My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Washington’s Hindquarters, or Trumbull’s Revenge

Jo Ann Butler at Clermont
Many years ago I spent a summer working for New York State as a colonial archeologist.  I excavated uncounted cubic yards of dirt at Clermont, the home of Robert Livingston, signer of the Declaration of Independence.  My crew also did some digging at George Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh.  In the irreverent way of young adults, we referred to the site as “Washington’s Hindquarters.”

Washington's HQ, Valley Forge, PA
That flippant name has popped into my mind now and then; mostly when I visit Valley Forge, where Washington’s troops wintered and trained.  I didn’t expect “Washington’s Hindquarters” to come roaring back into my consciousness in Charleston, South Carolina, but if you go to the ornate council chamber at City Hall, it is inescapable.

Charleston is rightly proud to possess a John Trumbull portrait of George Washington, painted during the president’s lifetime.  But, oddly, you have to make a deliberate search for the painting.  When Richard and I found it, I had to look twice, then three times.

Trumbull’s work is the most startling portrait of the Father of Our Country that I have ever seen.  Commissioned by Charleston, the painting portrays Washington after his 1791 visit to that city.  However, it seems that Trumbull had to paint two portraits for Charleston, and the city found neither of them satisfactory.

Washington at Trenton
Trumbull’s first effort, which shows Washington after his 1776 victory at Trenton, New Jersey, did not please the city fathers, for Trumbull had portrayed Trenton, not Charleston.  They turned it down, and Trumbull produced a second work.  This one showed an identical Washington posed on the shore of Charleston Bay, with the city skyline in the background.

Charleston’s leaders were pleased this time, paid Trumbull his commission, and he promised to deliver the painting after he had added some minor details.  The rejected Trenton portrait was kept by Trumbull, who eventually gave it to the Society of Cincinnati.  When the society was dissolved, they presented it to Yale University.

Washington at Charleston
Here is the second painting; the one which startled me so.  Trumbull’s “minor detail” was Washington’s mount.  The artist turned the animal around.  Now its hindquarters are prominently displayed, with its tail raised as if the horse is about to relieve itself upon a boat containing the city fathers (which isn’t visible in my photograph).  Charleston’s skyline appears in a most-vulnerable position – between the horse’s thighs.

I searched for a higher-quality image than my own photograph for this blog, but couldn’t find one.  Is Trumbull’s Revenge considered to be in poor taste?  Perhaps, but it is a valuable piece of history, and a portrait of the living Washington made by a skilled craftsman.  It is also a warning – annoy an artist at your peril.  Like Charleston’s city fathers in their boat, you may find yourself immortalized in a way that you never imagined.

Photograph and further info sources:

Personal collection

The painting portrayed on the Charleston Forum website is a second portrait that Trumbull made of Washington at Trenton

The Yale portrait is the one rejected by Charleston, and reworked by Trumbull

Friday, March 16, 2012

Small and Naughty Canoes

Rebel Puritan

It has been a couple of weeks since I have posted anything here, and I plead preoccupation.  I am editing the sequel to Rebel Puritan, my historical fiction novel.  Though I am nearly done with the first rewrite of The Reputed Wife, it has sucked up my time in the evenings, leaving me with little brain power for anything else.
Jo Ann Butler afloat

 During the day I have been absorbing one of my most favorite places – wild Florida.  My favorite part?  Canoeing in that state’s magnificent swamps. To that end, Richard and I borrowed a friend’s craft and paddled among the mangroves of Halfway Creek, on the western edge of the Everglades National Park.

Halfway Creek, FL
A few days later we rented a canoe in Silver River State Park, and paddled upstream to Silver Springs.   This two-hour jaunt provides views of the most incredible cypress knees we have seen anywhere.  It is thought that they provide stability for the lofty trees in their wet and mucky world, and perhaps are used for storing nutrients. 
Cypress knees

Other vegetation and wildlife provide more photo opportunities than you can shake a stick at, assuming that’s your idea of fun (thank you, Groucho Marx).
Spider Lilies

I have been canoeing for most of my life, and am very comfortable on the water in these sometimes-tippy craft.  At below left, this is not me trying to rock a stuck canoe off a stump.  I might even say that I feel comfortable on the water out of a canoe.  At below right I am actually standing on a stump in five feet of water in this trick photo.

hazards of canoeing
walking on water?

 Modern canoes, whether made of aluminum, fiberglass, or plastic, are much more stable than their 17th-century counterparts.  Their flat bottoms make them less prone to flip over, they have a modest keel to make steering easier, and are designed to float even when filled with water or upside down. 

Birchbark canoe
Early craft were chipped and burned out of  single logs, or made of birch bark stretched over a wooden frame.  Birchbark craft were fragile, but because they were lighter in weight, they are said to have been much easier to handle than dugout canoes.  Dugouts were heavy, harder to steer, and with their rounded bottoms, they must have been very tricky to handle without tipping.
Powhatan Indians making a dugout

In February 1660 Jeremiah Burroughs of Marshfield, Massachusetts set out on cold, rough water to get some items from a larger boat.  Burroughs used a canoe, but when he tried to catch hold of the larger vessel, he tipped into the icy water and drowned.  A coroner’s jury came to the conclusion that the canoe itself was to blame, and made the following recommendation:

That some course be thought on and ordered about small and naughty canoes, and in special about this canoe in the which Jeremiah Burroughs went to the boat in which he came by his death.
That canoe was not called ‘naughty’ for being disobedient.  In a day when the supernatural played a significant role in people’s lives, the craft itself was held responsible for Burroughs’ death.  The jury didn’t go so far as to blame a wizard for bewitching the craft and causing the accident, but if Burroughs had an enemy in town, that could well have happened.

All in all, I am grateful to have never been forced to cope with a 'naughty canoe.'   Perhaps I can't say the same for my canoe's occupants, but that is another tale.

My thanks to James and Patricia Deetz for their account of the naughty canoe in their 2000 The Times of their Lives
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