Ruminations on what I'm still learning about history, nature, and a few other things.
I've always liked to write, but the most I managed to publish during my teaching career was a few articles on elementary classroom projects in professional journals. In 2014 I finished THE AMAZING BIRD COLLECTION OF YOUNG MR. ROOSEVELT, a look at ten years of our twenty-sixth president's boyhood. I had found that his education was largely independent, and decided to use his fascinating collection of birds as a metaphor for it. I, too, am still learning independently, although there are more immediate resources now than during Theodore's time. "Being there" (real life) experiences still remain the best way to learn something new. I will share those along the way, too. I took my profile picture at the Sea of Galilee on a tour of Israel recently, where the Roosevelt family traveled after visiting Europe, 1872-73.
On a historical tour of part of the Wabash and Erie Canal, our group stopped at the preserved home of a prominent citizen. I spent most of the time there looking at the china cabinets. With my little bit of knowledge, I recognized flow blue, ironstone and transferware from the Nineteenth Century. There were many colors and patterns in the collection, and I began thinking of the dishes chosen by first families.
If you were fortunate enough to be a guest for dinner at the White House sometime in the past 200 years, you would have been eating from some pretty special plates. At first, the china used for visitors was a mixture of English and Chinese imports. Then, during President James Monroe’s administration, the first official presidential dinner service was ordered.
In 1889 First Lady Caroline Harrison, who was a history buff, had the ambition to save for posterity the presidential china that’d been used. A few years later when William McKliney was president, a writer named Abby Baker researched it in great detail. She became involved in acquiring and preserving the place settings until her death in 1923.
Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt ordered two cabinets made for china which had come back through auctions and donations. These were seen by White House visitors at the east end of the mansion. What was to be done with damaged pieces, though? There were plenty of those, which Mrs. R directed to be broken and scattered in the Potomac River. Mrs. Wilson oversaw the completion of the current China Room in 1917.
During the Eisenhower era, new cabinets were made; Mamie’s service plates were rimmed with a wide gold band that could be used with any of the previous designs. Jacqueline Kennedy was instrumental in creating Public Law 87-286, which made the dishware “inalienable and property of the White House.”
Today newlyweds don’t dwell mucn choosing good china for company. Many of my generation hang on to ours and the memories that gleaming cups, saucers, plates and a few goblets bring back. For Americans, presidential china does the same. We hope that it continues for a long, long time.
Unless otherwise noted the photos are from architecturaldigest.com. Information comes from that site and from whitehousehistory.org.
Several blogs past I wrote about some “also rans” for United States President, which could lead to speculation of “what if” the loser had won. I overlooked at least one name, that of John Fremont. He isn’t well-known or taught much about in history classes, although his experience and leadership matched many of the time.
His wife, Jessie, most certainly would have been an impressive first lady.
Jessie Benton Fremont was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, (not to be confused with an artist of the same name) who istaught about in history classes. He was a senator from Missouri before the Civil War, an advocate for western expansion and an opponent of slavery in the territories, and he let his daughter tag along with him when he had business at the Capitol and Executive Mansion.
At 17, while attending school in Washington, she eloped with Lieutenant John C. Fremont, ten years older. There was a period of estrangement between the two generations but eventually the Fremonts and the Bentons reconciled, and John became active in exploring the West with Kit Carson. Jessie stayed home and wrote for newspapers, also becoming well-known.
John became a senator from California, and then received the nomination for President in 1856 from the new Republican Party. Unmarried opponent Buchanan did not have an asset like Jessie. Crowds called her name and sang a song about her to the tune of Yankee Doodle. But “Mr. Fremont,” as she called him, lost, unable to sway the southern states. A newspaperman said they all regretted that she would not be “Mrs. President.”
Parents of five children, two of whom died in infancy, they moved to St. Louis during the Civil War where John was in command of the Western Department. But he ended a declaration of martial law by freeing slaves held by rebels in Missouri, which preceded the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was not happy. Even though Jessie traveled to Washington to plead the case with the President, he fired her husband. She also worked with the Soldier’s Relief Society and the Western Sanitation Commission which were accepted roles for a woman.
The family came into hard times when John’s railroad speculations failed. After his death Jessie lived another twelve years, aided by a widow’s army pension and her narratives, which were as popular as ever.
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One can see why readers anticipated her articles:
I look up at the little water-color which is my résumé of that time of severance from all I held indispensable to happiness—it was made for me on the spot, and gives my tent under the tall cotton-woods, already browned and growing bare with the coming winter winds. Mr. Fremont was to make a winter crossing of the mountains, and I went with him in to his starting-point, the Delaware Indian reservation on the frontier of Missouri, to return when he left, and remain at home in Washington until my time came to start in March.Of everything in the Centennial Exhibition, I think nothing interested me so much as the display made by Kansas. It seemed so few years since I had been there, when only a small settlement marked the steamboat landing where now Kansas City stands. Looking at its silk manufacturers, its produce of not only essentials, but luxuries, it was hard to realize the untracked prairie of my time, with only Indians and wolves for figures.
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My blog post receiving the most responses has been one about “little orange books” (subsequently with other covers) pubished by the Bobbs-Merrill Company. They were prevalent in elementary school libraries in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Many said these adapted biographies sparked a lifelong interest in history, as they did for me.
I remember reading Jessie Fremont’s story. One incident that stood out was when she befriended a girl at school whom everyone else shunned. That reflects the character of one who would have, by all accounts, been a knockout of a First Lady.
In 1997 I was in a car with three other elementary school teachers on the way to a workshop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We came to a traffic slowdown with lots of police cars and flashing lights, but there was no accident, so we figured someone important must be in town. They were. Later that night, we saw on the news that five living presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had come to celebrate a building expansion of the Ford Museum. Had I known, I probably would have ditched the morning session of the workshop and gone to catch a glimpse of history.
What do presidents do after leaving office?
George Washington, once a farmer, was always a farmer. In his brief retirement he daily inspected his land on horseback: crops including wheat and corn, and hemp for repairing fish nets. He had an impressive whiskey distillery which produced 11,000 gallons in 1799. Visitors to Mount Vernon from all over the world sought his advice on matters of state.
“There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president,” John Quincy Adams once bluntly stated, but in his case we beg to differ. The second Adams president was elected to nine terms in the House of Representatives after he left office. He fought for years to repeal the gag rule for discussing slavery in Congress, finally succeeding in 1844. Four years later the “Old Man Eloquent” collapsed on the floor of the House and died shortly afterwards.
Theodore Roosevelt was not only a candidate four years after he left the presidency, but for the same office with a new party. In 1912 political bosses were successful in keeping him from the Republican nomination, so his follwers created the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. He got more votes than the Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, but less than professor Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Wilson went on to institute much of TR’s platform under his own titles.
Taft had never wanted the presidency, anyway. One term was enough for him. “I don’t remember that I was ever president,” he once said, relishing his last years as a Supreme Court Justice of the United States.
“Sllent Cal,” President Calvin Coolidge, who often answered questions with just a few words, probably wrote more in print than he ever said aloud. He had a syndicated newspaper column after he held the office.
Herbert Hoover was an unlikely advisor to President Harry Truman, who asked him to reorganize the executive offices for better efficiency. Ronald Reagan was knighted by Queen Elizabeth – many Americans thought the title appropriate – and Barack Obama has turned to filmmaking in a wide variety of topics for Netflix.
No one can argue that the post-presidential work of Jimmy Carter has not been far-reaching and long-lived, whatever you may think of him as chief executive. He has written 32 books, approaching Theodore Roosevelt’s record. The Carter Center is involved in conflict mediation with other countries. He and his wife, Rosalyn, volunteer one week a year with Habitat for Humanity, enabling poor families to own their own homes.
Fifteen years ago as I faced a small reading group around a U-shaped table, we read a short biography of Jimmy Carter, the children pretty amazed at what he was doing. They wrote to him (another lesson in writing), and he sent a letter back, answering their questions and encouraging them to be good citizens.
Who knows what Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy might have done in later years. We remember their monumental efforts in office. But many of those before and after lived up to the faith Americans had in their collective character.
There are so many talented performers of the past. Some were featured widely in films and television shows; some were not. Bobby Van, a Ray Bolger-esque actor with scenes that are hard to forget, was one of the latter.
I recognized the second-to-the-last movie in our Prime Video queue the other night as one I’d seen a long time ago at the theatre. It was a remake of Lost Horizon — not the first attempt at the story of Shangri-La in the Himalaya Mountains ever produced, but I think the best, even though it sort of flopped in 1973.
It had a stellar cast: Peter Finch, Liv Ullmann, Olivia Hussey (who doomed every bride between 1968 and 1973 to wear a Juliet-style gown), Sally Kellerman, Michael York, George Kennedy (who appeared in every other picture made during his lifetime), Sir John Gielgud and the legendary Charles Boyer. The music and orchestrations were very good. One of the best numbers was “Question Me an Answer,” with Bobby Van.
According to IMDb, Van began his motion picture career in the 1950s in Small Town Girl. He continued with The Affairs of Dobie Gillis opposite Debbie Reynolds, and in Kiss Me Kate, he was part of a dance trio in tights with Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall (another underappreciated performer — watch the barn dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for proof). He was in show business a long time. Nominated for a Tony in Broadway’s Dr. Jazz in 1975, he also worked as a night club entertainer, choreographer and game show host. He died fairly young — at age 51, in 1980, of brain cancer.
Lost Horizon was made twenty years after its time. Wars in the East (even though alluded to in the film), race problems and culture in general disinterested moviegoers from wanting to see a musical extravaganza. After watching The Godfather, the public looked for their entertainment thirst to be quenched by other blood-and-guts features.
Other songs in Lost Horizon by Burt Bacharach and Hal David are memorable. Minor chorded, charming “Share the Joy,” welcomed the displaced travelers. “The World is a Circle,” Kellerman and Hussey’s “The Things I will Not Miss,” and the creschendoing theme song were worthy of Oscar nominations. They didn’t get any. Bacharach was even quoted as saying he thought the movie would be the end of his musical career. The criticism didn’t make any difference to me, though. I bought an LP of the score and listened to it frequently for a long time.
Thanks to the medium he worked in and the technology we have to reproduce it in our living rooms, it’s still possible to see Bobby Van singing and dancing. Maybe the holidays would be a good time to check out Lost Horizon from 1973. I hope you will take me up on that.
In the mid 1960’s David McCullough sat interviewing an elderly physician named Victor Heiser for his first book. A resident of 66th Street in New York City, Dr. Heiser was prolific in his profession. In 1902 he’d been named Director of Health in the Philippine Islands, attempting to eradicate malaria and leprosy among people living in very primitive conditions. He had swamps drained and water and sewer systems installed.
It has been estimated that he saved two million lives during his long career. Heiser began in public health, studying ways to keep immigrants from spreading infectious diseases. He had graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1897.
He funded his education with the sale of his parents’ property in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
An even more amazing part of his story is that Victor Heiser was the only one in his family, and one of the few in his town, to survive the horrific Johnstown Flood of 1889. He was sixteen that year. During a severe rainstorm at the end of May, his father asked him to go to the barn to free the horses from their stalls, afraid they would be drowned in the fast-rising water. Then high above Johnstown, the dam at Lake Conemaugh broke.
Victor heard a deafening noise and looked through the barn window at his house. He saw it lifted by the power of the flood and carried away. He survived by crawling on a piece of steel roof carried by the terrible dark water and dodging freight cars, debris, animals and people, “everyone dying around him. Every so often a familiar familiar face would flash by.”
David McCullough used his interview many years later for his first book, The Johnstown Flood (Simon & Schuster 1968), chronicling the disaster minute by minute. He was motivated to write about it when he saw a display of photographs at the Library of Congress.
An estimated 3,000 people died in the flood days before the pictures were taken. The bursting of the dam was linked to neglect by members of a wealthy conservation club above the town, which never accepted responsibility for it. Some bodies were never found; many rest in a cemetery with a public memorial. Victor Heiser joined his parents there 83 years later, a few days after his 99th birthday. A true victor for the people, if there ever was one.
Everybody thinks of George and Martha Washington living graciously at their Mount Vernon country home. But while he was President, they had to live in northern cities. Especially interesting is their time in Yankee New York.
The first presidential mansion was the three-story home above on Cherry Street in New York City, which had a population at the time of 33,000.
The next year, they moved to Broadway Street to a home where there were two drawing rooms for hosting weekly “levees.”
Martha Washington was ill at the time of the first inauguration in April of 1789, staying behind in Virginia. Apparently George dined alone that evening but attended the ball and enjoyed dancing the minuet. Soon his wife and grandchildren, Nellie and Washy, joined him. Congress bought new mahogany furniture for the house.
Business of state was conducted at the Fraunces Tavern, where George was assembling the first Cabinet: Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State; Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury; and Henry Knox, Secretary of War. Our first President signed the Bill of Rights here. Ironically, the Fraunces was the site where, a dozen years before during the war, an attempt was made on the general’s life. One account is that a young girl found out about some poisoned peas on his plate and threw them out the window.
But in 1789 both George and the new government were up and running. He held public receptions on Tuesday afternoons while Martha had hers at 8 p.m. on Fridays. at which they liked to serve lemonade and ice cream.
Although George enjoyed taking walks in Battery Park, he also rode in a carriage pulled by six horses. He often went to the theatre.
Many of Martha’s peers had compliments for her. She was affable, gentle and benevolent. Unlike some that followed, she didn’t act as an intermediary between factions or gather and disseminate information, said Cokie Roberts, herself a daughter of two politicians. “I could never keep quiet as she does,” Abigail Adams revealed in a letter to a friend.
In 1790 the family moved to Philadelphia, where they and their servants spent the remaining seven years of two terms in office.
“Our dwellings in New York and Philadelphia were not home, only a sojourn,” the relieved first lady said when she returned to Mount Vernon, and added that she was content to be “an old-fashioned Virginia housekeeper.”
Sadly, the retirement did not last long. George Washington passed away on December 14, 1799, just before the dawn of a new century. The previous one had been hallmarked on this side of the Atlantic by his great efforts.
I had fun researching this one! Facts come from Cokie Roberts’ book Ladies of Liberty (2008), John Kaminsky’s book Founders on the Founders (2008), smithsonianmag.com, nyhistory.org, ushistory.org, washingtonpost.com, mountvernon.org, frauncestavernmuseum.org, and phillymag.com.
Five years ago I wondered in this blog what George Washington might have sounded like. More recently I found a book called The Founders on the Founders (John P. Kaminski, editor; University Press 2008) with some fascinating letters by people who talked with him.
Charles Willson Peale, the painter, recalled a visit to Mount Vernon in December of 1773:
Several young gentlemen…and myself were engaged in pitching the bar, one of the athletic sports common in those days, when suddenly the colonel appeared among us. He requested to be shown the pegs that marked the bounds of our efforts; then, smiling and without putting off his coat, he held out his hand for the missile…the bar whizzed through the air, striking the ground far, very far, beyond our utmost limits. We were indeed amazed, as we stood around, all stripped to the buff, with shirt sleeves rolled up, and having thought ourselves very clever fellows, while the colonel, on retiring, pleasantly observed, “When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.”
Chevalier de La Luzerne in a letter, March 29, 1783:
After a war of eight years, during which he has scarcely left his army, and has never take any repose, he has received the news of the peace with the greatest joy. It made him shed tears, and he said it was the happiest hour of his life.
James McHenry in a letter of December 23, 1783:
Today…the General at a public audience made a deposit of his commission, and in a pathetic (emotional) manner took leave of Congress. It was a solemn and affecting spectacle, such a one as history does not present. The spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears. The General’s hand which held the address shookas he read it. But when he commended the interests of his dearest country to Almighty God, and those who had the superintendence of them to his holy keeping, his voice faltered and sunk… After the pause which was necessary for him to recover himself, he proceeded to say in the most penetrating manner, “Having now finished the work assigned me I retire from the great theater of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”
Fisher Ames to George Richards Minot, May 1789:
I was present (at the inauguration of Washington) in the pew with the President, and I must assure you that…I still think of him with more veneration than for any other person. He addressed the two Houses in the Senate chamber; it was a very touching scene, and quite of the solemn kind. His aspect grave, almost to sadness, his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention…
Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, January 1790:
If he (Washington) was not really one of the best intentioned men in the world he might be a very dangerous one. He is polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without haughtiness, grave without austerity, modest, wise and good.
Julian Ursyn Niemcewiz, May 1798:
He held out his hand to me and shook mine. We went into the parlor: I sat down beside him; I was moved, speechless…He began by questioning me about General Kosciusko…”How long are you in this country?” — “Eight months” — “How do you like it?” –I am happy, Sir, to see in America those blessings which I was so ardently wishing for in my own country.” He bowed his head with a modest air and said to me, “I wished always to your country well and that with all my heart.” He uttered these last words with feeling.
And this letter, which Washington wrote to his wife, Martha, at the beginning of the War for Independence, reveals much. It is rare because she burned most of their correspondence before she died.
My Dearest, I am now set down to write to youon a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern…that it is necessary for me to proceed to Boston to take upon me the command of (the Army). You may believe me my dear Patcy, when I assure you in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it... As it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking of it is designed to answer some good purpose… I shall rely therefore, confidently, on that Providence which has heretofore preserved and been bountiful to me, not doubting but that I shall return safe to you in the fall. My happiness will flow, from the uneasiness I know you will feel from being left alone—I therefore beg of you to summon your whole fortitude and resolution, and pass your time as agreeable as possible–nothing will give meso much sincere satisfaction as to hear this, and to hear it from your own pen.
He has been gone for 220 years. During his lifetime he was greatly revered, and the passing of time should not dim the virtues he showed his contemporaries: patience, honesty, courage, steadiness, sensitivity, politeness. As Benjamin Rush wrote, He seems to be one of those illustrious heroes whom Providence raises up once in three or four hundred years to save a nation from ruin.
What do you know about the horse George Washington rode? In paintings we usually see a majestic white animal complementing the general’s stature, hair and blue and gold uniform. Washington was reported to be a superb equestrian, an athlete like Tom Brady or Wayne Gretsky would be to us. But the the actual steed? Its name? Its height? How long it lived?
Washington actually used two horses during the American Revolution: Nelson, shown above, and Blueskin, shown below. Nelson was George Washington’s preferred mount in battle because he was less skittish than part-Arabian Blueskin.
Then, as now, horses were at their best when cared for by farriers, blacksmiths and veterinarians. We can know one of those who took care of Nelson and Blueskin, because a descendant is in possession of original letters and documents.
Kenneth Clarke, who lives in Ohio, had often heard family stories about an ancestor’s connections to George Washington. During the American Revolution Clarke’s fifth great-grandfather, Simeon Prior, shod Washington’s horse and served as the general’s bodyguard. Clarke’s elderly relative left him papers over 200 years old describing some very early history of our country.
Clarke reveals much in his recent book, Wolves and Flax. The title comes from the fact that the Prior family, Simeon and Katharine and several children, had to raise flax instead of wool in the wilderness of Cuyahoga Falls for their livelihood. Too many wolves destroyed the sheep.
Historians, writers and history buffs are always ready to investigate a previously unknown primary source. If you are in this group, I suggest getting a copy of the book.
Nelson and Blueskin lived out their days at Mount Vernon, never having to work after the war. The chestnut-colored Nelson, who was 16 hands tall and died at 27, always came running when he heard Washington’s call. Just like us when we find that there is new information about the Father of our Country.
There were once three farmers named George, Tom, and John. Two were located in southern climates with long growing seasons and fertile soil; one was much further north, limited in the crops he could choose. In fact, later in life, he started planting trees instead of hay.
They lived in colonial times when over 90 percent of the population were farmers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams we know as our first three presidents, but each owned and operated farms before, during and after they held office.
Mount Vernon is Washington’s famous estate on the Potomac River in Virginia. In his day it included five farms on 8,000 acres. When he was at home, he rode on horseback 20 miles across the fields and back to inspect their progress. When in New York or Philadelphia, he counted on weekly reports from his overseers.
After tobacco crops of his ancestors depleted the soil, Washington turned to grasses, wheat, and other grains, practicing crop rotation and using manure for fertilizer. He raised cattle, sheep, chickens and mules, which he said ate less and worked harder than horses. His love for horses prompted him to buy an Arabian stallion which he raced in Alexandria. Hogs and turkeys ran loose in the woods.
He had inherited some slaves at age 11; at the time of his death he owned 215 people of color who worked up to 14 hours per day in the fields. He also hired white farm hands.
Not far away on a mountain, Thomas Jefferson worked his farms like a scientist, experimenting and recording the results of growing 70 species of vegetables and 176 kinds of fruit trees. Some seeds he’d gathered in Europe while ambassador to France.
His experiments caused the neighbors to label him “the worst farmer in Virginia.” He installed a 10 foot-high wooden fence around his Monticello gardens, “not to let even a young hare in.” His plantation also included 5,000 acres of clover and grain which he inspected daily, noting the difference to the soil made by contour plowing, crop rotation and organic fertilizer. His stock included cows, pigs, sheep, chickens — and fish, which were maintained in “live wells.”
Like Washington he inherited slaves from his family and his wife’s family, growing to 600 in number, who did the major work in the fields.
God speed the plough and prosper the stone wall. — John Adams
John Adams differed in many ways from Washington and Jefferson. He owned at various times a fraction of their real estate, 40 to 100 acres called “Peacefield” in Massachusetts. As a young man, his father took him to the fields and had him work to exhaustion. “Well John, are you satisfied with being a farmer?” he asked.
His son replied, “I like it very well.” His father said, “Well, I don’t…so you will go back to school today.” He graduated from Harvard University when the student body only numbered 100, and became a lawyer and judge. He used profits from his practice to buy more land, and on the circuit made a point of gathering new information about working it. In a letter he gave a recipe for fertilizer which contained seaweed, marsh mud, potash, dung and kitchen waste.
When Adams was far from home in various government offices, he left the management of the farm to his wife, including purchasing and selling land (See a former post on Abigail – Nabby – Smith at https://amazingbirdcollection.wordpress.com/2017/04/04/nabby/). In one of the surviving 1100 letters they wrote to each other, he said, “I fear your crop of hay falls short. Contrive every means for the maintenance of the stock and increase food for the cattle.” Other animals they owned included horses, sheep and chickens.
The Adamses had no slaves, hiring workers when needed. In his last years, John reflected, “There is nothing to try men’s souls nor to excite men’s souls but Agriculture…God speed the plough and prosper the stone wall.”
George Washington emancipated his slaves at his wife’s death. He had said in 1786, “I never mean to possess another slave by purchase,” and also that he would have liked to see a plan adopted by Congress in which slavery would be abolished by slow, sure progress.
Thomas Jefferson gave seven of his slaves, all members of the Hemmings family, their freedom, but did not include Sally, who is said to have bore him several children. The rest of the enslaved people at Monticello were sold at auction to eight different bidders to pay back Jefferson’s debts. The man who wrote that all men were created equal in 1776 had once likened slavery to holding a wolf’s ear — one could neither hold him, nor safely let go.
This is a season of reflection. In late summer gardens and flowers wither, dropping their last unpicked fruit and blooms. While there are still warm rays from the sun, thoughts of tillers and planters turn to clearing out and getting the dirt ready for next spring.
Washington, Jefferson and Adams all knew the feeling. We must not lose or hide the example they showed replenishing the earth.
But to own another person to do the work was not, and will never be, right.
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Information for this post came from John Adams by David McCullough, smithsonianmag.com, mountvernon.org, whitehousehistory.org, masshist.org, arnoldin.arboretum.harvard.edu, bostonteapartyship.com, monticello.org, nps.gov/articles.