferrying material from England for the war effort against the Americans.[3] It was just such a prize that Commodore Jones was waiting for. In the small squadron commanded by Commodore Jones was the Alliance commanded by Captain Pierre Landaise, the Pallas commanded by Captain Henry Lundt, and the cutter Vengeance. Coming around the cape was the H.M.S. Serapis of 50 guns commanded by Captain Richard Pearson RN. The Countess of Scarborough was not far along and commanded by Captain Thomas Piercy with a large number of ships in tow carrying supplies for the British.[4]

By 6:00 p.m. the battle began with Commodore Jones having the Stars and Stripes hoisted up the mainmast revealing his true intent. Even though the Bonhomme Richard was outgunned and facing a much more maneuverable enemy (the Serapis had a copper lined hull making her much faster and maneuverable than the Richard), Jones was relying on his squadron to help even the odds.[5] In the case of the Alliance, that was a trust misplaced, as we shall see. The other two vessels did what they could against the Countess of Scarborough keeping her busy while the Richard and Serapis faced off for the next three to four hours. Early on in the engagement, the Richard wound up running her bowsprit into the hull of the Serapis while maneuvering to gain advantage. Captain Pearson asked Commodore Jones if he was going to strike his colors. To which the immortal words were uttered “I have not yet begun to fight!” At which point the engagement renewed.[6]

A Questionable Alliance
While the Richard and Serapis were dancing with each other in the waters off the coast of England, the Alliance was keeping her distance, waiting to cut in, but not with the expected party. Meanwhile the Pallas engaged the convoy and the Countess of Scarborough, and the Vengeance could do little but watch the battle unfold. With the Richard and Serapis now locked, broadside to broadside, the Alliance began to maneuver closer, but instead of firing on the H.M.S. Serapis, Captain Landaise fired on the Richard! Not just once, but three times. It turns out, according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, the commander of the Alliance had designs of sinking the Richard and taking the Serapis as a prize for himself and getting Commodore John Paul Jones out of the way in the same move, a shrewd but treacherous act indeed.[7] This act seemed to be a streak through many of the foreign commanders subordinated under Jones’s command throughout his life and demonstrates the complexity of the politics he had to navigate throughout his career and most especially during his final command in Russia.

The Alliance notwithstanding, Commodore Jones and Bonhomme Richard held on to the Serapis and both railed away at one another. Jones’s iron determination and sheer will seemed to keep the Richard afloat as the engagement got hot. Even many under the command of Jones on the Richard itself were ready to call for quarter and ask for terms. Commodore Jones did not allow for such an action. Finally at 10:30 in the evening, the mainmast of the Serapis began to give way, and Captain Pearson struck his colors. No easy task, as Morison relates that he nailed his colors to the mast, and owing to the loss of men to killed and wounded, he had to climb up top to strike them himself.[8] When Commodore Jones received Captain Pearson upon the deck of the Bonhomme Richard to accept his surrender, the ceremonies of war during the period were well observed, honor being done to both sides in the battle, much in contrast to the reputation of John Paul Jones as a pirate, rapacious and without mercy.

John Paul Jones as depicted by his friendsAfter the battle, the Bonhomme Richard was so damaged that she wound up sinking the next morning, giving her last full measure to provide Commodore Jones with his victory that day. But what did that victory demonstrate? It lay plain to the people and government of England that a war fought an ocean away can be brought to their own back yard. The world was no longer as large as many thought it was. Also, while this convoy did have the good fortune to escape to a safe port while the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough did their job engaging Jones and his small fleet, England’s merchant fleet ran the same risk as American colonial merchant ships, that of being taken as a prize of war. As a result the merchant fleets cried for naval protection.[9] England now had to reevaluate where to place its resources when mapping out a strategy. The war became “not so distant” anymore.

1. Barbara W. Tuchman, The First Salute, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), p. 83
2. Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones, (New York: Time Incorporated, 1959), pp. 234, 235; Tuchman, The First Salute, p.110
3. Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, Vol 2, (New York: Russell & Russell Inc, 1962), pp. 456, 457
4. Morison, pp. 224-226
5. Ibid, pp. 226, 227
6. Tuchman, p. 83; Morison, p. 231
7. Morison, p. 235
8. Tuchman , p. 83; Morison, p. 237


A big thanks to Michael McCloskey!


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The Winner of Death in the Time of Ice

Georgia Wilson has won a copy of Death in the Time of Ice by Kaye George. Congrats to Georgia Wilson!

Thanks to Kaye George for her insights into her research of Neanderthals living 38,000 years ago. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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Why On Earth Did I Choose Neanderthals?

Kaye George author photoRelevant History welcomes national best-selling and multiple-award-winning mystery author Kaye George, who writes several series: Imogene Duckworthy, Cressa Carraway (Barking Rain Press), People of the Wind (Untreed Reads), and, as Janet Cantrell, Fat Cat (Berkley Prime Crime cozies). Her short stories appear in anthologies and magazines as well as her own collection, A Patchwork of Stories. Her reviews run in Suspense Magazine. She lives in Knoxville, TN. For more information, check her web site and blog, and look for her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.


One day I decided I wanted to write about something in the past. I rejected a few periods, mostly because I had studied them in history class. It seemed to me, at the time, that history consisted of memorizing dates and wars, with a few kings and queens. Boring! It was only after I left high school and started reading historical fiction that I realized some of those periods were interesting, even fascinating.

What else was there?
However, lots of people were writing about those times. What was there that no one had done before? Here’s where my interest in anthropology kicked in. I was an avid fossil hunter at one time and used to have a terrific trilobite—wish I knew what happened to that!

Add in the fact that Neanderthals, long thought to be low-browed savages, were turning out to be misunderstood. As scientists sequenced one of their genomes, startling discoveries were made. One that they sequenced was red-headed and probably freckled! When you considered how many thousands of years they thrived, then factored in the climates they survived, everyone had to drastically change their opinions of their intelligence.

Conflicting theories
I ordered a few textbooks and heavily underlined and post-it-noted the pages. I found that, for every theory, there’s a conflicting one. Perfect for a fiction writer! Some said it was unlikely they could speak. Others said that of course they could. Some said they buried their dead with ceremony, others said probably not. So I was able to pick and choose what fit my fiction.

No one knows how their society was ordered, so I ordered it to suit myself. My tribe, the Hamapa, is matriarchal with the wise old woman as the leader, advised by two of her male partners. In order to be able to describe things to the reader from outside, I chose one main character, Enga Dancing Flower, who was adopted into the tribe with her twin, Ung Strong Arm. It is assumed that her tribe abandoned her and her sister, as very small children and near to the Hamapa tribe, because they could no longer feed everyone. I chose another main character to be a young male of the tribe, Jeek, still a child, and younger than Enga Dancing Flower.

I had the most fun inventing their language, since at one time I considered majoring in linguistics in college. Going from a French major to Russian, I sort of gathered some linguistics. Putting together knowledge about how babies learn to speak, how disabled people manage, and early language studies, I used only the sounds easiest to make, just in case it was hard for them to speak. Also, they save the spoken language for ceremonial announcements and communicate mostly by telepathy. (Not a theory by anyone but me. But, hey, if the Australian Aborigines can do it, Neanderthals might have.)

Where to put them
One problem was setting. I knew I wanted to use the end of their time on this planet as a separate people, about 38-40,000 years ago, but I didn’t know much about Europe or Asia then, which was just before the last Ice Age. I did know something about North America (and learned a lot more!). Then it came to my attention that the theory of peopling the Americas was being called into question. So I decided it was people much, much earlier than the main theory (and now that theory is almost totally debunked in favor of earlier migrations). Why not let the Neanderthals go just a bit farther east and come on over?

The advantage of doing that is that I can use the mega-fauna that existed on this continent in those days: mammoth, mastodons, saber-tooth tigers, dire wolves, flat-faced bears, giant beavers and sloths. Everything was gigantic! And presented challenges as food sources for my tribe. The approaching glaciers from the north were also driving the game south as the story opens. Some neighboring tribes were having a hard time feeding themselves.

Other prehistory fiction!
I’ve recently made the acquaintance of a group of prehistory fiction writers who write the gamut, from fairly recent times, just before the discovery of the Americas by the Europeans, to 70,000 years ago. It’s fun to share our interests in primitive peoples. If you’d like to know more about them, visit the group. Some of the other writers (all fiction—I’m the only mystery writer) are Mary Black, Kathleen Rollins, Bonnye Matthew, Ron Fritsch, Michael Gear (of W. Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear), Simon Townley, Sandra Saidak, Gary McCarthy, and Sharman Russell. (Though I might call the Gear books at least part mystery). If you like prehistory fiction, look up all of these!

More respect for the Neanderthals
By the way, one marker of progress is that I read, in a textbook published well after 2000, that scientists all agreed that Homo neanderthalensis didn’t interbreed with Homo sapiens. Today, I know that I’m 2.9 percent Neanderthal from a simple DNA test I took a couple of years ago. The old myths about these long-misunderstood people are falling day by day! They were added to the genus Homo only very recently. I’m so gratified that some of my theories about them are being added as new discoveries. I love writing about my Neanderthals!


Death in the Time of Ice book coverA big thanks to Kaye George. She’ll give away a trade paperback copy of her book, Death in the Time of Ice, to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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