The Potluck: A Native American Thanksgiving Tradition?

We’ve all been to one, some of us probably feeling slightly jaded about being pressured to contribute a dish that will surely be outdone by that one magnificent chef that attends every celebration. But where does the tradition of the potluck come from?

A common myth is that the word derives from the Potlatch feasts practiced by Native American Societies in the Pacific Northwest. But according to most dictionaries, the term originated in 16th Century England, to describe unplanned meetings in which you would eat whatever was available, perhaps leftovers from a previous meal warmed up in a pot. If you were hungry, you would have the “luck of the pot”.

Of course, this is not how the term is used today in the United States. For us, a potluck is a planned event in which all of the guests are expected to contribute a dish. This different application of the term is often attributed to Native American influence. After all, potlatches were similar in that the hosts would invite guests to a potlatch and provide them with food, with the expectation that some guests—the elite ones—would reciprocate the act by holding their own celebration at a later date.


Fishing utensils and serving dishes used by the Kwakuitl People

The potlatch served two purposes, one was to provide the host with an opportunity to show off their wealth and status, while the other was to help determine trade relationships and hierarchies between different settlements. You know that one person who tries to out-do everyone else with an elaborate dish? Well, that’s kind of how potlatches worked. The more elaborate the celebration, the greater prestige it brought to the host.

In many cases these displays could take a much more deliberate form than a little over-achieving. For example, in our McGovern Hall of the Americas we have beautiful sets of masks and capes. These costumes were worn during dance rituals at potlatches. The right to wear these garments was inherited though, so participating in the dances was a way of showing off your status in society. Chieftain (or “Tribal”) societies are not egalitarian, and the complex fishing societies of the Pacific Northwest had strict social hierarchies that were reinforced by these rituals. Hierarchies were so strict that in many cases one had to choose their spouse from a particular, high ranking family, like how it was in medieval Europe.


Kwakuitl ceremonial dance ensemble.

Probably the most interesting form of gaining prestige was the breaking of coppers. Coppers are little flat, shield-shaped pieces of hammered copper, that acted almost like currency. Only the highest ranking members of settlements could own them, and they were extremely valuable, but their value was purely symbolic. Coppers would be traded during potlatches, sometimes enormous quantities of goods would be traded for a single copper. If a chief felt that another chief had dishonored him, he might break a piece off of his own copper in the presence of his guest. This was a great challenge, because the other chief would then be expected to hold his own potlatch and break a piece off of his own copper in reciprocity. If he could not do that, he would lose prestige.

Now, does anybody recognize this sort of mentality in some of the Thanksgiving dinners they go to? It’s perfectly normal for people to desire to be admired for all they have worked hard to accomplish, and sometimes family dinners provide a setting that seems appropriate for that. Rather than impressing other village leaders, though, they just want to impress those they love.

It is hard to say whether or not the American potluck tradition was really inspired by Native American feasts, because similar traditions are carried out all over the world. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

An American Mastodon in Paris: A Story of Charles Willson Peale


Photo courtesy of wikipedia

Charles Wilson Peale: ever heard of him? 

Most people haven’t heard his name, but they probably have seen his work. Peale was one of the most famous portrait artists in the Colonies, and later the new United States, in the late 18th Century. He painted seven portraits of George Washington, some of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and many other founding fathers. He is known as the “Painter of the American Revolution“. 

After the American Revolution, Peale continued to paint and exhibit his works but in his later years he became increasingly interested in science. In the mid-1780s he set up one of the first natural history museums in the United States on the second floor of Independence Hall to exhibit his growing collection of gadgets, paintings and preserved animals. This is where the Mastodon comes in. Fossils of these animals, usually small, fragmentary pieces, had been popping up for decades in the New England colonies. At first these remains were a complete mystery, but as more samples came to light scholars began to realize that the bones were quite similar to those of elephants, but with important differences. It was during this period that the concept of extinction first came to light, and Mastodons were one of the most obvious examples of life forms that no longer existed.

In 1799, John Marsten discovered large animal bones on his farm outside Newburgh, New York. When they were identified as “mammoth” bones (people did not understand the difference between mastodons and mammoths at the time), Peale purchased them and paid Marsten for permission to search his property for more. Some of the bones discovered during this early paleontology excavation were submerged in a pond; the ensuing recovery effort is chronicled in the amazing painting below. 


Photo Courtesy of extinct

Peale and his son Rembrandt, Marsten, and many others were involved in the excavation of the fossils which were later exhibited in Peales’ museum. Although Peale wrongly believed that the animal was a vicious carnivore, his exhibit did a lot to expand public knowledge and interest in the subject of paleontology and was a source of great national pride.

Part of the reason the skeleton was such a big deal was because scholars in Europe at the time did not have a very high opinion of American fauna. They thought that the Americas had a volatile climate, poor soil, and limited sources of nutrition and that this deficit in natural abundance meant that native animal life forms—including people—were mentally and physically inferior to their European counterparts.

One of the proponents of this theory was Georges-Louis Leclerc Cout de Buffon, a famous French naturalist who not only proposed that the earth and other planets in the solar system were created by celestial collisions, but who also supported an early theory of speciation that vaguely suggested evolution. Buffon proposed that the earth was around 70,00 years old and that life had formed in a hot, primordial world in which the earth was still cooling from its fiery birth. His theory continued to say that animals were created spontaneously during this time, and then over the ages many of the larger animals migrated to the equator. This was the basis for his explanation of why Mammoth bones were found in Russia and Mastodon bones found in North America. He asserted that as these animals migrated, they changed a little to become better suited to their new environment: in essence, they adapted.

This idea, although not appreciated by many scholars at the time, was a great leap forward in the understanding of life on earth. Unfortunately, some of the assertions he made in his writings were not so great for science, or politics for that matter. For example, Buffon proposed that it was adaption to the poor climate of the Americas that lead to the mental and physical “inferiority” of native humans and animals. This idea, held by many scholars of the time including Buffon, would affect society in the Americas for the next two hundred years. As late as the 1940’s, Latin American governments created programs to encourage indigenous and mestizo citizens to eat European products to improve their physical and mental capacity, a sort of neo-Eugenics.

This theory was heavily disliked by early scholars and statesmen in the Unites States, partly because they were proud of their country and didn’t want it to be considered “lacking” in anything, and partly because the theory suggested that they too suffered the loss of nutrition and good climate and therefore could not live up to their European brethren. The “mammoths” were considered by Thomas Jefferson the be the “living” proof that the European scholars were wrong, and he even urged Lewis and Clarke to keep an eye out for living specimens during their journey. The Mastadon on display in Peale’s museum became a symbol of national pride and of the living diversity of North America’s wilderness, something the the U.S. is still famous for today.

So there you have it, from artist to paleontologist, Charles Willson Peale helped shape international perception of the Unites States. Although many people today have never heard of him, he lives on in the international legend of the heroic formation of the United States and the perception of the U.S. as the “land of plenty”. If you want to learn more about Peale, and the other men and women who have worked for the last 200 years to form a more perfect union, check out out new special exhibition Amending America: The Bill of Rights.


Ancient Games Talk and Tournament This Saturday!

Do you consider yourself a master of chess? Does your prophetic understanding of strategy lead you to believe that you were a true king in a past life? You may think you know the game of chess, but what would happen if a river were suddenly placed in the middle of the board, or if captured pawns could be conscripted into your adversary’s army and used against you? Around the world, there are many varieties of chess, each with their own set of quirky rules. And on November 5th you will have the opportunity to view some of these variations, along with other games played by the Ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and other venerable cultures.


Dr. Irving Finkel, an Assyrologist from the British Museum will be at HMNS this Saturday, November 5th to give a family talk on the subject of ancient games and how they were played. Dr. Finkel’s interest in ancient games led him to publish a children’s book about the famous Lewis Chessmen, and his collection of rare chess pieces were used as the basis for the Wizard’s Chess sets in the Harry Potter films.


After the talk there will be an ancient games tournament and you will get a change to try your hand at the same games the ancients played! 

***Free with general Museum admission.
Cosponsored by AIA, Houston Society.

Dead Things That Might Be Under Your House Part 3: The Black Hope Horror

I spent this past Saturday in a graveyard. But not just any graveyard, it was a forgotten one. I had first learned of its existence in a dusty volume published by the Crosby Historical Society in the early 90’s. Photocopied articles within described an African American Cemetery discovered by children in the Spanish Cove subdivision of Crosby, Texas.

Growing up in Crosby, Texas, I was well aware of the thick forests and swamps that separated our community from the Houston area. That was part of the charm of living there, the relative isolation. When I was little I used to explore the forest with friends, playing hide and seek in the fishing cane, riding our bikes on dirt trails, it was all good fun. But I was never aware of the graveyards in those forests. 

Back in high school while doing some research for a history project, I came across the legend of the Black Hope Horror. According to Texas folklore, there was a world famous haunted house right down the road from where I lived! Being a teenager and thus bored with all of the usual outdoor activities available to me, I was thrilled to learn about something that could rekindle my interest in my hometown.


Memorial to Humphrey Jackson and his wife Sarah Merriman Jackson, the original settlers of the Crosby area and one of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300”

In the early 1980’s, Sam and Judith Haney built their family home in the Newport subdivision of Crosby, Texas. One summer as they were digging a swimming pool in their backyard they made a grisly discovery—two bodies. The couple immediately began some research and were able to track down one of the original graveyard employees. Not only did he know about the bodies but he knew their names—Betty and Charlie Thomas. According to him, the property was originally used as a cemetery until the 1930s by an African American community located in the area and since it was not officially registered with Harris County over time it had been forgotten. 

The bodies were respectfully re-interred on the property, and that’s when the paranormal activity supposedly started happening: things like toilets flushing over and over again, strange smells and shadowy figures appearing. The Haney’s and some of their neighbors sued the developer of the subdivision for not telling them that there was cemetery on the property, but they lost the suit because they had no proof that there was an entire graveyard located on the site, and not just the two isolated burials. 


Hollingsworth Cemetery, named for Crosby’s first doctor, whose family is interred here.

In preparation for this article, I began researching the so-called “Black Hope Cemetery” and turned up very little. I was unable to turn up any verifiable evidence that there was a cemetery called “Black Hope” on the site or that the identifications of the bodies were accurate.  All I knew for sure was that there were bodies under several houses in that subdivision, and I knew that because several eyewitnesses have told their stories to local media. One witness even wrote a book about the event. Unfortunately, these stories tend to be anecdotal, and don’t provide a firm starting point for research. 

So where did my research take me? Well, it was about 4:30 in the evening on October 29th, and I was pushing my way through the thick brush just a hundred yards behind the quiet suburban neighborhood of Spanish Cove in Crosby, Texas. Accompanying me was my Mother and two of her friends from her real-estate office who had been to the ancient cemetery before. We searched for a long time, but the vegetation was so impenetrable it made the weathered headstones nearly impossible to locate. In the waning afternoon light, we finally we came upon it—a series of sunken depressions in the ground with a few crumbling granite tombstones still visible several yards beyond.


Tombstone of David McFarlin and Sarah Funghun.

The newspaper article that had led me to the site claimed the cemetery belonged to an African American community situated somewhere in what is now the Spanish Cove neighborhood, about five miles from Newport. One of the tombstones had the names of David McFarlin and Sarah Funghun, who died in 1912 and 1904, respectively. The granite memorial had been overturned, possibly by vandals or weather, but the heavy base still stood upright, the inscriptions on its front: “Father” and “Mother” obscured by moss.


“Father” and “Mother” inscribed on the base of David and Sarah’s tombstone

As I took pictures, one of my Mother’s friends mentioned that the graveyard is surrounded by private property “land locked, as it were” he said. This makes it difficult for anyone to go in and clean the place up because they would have to cross private property in order to do it. 

On top of that, the area is rapidly being developed, large sections of the forest between the Newport subdivision and Spanish Cove are being cleared for a new trade school and several residential neighborhoods that are currently in the planning stages. All along the country road that runs between the two subdivisions, large gas stations are popping up in preparation for the new developments. Currently they stand alone in fields, but soon they will be in the midst of a busy, residential area.



Areas like Crosby were historically very isolated. The nearest stores or postal routes were several days journey by horse and wagon. A quick trip to the grocery store was hardly an option so people had to live with what was around them. Small settlements popped up that might include one or two large land owners, some of the people who rented land from them, and smaller farmers in the area, These little communities had their own church, their own school, they traded and bartered with each other for the supplies they needed. Journeys to town were undertaken only for hard-to-get necessities like coffee or machinery. Often times the communities would be made up of members of a particular religion or ethnicity. There were several African-American settlements in the area, and a few Czech Catholic settlements. Settlers’ faith and culture played a big role in where they lived, as one could hardly ride their wagon for three days to visit the nearest Catholic church.

But as the railroad, the automobile and paved roads were introduced to the area, people became more mobile and these communities became less important. Crosby didn’t really exist until the Railroad came, but from then on it grew in size and importance. Nowadays, the small settlements that dotted the area are gone, but the graveyards belonging to the many churches and family plots remain. Every once in a while, kids exploring the woods or a backhoe digging a pool, might rediscover one.