The Magazine

Precious Stuff

Every souvenir tells a story worth hearing.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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A few years ago, I found the scorecard my grandfather had kept of a September 16, 1904, doubleheader he attended at Boston’s Huntington Grounds. He saw Cy Young pitch in the opener for the Boston Americans (now Red Sox) and Jack Chesbro pitch in the second game for the New York Highlanders (now Yankees). A newspaper clipping noted that George Wright, a member of the first openly professional baseball team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, had watched the action that day from the front row. Through my grandfather, I felt connected from the dawn of professional baseball to the latest pitch. The beginning wasn’t all that long ago. 

Achorn

I thought of that while reading this book, which tells the stories of members of Meredith Mason Brown’s much more illustrious family, filled with generals, diplomats, and political leaders. “As a nation,” he writes, “we’re not that old.” Through the stuff we have saved, and the stories our ancestors have passed down, we can still reach out and almost touch each other.

Touching America’s History is structured ingeniously around 20 objects that Brown, esteemed biographer of Daniel Boone, has in his possession: historically evocative artifacts ranging from a Pequot stone ax to a compass carried by a pioneering ancestor to a letter written by George Washington and so on, up to the escapist Western novel that was read by General Eisenhower in a supremely high-stress situation as he waited for the weather to break before the D-Day invasion .  .  . and a piece of Adolf Hitler’s shattered toilet bowl. Many were passed down by family members. Taken together, they tell a remarkably rich story of America.

“I do better in history when it becomes concrete and personal to me,” writes Brown. “History is not abstract ideas or theories. .  .  . History is the sum of actions of individual human beings. .  .  . If we can be in touch with those human beings—if they become concrete to us—history comes alive.”

Many of these family-centric stories throw a vivid light on some odd corners of familiar events. Some may be of more gripping interest to family members than to the general public, though Brown bravely weaves them into the bigger picture. A beauty of this book is that he strives to avoid sugarcoating both his family and America itself. Greed and cruelty emerge here, alongside bravery and determination, as all are essential ingredients in the nation’s story.

One of Brown’s many telling anecdotes focuses on the role that surveying played in preparing the Western states for white settlement. The ever-pragmatic George Washington makes an appearance here in surveying for promising land tracts to claim so that he could reap fabulous wealth at a later date. As he wrote in 1771, “What Inducements have Men to explore uninhabited Wilds but the prospect of getting good Lands?” He virtually ignores a 1763 colonial bar on claiming lands west of the Alleghenies, intended to placate Indians. As he writes to another land speculator in 1767: 

I can never look upon that Proclamation in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the Minds of the Indians [that] must fall of course in a few years. .  .  . Any person therefore who neglects the present opportunity of hunting out good Lands & in some Measure Marking and distinguishing them for their own (in order to keep others from settling them) will never regain it.

In this setting of feverish land speculation amidst murderous Indian attacks, Brown’s ancestor Colonel William Preston helps survey and settle Kentucky. Brown’s bristling great-uncle, the decorated World War I general Preston Brown, turns up, shooting a Filipino man in the back and facing the loss of his military career, or much worse. The incident vividly captures the ugliness of “pacifying” the Philippines at the turn of the last century, the terribly dangerous environment our young soldiers faced there, and the immense worth of superb family and political connections in such a crisis. The author remembers his uncle, in retirement, as a “kindly old bald man. In Martha’s Vineyard, he wore immaculate white shirts, white trousers, and white bucks, and he would let me crawl up in his lap while he read me the newspaper.” 

An unspoken lesson of this entertaining volume is to save things that speak silently of the past. And listen to your older relatives about the world they have witnessed.

Edward Achorn, editorial page editor for the Providence Journal, is the author of The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game.