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Lectures and Presentations

Local History Speech at Mercersburg Academy

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Mercersburg Academy Lecture

Presentation for Mercersburg Academy, September 7th 2022 on Indigenous Peoples Day, Perceptions of Local History and the Conococheague Institute

Thank you for inviting me here today as a speaker for the upcoming Indigenous People’s Day

Now for all those gathered, I know exactly what you’re thinking: “Did they really book a white guy to talk about Indigenous People’s Day? Tone deaf much?

It’s ok! I was also asked to speak to represent our local history.

An Englishman….. to represent our local history? Swing and a miss, Reverend Whitmore”.

I won’t lie, I thought much the same thing at first, but on reflection my perspective of an outsider looking in is one that we can all relate with. But before we get into that, I’d like to take a moment to perform a Land Acknowledgement. As you continue your education and careers in America you will likely hear more of these. Prominent educational institutions and businesses are recognising that centuries of whitewashing Indigenous ownership of the land must be acknowledged, and so these form one step on the path of equity, by acknowledging the original inhabitants of the area. If this is your first, don’t worry it’s mine too. We’ll experience it together.

The land this Chapel and Academy sits on was the traditional territory of the Massawomeck tribe, part of the Iroquois Nation. As centuries passed, Susquehannock, Tuscarora, Shawnee and Lenni-Lenape have all called this place their home.

We recognize and acknowledge Pennsylvania as being the land of these people, and pay respect to the Indigenous peoples of Pennsylvania past, present, and future.

Today Pennsylvania has no federally recognized tribes despite having an Indigenous population of more than 12,000, and so we acknowledge their traditions, cultures, land stewardship and heritage, and their resilience and resistance in the face of violent efforts to deprive them of their culture.

History is traditionally written by the victor, and that is reflected in what has been taught in schools and even put on road signs.

For most of the early 18th Century this entire region was considered a warzone with raids occurring on both sides. Just outside Mercersburg there is a panel at the site of the Studebaker ‘massacre’, where on March 3rd 1756 a pioneer family was attacked by a Lenape war party.

In response 300 Pennsylvanian provincial soldiers led by John Armstrong and Hugh Mercer destroyed the Indian settlement of Kittanning killing men, women and children, and receiving bounties for their scalps. In comparison to the Studebaker ‘Massacre’ Kittanning is referred to as a Battle, a Victory, with Armstrong and Mercer becoming heroes to this day.

It would be easy to claim that these were distant times and can be cleared from the tally sheet of our conscience. However, whenever we place labels of Good Guys Versus Bad Guys in history we lose a balanced perspective.. Looking at history through the lens of war, entire cultures become a symbol of ‘other/ bad/enemy’ whether that's Native Raiding parties, or those damned evil British Redcoats!

I’ve been teaching about the French and Indian War for school groups for a decade and the curriculum focus on wars and fighting makes it easy to miss how people LIVED.

Colonial aggression aside, even centuries after most Indigenous Nations had been forced from this land Pennsylvania still has to acknowledge its mistakes. From 1879 to 1918 over 10,000 Indigenous children from 140 tribes across the United states were forced to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in central Pennsylvania. The aim was to explicitly remove all of their Native connections, cultural identities, spoken languages, spirituality, and even their names. Used as a model for similar institutions across America, the stated goal of the school by its founder was to “kill the Indian, save the man” in line with cultural genocide. Nearly 200 children died while in custody at this facility due to neglect and hardships.

It is our hope that by creating a greater understanding of all cultures, by acknowledging all people and their heritage, we can create a better community and future for everyone.

If you want to learn more about Indigenous Culture and History, then you have faculty here at Mercersburg Academy who are infinitely more qualified for that than me! And you yourselves need to take the baton and seek that knowledge. Dive into the Library, visit local sites and museums, and seek out representatives from the Indigenous nations themselves to hear their story. Perhaps celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday is the spark that will ignite a lifelong passion!

So local history then.

I’m certainly not local. For those wondering what exactly this accent is (I have a habit of switching dialects depending on my social setting and excitement level) I was born on the island of Cyprus, birthplace of Aphrodite. I’m a citizen of the United Kingdom and grew up 5 miles from Stonehenge and castles. Post college I backpacked across Australia where I first felt truly at home. And through a strange twist of fate I’ve lived in Maryland for 13 years and worked in Pennsylvania for 2 years.

So again, you may say “who's this guy to tell us about local history” Yes I do run the Conococheague Institute which aims to educate about the Frontier history of the region…and I was named Educator of the Year for Franklin County last month (cough humble brag). But my gist here is that you don’t NEED to be local to understand and appreciate local history. Whether you are studying here from South Korea, West Virginia, Germany, Colorado, Italy, Maryland or Britain, you are currently part of Mercersburg in Franklin County, PA and part of its history and community..

In fact, it is often the case that when you grow up with something on your doorstep that you don’t truly appreciate it. I’m sure if you walked down to the Moo or One North right now and did some local history polls you’d get quite a few blank faces.

What does the name Pennsylvania mean?

Who was Mercersburg named for and what was their history?

What was James Buchanan famous for?

Can you answer them? Give it a moment and think.

Well the first is easy: Pennsylvania was named by William Penn the proprietor of the colony and means “Penn’s Woods”. And PA sure was woody. It was said a squirrel could cross the entire Colony without ever touching the ground.

Mercersburg? This one is dear to my heart. Our namesake was Hugh Mercer, a Scottish physician who sided with Bonnie Prince Charlie against the British in the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. When the Jacobite's lost, Mercer was a fugitive and had to flee so he came to America where he settled and practiced medicine in this area. He fought alongside the British during the French and Indian War (that Kittanning raid I mentioned earlier), became good friends with George Washington, and relocated in the 1760s to Fredericksburg Virginia. He continued to serve in the military and politics and….. well to cut a long story short, he was bayoneted 7 times by British Redcoats during the battle of Princeton in 1777. Oof…Awkward. To you Mercersburgian’s I offer my Nations cultural condolences…. though my ancestors were turkey farmers at the time.

And Buchanan? Well he was the US President before Lincoln and the Civil War. Some claim him as one of the main causes with his inactivity and even southern partiality. Others claim he represents the first example of a Gay President, and of course he was born at Cove Gap near Mercersburg, and his birth cabin may or may not be right here on Campus. Plus there is a pub and restaurant named after him in town!

These 3 factoids of local history though, are also examples of the problem with our perceptions of history. Each fact is about……an old white man. Something which persists throughout much of our history books.

So understanding local history also means digging a little deeper beyond the BIG FACTS. Take slavery for example. Many know due to its religious origins, PA was not a major slave state. In the 1750’s Virginia had over 50,000 enslaved people, while PA had only 5000.

Only 5000? Does that make it better? Not worth mentioning? The story of these people who were transported, sold and used against their will is unfortunately usually only recorded in short lines on Inventories of their owners. Many imagine this only occurs in cities like Philadelphia, but even on the Frontier slavery was common. In the mid 18th Century 9 out of 10 farmers inventories included at least 1 enslaved black person, most commonly a young wench or young women. On the historic land where I work today, there names are listed: Dinah, Hannah, Jean, Jane and a boy named Cogge. Names captured for a moment on paper, we don’t know the rest of their story. In many records only their price and gender is included.

How can we bring this history to light, when we know so little? Again, acknowledgement is important. Don’t brush it under the rug. We can then study other period resources to discover more about the conditions of life and make suppositions. But we shouldn’t forget the forced sacrifices and crimes that were made throughout history that brought us to our current point of time.

Due to PA’s early adoption of Emancipation, by the 1850’s a thriving community of 400 Free Black People rose up right here in Mercersburg, with one large community centered around Fayette Street, and another outside of town at a settlement referred to as Little Africa.

With the Mason-Dixon line just beyond us, it became a border line with Slave holding states and a major path on the Underground Railroad. This positive impact of helping enslaved people find freedom, and a community of white and free black residents united in a cause was also countered by the fact that Slave hunters from the south would often poach the line, illegally capturing freed people and taking them to the Southern States.

Today less than 8% of the population of Mercersburg is Black. But this is a part of all our local history that is largely undertold.

Another unsung history is that of women…..pretty much everywhere and everyone of them! Unless you're the Queen of England of course, and then you get your own Bio-pic.

The untold stories of every Mother, Daughter, Wife, Sister in the area barely grace the history books. The freedoms and liberties all you ladies have today were not something graced to a woman living in the Colonial Period. In the 18th Century, women still lived under strict marriage and property laws, or "coverture," that stipulated that a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. A married woman or feme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings, except under very specific circumstances.

There are even cases of widows having their lands and businesses taken from them by the Government unless they remarried. Men feared a free woman!

So much so that the very terms we use: Mother, Daughter, Wife, Sister and all terms of how you relate to another person rather than who you see yourself as.

On the homestead, the common phrase was “A woman's work was never done”. A woman was the mother, breast feeding the babies, clothing the children, educating them….the provider, cooking the meals, tending to the garden…the nurturer, nursing the sick, doing laundry….all for no money or prestige!

Society at the time was EXTREMELY misogynistic. There was a belief from custom and religion that if a woman was idle she would Sin, so the fathers and husbands who dominated them kept them busy at all times. Most homes had a spinning wheel, not because thread was so important and costly….but so that a woman could fill up any spare time with spinning flax into thread…..when she wasn’t mothering, cooking, gardening, nursing, teaching, cleaning, living of course.

The American Revolution celebrates the battles won against the British, but what about the Battle of being a woman in a man dominated world…where child birth could bring a greater risk of death then a musket ball?

It’s important to remember history actually happened to people, and aren’t just statistics. Do you understand what I mean by that? Here’s a good example from my home in Europe. In the 14th Century the Black Death, or Great Mortality killed 25 million people ⅓ of the population of Europe. Because it happened a long time ago, in the history books the next line might read this upheaval and loss of population had a beneficial effect on society, increasing the rights and wages of the common people. Such a way of thinking takes away the human impact, and shortens the moment. We’ve all been through a pandemic recently, that has greatly changed our lives and way of thinking. Imagine yourself in the great cast of characters of history as ‘Nameless peasant’. Your entire family is in a corpse pile in a room of your house as the dead collectors have stopped coming round. You don’t even have the strength to bury them….but it's ok, because historians say wages will increase as a result in a few decades?

Empathy and understanding are critical when looking at any part of history. Imagine yourself living in that moment. How would it make you feel, what would be your reaction. And how much different would those feelings be if we didn’t have our modern perceptions?

Part of my job is telling these undertold stories of the everyday life of people that lived on the Pennsylvanian frontier, and bringing history to life. We do this best at the Conococheague Institute where we recreate a Frontier homestead of the 1760’s not by talking in great detail about the great moments of history but by focusing on the day to day life and struggles of everyday people. And walking a mile in their shoes. And that's best done when you have someone to walk with you.

May I welcome to the Chapel my incredible Frontier Family: Dorothy Skuba Gray, Chelsea Ward, Maggie Coors, Sophia Mielke, Stella Johnson, Ava Anthony and Robert Sellery. Hailing from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Montana, Louisiana and Colorado, but all are part of the Mercersburg Community, They were part of our Intensive in the Spring with our Can You Live 18th Century Program, which we hope to repeat for many more of you in the future.

Joining me here today like this, and wearing authentic clothing of the style of the 18th Century they represent everything I’ve been saying: history come to life. Learning about women’s roles is one thing. It’s another to wear a closely fitted pair of stays (the corset you may know and love) while splitting firewood. We can look at recipes from history and understand what people ate, but making those recipes without modern conveniences may involve a lot of wrist work to whip up some eggs.

As they pass through your seats accept from them a wildflower, a recipe, a song sheet, shortbread, bundles of herbs or beautiful blooms. You may recognise them as one thing, but looked through the lens of history they are something else entirely.

Legal Note: The shortbread and lemon biscuits contain gluten, sugar, dairy etc. Please don’t eat any of the plants…I’ll explain why in a minute.

Right now you are viewing history, smelling it, tasting it, touching it, feeling it, and experiencing it. And through those senses we can make connections to create a greater understanding.

Take Miss Chelsea Wards Sage for example, picked this week in my garden. The most common use for Sage today is to season food….it’s almost Thanksgiving and I love Sage and Onion Stuffing even more then I love my Ramen.

At the Conococheague Institute though, we grow it as a medicinal plant. Its uses include helping with digestive problems, gas (flatulence), stomach pain, diarrhea, and heartburn. In modern settings it's also used for depression, memory loss, and Alzheimer's disease. Burning sage or ‘smudging’ is a long practiced tradition that transcends time and cultures. Indigeneous people did it, the ancient Egyptians and Romans did it and people still do today.

Burnt Sage is said to purify a room, to cleanse a person or space, and to promote healing and wisdom. Medieval practitioners would do it to expel demons and ghosts from a home. And scientifically it does! Burnt sage has antimicrobial properties, meaning it can disinfect the demon bacteria that is making you sick.

….I’m told burning things in the dorms is not encouraged….so stick some in your sock drawer or boots and you’ll still get a good benefit and still be living history.

It’s odd to do this at the latter part of my presentation, but I should add a little bit about the Conococheague Institute, and why we do what we do.

CI (trust me it's easier to abbreviate it…I have to say and type that word 100 times a day) is a 501 C 3 Non Profit located 10 minutes from Mercersburg. We are officially “A hands on Regional learning center with the mission to preserve and educate about the cultural and natural resources of the Appalachian frontier” The definition of Frontier is “the outermost limit of Civilization” and until the 1770’s the Appalachian/Tuscarora Mountainrange was the end of British Pennsylvania.

The land our 30 acre site is located on was a hunting ground for the Lenape people and we have lithics (arrowheads, axes and spears) that date back 10,000 years on display in our exhibits. In the 1730’s the first white settlers arrived: The Davis families, the Shelby's. They were mostly of Welsh descent hence the name of the Welsh Run for the stream that runs through our woods. We have several relocated, restored and original buildings from the 18th and 19th Century including a Cabin where we can do demonstrations of hearth and home life: Cooking, drawing water from the well, baking in the oven. Another building is home to our Tavern or “Ordinary” a community center for the 18th Century that served multiple roles. Distilling happened there, Alcohol was drunk of course, but at the time these spaces were so much more than taverns today. A hotel, a restaurant, a game center, a post office, a store, a church and much more besides. Today in our programs we’ve used the building for Court hearings, dances, amputations, sewing circles and gambling. The green outside makes the perfect place to do some group sports. Ask Sam Menendez and Oscar Su about their view on Colonial Cricket…they’ll tell you it’s totally Dubs.

The land has been continually occupied by Indigenous people, Welsh, Enslaved people, Anglo-Americans, German Brethren, and Americans (and one Englishman) to this day. Its heritage is representative of America as a whole.

Today we welcome one and all into our historical and natural resources. We have a thriving ecosystem in our woodlands, wetlands, ponds, gardens and meadows, and young naturalists that are here today have taken a part in its stewardship and history. Our Woodland cemetery was restored last year by people like Roy Kang, Leilani Isel Register and Corbin Kelly. We are partnered with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation with whom we plant trees on site to restore the stream health in the region. We’ve planted 100’s of trees in the last few years with lots of hands including Iseo Yun, Quincy Qu and Colin Lissette.

And this stewardship can include simple moments of discovery and exploration. Norah Copenhaver discovered a new sub species of Toad and named it in honour of her friend. Thus we are home to the Anaxyrus Talia Cutler americanus…It’s possible that it was just a common American Toad with one leg missing due to an accident, but we’ll say it was a new discovery regardless.

Just last month students including Axel Fleury, Maia Somma and Jay Colon helped me out in a County wide survey about what it means to be a teenager in Franklin County, and how we can all feel part of its history and community.

A final note before we open up to questions. What does the Conococheague in CI mean? Well it’s the name of the creek that runs through this area. In Lenape it is pronounced Kah-Nah-Kah-Cheek and means water of many winding terms. In the 18th century everywhere in the Valley here that was near to the Conococheague was referred to as the ‘Settlement on the Conococheague’, and that's exactly what we are today.

As I’m joined by my frontier family on stage, I’d be happy to answer any questions, and have them share their experiences too. For all of you I repeat that Local history is for everyone, striving to understand new cultures, different things, and unique heritages is what helps us grow as people and a society.

By Matthew Wedd Executive Director of CI, Prepared for Mercersburg Academy on Friday 7th October 2022