Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Irish parish records from 19th century are digitized and online!

The National Library of Ireland has digitized the parish records from the mid-to-late-nineteenth century and
placed them online HERE. This is a great resource for anyone with a genealogical connection to this time in Ireland. Parishes recorded births, marriages, and deaths. As with all Irish genealogical records, they can be frustratingly sketchy, and there are gaps in coverage. Some parish records survived in better condition than others. I still am having a difficult time locating some great-great grandparents in both Galway and Mayo who could not be found in any database. For example, I found my great-grandfather Daniel Folan in the baptism register, but not his wife, my great-grandmother Margaret O'Toole (this is them to the right from their 1896 wedding).  My hope was that I could find her on the hand written manuscript material, but, alas, I have not tracked her down yet. But, I did notice that there are some homeland names (when they are legible and/or recorded at all) from areas outside of the parish, so I am cautiously optimistic I can find her in a neighboring area when I get the time to look for them. Although I have not yet made any earth shattering finds, I been able to get a couple of clues, such as names of sponsors, which could be siblings of the parents. This gives a couple of more leads to investigate in the future. Please let me know if you make any interesting finds in your search for your own ancestors in the NLI parish records.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Empire of Extinction

Ryan Jackson Jones, Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867

As the Russians spread east, across the rim of the North Pacific, from Kamchatka across to the Aleutian Island chain in the 18th and 19th centuries, they created a wave of extermination for the fur-bearing animals of the region. The Russians wiped out huge numbers of sea otters. In fact, the animal never recovered from the hyper-killing of 1749-1750, but it did not go extinct. The same could not be said of the sea cow, which vanished from the earth sometime in the late 1760s. As Jones points out, the sea cow was already in trouble before the fur-greedy Russians showed up and wiped them out. As global temperatures warmed in the aftermath of the little ice age, the sea cow headed north (it had ranged as far south as Baja California), huddling on a cluster of islands in the North Pacific. The last recorded sighting of a sea cow occurred in 1766. It is hard to say when the species went extinct because it would be another thirty years before the Cuvier introduced the idea of animal extinction. In 1802 Martin Sauer postulated that the sea cow had gone extinct within a couple of years of the last confirmed sighting.  

Naturalists were in an uneasy position in the Russian imperial expansion. Mostly made up of non-Russians, they were critical of an empire they considered somewhat mickey mouse. On the other hand, the Russian rulers were their bosses who demanded positive affirmation about the grandeur and vastness of their empire. Wanting to play on the same stage as the French and English, the Russians wanted to appearance of science to give them some enlightenment credibility as a modern state, but they were not terribly interested in hearing what the naturalists had to say. Moreover, the secretive and suspicious Russians did not want scientists in their employ spreading information outside of the borders, clearly demonstrating a lack of understanding of the value of cooperative, transnational science. So much for appearances. Ironically, when the consequences of dramatic fur-bearing population decline were obvious – read, tax revenues from skins shrunk dramatically – conservation measures were implemented without even consulting naturalists.

Like the French and English in east North America, the Russians ensnared native peoples (Yakut, Kamchadal, Aleut) into their market network. The new imperial overlords assessed a tribute to their colonial peoples that was payable in furs. This was only the tip of the iceberg, like every other native population in North America, the people of the North Pacific experienced devastating epidemics with the arrival of Europeans. The Aleuts suffered a 50%-80% mortality from disease. As their population declined and their environment degraded, they became more reliant on the money they made market hunting to feed their families. As fur bearing animals became increasingly difficult to find, Russian overlords sent their native hunters on longer and more dangerous missions, causing yet more stress on their society.

I checked Empire of Extinction out merely to look at how he covered the fur seals of the Pribilof Islands. The cause of the fur seal was close to William T. Hornaday’s heart, and he ardently fought for their protection between1909-1920 against what could be called the scientific establishment led by David Starr Jordan. For more on Hornaday’s fur seal conservation campaign check out The Most Defiant Devil, or his digitized scrapbooks online at the Wildlife Conservation Society.  Despite my initial limited interest in this book, I found Empire of Extinction to be an enjoyable read that really pulled me in, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the environment or wildlife in particular, especially to American historians looking for a little perspective on what was happening outside of our borders.   

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Wright Brothers

If one message comes out clearly in David McCullough’s latest book, Wright Brothers, it is that Wilbur and Orville had balls! They risked their lives trying to master controlled, powered flight, and persisted through betrayal, crashes, failure, ridicule, and skepticism to become the first humans to soar with the birds. Honestly, I knew very little about these inventive brothers prior to reading McCullough’s book – or, I should more accurately state, listened to it on audible. The best feature of the audio book was McCullough’s narration.

The most startling thing for me in this book is that the brothers Wright had very little mechanical background.
They tinkered with things, but had no experience building complex machines or with engines prior to building one from scratch for their airplane. Showing their inexperience, the first one cracked the day they made it, and they had to wait several weeks before receiving another aluminum block from ALCOA to manufacture a second motor.

They knew almost nothing about flight when they started their experiments. Of course, it was a concept in its very infancy, but others around the globe had been working on it. The death of German pioneer aviator Otto Lilienthal in 1896 captivated the Wrights. It seems ironic that a fatality in Europe would draw two bicycle shop owners in Ohio into the risky venture of flight. Having resolved to enter the aviation race, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution to request all the information they could provide. Later they contacted the Weather Bureau to find a perfect location to test their flying machine. They wanted a windy, sandy, out-of-the-way place, which is how they wound up in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Experiments with gliders in Kitty Hawk convinced the brothers Wright that all that had been written before about the “science” of flight had been total bunk. Throwing out the book of knowledge as it existed; they had to reformulate almost every theory about flying. From practical experiments at Kitty Hawk and more theoretical work with a noisy wind tunnel simulator that they created in their Dayton bicycle shop, they discovered that the wings and how they were configured, shaped, and manipulated were the most important aspect of flight. This was their critical contribution to aviation.    

Armed with this information, they returned to Kitty Hawk in 1903 and made their historic flight that is immortalized on the North Carolina license plate, among other places. It was only 12 seconds! With some modifications, they managed to sustain a flight of 59 seconds before packing it up for the year and returning to Dayton. The world took no notice of their accomplishment.  It was their public flights in Ohio, France, New York, Germany, Italy, and around Washington, D.C. between 1904 and 1911 that drew large crowds, press acclimation, and established their fame as pioneer aviators. Along the way they established records for distance and speed, took the first passenger, and later took the oldest person as a passenger (their 80+ year old dad), and the first female (their sister), as well as some celebrities of the day. Less fortunate, they also were involved in the first aviation passenger fatality when Orville crashed one of their flying machines at Fort Myer, Virginia in 1908. The passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge died, and this led to the first accident investigation in aviation history. Orville spent months in recovery.  

The Wright brothers had no wealthy backers. They spent about $1,000 of their own money developing a flying machine. Compare this to Samuel Pierpont Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who enjoyed the backing of the U.S government. Langely spent nearly $70,000 with few tangible results. While the Wrights developed their flier in the obscure setting of Kitty Hawk, N.C., Langely’s public experiments around the nation’s capital generated headlines. McCullough suggests the possibility that the War Department was slow to work with the Wrights (other governments were much more interested) because they felt burned by their experience with Langely.

McCullough shows that the Wrights were products of their environment. He describes how entrepreneurial, inventive, and industrial atmosphere of Dayton shaped them. More importantly, he masterfully tells the story of their family life. Their father and sister are almost as big a part of this story as Orville and Wilbur. Thus McCullough gives us a valuable glimpse into Gilded Age life. Wilbur died of typhus at 45 in 1912. Orville died at age 77 in 1948, but had stopped flying in 1918 because of the injuries he had sustained in the Ft. Myer crash.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mobilizing Nature by Chris Pearson

A review cross posted from Michigan War Studies Review at http://www.miwsr.com/2015-044.aspx

26 May 2015
Review by Gregory J. Dehler, Front Range Community College
Mobilizing Nature: The Environmental History of War and Militarization in Modern France
By Chris Pearson
New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 336. ISBN 978–0–7190–8439–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2015, 19th Century, 20th Century, 21st Century Print Version
One does not typically think of the military as an eco-friendly institution. Yet that image may be changing. In November 2014, the Pentagon issued a report that listed global warming as one of the gravest national security threats facing the United States and outlined several important steps that the Department of Defense (DoD) was taking to mitigate its effects.[1] Over the last decade, the branches of the US armed forces have increased their use of alternative energy sources to lessen or eliminate their reliance on fossil fuels. The French military, too, has implemented eco-friendly policies through, for example, a recycling program, pollution mitigation, and making bases safe havens for wildlife. This is not to say that twenty-first century military forces are wings of Greenpeace or even advocates of environmentalism, but a growing interaction of environmental and military historians in academia mirrors the convergence of these two fields in the policy arena.[2]
With his first book, Mobilizing Nature, Chris Pearson (Univ. of Liverpool) has made a most valuable contribution to a burgeoning field of study: "I aim to shed light on the evolving and profoundly historical relationship between war, militarization, and the environment" (1). More specifically, he stakes out militarized environments as distinct spaces, with their own ecology, policy implications, patterns of resource use, social conflicts, and effects on other landscape.
The book opens with the construction of Camp de Châlons in 1857 and progresses through a century and a half of peace and war into the twenty-first century. The author chronicles the conflict between national military and local civilian priorities, the continuous expansion of the militarized environment, the place of animals and hunting regulations, use of resources, and the perceived influences of nature on the physical and mental health of soldiers in training.
Napoleon III's Camp de Châlons was France's first large, permanent military base. Its establishment opened a debate between military authorities and suspicious civilians that echoes still today. Large-scale maneuvers that laid waste to everything in their path angered Second Empire farmers. So, too, in the twenty-first century, the effects of erosion, pollution, and waste have upset local civilian communities. The French people consider militarized landscapes to be ugly sterilizations of the land and attacks on their local, largely rural, way of life. To allay such concerns, the French Army claimed it required only marginal, unproductive lands ill-suited to farming.[3] In the 1950s and 60s, the army moved into the more rugged hinterlands to train for operations in the harsher terrains of colonial wars. While this territory was indeed agriculturally unproductive, its great natural beauty made it attractive for recreational purposes.
After the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), French army camps were charged with rejuvenating a defeated people by dispensing an invigorating dose of nature to young male conscripts. Expansion of military bases in 1897, state propaganda efforts, and showy maneuvers meant to impress the French people with the army's vitality only raised tensions between the government and a skeptical populace. In an interesting examination of postcards, Pearson demonstrates that depictions of army service as a sort of grand manly camping trip were thoroughly discredited by the actual experiences of the soldiers living in dreary, squalid, and unhealthy camps. Military facilities played a similar part in efforts to restore French masculinity and national pride following the Second World War. But, by that time, such a mission was complicated by imperial wars, the presence of NATO, and De Gaullist policies.
Never static, the French militarized environment shifted and grew. Camp de Châlons was overshadowed by late nineteenth-century constructions, which were in turn superseded in World War I by the massive network of trenches stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Instead of seeing the trenches as a "disfigured, transformed, artificial" (91) landscape, as did most contemporaries, Pearson advises historians to evaluate the experiences of the soldiers in light of the unique ecological space they inhabited. After the forest was obliterated, soldiers entrenched to alter the environment to meet an immediate, pressing need—protection from enemy fire.
The French military expanded into new areas both domestically and globally after the Great War. At home this was visible in the construction of the Maginot Line, memorials to the fallen, and battlefield cemeteries. Globally it meant tighter management of resources in the colonies. This expansion beyond the borders of France continued during the Second World War, through German extraction of natural resources, and during the Cold War, through colonial conflicts and nuclear testing in overseas possessions.
Forestry dominates Pearson's discussion of resource usage. French military planners cut back or added forests to suit their strategic needs. They were almost always at loggerheads with civilian foresters about the health of the land. After all, forests grew irrespective of convenient fields of fire from fortified pillboxes. Both the Germans and NATO considered the French forests a valuable resource. Pearson lumps the German occupation with NATO dominance into a single chapter, "Occupied Territories," on the period 1940–67. Although the Germans had militarized France in several ways, including building coastal fortifications and large-scale defensive flooding, they did the worst damage by aggressively harvesting timber with a total disregard for sustainability.
Some considerable postwar tension between France and its NATO allies stemmed from disagreements over the emotionally significant Fontainebleau forest. Even the French exit from NATO did not solve the conflict over the woods. From the 1960s on, an emerging French environmental movement coalesced around resistance to the militarizing of forests. As Pearson points out, this was not an expression of Deep Ecology, intended to preserve the trees for nature's sake; it was an effort to save and protect a pleasant recreation space. Pressure from civilians in the last thirty years has led the French Army to implement a recycling program, permit multiple uses of its bases, and provide wildlife, especially endangered species, with sanctuaries.
Finally, Pearson tracks the role of animals, both wild and domestic, in the history of French militarization of the environment. Thousands of animals—their care, shelter, transport, waste, and remains—had an important impact in both peace and war. The First World War trenches provided a favorable environment for invasive pests like fleas, lice, and rats, species ubiquitous in the literature of soldiers on both sides. However, the men were not insensitive to the rare examples of natural beauty around them: a lone tree, a colorful flower, a stray songbird might be noticed and cherished more than they would be in peacetime.
Fond recollections of birdsong pepper veterans' accounts of trench life as symbols of hope and solace. Against the odds, birds had adapted to the militarized environment of the Western Front, feeding on the insects that thrived in the trenches and nesting in remains of trees. Waterfowl also gathered on water-logged shell holes and starlings mimicked the whistle blasts used to warn of enemy planes. Birdsong provided reassurance for soldiers of different nationalities … a reminder that life survived within the brutal environment of the trenches. (100)
In the 1970s, sheep became a point of controversy when the army sought to extend Camp Larzac into traditional grazing lands. A national anti-extension campaign forced the French Army to abandon plans to annex the land. Two decades later, military authorities argued that their bases served as quasi-nature preserves that protected endangered birds and butterflies. Hunting[4] regulations were now another bone of contention. As Pearson observes, before the Revolution the French people had no right to hunt, which was restricted to aristocrats and royals. Whether German armies of occupation or the French military itself sought to restrain local hunting, civilians resented any curtailing of this very symbolic right to nature.
Mobilizing Nature is well written and firmly grounded in both primary sources and the secondary literature on militarized environments. Pearson does not compare in any detail the French experience to that of its neighbors. Strictly speaking, this is beyond the scope of the book, but French military planners certainly kept an eye on developments across the English Channel. The building of a central military installation on marginal land followed the British model of Aldershot. Likewise, packaging military installations as nature preserves had British precedents.[5]
[1] DoD, "2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap."
[2] See, esp., Richard P. Tucker and Edmund Russell, eds., Natural Enemy, Natural Ally: Toward an Environmental History of Warfare (Corvallis: Oregon State U Pr, 2004).
[3] This argument played a role in the creation of the US national parks. See Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience, 2nd ed. (Lincoln: U Nebraska Pr, 1979).
[4] Of mushrooms as well as animals.
[5] These matters are touched on without elaboration on pages 19, 275–76.
Purchase Mobilizing Nature

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bayor, Encountering Ellis Island

Ronald Bayor, Encountering Ellis Island: How European Immigrants Entered America.

With the Immigration Act of 1891 the federal government established a measure of control and order to immigration policy. The act replaced the aging Castle Garden facility in New York with the brand new Ellis Island, which was completed in 1892. This transition coincided with the shift in immigration from the traditional points of departures in northern Europe such as England, Germany, and Ireland to new sources in the eastern and southern parts of the continent, including Greece, Italy, Poland, and Russia. These “New Immigrants” included Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox who spoke indecipherable languages with strange alphabets. Although Bayor does not make any effort to tie the 1891 Immigration Act to the Long Progressive Era, it seems that one could attempt such an argument.

Much as recent headlines tell heartbreaking stories of immigrants who are taken advantage of, those of a century ago likewise experienced con artists out to rip them off. In one horrible example that Bayor recounts on page 25, a crooked captain dumped a boatload of Jewish Russian immigrants in Scotland. They thought they had landed in America. In other cases, immigrants who actually arrived in New York City were subjected to more routine scams and price-gouging fees connected with housing, job finding, and transportation.

Bayor describes both the inspection process and the services provided to immigrants at Ellis Island. Doctors provided mental and physical tests. Failure could lead to detention or deportation. This threatened to divide families, which could lead to very difficult decisions. There was an appeal process, but the agenda of the commissioner could significantly affect the zeal to which these policies were implemented. Detainees were provided food and living quarters, but these tended to be of a poor quality.  From the descriptions provided, the food sounded most unappetizing. The Red Cross operated education facilities for immigrant children that put an emphasis on Americanization and English language instruction. Medical services were also provided. The hospital averaged 242 patients a day in 1906 (p. 99) to give one benchmark. Some recreational facilities, including a movie house and game rooms, were available to detainees.

Encountering Ellis Island chronicles the effect that changes in immigration law had for new arrivals. Bayor argues that the literacy test established in 1917 was poor policy that inadvertently gave preference to criminals who were literate, but excluded the workers that America needed at the time. 

Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era will find Encountering Ellis Island a useful source on the immigrant experience. Genealogists will also find it valuable for the same reason. For those working on name changes, Bayor asserts that this did not happen at Ellis Island, a common myth in many a family lore. Name changes occurred either before leaving the old country or after departing Ellis Island in the new.