Tag Archives: children

The Pilgrims’ Bible

All of America’s great historical men of letters wrote in a style that owed much to the King James Bible. That book was, for many pious early American families, the only book from which children were taught to read and write, the only one from which children were read to on dark winter evenings. Its soaring, yet earthy prose helped to shape the sound of American rhetoric back in the days when public figures were expected to speak and write with intelligence, clarity and precision.

So it is a surprise to find that the Pilgrim Fathers themselves did not use the King James Bible.

King James’ Authorized Version, completed in 1611, was that monarch’s attempt to reconcile the various factions that existed within the English church, each of which was passionately devoted to its own special translation of the Bible. By including in his translating committee representatives of the various religious groups, he hoped to create a translation that all English Christians could use and love. In this he was more than successful.

Of course, you can’t please everyone. And it was particularly difficult to please the Puritan Separatists. Their Bible was the Geneva Bible, a massive encyclopedia of Calvinist thought that included extensive notes, maps and diagrams. Many of its explanatory notes were contentious and explicitly anti-royalist: for example, the word “tyrant,” which does not appear in the King James Bible, occurs over 400 times in the Geneva Bible.

When the pilgrims left the distastefully liberal religious atmosphere of England for the Netherlands and thence to Plymouth Rock, it was the massive Geneva Bible they toted along.

Interestingly, some Puritans believed that Biblical names should not be translated; the name Adam should read “Red Earth,” and Timothy, “Fear-God.” The Geneva Bible included a list of the meanings of all those ancient signifying names at the back. In imitation of the great figures of scripture, the Puritans took to naming their children after moral qualities, such as Lament, Eschew-evil, Fear-not, and the very popular name Sin-deny. Among William Brewster’s own children were Fear, Love, Patience and Wrestling Brewster.

(Nicolson 74-75)

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Division of Household Labor in Pre-Industrial America

The question of which member of a household performed each particular task of housework was, in pre-Industrial America, strictly determined according to gender, age, and social status.

Although some household tasks, such as milking cows, carrying water, and peeling potatoes, were shared by both men and women, many more jobs were considered either “men’s work” or “women’s work.” We might assume that men were expected to perform tasks requiring brute strength, while women did the jobs that required finesse, but this is not quite the case. In fact, this particular division of labor seems to have been determined more by custom, in a way that looks almost arbitrary today. For example, the making of cider and mead was a man’s job, while women made beer and wine. Men repaired the clothing that was made of leather, while women mended clothing made of fabric. Women had small side jobs to fill in the slow times of their day (sewing, spinning) and so did men (whittling, chopping wood). Men had jobs requiring physical strength (hauling wood), and so did women (doing laundry).

These customary rules were broken only in times of extreme necessity. Men and women were simply not well trained to do the jobs that belonged to the other gender. A man could, in time of need, make his own shirts, or a woman repair her own shoes without fear of disgrace, but he or she would inevitably do a clumsy job owing to the fact that these jobs required skills neither would have had the opportunity of developing.

Therefore, whenever possible, the more usual solution in case of emergency was to simply hire the work done by someone else of the appropriate gender. Since children began learning gender-appropriate tasks at a young age, it was extremely common to “loan” children to other households to perform the necessary work. Although there were always many young immigrant men and women who could well perform household labor, the easy availability of land meant that most of these eventually chose to set up their own households rather than go into service in the home of another. This was the “servant problem,” and it was partially solved by the institution of slavery. Still, slaves were expensive, while borrowing a young niece or nephew to help with childcare or harvesting cost only a little room and board. This custom allowed households to function smoothly while keeping the sexual division of labor intact.

When children, relatives or servants were present in a home to help with the housework, labor was divided not only according to gender, but age and class as well. It is important to remember that in most households, the housewife worked side-by-side with the lowliest slaves; only the extremely rich could afford to leave all the work to others. Hierarchies were maintained through the specific tasks performed by each member of the household. In general, children were expected to perform the tasks that required the least skill or organizational ability, such as fetching water and milking cows. Servants did the most physically arduous jobs, like scrubbing floors or doing laundry. Jobs which required creativity, judgment, experience and organization, like preparing meals or making clothes, were reserved for the housewife herself. Each task carried an implied social status.

Although housework has been traditionally considered “women’s work,” the daily reality of agrarian life meant that men as well as women were required to contribute to the efficient running of a household. The reciprocal nature of the contributions of each member of a household meant, among other things, that for most adults marriage was nearly indispensable, and certainly a very different institution than it would become as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

(Cowan 26-31)

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A Day on the Oregon Trail

The earliest emigrants on the Oregon Trail set a basic pattern that would be followed, with some refinements, by wagon trains making the same journey in the decades to come.

On May 20 of 1843, that first group gathered near Independence, Missouri, to hold an organizational meeting and elect a captain. The next day about 875 emigrants assembled, with 120 wagons and the oxen that were required to pull them (oxen had proven better suited for this purpose than either horses or mules). The group hired a retired mountain man as a guide, and the next day they all set off.

A typical day would begin at 4 a.m., when the emigrants would be awakened by a volley of shots fired by the wagon train’s sentinels. Quickly they would strike their tents, hitch up their teams, and take their places in the column of wagons. The wagons were divided into platoons of four, often groups of friends or extended family. Because the wagons in the rear of the train would be exposed to all the dust kicked up by those in front, each platoon moved forward one place in the order each day. But if one wagon were late getting started, its whole platoon would lose its place in line. This tended to encourage speedy preparation!

During the day, the guide would lead a party of riders ahead of the group to choose the best route, and to make any improvements the route might need, such as filling in deep ruts. Other riders would range out to hunt game, while women and children would ride in the wagons or, more often, walk alongside. When the guide party found a suitable location, the whole train would halt for lunch; during this hour everyone ate, rested, and watered the animals. A bugle would summon them to resume the day’s march.

Near sunset, the guide would lead the party to a suitable camping place, and the teamsters would circle the wagons. The front of each wagon was chained to the back of the one ahead of it, to make a corral; the animals were secured in the center of the circle, which formed a defensive barrier against any Indians or other dangers that might be about. Then the men would tend to their stock or dig wells for fresh water, while the children collected buffalo chips for fuel and the women cooked the evening meal. A little fiddle or banjo music might round out the day, but bedtime was generally early for everyone but those who had sentinel duty.

The ox-drawn caravan could cover about fifteen or twenty miles in a day. That first group reached its destination, in the valley of the Grand Ronde, on October 1. During the four-and-a-half months of the migration, although four men of the group had died from illness or drowning, the party’s total numbers had increased: more than that many babies had been born along the trail.

(Woodworth 72-76)

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“Black Jack” Custis

Martha Washington’s first husband was Daniel Parke Custis, the docile eldest son of the eccentrically cantankerous and demanding, but fabulously wealthy, old SOB, planter John Custis. Daniel lived most of his early life alone (except for the slaves) on the plantation with his father, successfully managing the family properties while his father repeatedly refused to allow him to marry.

When Daniel was 29, his 61-year-old father presented him with a black half-brother named John, whom he had fathered with a young slave woman named Alice.

The elder John was completely attached to this child, whom he nicknamed “Black Jack.” When the little boy was five years old, his father petitioned the governor for his freedom and that of any of his descendants; the petition excluded the information that the child was his own, which fact would have in any case been clear to everyone present.

Custis made no secret of the fact that he preferred Jack whom, although a mixed-race child, he considered to be a true Custis, over Daniel, the son he had fathered early with a much-hated wife. At one point, out of humor with his eldest son, Custis drew up a will which completely disinherited Daniel and gave everything to Jack. Although he later tore up this will, he let it be known that he intended to leave a substantial estate to the little boy.

In his final will, Custis left instructions that Jack was to be given his own large and comfortably furnished house, horses, land, livestock, and enough money and provisions every year to ensure that he would never have to work a day in his life. He also gave the boy four black slaves of his own, along with ownership of Alice, the boy’s own mother, and any of her future offspring. The will carefully reiterated that the boy was to be free, along with any children he might father with any free woman. It also specified that Jack was to live with Daniel until the boy reached the age of seventeen.

Then Daniel met Martha Dandridge. By this time he was thirty-eight and wealthy; she was seventeen and somewhat less so. The elder Custis threw a fit when he learned of their engagement, and refused to sanction the marriage until Martha devised a plan: she sent presents to little Jack (a horse, bridle, and saddle) with a message that they were from Daniel. This apparent kindness between brothers melted Custis’s hard old heart, and he gave his blessing to the union.

The wedding took place a few months after the death of John Custis; Martha, Daniel and “Black Jack” lived together in what must have been a slightly uncomfortable menage for about a year, until the boy contracted meningococcal meningitis and died suddenly.

Most Washington biographers of the past chose to gloss over the issue of Jack Custis’s paternity, portraying John Custis as something like a lunatic, who developed an unexplained “violent fancy” for a random black child.

Of Jack Custis’s story, Wiencek concludes: “Human impulse was the great enemy of the slave system. John Custis put his family’s wealth in danger when he acted out of sentiment, out of common humanity. He lost control of the situation, not in fathering an illegitimate child but in yielding to the fatherly impulse to recognize the child as his own. The legal and social rules of the time were designed to eliminate these dangers caused by human weakness… Slavery’s laws and customs constrained the free as well as the enslaved…”

(Wiencek 72-80)

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Young George Washington

George Washington was born on February 11, 1732 at Pope’s Creek, the Washington family’s plantation on the Potomac. He was born while the Old Style calendar was still in use; when the English calendar was reformed in 1752, all dates were changed by eleven days and so his birthday became February 22.

The apocryphal story of young George chopping down the cherry tree dates back to an early Washington biography for children by Mason LockeWeems, who was well acquainted with the family. In the book, Washington does not actually chop the tree down, but rather just skins off a bit of its bark. The story conforms to the pattern of a Washington family legend in which a teenaged George Washington attempted to ride a high-spirited horse; the horse died under him of a heart attack, and George confessed the deed to his mother, who regretted the loss of her horse but praised her son for telling the truth. Pastor Weems may have invented the cherry tree in order to make the story more appropriate for children.

(Wiencek 32-34)

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