Nineteenth-century History

Introducing Captain Jack and the Modocs

I am currently working on a multi-part series of articles on the Modoc Indians. I will post them here as I finish each part. They are going to cover a bit of Modoc history as well as culture and will eventually dive into their eventual submission to the US government in the late 19th century. Check back soon or subscribe to the RSS feed to read them!


Noah Webster

Although I am currently studying abroad in Germany this year, one of the courses I’m taking this semester at my German university is called “American English: History and Variation”. I have never really thought about the history of American English before or about how the differences between American English and British English came to be, but this course has intrigued my curiosity. The course is taught by a very interesting professor from Belgium named Dr. Geluykens. He is not a native English speaker, but his English is exceedingly good nonetheless. That perspective also adds a whole new spin to the topic in my opinion.

My curiosity stimulated, I took it upon myself to delve further into how American English separated itself from British English so thoroughly in spelling and pronunciation. There were many people and many factors involved, but the man I wish to discuss at this point is Noah Webster.

Noah WebsterBest known for his dictionary “An American Dictionary of the English Language” (first published 1828), Webster could be considered to be one of the founding fathers of what is today American English. In any case, he was the first to really standardize the American dialect and is “largely responsible for the differences that exist today between British and U.S. spelling.”1

I am going to focus on Webster’s impact on American English and therefore I won’t go too far into Webster’s biographical information, as that can be found online at many different websites such as Merriam-Webster Online.

Webster started out as a lawyer, however, after having proved himself useless at law, he left law and became a teacher. His change in career was to have a deep impact on not only him, but also on American English. It was during his teaching career that he became frustrated with texts for children ignoring American culture and language1. He began work on A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. With his first publication in the project, The American Spelling Book (1783), he began to differentiate between American spellings and British spellings. A grammar book (1784) and a reader (1785) completed the project.

Webster’s first dictionary Compendious Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1806, but it was his second dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, that would win him notoriety, despite not being profitable1. When the first edition was published in 1828, it was the end of a 21 year long project. Webster was 70 years old. The dictionary itself “contained about 70,000 entries and between 30,000 and 40,000 definitions that had not appeared in any earlier dictionary”1 and for which Webster “learned 26 languages, including Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit, in order to research the origins of his own country’s tongue.”2

An advertisement for \"An American Dictionary of the English Language\".

Among many other things, Webster also introduced such words to the English language as skunk, hickory, and chowder2 and despite its popularity, the dictionary itself was quite controversial in the English speaking world.

“It comprised 2,500 copies in the U.S. and 3,000 in England, and it sold out in little more than a year, despite harsh attacks on its ‘Americanisms,’ its unconventional preferences in spelling, its tendency to advocate U.S. rather than British usage and spelling, and its inclusion of nonliterary words, particularly technical terms from the arts and sciences.”1

Some examples of the spelling differences between American English and British English can be seen below. Left is the British spelling and right is the American spelling.

centre – center
colour – color
traveller – traveler
cheque – check
defence – defense
realise – realize
musick – music*

*Webster’s spellings of “jail” and “music” have found their way back into British English.

While many such spellings stuck and even eventually ended up being adopted back into British English, some of the proposed changes never manifested. An example of one of these spelling reforms is “medicine” which was to be changed to “medicin”.

After Webster’s death in 1843, the rights to his dictionary were purchased by G. & C. Merriam Co. (renamed Merriam-Webster, Incorporated in 1982) and the dictionary was subsequently renamed to Merriam-Webster.


  1. “Noah Webster.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.
  2. “Noah Webster and America’s First Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam-Webster Online. 23 Apr. 2008 <>.

Indians and the Imperial Powers of Europe

A Companion to the American WestAt the university library, I came across a book by the title A Companion to The American West, edited by William Deverell, and have been slowly working my way through it. The book is a series of essays that talk about what the American west is, how the west is defined and how the definition of the American west has changed throughout the course of American history, starting of course with the landing and settlement of the first colonists from Europe.

The first essay, “The Making of the First American West and the Unmaking of Other Realms” by Dr. Stephen Aron, professor at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), gives a basic overview of what the “first American west” was and the repercussions the settlement of the first American west had on the native Indian population. Dr. Aron discusses the breaking of the threshold that was the Appalachian Mountains into the wild countries of what is now Kentucky and Tennessee. The Native Americans were naturally opposed to this violation of their territory and to help fend off settlers and other men, such as Daniel Boone, the Indians turned to the competing European imperial powers for help.

After the American Revolution, Britain was a key ally for the Native Americans despite the dishonesty that plagued their relationship and the eventual abandonment of the Indians by the British. They not only supplied the Indians with resources and firearms, but they were a confidence booster for the Indians. Some of the more fortunate Indian groups, such as the Iroquois in northwestern New York, were able to take full advantage of competing European interests in the Americans. The Iroquois were situated between the French interests in the north (what is today Quebec) and English interests in the south. This strategic positioning meant that they were effectively immune from domination by one European power or the other. This “borderland geography”, as Dr. Aron calls it, gave the Iroquois a militaristic advantage as well as a natural economic advantage. The fur trading industry blossomed to the point that the population of animals that supplied the fur began to significantly dwindle to dangerously low levels.

Indeed, these were most certainly positives for the native peoples, but an unseen enemy wiped out nearly half of the Iroquois population by the seventeenth century. The exposure to so many of the Europeans left the Indians vulnerable to diseases and plagues that brought the Iroquois to their knees faster than any European power could have.

The French Revolution also had an impact on the Native Americans. Western tribes such as the displaced Shawnees who had come to reply on British and Spanish support for their cause against the ever-encroaching Americans were suddenly left to fend for themselves. Both the British and Spanish monarchies were engaged in conflict with the new French regime and consequently decided to abandon their position against the American government and concentrate their efforts closer to home in Europe. The Indians suddenly found themselves alone in their fight and, without a strong confederacy amongst the Indian groups, were quickly succumbed by American forces. Led by General Anthony Wayne, the Americans forced the Indians to give up much of what is Ohio today.

The European abandonment of the Native Americans was a crucial turning point in American history. The Indians would never again have such an advantage against the Americans.

Mr. Lincoln’s White House

If you are bored and have a couple of hours to kill, I highly recommend a website I have just come across called Mr. Lincoln’s White House. There is detailed information about the White House itself during his presidency as well as stories about Lincoln and happenings at the White House during his time there. There are also innumerable photos and illustrations done during that time.

You can find the website here:

General Terry’s Order to Colonel Custer

While doing research for one of my projects about the Indian Wars, I ran into the letter that General Terry sent to Colonel Custer that ordered the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s famous last stand against the Indians. I’ve typed the letter up and have decided to post it here.


The Brigadier-General Commanding directs that, as soon as your regiment can be made ready for the march, you will proceed up the Rosebud in pursuit of the Indians whose trail was discovered by Major Reno a few days since. It is, of course impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this movement, and were it not impossible to do so the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy, and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy. He will, however, indicate to you his own views of what your action should be, and he desires that you should conform to them unless you shall see sufficient reason for departing from them. He thinks that you should proceed up the Rosebud until you ascertain definitely the direction in which the trail above spoken leads. Should it be found (as appears almost certain that it will be found) to turn towards the Little Horn, he thinks that you should still proceed southward, perhaps as far as the headwaters of the Tongue, and then turn towards the Little Horn, feeling constantly, however, to your left, so as to preclude the escape of the Indians to the south or southeast by passing around to your flank. The column of General Gibbon is now in motion for the mouth of the Big Horn. As soon as it reaches that point will cross the Yellowstone and move up at least as far as the forks of the Big and Little Horns. Of course its future movements must be controlled by circumstances as they arise, but it is hoped that the Indians, if upon the Little Horn, may be so nearly enclosed by the two columns that their escape will be impossible.

The Department Commander desires that on your way up the Rosebud you should thoroughly examine the upper part of Tullock’s Creek, and that you should endeavor to send a scout through to Colonel Gibbon’s column with the information of the result of your examination. The lower part of this creek will be examined by a detachment from Colonel Gibbon’s command. The supply steamer will be pushed up the Big Horn as far as the forks if the river is navigable for that distance, and the Department Commander who will accompany the column of Colonel Gibbon, desires you to report to him there no later than the expiration of the time for which your troops are rationed, unless in the meantime you receive further orders.

Very Respectfully

Your obedient servant,

E.W. Smith
Captain, 18th Infantry
Acting Assistant
Adjutant General

The American West by Dee Brown

The American West by Dee BrownA couple of weeks ago I just finished reading a book called The American West by Dee Brown. For anyone that wants a general overview of the American west, it is a great book.

It really focuses on the settlement of the American west after the Civil War, The Indian Wars, the large cattle drives, wild west towns and outlaws, etc. One of the things I liked most about it was that it contained a lot of pictures from the 19th century as well as several maps of the cattle trails, the battles between the US government and the Indian nations, etc. I highly recommend it.

You can find it on the History Rhymes Store (powered by for $11.56.

New Photos of Lincoln’s Second Inauguration

Lincoln\'s 2nd InaugurationThis evening I was browsing a few different history sites and on one of them,, I ran into an interesting article about new photos of President Lincoln’s second inauguration that were miscataloged at the Library of Congress. They were discovered by Carl Jennings of Berthoud, CO while looking for photos for a project he was working on. From

Jennings was sifting through the Library of Congress’ one million archival photographs in its online Prints and Photographs catalogue when he encountered the picture captioned ‘Wash. D.C. Grand Review of Army,’ which was ostensibly of the two-day military parade in May 1865. A distinct line of soldiers with shouldered rifles stood amidst a crowd of hundreds of civilians. But, said Jennings, “the identification given didn’t jive with what I was seeing.” After viewing the photograph at a higher resolution, he saw civilians pressed closely around the soldiers, not something that would occur in a military parade.

A day later, Jennings returned to the online archives and discovered two more photographs, each entitled “Inauguration of President Grant.” Both showed the same trees, townhouses, and soldiers as the first photograph.

The article is dated February 8, 2008, so this is a rather old story, but I hadn’t read anything about it before. There was also apparently a CNN story about it as well.

You can find the full article here on

You can also see the photos quite clearly on CNN’s website.

Starting Out

Well, I suppose I will begin with a little about myself. My name is Alex Seifert and I am currently an undergraduate student at the University of Wyoming who is studying German and history. My focus is primarily the history of the American west with a focus on postbellum 19th century America. I have plans to attend graduate school and eventually obtain a PhD.

I’ve started this blog for the purpose of sharing interesting facts, pictures, etc that I find throughout the course of my research. The focus on this blog, therefore, will be American history and will mostly contain material about the 19th century postbellum period.The title itself “History Rhymes” comes from one of my favorite authors, Mark Twain. The quote goes as follows: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

I hope you will enjoy this blog as much as I am going to enjoy keeping it! And don’t forget to subscribe via RSS (above, right) if you enjoy what you read!

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