The Emancipation Proclamation is coming to a museum near you.

There is a very brief window of opportunity, from Thursday, Feb. 16 to Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, to see the original Emancipation Proclamation on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Currently the museum is hosting an exhibit on the Civil War, entitled Discovering the Civil War. This exhibit, organized by the National Archives of the United States, went on display in Washington, DC to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the start of the war. It is now touring and Houston is the third stop on the tour.

Emancipation Proclamation Display
Emancipation Proclamation at HMNS!
Thursday, Feb. 16 – Tuesday, Feb. 21 ONLY
9 am – 9 pm

The premise of the exhibit, aside from remembering the Civil War, is simple and straightforward.

Since 150 years have gone by, nobody alive today has any personal recollections of the war. The question then becomes: “Where would one go in order to learn more about the Civil War?” One of the most logical answers is to go to the enormous collection of Civil War materials stored at the National Archives. Anyone interested in this topic will be glad to know that extensive portions of the Archive’s Civil War holdings are accessible online.

At the Houston venue, the topic of the Civil War is covered in three different ways, all part of one large exhibit. The largest footprint is taken up by the National Archives display. This is the traveling portion of the show, entitled Discovering the Civil War. One can see documents and photographs related to issues like the reasons for the war, raising an army, resigning one’s commission, letters home, medical care (or lack thereof), and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. The other two sections do not travel and will be on display in Houston only.

Discovering the Front Line: Highlights from the Nau Civil War Collection takes the storyline into the realm of three dimensions. Here the visitor can see an extensive selection of uniforms, weapons, photographs, drawings, a very rare Confederate medal and other Civil War memorabilia from the John L. Nau collection. What struck me the most in this part of the exhibit is a display of a small Bible with a bullet hole in it. One can see the point of entry as well as the point of exit, on the side of the book. It is very likely that the owner survived being shot.

A small third component dedicated to the history of a Union warship, the USS Westfield, closes out the exhibit.

Originally a Staten Island ferry, the Westfield was acquired by the US Navy to serve in the West Gulf Blockading squadron. The ship took part in the attack on New Orleans, bombardment of the ports of Indianola and Port Lavaca ending up sinking on January 1, 1863 during hostilities blockading the port of Galveston.

The main portion of the exhibit, however, is the story of the Civil War as told through documents held at the National Archives. Within the array of documents, the one with the greatest historical importance would have to be the Emancipation Proclamation. Most visitors will get to see a copy; those who make it during the few days outlined above, will get to see the real thing.

While the Proclamation on display was signed on January 1, 1863, about six months earlier, in July 1862, President Lincoln read his “preliminary proclamation” to his Cabinet. On September 22, 1862, after the Union victory at Antietam, the President announced that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be free.

On December 30, 1862, work started on the final draft of the document.

The draft President Lincoln worked with on December 31 is considered the final draft. The principal parts of the document are written in the President’s hand. This final draft also shows an early version of “cut and paste,” as two paragraphs from the Preliminary Proclamation were clipped from a printed copy and pasted on to the final draft, in order to “save writing”.

In the early afternoon of Thursday, January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the document and by late afternoon the document was ready for transmission to the press (including the Washington Evening Star) and others. By about 8 PM, the transmission of the text over the telegraph began. From this point forward, the Civil war had the dual purpose of preserving the Union and ending slavery.

The original Proclamation normally resides in the National Archives in Washington, DC. The document is five pages long; initially all of these pages were tied with narrow red and blue ribbons, which were attached to the signature page by a wafered impression of the seal of the United States. Most of the ribbons remain, as do parts of the seal.

Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation at HMNS!
Thursday, Feb. 16 – Tuesday, Feb. 21 ONLY
9 am – 9 pm

What exactly did the Emancipation Proclamation mean?

It is perhaps easier to say what it did not do: it did not end slavery in the nation. Specifically, it did not set free slaves in those areas where the United States could not enforce the Proclamation.

In other cases, local laws and decisions had already set some slaves free. New Mexico repealed its slave code in December 1861 (Foner, 2010: 204). In 1862 the District of Columbia freed the slaves within its jurisdiction; the Proclamation did not make a difference either way in the District either.

What the Proclamation did make possible was for “such persons of a suitable condition [to be] received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service”.

President Lincoln recognized that it would take a Constitutional Amendment to abolish slavery.

This ended up being the Thirteenth Amendment. The Senate debated and passed this Amendment on April 8, 1864. The House of Representatives, however, initially rejected it. President Lincoln then took a more active role and suggested that the Republican Party include in its platform a plank calling for the abolition of slavery. The House of Representatives finally passed the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865. On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed a Joint Resolution submitting the proposed Amendment to the states. On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward issued a statement verifying the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

“It actually came to us.”

When the document was displayed at the Henry Ford Museum, thousands of people lined up to come see it. What impressed a young visitor the most was this: “It actually came to us. That we did not have to go all the way to Washington DC to see it. It came to us.”

I am sure that sentiment will be shared by our visitors – young and old – as they take in this historic document.

Reference
Foner, Eric
2010 The Fiery trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.

Just Another Day at the Office

Working in the museum’s permanent collections I focus on artifacts and specimens – after all, that’s my job.  But it’s not just the artifacts and specimens that tell a story around here.  It’s the people too.  Behind all the exhibits and public areas are many folks hard at work to make science and this museum relevant and memorable to you.

Lately, thanks to a recent staff luncheon given by the HMNS Guild and some quick conversations in the halls, I’ve been able to get caught up with my colleagues to find out what they doing behind the scenes.

In my own home department of Collections, Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout recently gave a lecture on the Birth of Christianity exhibit in the IMAX. (You can read blog posts by Dirk here.)

Dr. Dan Brooks just co-authored an article on the birds of the Pongos Basin in the Peruvian Andes, published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology. (You can read blog posts by Dan here.)  Several HMNS specimens were cited in the article, which is very cool.  (Plus, I learned what a pongo is.  Look it up for yourself and impress your friends and neighbors.)

The anthropology section in collections storage has been organized and practically transformed by Beth.  She has ensured that all those wondrous artifacts are properly labeled, stored, and easily located.  You have no idea how much work this entailed!  Imagine having all of your stuff from attic to basement labeled and neatly put away – with a color-coded key map.  Truly, my cold registrar’s heart is warmed and I get a little misty-eyed just thinking about it.

Anytime you get an in-house phone call that begins with, “I hate to bother you but” you know that intro is going to end with “do you know where David Temple is?”.  And I do know for certain that he’s been up in Seymour working on the museum’s ongoing dino dig with Dr. Bakker (read his posts here).  I doubled-checked with his wife Nicole.

When I climb upstairs to run some mail through the meter I notice it’s pretty calm in the Admin offices.  I think they’ve all finally rested up from last week’s very successful fundraising gala.  Poking my head into Kat’s office for a quick chat I found out that the education department is immersed in HMNS overnights, teachers’ workshops, and getting prepared for a full summer of a multitude of classes.  Don’t forget to register your kids pronto, those classes fill up fast.

Next, I quickly check on lunch plans with Tammy, manager of the museum’s mineral and fossil shop, who’s busy with all sorts of new specimens and arranging them in the cases.  She also provided her expertise at the gala’s mineral and fossil auction.  Passing by the museum’s visitor services desk I stop briefly to see if I have any mail.  It’s been a really busy day, probably due to the start of spring break, and Martha’s expression says it all.

There are some odds-and-ends photographs I need to drop off to the Volunteer Office, an always-upbeat place.  They’re happy to have found good homes for all the beardies but were so bereft without them, they bought one at the gala.  He’s been aptly named Ka-ching.

Lynn tells me the volunteers are eagerly studying up on the coming exhibits of The Nature of Diamonds and Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor. Karen’s in the midst of interviewing Ecoteen applicants and Araceli’s booking birthday parties.  Sybil was surrounded by volunteers so I’ll catch up with her later.

I actually don’t need anything from the exhibits guys, I’m just curious to see what they’re working on.  Today they are preparing one of our exhibit halls for the upcoming Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit. Mike and Glen are repairing some walls and ceiling tiles.  Soon they’ll be full bore into construction and layout.  Preston and Lex pour over exhibit floor plans.

The last colleague I touch base with is Christine, our live animal program manager.  She’s been out to a school with our Wildlife on Wheels program, sounds like the first-graders were adorable.  Next she demonstrates the Blue-footed Booby bird dance.  We both crack up.   I head back to the relative quiet of Collections knowing that even though I only spoke to a small portion of the staff, and not at any great length, this museum, along with its artifacts and specimens, is in excellent hands.

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One if by land, two if by sea

Atlantic Ocean

The ocean blue.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Matti Mattila

When Columbus sailed the ocean blue and finally set foot on the shores of the New World, there were people there to greet him. Roughly 500 years before Columbus, when the Vikings sailed across the North Atlantic and reached what is now Newfoundland, there were people there too. In the latter case, the encounter did not work out too well for the Vikings.

In both of these cases, we know that there was an existing population. This is not late breaking news. What might be news is a renewed interest in sea travel by the earliest settlers of the Americas.

Notice the word “renewed.” A review of hypotheses pertaining to the arrival of the First Americans confirms the old adage of “nothing new under the sun.” In general terms, two hypotheses have been put forward to account for the arrival of early inhabitants; a coastal route and a migration across land, better known as the Bering Land Bridge.

The idea of a coastal migration route is not new and predates the Bering Land Bridge idea. The discovery of early sites (known to us as Clovis sites) well in the interior of North America once supported the notion that perhaps people came across land and marched into the interior, instead of following the shorelines of Ancient America.

This view reinforced the important role the Bering Land Bridge must have played. While the land bridge connecting Siberia with Alaska was enormous, there remained one problem that needed an explanation. At the time of the land migration, Ice Age glaciers covered a huge swath of North America. How would these first Americans have been able to cross such a formidable barrier?

Creative Commons License photo credit: chadmagiera

A solution was suggested in 1935, when Ernst Antev came up with the concept of an ice-free corridor. This corridor was thought to have been substantially wide, at least from a human’s perspective, and no less than 1,500 miles long. According to Antev, it connected Alaska with the ice free portions of the US.

This hypothesis was accepted, or at least considered, by the archaeological community for quite a while. It was a bold statement to make, especially since, in the 1930s, our understanding of the geology of that part of the Americas was limited. Basic topographic mapping of the area from Northern Yukon to Northern Montana was not completed until the 1950s. It was not until the 1990s that systematic geology mapping  was completed for this region.

At this point we need to step back a little. While ideas and hypotheses can be great and mind-blowing, there is something that occasionally will upend even the most elegant mental constructions: actual data.

So here we are, at the beginning of the 21st century, slowly coming to grips that this so-called ice-free corridor may not have existed after all when the earliest settlers were supposed to have migrated through it on their way south. The pendulum was moving again in favor of the coastal route hypothesis, causing archaeologists to again wonder: what evidence do we have that people came over by boat?

One argument used by both supporters and detractors of the coastal route hypothesis  is that such evidence is currently covered by hundreds of feet of water. Therefore, at first glance, it would appear to be very difficult to prove or disprove the existence of such a migration route, because any artifacts left behind are out of reach.

Or are they?

rising sun
Earlt human artifacts have been found
along the North American coastline.
Creative Commons License photo credit: sun dazed

In the late 1990s, researchers working off the Pacific Coast of Canada set out to find locations where people may have stopped on their way south. Such locations might be river valleys (now submerged) or beaches (equally submerged).  In 1998 a Canadian research team did find an artifact at a depth of 53 meters off the Coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands. It was eventually dated at 10,200 years ago. Such a find is the archaeological equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. It has led to more extensive underwater probes elsewhere.

What can we say about prehistoric travel across water? How was it done? Aside from looking under water for any remains of prehistoric water craft, we could also look at other ways to prove that prehistoric peoples had the ability to cross substantial bodies of water. Here are some pointers.

Greater Australia was colonized by humans about 50,000 years ago. At that time, there was no land bridge connecting Australia to Southeast Asia. People crossed the water into Australia and became the people we now know as the Aborigines. A second pointer is obsidian recovered at a site south of Tokyo, was sourced back to Kozushima Island, a feat which required deep water crossing. This happened around 32,000 years ago. Thirdly, the first known settlers arrived in New Britain and New Ireland between 20,000 – 15,000 years ago. This feat also required travel across water. 

What these examples show is that prehistoric people did have the ability to cover substantial distances across water. Because of this, one should not rule out a similar undertaking by the first migrants into the Americas. Indeed, the discovery of the stone tool mentioned earlier points in that direction.

As time goes by, and more discoveries are made by underwater archaeologists, we should get a better handle on this still murky issue.