Digging holes here and there in American history.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Nightriders Claim Another Victim

The years following the Civil War were especially hard for newly-freed slaves. With no homes, no money, and no prospects, one can imagine the hopelessness that came with freedom.

To help, President Abraham Lincoln advocated for a bill to establish an organization to assist freedmen.

On March 3, 1865, Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill. The new agency was created within the War Department, the only federal agency with a structure that could be assigned in the South to assist freed slaves in obtaining relief, land, jobs, fair treatment, and education.
Recently freed slaves meet with the Freedmen's Bureau

The Freedmen's Bureau arranged for schools and served as legal advocates for African Americans in both local and national courts, mostly in cases dealing with family issues and property issues. Assistance was also provided to help African Americans find family members who had become separated during the war. The Bureau encouraged former

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Stagecoach Once Ruled N. La. Travel

     Long before railroads and superhighways crisscrossed America, boats and stagecoaches provided the primary means of commercial transportation. The Smithsonian Institution notes that mail contracts made up the bulk of the profits for most stage companies. The company awarded a contract from the postal service was the one most likely to succeed. The routes used by mail stages became lifelines into new western territories, and were soon traveled by immigrants and fortune seekers.

A typical stagecoach

     Travel by stage was not easy. The journey from Memphis, Tennessee, to San Francisco, California, lasted 25 days. Travelers could find themselves packed tightly with up to eight people inside the coach, several more on top, and mailbags stuffed in among the passengers.
     Stage lines built station stops, or contracted with locals to provide horses and other essentials, every ten to fifteen miles along the route. Except for short breaks to change horses at the designated stops, stagecoaches kept traveling day and night. The rough, bone-jarring, and often dangerous travel tried the patience of the most seasoned travelers.
     Early 19th century transportation in north Louisiana was best accomplished on water. The Red and

Monday, November 13, 2017


This post is a response to an assignment in my “History of Capitalism” course at Louisiana Tech University.  

I watched the 2016 film "The Founder," a portrayal of Ray Kroc of the McDonald's Corporation as part of a class assignment. Part of my assignment was to determine if the movie presents Kroc as a "villain." Is it even possible for Hollywood to make a film about a conservative Republican businessman and not make him look like a villain?  Probably not.  I read several reviews after watching the movie and several critics noted the film served as an indictment of President Trump-type capitalists.   

Kroc was definitely a capitalist. He took an idea--some would say stole--and made millions. The movie is compelling, especially since we all know McDonald's--"billions and billions served." The first 30 minutes is spent building a sympathetic picture of the McDonald brothers who started the first restaurant. This serves to contrast the greed and ruthlessness of Ray Kroc as the movie progresses. 

The movie portrays Kroc as a villain to some degree, although it does mention how he provided opportunities for financial success to many. There is no question that Kroc's operation has provided thousands of jobs and made millions for investors. But still, the movie tends to condemn his methods and motives. Emphasis is placed on how he "cheated" the McDonald brothers. At one point one of the McDonald brothers say, "We are not greedy men," implying that Kroc is. We are to assume that all capitalists are greedy. Kroc's actions are so ruthless that they supposedly stress one McDonald brother to the point he is hospitalized.
There are also attempts in the film to paint Kroc as a hypocrite. Through words and imagery, Kroc's patriotic and religious beliefs are mocked and his actions (divorce, lying, swindling, etc.) are portrayed in contradiction to his espoused beliefs. This is presented subtly but repeatedly. In one scene, Kroc tries to persuade the McDonald brothers to go national by equating the firm's "golden arches" with "flags and crosses," explaining that McDonald's restaurants should as common as churches. Or as Michael Keaton says in portraying Kroc, "McDonald's can be the new American church." 
I have read articles before that praised Kroc for his business talent and innovation that led to one of the most successful businesses in American history.  "The Founder" is honest with us by noting at the beginning of the movie that it is "Based on a true story." I think we have to take the film as what it is--an Hollywood interpretation with its own perspective and motives. I recommend the movie but also reading more about this fascinating entrepreneur. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


“Will that be cash or credit?”

This post is a response to an assignment in my “History of Capitalism” course at Louisiana Tech University.  

All of us have been asked that when making a purchase. We pull out a card to pay for everything without thinking about it. Who wants to think about “credit.” An incredibly boring topic for a history blog, right? I thought so as well until I heard a podcast featuring historian Louis Hyman of Cornell University discussing “The History of Consumer Credit.” Hyman’s explanation of how credit changed after World War II is clear as well as fascinating.

Americans owe over $84 billion in credit card debt, reflecting a 285% increase since 1980. Many owe tens of thousands of dollars on their cards, debt that will take years to pay off, if ever. How did we get to this point where we owe others so much?

Hyman’s discussion starts with “installment credit” shortly after World War II. Under an installment credit contract, if a customer failed to pay, the item was repossessed. As goods became cheaper, there was no longer any value in repossession, except for cars and houses.

“In the 1950s, we see stores sell cheaper and cheaper goods,” Hyman explains, as a new system of credit emerges. This new world of credit was developed with the inundation of the market with economical products—revolving credit could be used to buy anything with credit. Stores like Kmart developed systems to reduce costs in labor and overhead, giving them the ability to sell discounted goods.

By the 1970s, general credit cards, rather than store-specific ones, emerged. I recall “Bank Americard,” the forerunner of VISA, as my first credit card. I remember checking storefronts for signs that the businesses accepted this new form of payment. These general-use cards not linked to a single store created what Hyman calls a “distributive landscape of credit.” Now we could buy just about anything anywhere on credit.

Debt shapes how we live; it has also shaped business and banking practices. Hyman emphasizes that credit is more than a simple buyer-seller transaction. He cites General Electric, one of the big companies that ventured into providing consumer financing, not only for its own products but for other marketers. By 1969, GE was financing one in 25 Americans, many who did not even know they owed GE since their purchases were through other companies but financed by GE.

“Consumer credit is not just about the borrower,” Hyman, concludes, “it’s not just about the lender, but it’s also about the worker (who produced the goods) who is also a consumer.”

Hyman does not extoll the dangers of excessive debt in the podcast, but he does warn of it in his books, Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink and Borrow: The American Way of Debt.

In other research, I found that consumer debt and its effect on capitalism continues to change. Surprisingly, 63% of millennials do not have credit cards. Raised by “baby boomers” who had wallets and purses full of credit cards, this is an astounding development. How will it affect the economy? Also, we are seeing less use of cash and even checks as other mechanisms of payment (online, debit cards, etc) are encouraged.

Sunday, October 22, 2017


Did slaves get our economy to where it is today?

This post is a response to an assignment in my “History of Capitalism” course at Louisiana Tech University.  I hope you find this analysis of Julia Ott’s essay, “Slaves: The Capital that Made Capitalism” interesting.

Ott’s article makes the case that slavery was a significant factor in developing capitalism in America and the world.  In fact, she calls slaves “the capital that made capitalism.”

According to Ott, slaves were essential for the “industrious revolution” and the subsequent “industrial revolution.” The Industrial Revolution was the result of surplus money and crops, leading to the development of new technology. But before the Industrial Revolution was an Industrious Revolution, a period of tremendous desire for more goods. During the Industrious Revolution, the demand for goods increased, but supply did not rise as quickly. These included goods like tobacco, coffee, chocolate, sugar, and tea.  Ott calls these “drug foods” since their new consumers developed a craving, or addiction if you will, to these new luxuries that quickly became “necessities.”

During the Industrious Revolution, Europeans worked harder to be able to afford these drug foods in the 16th Century, which paved the way for the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

But Ott notes the demand for these products is only part of how the Industrious Revolution and the subsequent Industrial Revolution came about. Essential to these economic developments, according to Ott, was new capital in the form of slaves.

Ott explains that trading in slaves and the goods they produced led to the development of modern finance and new industrial activities. Transoceanic trading networks, banks, and insurance services rose from the international slave trade. The capital derived from these endeavors financed British industries such as gun and metal manufacturing, sugar refinement, rum distillation, and the creation of cotton products.  The effect of slavery on the development of capitalism went far beyond what the individual slave did in a cotton field.

Cotton, in fact, became the world’s most significant crop, and slavery was the most efficient capital to produce it. The number of slaves in America grew to increase cotton production. In the early 1800s, cotton was the world’s number one traded good.  The export of cotton to Britain and other nations was imperative to obtain the products and credit needed from abroad.
Slaves picking cotton.

Not only did cotton, through slave labor, develop a wealthy South, according to Ott, it also developing an industrial complex in the North. Northerners participated in the slave trade, transported products created by slaves, created mills to refine those products, and used those profits to invest in other industries.

Ott concludes the essay with the statement that slavery “set capitalism in motion and sustained capital accumulation for three centuries.” Slavery may have given capitalism a “jump start” but other factors have since have attributed to its advancement.

I disagree with the notion that slavery, which ended 150 years ago, is responsible for where our economy stands today. Too many other factors have influenced our economy in the intervening years. In the U.S., the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Great Depression destroyed the capital Ott says was in the hands of rich Southerners. World War II brought prosperity to many due to the manufacture of war materiel.  Technology developments in one year in recent decades make the entire Industrial Revolution look like the Stone Age. New products and services are developed every day. Communication is instantaneous, prompting constant changes, including growth, in our world economy.  

We would not be far off the mark to call technology the drug of choice today, although Ott’s drug foods are still extremely popular. Many who read this post consider their daily latte, expresso, or frappe essential to life. Millions are attached to cell phones as if they were life support machines that must be monitored constantly. There is more computer capability within a modern cell phone than in the Apollo spaceships that took American astronauts to the moon in the 60s and 70s. Such advancements, considering the size of the world economy today, have the ability to influence capitalistic societies practically overnight. According to Angus Maddison in his book The World Economy, in the last half century, the world economy performed better than at any time in the past. 

Slavery certainly played a role in the development of capitalism. Slaves were chattel, much like money itself, and served as the resource to grow one's finances. But world events, technological advances, and the ingenuity of the capitalist now overshadow slavery's influence on the current status of capitalism and the world economy.

Monday, March 13, 2017


Every year I attend a conference in Washington, DC on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  I hope to publish a book one day on the physical evidence from the crime.  Through my research and my participation in this annual conference, I have met many people who are serious students of history.

One of those is Dave Taylor, an elementary school teacher in Maryland. who has become an expert on the assassination.  He publishes an excellent blog on the Lincoln assassination called Boothie Barn.  A recent post on the blog includes a video of Dave giving a dramatic reenactment as the assassin John Wilkes Booth.  It's worth a look: https://boothiebarn.com/2017/03/04/an-evening-with-john-wilkes-booth/#comment-33209

Friday, December 30, 2016


     A community’s history can be recreated through the post cards issued to commemorate its locations, people, and special events.
     As I collected post cards from my hometown of Ruston, Louisiana, I realized the hundreds of images printed for the past century could tell the community’s history as easily as any book. In fact, I turned those post cards into a book: “Greetings from Ruston.” Usually post cards were intended primarily for tourists but they revealed what was important to the community—churches, schools, successful businesses, significant community events. More recently, post cards have been used extensively as advertising which will tell historians a century from now much about how we lived.
     Collections of post cards can be found on internet genealogy and history sites. Even assemblages of outrageously corny or ugly post cards can be viewed online.
     The U.S. Post Office Department began issuing pre-stamped postal cards in 1873. The cards were created to meet the public demand for a convenient way to send notes by mail. The Post Office was the only entity allowed to print post cards until 1898 when Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, permitting private publishers and printers to produce post cards. Initially, the government prohibited private businesses from calling their cards “post cards,” so they were referred to as “souvenir cards.” Prior to 1908, no other information could be placed on the address side of the post card, so the photo side often provided a margin for a short message.
     The first post card in the United States was created in 1893 to advertise the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Shortly thereafter the United States Post Office Department allowed printers to publish a 1-cent post card (the "Penny Postcard"). A correspondent's writing was allowed only on the front side of these cards.
     In 1901 cards appeared with the words "Post Card" printed on the reverse (the side without the picture). Written messages were still restricted to the front side, with the entire back dedicated to the address. This "undivided back" is what gives this postcard era its name.   
     The "divided back" card, with space for a message on the address side, came into use in the United States in 1907. The back of the card was divided into two sections, the left section being used for the message and the right for the address. From 1907 to about 1915, picture post cards were a wildly popular form of communication. In 1908, more than 677 million post cards were mailed.
     The “white border” era, named for obvious reasons, lasted from about 1916 to 1930.  The “linen card” era, from 1931 to the early 1950s, was marked by the use of cards printed on papers with a textured surface similar to linen cloth. The current post card era of “chrome” cards began about 1939.  The images on these cards are usually color photographs on a glossy paper. Modern post cards can also be found made from wood, metal, or bearing holograph images.

     Today, many Christmas greetings are in the form of post cards, usually with a photograph of the family. Businesses and nonprofits often use post cards to make announcements and spread important information without the expense of stuffed envelopes.

Friday, November 25, 2016


Louisiana politics wasn’t always dirty; sometimes it was just deadly.

     In Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth, a largely forgotten character utters one of the writer’s most memorable lines: “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The oft-misinterpreted line was meant to praise attorneys and judges who impart justice in society. But in the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, a Louisiana lawyer served in government at his own risk.
     Politics today could be considered downright nasty with plenty of mudslinging and vitriolic name-calling. But even Louisiana’s notoriously scandal-plagued politics of the 20th century does not compare to the violence of Reconstruction. After the war, Republicans, with control of the federal bureaucracy, took charge of local and state government in Louisiana and most of the South, even though the majority of the populace was Democrat. Once the sole purview of the white Democrats, control of local politics was largely in the hands of those holding newfound power gained through the Union victory.
     Serving in the Republican-controlled Reconstruction government could be deadly. Political assassinations were common as the Democrats saw their domain coming to an end. They did not take kindly to outsiders—carpetbaggers—coming in to run local government. The scalawags—locals who allied themselves with the Radical Republicans—were especially despised. Even those who had excellent relationships with the populace before and during the war were now considered pariahs by their longtime friends and associates.
     The White League used violence against officeholders, running some out of town and killing others, and suppressed election turnout among black and white Republicans. In August 1874, a mob assassinated virtually every government official in Red River Parish. An insurrection by 5,000 White Leaguers against Metropolitan Police and state militia supporting the state government in New Orleans on September 14, 1874, killed dozens. The insurgents held the statehouse, armory, and downtown for three days, retreating before arrival of Federal troops that restored the Radical Republican government. A memorial commemorating the Democratic view of the Battle of Liberty Place is currently the focus of a contentious fight over the removal of purported racist symbols in New Orleans.
      Sometimes the attack on government officials had more to do with outright lawlessness than political opposition. Such may be the case with the murder of a district judge and district attorney near Winnsboro in September 1873. The Ouachita Telegraph called the apparent ambush killing of District Judge Thomas H. Crawford and District Attorney Arthur H. Harris “a great crime, exciting our horror and strongest condemnation.”
     Harris and Crawford had participated in court proceedings in Winnsboro for a week before returning to their homes in Columbia in Caldwell Parish. On Monday, September 8, they set out for Winnsboro for a second week of court. Along the route, an ambush cut them down. Another attorney, Thomas J. Hough, who left Columbia two or three hours after the two officials, discovered the bodies fourteen miles down the road near the Boeuf River swamps. Hough spurred his horse back to Columbia to collect a posse.
     Judge Crawford lay in the road, the victim of what the Ouachita Telegraph termed “murderous fire.” The paper’s description was gruesome: “He was shot so often as to leave no distinct marks of the number of shots he received. His head was literally torn to pieces, the parts being gathered up in a handkerchief for interment. His horse was shot in the neck, but not killed.”
     District Attorney Harris had opportunity to flee the first onslaught. His horse was shot down in the road but Harris’s body was found some distance away, indicating he briefly fled on foot. According to the Telegraph, “his body exhibited wounds in the knee, thigh, side and head, from which it is believed he was killed in flight, and even shot while down and several paces from his horse. The character of the wounds leads to the belief that the fire was delivered from both sides of the road, and that after having shot the two men down, they were shot while down, and Judge Crawford even after he was dead. His chest received a number of bullets, and underneath his head a large hole in the ground was seen, while the upper portion of this head was entirely blown asunder.”
     As a Unionist who opposed Louisiana’s secession, Crawford’s alliance with the Republicans meant losing friends and gaining many enemies. He had fled to New York during the conflict. Attempts had been made on his life since his return to Louisiana. Many drew the conclusion that his office was gained through subterfuge with the help of the Republican-controlled election returning board as the vote count had been decidedly against him. Harris, it was supposed, was killed because he was in company with Crawford, and no witnesses could be left alive. 
     Some suggested a different and more likely motive. Crawford and Harris had been threatened by a Caldwell Parish man named Winn, a fugitive facing a murder charge.
     Harris had no known enemies. As a Democrat, the Telegraph reported, “he was thoroughly and strongly opposed to Crawford politically, and was even beloved by the people of his district. Nothing but strong personal enmity can account for his death and that of Judge Crawford in the way recited. And this fact — admitted to be such by every one — points more strongly than anything else to the accusation of Winn as the guilty party.”
     Judge Crawford was buried in Columbia, and forty-one year old Arthur Harris in his family’s burial plot in City Cemetery in Monroe. The Telegraph described a massive outpouring of sympathy for both men, but especially Harris, saying he “possessed fine social qualities, a cultivated mind, popular manners and a good heart.  He loved his country, and set duty above all sense of fear.” His tombstone is marked with a similar sentiment. Crawford was named “one of the best criminal lawyers of the State.”
     Governor Kellogg offered a $5,000 reward but no one was ever brought to justice in the case. Rewards announced in response to political killings in Reconstruction Louisiana almost never produced the desired results.

Friday, July 22, 2016


I rarely share from other websites, but this sounds like an interesting book on the hunt for the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa.  The U.S. Army actually invaded Mexico to find him.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016


Some concepts resist definition. Honor. Justice. Liberty. Duty. Freedom. One Supreme Court justice, when faced with the dilemma in a pornography case “trying to define what may be indefinable,” famously said that he couldn’t define pornography it but sure knew it when he saw it. 

Jim Cullen had the same problem in defining the notion of the American Dream. In his book The American Dream: A Short History of an IdeaThat Shaped a Nation, Cullen identifies examples that illustrate the American Dream. The closest he comes to a succinct definition is pinpointing a phrase from the Declaration of Independence as defining the American Dream:
“…we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Each “Dream” Cullen describes in the book “rested on the language, prestige, and confidence of the Declaration of Independence.”  The Declaration, he says, is the charter of the American Dream. And yet, some do not recognize the power of the Declaration in promoting the American Dream. When a Louisiana legislator offered a bill that students should learn the Declaration in school, other politicians blasted the treasured document as “racist,” apparently ignorant of its import to the American Dream that, at least today, applies to all.
I cannot define the American Dream.  But like the stumped Supreme Court justice, I sure know what it is.  It brings people to America to pursue aspirations unavailable to them elsewhere.  For example, Cullen notes that in 1900, German, Irish and Polish immigrants to the United States owned homes in numbers "that would have been virtually inconceivable in Europe at the time.” The Dream provides the impetus for invention, innovation, and the entrepreneurial spirit.  It’s what pushes people to be all they can be.
The American Dream compelled families to load their belongings in wagons and head west for  new beginnings to achieve what had eluded them so far. Cullen states “If there is one constant in the Declaration of Independence, it lies in the way no version of the status quo is ever completely acceptable.” The urge for a better life, a continuous improvement of circumstances, drives the American Dream. In 1862 my great-great-grandparents loaded a few belongings in a two-wheeled cart pulled by oxen, and taking their children by the hand, left Georgia and walked a thousand miles to settle in a desolate spot in North Louisiana.  They sought the Declaration’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and they sought it on their own.
President Barack Obama stirred controversy in 2012 when he seemed to minimize the effort of individual hard work in achievement in what is referred to as the “You didn’t build that” speech:

“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

“…look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something – there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business – you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Obama’s opponent in his campaign for re-election, criticized the "you didn't build that" statement. “To say that Steve Jobs didn't build Apple, that Henry Ford didn't build Ford Motors, that Papa John didn't build Papa John Pizza ... To say something like that, it's not just foolishness. It's insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America.”
The primary critical argument against the President’s assessment was termed “a matter of emphasis” by one observer. Obama’s belief that government solves all problems and success is unlikely without it is contrary to the American Dream. The Founding Fathers viewed the only way to achieve “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” was to get the British government out of their lives.  They sought freedom to pursue their American Dreams and that meant being in command of their own lives.  Thomas Jefferson, as Cullen reminds us, believed that the system that governs best governs least. By emphasizing government over the efforts of individuals, the President did nothing to encourage and inspire. It was a far cry from President John F. Kennedy’s counsel to “Ask not what your country can do for you. Rather, askwhat you can do for your country.” 
Americans achieved lofty goals and fulfilled their wildest dreams before government ever grew into the bureaucracy it is today.  My great-great-grandparents moved west, built a home, tilled a farm, and provided for a large family with no help from the government during the lean years of civil war and Southern Reconstruction. They, and the Founders as well, would be appalled by the size of American government today and would wonder if we are so weak and helpless that we cannot attain our American Dream without it.
Many have criticized President Obama for his statements in
the "you didn't build that" speech.  This is one of many posts circulating through social media. 
Cullen lists the desire to own a home as one of the most widely realized American Dreams. My parents dreamed of a large ranch-style home on acreage beyond the city limits to raise their three sons. Their dream was fulfilled through a combination of personal initiative and government help—a balance that President Obama failed to make clearly in his speech. The V.A. loan they could obtain would not cover a home of the size they wanted if it was sided with brick with a massive fireplace as the centerpiece of the family room. Instead of settling for less than fulfillment of their Dream, and drawing on their determination to see it through, they scoured the countryside for old house sites where all that remained were brick chimneys and foundations. Cajoling the owners into permitting them to haul off old brick, my parents saved thousands of brick. As I child I helped them pull down old chimneys and carefully clean the old mortar off mountains of antique brick.  They achieved their Dream but it took backbreaking hard work. But they did build it.
Some say government can aid the downtrodden in achieving their American Dreams, while others protest that government interference in the form of taxation, regulation, and obfuscation prevents them from realizing theirs. That argument won’t be settled any time soon, but it may be one that must be resolved for American Dreams of the future to be realized.

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