In the Years 1759 and 1760..

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Distilled Spirits

Source: Travels Through the Middle Settlements in North America.  In the Years 1759 and 1760.   With observations upon the State of the Colonies.  By the Rev. Andrew Burnaby, A.M., Vicar of Greenwich.  Second Edition.  London MDCCLXXV

Distilled Spirits:   The concept: reviewing primary historical material with a view to “distilling” it and to some extent, indexing it for living history usefulness.  We’re looking for the funny, enlightening, revealing stuff — how late in the evening might a country dance last?  What sort of jokes would a pastor make?

Author’s Introduction:  There isn’t much of an excuse for historical ignorance anymore. Ponder the dizzy pace of digital records in just the last two decades and then compare that to the previous ten thousand years.  Imagine a ten year old boy, anxious to improve his mind in the year 7 AD.  Reading much of anything would have required a trip to the synagogue, the approval of the rabbi, and extreme care with the valuable papyrus itself.  Prior to Gutenberg, medieval Europeans didn’t have it much better.  While the invention of bound books made reading a little more portable, it didn’t make it any less rare.  During my favorite era, the years prior to the American Revolution, books were feverishly exchanged and traded and even purchased, by subscription, ahead of their printing.  But they still represented a rare treasure.

When I first took an active interest in living history, most of the primary material was still only available through used book sellers and the archives of major universities. I managed to purchase a microfilm copy of the Providence, Rhode Island Gazette and I counted myself a major sleuth for getting it printed.

Now, well, you can have almost anything you want with a Kindle purchase or an advanced Google book search, or a JSTOR account.  I think many primary materials, (town records, court proceedings, unpublished letters and journals), have not been digitized but I have no doubt that is on the horizon.  If anyone knows the magazine and journal equivalent of, let me know!

My point? It’s all out there.  We have no excuse.

But the sheer volume of the material presents a different challenge.  In our case, what makes for good storytelling?  Who observed how cider was made in 1773 New Hampshire?  How did you pay, on credit, in a Connecticut tavern?    What’s the fastest way to the most compelling material?

I thought it would make for good reading discipline, on my part, if I just took notes of the most interesting stuff.  So here goes..

The Reverend Andrew Burnaby’s travels..

  • An older man advised him, upon leaving for America, he should write down whatever was novel as soon as he encountered it.  He would soon grow accustomed to his new surroundings and become numb to their novelty.  (This is true.  I’ve found the French are the best observers of 18th century American habits; unlike English observers, the French had to work to understand the society they were observing.  You chronicle things that remain strange, or wonderful, right?)
  • Burnaby’s journey across the Atlantic from late April to early July took about 10 weeks, in the presence of a large convoy of 40 or more merchant and British navy ships.
  • Williamsburg:  Burnaby thought Williamsburg, Virginia to have about 1,000 residents.  He noted that balls and parties were all the rage, but that after they were over, the participants went off to their country estates and left the town feeling evacuated and somber.
  • On Virginians in general:  Burnaby expressed appreciation for their hospitality but he felt they were lacking in initiative.  The prosperity of the tobacco trade made them a little too comfortable and spend-thrift.
  • Justice: Burnaby was scandalized by the two-tier system of justice that existed for English Virginians, as compared with slaves and Indians.
  • Jiggs:  “Towards the close of an evening, when the company are pretty well tired with country dances, it is usual to dance jiggs.. These dances are without any method or regularity; a gentleman and lady stand up, and dance about the room, one of them retiring, the other pursuing, then perhaps meeting, in an irregular fantastical manner..”
  • Dramatic company:  after leaving Washington’s Mt. Vernon, and crossing over to Malborough (sic), Maryland: “I here met with a strolling company of players, under the direction of one Douglas.  I went to see their theatre, which was a neat, convenient tobacco-house, well fitted up for the purpose.”
  • Philadelphia: Burnaby was absolutely charmed by Philadelphia.  “Can the mind have a greater pleasure than in contemplating the rise and progress of cities and kingdoms?  Than in perceiving a rich and opulent state arising out of a small settlement or colony?”
  • New York:  a reference to an apple we grow here on the farm.  Page 109 (“..The province in its cultivated state affords grain of all sorts, cattle, hogs, and great variety of English fruits, particularly the New-town pippin.”
  • The Kissing Bridge:  fashionable New York couples take horse-drawn Italian carriages out for a turtle fry and return across the “kissing bridge” where tradition dictated a kiss upon crossing.
  • Rhode Island Low-Brow Democracy:  Rhode Island governors were elected by the people and its charter was probably the most democratic of all the colonies.  Burnaby opined that this resulted in low character, since their leaders had to always be pleasing the people. (126)
  • Passenger Pigeons: In Boston, legions of migrating pigeons were so numerous and their flight so fatiguing, they could be knocked dead off the tree limbs with a pole.  All the taverns served pigeon in quantity. (132)
  • Here is my business, sir:  A humorous account of the contempt Pennsylvanians had for inquisitive Bostonians.  No lodging could be had until the character of a stranger were thoroughly sounded by everyone in the family.  (143)
  • Tarry Town: Boston.  If a young man fancied a young woman for marriage, he was allowed to “tarry” with her on the bed for a night (fully clothed at all times).  (144)
  • Affection on Sunday:  A British captain, arriving on a Sunday, was given so affectionate a greeting by his wife that he was whipped for it.  Captain gets revenge.  (148)
  • Fire Hunting & White Pine:  New Hampshire. Burnaby laments the wasteful practice of forest-burning to corner animals.  (153)
  • America will never be an empire: The vicar of Greenwich passes a very negative judgment, over all, about America’s future.  Dependence on slavery, denominational differences, and the lack of a navy will all combine to keep the colonies ever dependent on England (155 on..)

This is the second edition of the Book, printed in 1775, and I gather Burnaby was playing to his British audience.  He seems to have liked Americans individually but held them in contempt collectively.

A chatty, entertaining read..


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This post was written by Jim Riley


  • Denisa Rafalowski says:

    Always a pleasure to read your stories. My favorite has been your original frog story. I’m blessed with a multitude of frogs chirping/croaking nightly in LOUD chorus with one lonely remaining bachelor at end of night calling for a mate off key. It’s both hilarious and annoying for sleep. Do not know if I want to place more pillows over head or giggle. Thailand life is noisy at night.

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