Historically Speaking: Women Who Made the American West

From authors to outlaws, female pioneers helped to shape frontier society.

The Wall Street Journal

September 9, 2020

On Sept. 14, 1920, Connecticut became the 37th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. The exercise was largely symbolic, since ratification had already been achieved thanks to Tennessee on August 18. Still, the fact that Connecticut and the rest of the laggard states were located in the eastern part of the U.S. wasn’t a coincidence. Though women are often portrayed in Westerns as either vixens or victims, they played a vital role in the life of the American frontier.

The outlaw Belle Starr, born Myra Belle Shirley, in 1886.
PHOTO: ROEDER BROTHERS/BUYENLARGE/GETTY IMAGES

Louisa Ann Swain of Laramie, Wyo., was the first woman in the U.S. to vote legally in a general election, in September 1870. The state was also ahead of the pack in granting women the right to sit on a jury, act as a justice of the peace and serve as a bailiff. Admittedly, it wasn’t so much enlightened thinking that opened up these traditionally male roles as it was the desperate shortage of women. No white woman crossed the continent until 17-year-old Nancy Kelsey traveled with her husband from Missouri to California in 1841. Once there, as countless pioneer women subsequently discovered, the family’s survival depended on her ability to manage without his help.

Women can and must fend for themselves was the essential message in the ‘”Little House on the Prairie” series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was brought up on a series of homesteads in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1870s. Independence was so natural to her that she refused to say “I obey” in her marriage vows, explaining, “even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment.”

Although the American frontier represented incredible hardship and danger, for many women it also offered a unique kind of freedom. They could forge themselves anew, seizing opportunities that would have been impossible for women in the more settled and urbanized parts of the country.

This was especially true for women of color. Colorado’s first Black settler was a former slave named Clara Brown, who won her freedom in 1856 and subsequently worked her way west to the gold-mining town of Central City. Recognizing a need in the market, she founded a successful laundry business catering to miners and their families. Some of her profits went to buy land and shares in mines; the rest she spent on philanthropy, earning her the nickname “Angel of the Rockies.” After the Civil War, Brown made it her mission to locate her lost family, ultimately finding a grown-up daughter, Eliza.

However, the flip of side of being able to “act like men” was that women had to be prepared to die like men, too. Myra Belle Shirley, aka Belle Starr, was a prolific Texas outlaw whose known associates included the notorious James brothers. Despite a long criminal career that mainly involved bootlegging and fencing stolen horses, Starr was convicted only once, resulting in a nine-month prison sentence in the Detroit House of Correction. Her luck finally ran out in 1889, two days before her 41st birthday. By now a widow for the third time, Belle was riding alone in Oklahoma when she was shot and killed in an ambush. The list of suspects included her own children, although the murder was never solved.

Historically Speaking: Golfing With Emperors and Presidents

From medieval Scotland to the White House, the game has appealed to the powerful as well as the common man.

June 3, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

The history of golf is a tale of two sports: one played by the common man, the other by kings and presidents. The plebeian variety came first. Paganica, a game played with a bent stick and a hard ball stuffed with feathers, was invented by Roman soldiers as a way to relieve the monotony of camp life. It is believed that a version of Paganica was introduced to Scotland when the Roman emperor Septimius Severus invaded the country in 208 A.D.

Golf buddies Arnold Palmer (left) and Dwight Eisenhower.
PHOTO: AUGUSTA NATIONAL/GETTY IMAGES

Golf might also have been influenced by stick-and-ball games from other cultures, such as the medieval Chinese chuiwan (“hit-ball”) and Dutch colf, an indoor game using rubber balls and heavy clubs. But the game we know today originated in the 15th century on the Links—the long, grassy sand dunes that are such a distinctive feature of Scotland’s coastline. The terrain was perfect for all-weather play, as well as for keeping out of sight of the authorities: Scottish kings prohibited the game until 1502, anxious that it would interfere with archery practice.

Two years after lifting the ban, King James IV of Scotland played the first recorded golf match while staying at Falkland Palace near St. Andrews. In theory, anyone could play on the Links since it was common land. Starting in 1754, however, access was controlled by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, known today as the “Home of Golf.” The R & A did much to standardize the rules of the game, while cementing golf’s reputation as an aristocratic activity.

In the 19th century, innovations in lawn care and ball manufacturing lowered the cost of golf, but the perception of elitism persisted. When William Howard Taft ran for president in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt urged him to beware of projecting an upper-crust image: “photographs on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal.” Taft ignored Roosevelt’s advice, as did Woodrow Wilson, who played more rounds of golf—nearly 1,200 in all—than any other president. He even played in the snow, using a black-painted ball.

Wilson’s record was nearly matched by Dwight Eisenhower, who so loved the game that he had a putting green installed outside the Oval Office in 1954. At first the media criticized his fondness for a rich man’s game. But that changed after Arnold Palmer, one of the greatest and most charismatic golfers in history, became Eisenhower’s friend and regular golf partner. The frequent sight of the president and the sports hero playing together made golf appear attractive, aspirational and above all accessible, inspiring millions of ordinary Americans to try the game for the first time.

But that popularity has been dented in recent years. The number of golfers in the U.S. dropped from a high of 30 million in 2005 to 24.1 million in 2015. In addition to being pricey, golf is still criticized for being snobby. Earlier this year, Brooks Koepka, a professional golfer once ranked number one in the world, told GQ that he loved the game but not “the stuffy atmosphere that comes along with it.” “Golf has always had this persona of the triple-pleated khaki pants, the button-up shirt, very country club atmosphere,” he complained. Now that almost all of the country’s golf courses have reopened from pandemic-related shutdowns, golf has a new opportunity to make every player feel included.

Historically Speaking: Hobbies for Kings and the People

From collecting ancient coins to Victorian taxidermy, we’ve found ingenious ways to fill our free time.

Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2020

It’s no surprise that many Americans are turning or returning to hobbies during the current crisis. By definition, a hobby requires time outside of work.

Sofonisba Anguissola, ‘The Chess Game’ (1555)

We don’t hear much about hobbies in ancient history because most people never had any leisure time. They were too busy obeying their masters or just scraping by. The earliest known hobbyists may have been Nabonidus, the last king of Babylonia in the 6th century B.C., and his daughter Ennigaldi-Nanna. Both were passionate antiquarians: Nabonidus liked to restore ruined temples while Ennigaldi-Nanna collected ancient artifacts. She displayed them in a special room in her palace, effectively creating the world’s first museum.

Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor, was another avid collector of ancient objects, especially Greek gold coins. The Romans recognized the benefits of having a hobby, but for them the concept excluded any kind of manual work. When the poet Ovid, exiled by Augustus on unknown charges, wrote home that he yearned to tend his garden again, he didn’t mean with a shovel. That’s what slaves were for.

Hobbies long continued to be a luxury for potentates. But in the Renaissance, the printing press combined with higher standards of living to create new possibilities for hobbyists. The change can be seen in the paintings of Sofonisba Anguissola, one of the first Italian painters to depict her subjects enjoying ordinary activities like reading or playing an instrument. Her most famous painting, “The Chess Game” (1555), shows members of her family engaged in a match.

Upper-class snobbery toward any hobby that might be deemed physical still lingered, however. The English diplomat and scholar Sir Thomas Elyot warned readers in “The Boke Named the Governour” (1531) that playing a musical instrument was fine ”‘for recreation after tedious or laborious affaires.” But it had to be kept private, lest the practitioner be mistaken for “a common servant or minstrel.”

Hobbies received a massive boost from the Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t simply that people had more free time; there were also many more things to do and acquire. Stamp collecting took off soon after the introduction of the world’s first adhesive stamp, the Penny Black, in Britain in 1840. As technology became cheaper, hobbies emerged that bridged the old division between intellectual and manual labor, such as photography and microscopy. Taxidermy allowed the Victorians to mash the macrabre and the whimsical together: Ice-skating hedgehogs, card-playing mice and dancing cats were popular with taxidermists.

In the U.S., the adoption of hobbies increased dramatically during the Great Depression. For the unemployed, they were an inexpensive way to give purpose and achievement to their days. Throughout the 1930s, nonprofit organizations such as the Leisure League of America and the National Home Workshop Guild encouraged Americans to develop their talents. “You Can Write” was the hopeful title of a 1934 Leisure League publication.

Even Winston Churchill took up painting in his 40s, saying later that the hobby rescued him “in a most trying time.” We are in our own trying time, so why not go for it? I think I’ll teach myself to bake bread next week.

Historically Speaking: Beware the Red Tide

Massive algae blooms that devastate ocean life have been recorded since antiquity—and they are getting worse.

Real life isn’t so tidy. Currently, there is no force, biological or otherwise, capable of stopping the algae blooms that are attacking coastal waters around the world with frightening regularity, turning thousands of square miles into odoriferous graveyards of dead and rotting fish. In the U.S., one of the chief culprits is the Karenia brevis algae, a common marine microorganism that blooms when exposed to sunlight, warm water and phosphorus or nitrates. The result is a toxic sludge known as a red tide, which depletes the oxygen in the water, poisons shellfish and emits a foul vapor strong enough to irritate the lungs.

The red tide isn’t a new phenomenon, though its frequency and severity have certainly gotten worse thanks to pollution and rising water temperatures. There used to be decades between outbreaks, but since 1998 the Gulf Coast has suffered one every year.

The earliest description of a red tide may have come from Tacitus, the first-century Roman historian, in his “Annals”: “the Ocean had appeared blood-red and…the ebbing tide had left behind it what looked to be human corpses.” The Japanese recorded their first red tide catastrophe in 1234: An algae bloom in Osaka Bay invaded the Yodo River, a major waterway between Kyoto and Osaka, which led to mass deaths among humans and fish alike.

The earliest reliable accounts of red tide invasions in the Western Hemisphere come from 16th-century Spanish sailors in the Gulf of Mexico. The colorful explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (ca. 1490-1560) almost lost his entire expedition to red tide poisoning while sailing in Apalachee Bay on the west coast of Florida in July 1528. Unaware that local Native American tribes avoided fishing in the area at that time of year, he allowed his men to gorge themselves on oysters. “The journey was difficult in the extreme,” he wrote afterward, “because neither the horses were sufficient to carry all the sick, nor did we know what remedy to seek because every day they languished.”

Red tides started appearing everywhere in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Charles Darwin recorded seeing red-tinged water off the coast of Chile during his 1832 voyage on HMS Beagle. Scientists finally identified K. brevis as the culprit behind the outbreaks in 1946-47, but this was small comfort to Floridians, who were suffering the worst red tide invasion in U.S. history. It started in Naples and spread all the way to Sarasota, hanging around for 18 months, destroying the fishing industry and making life unbearable for residents. A 35-mile long stretch of sea was so thick with rotting fish carcasses that the government dispatched Navy warships to try to break up the mass. People compared the stench to poison gas.

The red tide invasion of 2017-18 was particularly terrible, lasting some 15 months and covering 145 miles of Floridian coastline. The loss to tourism alone neared $100 million. Things are looking better this summer, fortunately, but we need more than hope or luck to combat this plague; we need a weapon that hasn’t yet been invented.

Historically Speaking: How We Kept Cool Before Air Conditioning

Wind-catching towers and human-powered rotary fans were just some of the devices invented to fight the heat.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

What would we do without our air conditioning? Given the number of rolling blackouts and brownouts that happen across the U.S. each summer, that’s not exactly a rhetorical question.

Fortunately, our ancestors knew a thing or two about staying cool even without electricity. The ancient Egyptians developed the earliest known technique: Evaporative cooling involved hanging wet reeds in front of windows, so that the air cooled as the water evaporated.

The Romans, the greatest engineers of the ancient world, had more sophisticated methods. By 312 B.C. they were piping fresh water into Rome via underground pipes and aqueducts, enabling the rich to cool and heat their houses using cold water pipes embedded in the walls and hot water pipes under the floor.

Nor were the Romans alone in developing clever domestic architecture to provide relief in hot climes. In the Middle East, architects constructed buildings with “wind catchers”—tall, four-windowed towers that funneled cool breezes down to ground level and allowed hot air to escape. These had the advantage of working on their own, without human labor. The Chinese had started using rotary fans as early as the second century, but they required a dedicated army of slaves to keep them moving. The addition of hydraulic power during the Song era, 960-1279, alleviated but didn’t end the manpower issue.

There had been no significant improvements in air conditioning designs for almost a thousand years when, in 1734, British politicians turned to Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, a former assistant to Isaac Newton, and begged him to find a way of cooling the overheated House of Commons. Desaguliers designed a marvelous Rube Goldberg-like system that used all three traditional methods: wind towers, pipes and rotary fans. It actually worked, so long as there was someone to crank the handle at all times.

But the machinery wore out in the late 1760s, leaving politicians as hot and bothered as ever. In desperation, the House invited Benjamin Franklin and other leading scientists to design something new. Their final scheme turned out to be no better than Desaguliers’s and required not one but two men to keep the system working.

The real breakthrough occurred in 1841, after the British engineer David Boswell Reid figured out how to control room temperature using steam power. St. George’s Hall in Liverpool is widely considered to be the world’s first air-conditioned building.

Indeed, Reid is one of history’s unsung heroes. His system worked so well that he was invited to install his pipe and ventilation design in hospitals and public buildings around the world. He was working in the U.S. at the start of the Civil War and was appointed inspector of military hospitals. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in 1863, leaving his proposed improvements to gather dust.

The chief problem with Reid’s system was that steam power was about to be overtaken by electricity. When President James Garfield was shot by an assassin in the summer of 1881, naval engineers attempted to keep him cool by using electric fans to blow air over blocks of ice. Two decades later, Willis Haviland Carrier invented the first all-electric air conditioning unit. Architects and construction engineers have been designing around it ever since.

Fears for our power grid may be exaggerated, but it’s good to know that if the unthinkable were to happen and we lost our air conditioners, history can offer us some cool solutions.

WSJ Historically Speaking: When Blossoms and Bullets Go Together: The Battles of Springtime

Generals have launched spring offensives from ancient times to the Taliban era

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

‘When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding; Sweet lovers love the spring,” wrote Shakespeare. But the season has a darker side as well. As we’re now reminded each year when the Taliban anticipate the warm weather by announcing their latest spring offensive in Afghanistan, military commanders and strategists have always loved the season, too.

The World War I poet Wilfred Owen highlighted the irony of this juxtaposition—the budding of new life alongside the massacre of those in life’s prime—in his famous “Spring Offensive”: “Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled / By the May breeze”—right before their deaths.

The pairing of rebirth with violent death has an ancient history. In the 19th century, the anthropologist James George Frazer identified the concept of the “dying and rising god” as one of the earliest cornerstones of religious belief. For new life to appear in springtime, there had to be a death or sacrifice in winter. Similar sacrifice-and-rejuvenation myths can be found among the Sumerians, Egyptians, Canaanites and Greeks.

Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures saw spring in this dual perspective for practical reasons as well. The agricultural calendar revolved around wet winters, cool springs and very hot summers when almost nothing grew except olives and figs. Harvest time for essential cereal crops such as wheat and barley took place in the spring. The months of May and June, therefore, were perfect for armies to invade, because they could live off the land. The Bible says of King David, who lived around 1,000 B.C., that he sent Joab and the Israelite army to fight the Ammonites “in the spring of the year, when kings normally go out to war.”

It was no coincidence that the Romans named the month of March after Mars, the god of war but also the guardian of agriculture. As the saying goes, “An army fights on its stomach.” For ancient Greek historians, the rhythm of war rarely changed: Discussion took place in the winter, action began in spring. When they referred to a population “waiting for spring,” it was usually literary shorthand for a people living in fear of the next attack. The military campaigns of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) into the Balkans, Persia and India began with a spring offensive.

In succeeding centuries, the seasonal rhythms of Europe, which were very different from those of warmer climes, brought about a new calendar of warfare. Europe’s reliance on the autumn harvest ended the ancient marriage of spring and warfare. Conscripts were unwilling to abandon their farms and fight in the months between planting and harvesting.

 This seasonal difficulty would not be addressed until Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632), a great military innovator, developed principles for the first modern army. According to the British historian Basil Liddell Hart, Gustavus made the crucial shift from short-term conscripts, drawn away from agricultural labor, to a standing force of professional, trained soldiers on duty all year round, regardless of the seasons.

Gustavus died before he could fully implement his ideas. This revolution in military affairs fell instead to Frederick the Great, king of Prussia (1712-1786), who turned military life into a respectable upper-class career choice and the Prussian army into a mobile, flexible and efficient machine.

Frederick believed that a successful army attacks first and hard, a lesson absorbed by Napoleon a half century later. This meant that the spring season, which had become the season for drilling and training in preparation for summer campaigning, became a fighting season again.

But the modern iteration of the spring offensive is different from its ancient forebear. Its purpose isn’t to feed an army but to incapacitate enemies before they have the chance to strike. The strategy is a risky gambler’s throw, relying on timing and psychology as much as on strength and numbers.

For Napoleon, the spring offensive played to his strength in being able to combine speed, troop concentration and offensive action in a single, decisive blow. Throughout his career he relied on the spring offensive, beginning with his first military campaign in Italy (1796-7), in which the French defeated the more-numerous and better-supplied Austrians. His final spring campaign was also his boldest. Despite severe shortages of money and troops, Napoleon came within a hair’s breadth of victory at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

The most famous spring campaign of the early 20th century—Germany’s 1918 offensive in World War I, originated by Gen. Erich Ludendorff—reveals its limitations as a strategy. If the knockout blow doesn’t happen, what next?

 At the end of 1917, the German high command had decided that the army needed a spring offensive to revive morale. Ludendorff thought that only an attack in the Napoleonic mode would work: “The army pined for the offensive…It alone is decisive,” he wrote. He was convinced that all he had to do was “blow a hole in the middle” of the enemy’s front and “the rest will follow of its own accord.” When Ludendorff’s first spring offensive stalled after 15 days, he quickly launched four more. Lacking any other objective than the attack itself, all failed, leaving Germany bankrupt and crippled by July.

In this century, the Taliban have found their own brutal way to renew the ancient tradition—with the blossoms come the bombs and the bloodshed.

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Psychology and History of Snipers

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

Sharpshooters helped turn the course of World War II 75 years ago at the Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad during World War II cost more than a million lives, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The death toll began in earnest 75 years ago this week, after the Germans punched through Soviet defenses to reach the outskirts of the city. Once inside, however, they couldn’t get out.

With both sides dug in for the winter, the Russians unleashed one of their deadliest weapons: trained snipers. By the end of the war, Russia had trained more than 400,000 snipers, including thousands of women. At Stalingrad, they had a devastating impact on German morale and fighting capability. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: ‘A Brief History of Brinkmanship’

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, explaining how America could use the threat of nuclear war in diplomacy, told Life Magazine, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art…. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” President Donald Trump recently seemed to embrace this idea with his warning that if North Korea made any more threats to the U.S., it “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Lemonade

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The lemonade stand has symbolized American childhood and values for more than a century. Norman Rockwell even created a classic 1950s drawing of children getting their first taste of capitalism with the help of a little sugar and lemon. Yet like apple pie, the lemonade stand is far older than America itself.

The lemon’s origins remain uncertain. A related fruit with far less juice, the citron, slowly migrated west until it reached Rome in the first few centuries A.D. Citrons were prestige items for the rich, prized for their smell, supposed medicinal virtues and ability to keep away moths. Emperor Nero supposedly ate citrons not because he liked the taste but because he believed that they offered protection against poisoning. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Perils of Cultural Purity

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

“Cultural appropriation” is a leading contender for the most overused phrase of 2017. Originally employed by academics in postcolonial studies to describe the adoption of one culture’s creative expressions by another, the term has evolved to mean the theft or exploitation of an ethnic culture or history by persons of white European heritage. Continue reading…