Made in America

At the same time Americans were securing their political freedom from Britain, they also were securing their economic freedom.  Britain wanted America to produce agricultural products like tobacco and buy almost everything else from the mother country.  American craftsmen challenged this fundamental economic policy of the British empire, producing goods of all sorts that competed with the best that the British could offer.

The future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries will include American-made items – from furniture to guns, silver to books – that are inspired by English forms but are unquestionably American in design and execution and illustrate America’s growing economic independence.

Among 18th-century, American-made objects acquired for the new museum, replacing the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown by late 2016, are a pair of Chippendale side chairs that once belonged to James Swan, a participant in the Boston Tea Party; a tilt-top, mahogany tea table made in Edenton, North Carolina; an engraved silver beaker made by Benjamin Burt of Boston; a tall-case clock made by Nathan Adams of Danvers, Massachusetts; and a boxwood and brass circumferentor inscribed with the maker’s name – Daniel King of Salem, Massachusetts – and year made – 1758.


The Blue-Backed Speller – Forgotten Intellectual Legacy of the American Revolution

As the Revolutionary War was ending in 1783, a former soldier in that conflict named Noah Webster published a book that was to have an enormous influence on American culture. This was not Webster’s famous dictionary, which didn’t arrive on the scene until 1828.  The book in question is the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, a three-volume work that sought to transform the way Americans were taught to speak and write English. With this publication Webster hoped to extend the ideals of the American Revolution into the realms of language and literature.

A Grammatical Institute of the English Language was a success, particularly volume one, which dealt with spelling and related topics.  In 1786 the first volume’s official title changed from The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language to The American Spelling Book. However, generations of school children referred to it as the “Blue-Backed Speller,” because it usually was sold in a blue binding.  Revised versions of the book remained in general use for the whole of the 19th century.  The book has never been out of print, and about 100 million copies have been sold so far.

In the “Speller” Noah Webster sought to free American language from the “pedantry” of English forms and traditions.  He believed that the American people were the proper arbiters of correct speech, and that spelling should be simplified and brought into better agreement with pronunciation. For Webster these changes in language were only part of a larger cultural transformation that would cut America free from what he saw as a corrupt and failing English/European mindset.  His American Revolution was not just about changing political and economic institutions, it was about shaping a new American identity.  Noah Webster’s incredibly popular book shows how the revolutionary spirit, once unleashed, can push change in a variety of directions.  For Mr. Webster one small part of freedom was the right to drop the terminal “k” from music (“music,” not “musick”).



American-Made Light Artillery in the Revolution

We have poured five swivels to-day all good and cast four Guns 6 pounders this week which I shall have Bored next week. John Reveley, manager of the Westham Foundry near Richmond, Virginia, 1780

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown historical interpreters fire a 6-pounder battalion gun.

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown historical interpreters fire a 6-pounder battalion gun.

During the Revolution both sides made extensive use of artillery.  At the beginning of the war the Patriots had almost no artillery of their own, but Washington used captured British guns from Fort Ticonderoga to drive the British out of Boston in 1776. The Americans eventually developed the capacity to manufacture their own cannon, and they obtained many of the guns they needed from France.  High-quality French siege artillery was the key to the great Franco-American victory at Yorktown in 1781.

For the Americans, however, the most useful artillery pieces were not heavy siege guns, but lighter pieces that could be moved quickly on field carriages.  Mobile field guns traveled with the armies and were used as anti-personnel weapons in battle.  Large numbers of light guns also were needed at sea.  America sent out hundreds of small privateering vessels, each armed with a few light guns, to prey on British shipping.  During the war several American iron foundries got into the cannon-making business, not just to support Continental and state military forces, but to meet the demands of the privateers as well.

One example of a cannon foundry that concentrated on the production of light artillery pieces is Virginia’s Westham Foundry located near Richmond.  By late 1779 the foundry had begun casting cannon for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Westham produced 4- and 6-pounder cannon as well as even smaller swivel guns.  All were cast-iron guns, and none weighed more than about 1,000 pounds. The guns were sought not just for land service with Virginia forces but also for equipping vessels in Virginia’s state navy.  The foundry produced ammunition for these guns as well, including cannon balls and grape and canister shot.

The Westham Foundry wasn’t unique.  Most states had at least one cannon foundry in operation during the war. The foundries certainly didn’t produce guns of the size and quality of the best British and French artillery pieces, and some of these foundries had serious quality control problems. Often American gun founders couldn’t get the raw materials they needed, and skilled labor was always in short supply.  Nevertheless, these fledgling enterprises went a long way towards meeting America’s basic artillery needs during the war and made the American forces less dependent on imported tools of war.


Espionage and the Culper Ring

Continental Army camp mask

A mask letter, one means of secret communication used during the American Revolution, is shown by a historical interpreter at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s re-created Continental Army encampment.

For viewers of television’s new Revolutionary War espionage series TURN, the adventures of Anna Strong, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and Benjamin Tallmadge are intriguing and entertaining.  The focus of TURN is the Culper spy ring that operated throughout most of the war. Who were the real people who inspired the characters?

In 1778 British commander General Howe made the decision to re-establish British headquarters in New York, where they remained until 1783. General George Washington had no organized intelligence network there, a major weakness in his disastrous campaigns in the area in 1776.   He assigned General Charles Scott to develop intelligence sources. Scott stuck to the traditional practice of sending soldiers out to scout enemy positions.  Continental Army Major Benjamin Tallmadge offered to develop a spy ring to gather intelligence against the British forces occupying New York City and Long Island. When several  men spying for Scott were captured and executed, Washington moved toward Tallmadge’s plan and put him in charge of intelligence. Tallmadge organized a ring of civilians, known to us as the Culper ring, that provided critical intelligence using methods we would recognize today – dead drops, code names, number substitution codes and invisible ink.

Tallmadge already had a good informant, Caleb Brewster, a childhood friend from Setauket, Long Island.  Brewster was a lieutenant in the Continental Army and owned a whaleboat that allowed him to travel between Connecticut and Long Island by water.  Abraham Woodhull, another friend from Setauket, was also recruited about this time.  Woodhull was unmarried and lived with his father, a local magistrate.  Tallmadge gave Woodhull the code name Samuel Culper and later Samuel Culper, Sr., a reference to Culpepper County, Virginia where Washington had surveyed as a young man.  Washington, Woodhull, Brewster, Tallmadge and others also were assigned numbers.  Woodhull’s number was 722.

In the initial phase of the ring’s operations Abraham made trips to New York City to visit his married sister, Mary Underhill, at her boardinghouse in the city.   Once there, he gathered whatever information he could, then traveled back to Setauket and conveyed the information to Brewster.  Brewster picked up the information at Setauket, rowed across Long Island Sound, and delivered the information to Tallmadge in Connecticut, who then carried the message to Washington.

Woodhull’s frequent trips into the city caught the attention of the British guards at local checkpoints. Within a few months Woodhull was stopped and searched.  Despite their best efforts the British did not discover the letter concealed in his saddle.  This close call and perhaps others led to a change in strategy.

Woodhull talked a distant relation, Robert Townsend, into joining the ring.  Townsend was given the code name Samuel Culper Jr.  Townsend was a tailor and silent partner in a coffee house in New York City who mingled daily with British officers. Townsend harbored a secret hatred of the British because of atrocities they committed against civilians. Woodhull now stayed home while Townsend gathered information in the course of his business in the city, then encoded it and sent it via courier to Setauket.  The courier buried it in a pre-arranged location on land owned by Woodhull, who collected and evaluated it.  This is where Anna Strong may have come into the story.  According to some sources Strong, another childhood friend, hung a black petticoat and one to six handkerchiefs from her clothesline.  This signaled Caleb Brewster, patrolling the sound nearby, that a message was ready and in which of six coves he should land his boat. Once Brewster had the message in hand, he carried it in his boat to Tallmadge in Connecticut, and the message was then carried by courier to General Washington.

Many of these communications survive today, and give us a wonderful window into the secrets the ring uncovered, and the methods and mindsets of Woodhull, Townsend, the couriers and others who undertook these dangerous duties from 1778 to 1780.  Woodhull, Townsend, Brewster, Tallmadge and Strong all survived the war, and lived to see the United States established as an independent nation.

The spying that the Culper ring undertook was risky business. Other spies and spy rings  aided the patriot cause in Phildelphia, Boston and Yorktown. The penalty for spying was death.  What motivated Tallmadge, Woodhull, Townsend and others to take the risk?  Were their actions heroic? Would you be willing to do what they did?

Recently published books on this topic include Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, 2007, and Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution (2013).



What do we mean by the American Revolution?  Do we mean the American war?  The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.

John Adams, 1818

Pamplet on Extracts from First Continental Congress, 1774

The First Continental Congress, held in Philadelphia in 1774, set the American colonies on a path of confrontation with the British government that led almost inevitably to the outbreak of war less than a year later. This printing of “Extracts From The Votes and Proceedings of the American Continental Congress, …” will be exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, planned for completion by late 2016.

What do we mean when we talk about the “American Revolution”?  If you asked most Americans today, they probably would  mention some of the better-known battles – Bunker Hill, Saratoga or Yorktown.  Some also would think of the Boston Tea Party or the suffering soldiers at Valley Forge.  Historians might include political and economic factors as well as military developments.

In his old age, John Adams had a different perspective on the subject.  Looking back from the vantage point of 1818, he believed the American Revolution took place in the “minds and hearts” of the people.  What did he mean?  Adams seems to be saying that the real American Revolution began sometime in the 1760s and was essentially over by the spring of 1775 when British troops fired on the farmer militiamen at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts – or by July 1776 at the latest.

What followed, according to Adams, was the war fought for independence – the military struggle to defend our newly established, evolving nation.  This struggle would not end until 1783 when Great Britain gave up its attempt to reclaim the American colonies and begrudgingly recognized the United States.  If the “minds and hearts” of enough Americans had not already reached the conclusion that they needed to take up arms to defend their rights, property and liberties, it is doubtful that the military phase would have succeeded.  This was the revolution that sustained the long, arduous war effort after 1776.



As visitors come to the end of the exhibition galleries in the forthcoming American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, they will learn about life in the United States after the war.  Included will be a video presentation on the creation of the Constitution, graphics and artifacts that illustrate the continued migration – both voluntary and involuntary – from Europe and Africa to America, and images of the landscapes seen by travelers as they traveled west in the first half of the 19th century.

Gallery planners knew they wanted as the final artifact something that symbolized the promise of this new country and also evoked the sense of patriotism and optimism so many felt at this time.

The perfect item was located by Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation curators at the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 2013, one of the country’s premier antique events.  It was a sandstone lozenge 48 inches tall and 34 inches wide that had once been embedded in the stone wall of a ferry house in South Brownsville, Pa., on the banks of the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh.  South Brownsville was the location of a busy ferry crossing from the south bank to the west bank of the river, along the Cumberland Road (later called the National Road, now U.S. 40).  The ferry was run by Neil Gillespie from 1784 to 1794, and then operated by John Krepps, his son-in-law, and Krepps’ descendents until the 1840s.

The sandstone marker, removed from the ferry building about 1985 when it was torn down to make a parking lot for the South Brownsville volunteer fire company, encapsulates in its carved imagery the spirit of the new country.  An American eagle, the emblem of the new nation, dominates the stone, looking toward an olive branch (peace) in its right talon and holding arrows (war) in its left.  Over the eagle’s head is the word “Liberty,” and 17 stars surround both the eagle and “Liberty,” with an additional star at the very top of the stone.  The stone is dated 1813, which is most probably the date it was erected on the side of the ferry house, and the 18 stars may reflect the 18 states at that time (Louisiana was admitted as the 18th state in April 1812). Below the eagle’s talons are symbols of the nation’s agriculture – two sheaves of wheat flanking a plow – and the ferryboat that was the foundation of the Krepps’ business and also pointed the way to the West and to America’s future.  Its patriotic theme may have been inspired by the War of 1812, a war in which the new nation sought to further distance itself from the economic and military dominance of Great Britain.

This vision of the United States as a land of promise, of liberty, of the future is effectively conveyed through the stonecarver’s skill in incorporating images that those seeing the stone in 1813 would have understood immediately. For visitors to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, these images will reinforce the stories of settlement, liberty, war, compromise and the future that the permanent exhibit will tell.  It is precisely the artifact that evokes the patriotism and optimism of the new nation.



Diallo, by William Hoare, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

Acquired for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, opening in late 2016, the portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is on temporary exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown June 14 through August 3, 2014.

A rare 1730s oil-on-canvas portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a high-status African who was enslaved for a time in North America, has been acquired for exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, replacing the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown by late 2016. It is one of two known paintings of Diallo made by English portraitist William Hoare, the earliest known portraits done from life of an African who had been enslaved in the British colonies that became the United States of America.

The portrait, on temporary exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown June 14 through August 3, will be placed in a section of the new museum’s galleries that examines life in the 13 British colonies prior to the Revolutionary War.

Diallo, shown in the portrait attired in a turban and robe, wearing around his neck a red pouch probably containing texts from the Quran, was born in 1701 in Senegal to a prominent Fulbe family of Muslim clerics. During a trade mission on the Gambia River in 1731, he was captured and transported to the colony of Maryland, where he was enslaved on a tobacco plantation on Kent Island. Diallo drew the attention of lawyer Thomas Bluett, who ultimately arranged with the Royal African Company to secure his freedom and sailed with him to England in 1733.

From almost the moment he touched ground in London, Diallo won the respect of the leading lights of advanced learning in England and ultimately entered the annals of history as a figure embraced by the global abolitionist movement. Known as Job ben Solomon in England, Diallo returned in 1734 to Senegal, where he represented English interests in the region. He died there in 1773.

The recording of Diallo’s likeness by William Hoare, a leading English portraitist of the 18th century, is referenced in memoirs published by Thomas Bluett in 1734. During the sitting, Diallo insisted that he “be drawn in his own Country Dress” rather than in European clothing.

The portrait acquired by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is 14 by 12 inches, with the subject’s upper body against a landscape background within a painted oval. While the portrayal of the subject is quite similar to Hoare’s other Diallo portrait, which is owned by the Qatar Museums Authority and on loan to Britain’s National Portrait Gallery, the two paintings differ in size. Diallo is turned toward the left in one and to the right in the other, and the Qatar painting has a solid background.

In a private collection since the 19th century, the Diallo portrait was acquired for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown with gifts to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc., including a lead gift from Fred D. Thompson, Jr., a member of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Board of Trustees.

The story of Africans and African Americans during the Revolutionary period will be an important component of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s 22,000-square-foot exhibition galleries, featuring period artifacts, re-created immersive environments, interactive exhibits and short films. Spanning the mid-1700s to the early national period, the galleries will present five major themes: “The British Empire and America,” “The Changing Relationship – Britain and North America,” “Revolution,” “The New Nation,” and “The American People.”

The American Revolution represented the beginning of the end for slavery in the United States. The Revolution certainly didn’t end slavery by itself, but it created an intellectual, moral and political climate in which slavery could not survive forever. The Ayuba Suleiman Diallo portrait provides a face for the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans who constituted a major part of late-colonial America’s population, but who remain largely unknown.

Arming Revolutionary Virginia: Rappahannock Forge and the Virginia Munitions Industry

Rappahannock Forge sword

Rappahannock Forge horseman’s sword in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

When the Revolutionary War began, Virginia – like the rest of the American colonies – lacked the capacity to produce weapons of war on any scale.  There were many Virginia gunsmiths who made both rifled and smoothbore guns for hunting, but this work was done by individuals in small shops scattered through the colony.  Virginia needed to equip its troops with thousands of standardized military muskets and vast quantities of ammunition, as well as bayonets, swords and even cannon.

Virginia sought to meet its needs both by buying arms in Europe and encouraging arms production at home.  In this last endeavor Virginia had certain advantages over most of the other colonies, because Virginia already had a well-developed iron industry.  However, prior to Revolution Virginia’s iron furnaces mainly produced ingots of cast iron for export rather than finished goods.  The colony’s iron manufacturers had to experiment and learn new skills before they could turn pig iron into weapons of war.  Several of Virginia’s iron makers did this successfully, and colonial era ironmasters like Isaac Zane of the famous Marlboro Iron Works went from casting iron ingots for export to casting full-size cannon to fight for American independence on land and sea.

The Virginia ironmaster who responded most successfully to the demands of war was James Hunter of Hunter’s Iron Works in Stafford County.  Even in late-colonial times Hunter had been able to produce a wider range of finished goods at his works than other Virginia iron furnaces did.  By 1776 Hunter was able to show Virginia legislators that he could produce complete  military muskets with bayonets.  During the course of the war Virginia officials contracted with him not just for muskets but for a wide range of other military equipment, including “pistols, carbines, horsemen’s caps, camp kettles, spades shovels, etc.” His ironworks was transformed into an industrial complex, which came to be known as Rappahannock Forge.

Later in the war Hunter’s enterprise faced many difficulties and reverses, from British attacks on the forge to a persistent shortage of skilled workmen.  In late 1782 the Rappahannock Forge effectively ceased military production. One of its last major orders came in 1781, when famous American cavalry leader Col. William Washington  asked Hunter to produce 1,000 horseman’s swords.  The swords weren’t finished until November 1781, after the battle of Yorktown, but they probably saw some action with Nathanael Greene’s army in the deep south before the war ended.

Virginia’s wartime armaments industry did not survive the war. The iron furnaces and other production facilities that had geared up to manufacture munitions in 1776 either went back to civilian production after 1782 or went out of business entirely.  However, wartime production demands did teach Virginia businessmen and industrialists valuable lessons about organizing manufacturing enterprises on a large scale.  These lessons probably served them well as they faced the economic  challenges of postwar America.

“An Appeal to Heaven”

There are some slogans associated with the American Revolution that are powerfully evocative even today.  Phrases like “All men are created equal,” “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” and “Don’t tread on me” are part of our national heritage, and they are well known and easily understood by present-day Americans.  Some other slogans of the Revolution, however, don’t have the same resonance in the 21st century that they did in the 18th century.

One slogan that was popular early in the Revolutionary era was “An Appeal to Heaven.” Even though the famous “pine tree” flag that features this slogan is still widely recognized as a symbol of the Revolution, the meaning of the words “An Appeal to Heaven” isn’t obvious to most modern-day Americans.  To understand these words we must go back in time to the 17th century and to other, earlier political events that shaped the way British subjects thought about government and individual rights.

During the 17th century there was a series of conflicts in Britain between Parliament and the Crown, and this caused British scholars to think and write a great deal about the nature of government and the limits of royal power.  John Locke (1632-1704) was the most important of these political philosophers. In 1689-90 he published his “Second Treatise of Government,” which says:

…where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment.

This quote is part of Locke’s justification for the overthrow of Britain’s King James II, who was removed from power in 1688, an event known as the “Glorious Revolution.”  Locke’s “appeal to heaven” is not about prayer; it is about direct political action.  Locke argues that people have rights that cannot be infringed upon by the government and that rebellion is justified if it is to defend those rights.

As American colonists increasingly came into conflict with the British government during the 1760s and 1770s, Locke’s words became an inspiration to many patriots.  After all, if the Glorious Revolution was justified as a defense against tyranny, didn’t the American Revolution have the same justification?

The slogan “An Appeal to Heaven” is less dramatic than “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” but in its own way it is equally forceful and evocative.  It is a call to action couched in the words of a philosopher rather than a politician.

When the Wild West came to Boston

American rifleman, circa 1780

A circa 1780 depiction of an American rifleman, an example of some of the images created in England to satisfy British curiosity about American soldiers and the war in America. From the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

In the days and weeks following the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the British forces in Boston found themselves under siege.  The town was quickly surrounded by thousands of local militiamen who had come from numerous villages in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. As the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May, it struggled to find a way to create an effective army from this mass of inexperienced civilians.  The delegates also were aware that to mount a truly unified response to the British military it would be necessary to include soldiers from all of the colonies, especially from the south.

Accordingly, on June 14 Congress voted to raise ten companies of riflemen from western Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.  So impatient were they to join the fight, Captain Daniel Morgan’s Virginia riflemen traveled 600 miles in only three weeks to join George Washington and his fledgling army surrounding Boston.  In all, about 1,400 riflemen answered the call to volunteer – far more than the 840 men authorized by the Congress! The local New Englanders were astonished when these frontiersmen began arriving, wearing strange clothing and carrying even stranger weapons.  These “Shirtmen” – so called because of their long, fringed hunting shirts made of canvas – were armed with rifles instead of the more usual smoothbore fowlers or muskets carried by most farmers from the northeastern colonies.

The rifled gun was largely unknown in New England in 1775, and these western frontiersmen and their guns quickly became objects of curiosity to the local “Yankees.”  Both John Adams of Massachusetts and Silas Dean of Connecticut wrote to their wives trying to describe these rather wild, exotic men, their dress, and their long-barreled rifles.  Deane wrote that their dress was “hard to describe,” and he was impressed by the tomahawks they carried.  Some of these rifle units apparently put on shooting demonstrations and shows involving dressing up like Indians whenever they passed through sizeable towns.  It soon became apparent that despite its amazing accuracy, the rifle, which was basically a civilian hunting gun, was not as effective as the musket in battle.  Because they took a relatively long time to reload and were not fixed with a bayonet, rifles would prove to be of limited value as infantry weapons given the military tactics of the 18th century.

Nevertheless, the presence of these oddly garbed sharpshooters created much fear and anxiety among the British and German soldiers in Boston who soon learned not to expose themselves carelessly.  The officer corps became especially wary of snipers who were on the lookout for shiny gorgets or fancy uniforms.  According to the Virginia Gazette, by October 1775 British General Gage had instructed his officers to dress as “common soldiers” to avoid attracting sniper fire.  One American noted that the German troops had become so wary that nothing was to be seen from their lines but an occasional hat.  Although the riflemen initially amazed the men from New England with their expert marksmanship, they quickly became a disciplinary problem for George Washington because of their unruly behavior and overly independent attitude.  Not used to siege warfare and with few duties to occupy their time, the bored frontiersmen were the most troublesome units in the army, even starting a brief mutiny in September 1775.  One Loyalist noted that these men “were under no restraint. … and did almost intirely as they pleased in every respect whatever.”

Eventually the Continental Army learned how to make the greatest use of these unruly frontiersmen, who were effective in special operations like scouting and skirmishing.  Daniel Morgan’s rifle corps played a key role in the Saratoga Campaign of 1777.  Although they were slower to accept the need for rifle units, by the end of the Revolution every British battalion had a rifle company.

Learn about the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, opening in late 2016.


Page 1 of 812345...Last →