Nineteenth-century History

Google to Digitize Books from the British Library

British Library

British Library
Source: Wikipedia

I have just seen that the British Library in London has reached a deal with Google to digitize roughly 250,000 books, newspapers, articles, etc from between 1700 and 1870. These years were chosen based on copyright. 1870 is the latest sure date that the European copyrights have expired. The British Library has the largest collection of books of any library in Great Britain and is the equivalent of our Library of Congress in that they automatically receive a copy of every single book published in the country.

Many of the books which will be digitized are currently not available in the public rooms of the library. Either they are too old or there is simply not enough room in the public areas of the library. Digitizing the books should give access to the books to everyone and make it easier to find historic information from them.

I, for one, am quite excited about the idea. Since the books will be available for free online, it means us historians from abroad can easily access the books without having to fly to London to do so.

For more information, the BBC has an interesting video about it and The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about it.

Emperor Norton I – Emperor of the United States

Emperor Joshua A. Norton I

Emperor Joshua A. Norton I
Source: Wikipedia

Joshua A. Norton is a little known figure in American history. He was the first and only self-declared emperor of the United States of America. He styled himself as His Majesty, Emperor Norton I. Most of his contemporaries understandably branded him as crazy, unstable and as having gone off the deep end. Although the majority of people ignored his fantasies, many of the local establishments and friends humored him to the extent that he was, in a way, able to carry out his duties as “emperor.”

Norton was born circa 1819 in England. After having spent most of his childhood in South Africa, he emigrated to the United States in 1849 where he worked as a businessman. He lost the small fortune he had acquired through business after investing in rice from Peru. At that time there was a famine in China. When China stopped exporting rice, it caused the price of rice to skyrocket in San Francisco. Norton’s idea was to buy cheap rice from Peru and corner the market. Subsequently, he purchased an entire ship full. However, this backfired when several more ships full of rice arrived in San Francisco, causing the price of rice to plummet to unprofitable amounts.

The investment caused Norton to declare bankruptcy in 1858 and leave the city for a while. Upon his return, he began to act eccentrically. He was rather disgruntled with the establishment in the United States and decided to take matters into his own hands by declaring himself “Emperor of these United States” in a letter which he distributed to several newspapers in San Francisco:

At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.

With this letter, he began what would be a twenty-one year “reign” of the United States. Later, he would add “Protector of Mexico” to his title.

Proclamation by Emperor Norton I

Proclamation by Emperor Norton I
Source: Wikipedia

During his time as “Emperor,” Norton issued many decrees — the vast majority of which were simply ignored. On October 12, 1859, he issued a decree which dissolved the United States Congress and, when Congress ignored his order, he ordered the military to arrest and prosecute members of Congress as traitors. He would attempt to battle the elected officials of the American government throughout his entire reign — including the abolishment of the Democratic and Republican parties. Eventually, however, he was forced to “accept” the existence of Congress and all other parts of the government.

Although the majority of his decrees were simply ignored, there were a few of them which, albeit well after his death, came true. One such decree was to build a bridge and/or dig a tunnel across the bay which would connect San Francisco with Oakland. Both of these projects were realized in the 1930s.

Despite Norton’s eccentric behavior and the fact that he did not have any actual power or political influence, he was loved by the people of San Francisco. He was broke and yet often dined at the finest San Francisco restaurants whose owners often hung up a brass plaque outside their establishment which symbolized that “the Emperor of the United States” had eaten or frequently ate there. Many theatrical productions would reserve a balcony seat for Norton and be honored by his visit to the performance.

The city of San Francisco itself even paid tribute to him in their own way. Among other things was the replacement of his navy-blue military uniform when his old one began to look shabby. Norton issued his own currency to pay for his debts which was often accepted as legal tender. At one point, he was arrested on the charge of being mentally unstable. This caused such an uproar among the citizens of San Francisco that the Chief of Police ordered him released and formally apologized to him, saying that “that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.” From then on, police officers saluted to Norton whenever they encountered him.

On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed in front of Old St. Mary’s Church. Before medical help could arrive, the Emperor had died. His obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle was published under the headline “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is Dead”). His grave, which lies in Woodlawn Cemetery, is inscribed with “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Nazis

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany
Source: Wikipedia

I’ve recently been reading a German history magazine called Der Spiegel: Geschichte. The most current issue focuses on the Hohenzollern dynasty in Prussia and ultimately in the German Empire from 1871 until 1918. One of the last articles in the issue discusses the last German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and his life after his abdication from the German imperial and Prussian royal thrones.

Something I find quite fascinating about Kaiser after his abdication is his relationship to the Nazis once they came to power in the early 1930s. At first, he believed their nationalistic tendencies would lead to a re-establishment of the German monarchy and he would therefore be able to regain the throne he had lost. This of course proved to be just wishful thinking.

While he corresponded with Hitler through his son, the Nazis were never interested in bringing back the Kaiser or the monarchy that had led them to such embarrassing defeat in the First World War. They also, of course, wanted to keep power for themselves. Naturally, Wilhelm II was very disappointed by this and cut off practically all ties and contacts with Hitler and his party. His only remaining connection to the Nazis were the Nazi German soldiers who guarded him and his family at his home in the Netherlands where he was living in exile. In 1940, when the Kaiser found out about atrocities the Nazis were committing against the Jews and other people, he declared that it was the first time in his life that he felt ashamed to be German.

Shortly before Wilhelm’s death in 1941, he requested that all mention of Nazis, all Nazi symbols and anything related to them be left out of his memorial service. His wish was not granted and he was given a funeral full of Nazi symbols. The funeral itself was used as propaganda by the Nazis, who used it to “show” their legitimacy in inheriting the German Reich.

While in exile, Wilhelm II could dream of nothing other than regaining the German imperial throne. He spent much of his time engaged in coming up with ways of how to re-establish himself as German Kaiser. His phase with Hitler and the Nazis were, in the end, just another part of his obsession.

For more about Kaiser Wilhelm II, his abdication and what led up to it, take a look at my series: Nineteenth Century German History.

The Role of Prince Albert in the Monarchy

Prince Albert in 1842

Prince Albert in 1842
Source: Wikipedia

In the first two decades of Queen Victoria’s reign, there was no one who played a more influential role in British affairs as Prince Albert, the Prince Consort. Upon the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne, the state of the Monarchy was already in question.1 After his subsequent marriage to the Queen, his strength helped unify Britain behind the Crown in a way which had not been done for decades. His intelligence and political savvy helped to ensure its continuation even to this day. Although he often dealt with state affairs, the primary part he played was that of partner to the Queen and father to their children.

First and foremost, the role of the Prince was that of husband and direct supporter of the Monarch. As a husband, he served a dual purpose: he became her closest advisor and private secretary as well as a loving partner and father. The Queen, who was inclined to indolence and who rather disliked politics, plunged head first into state affairs in the wake of the eager Prince. Most mornings while having breakfast together, “the newspapers — the once hated newspapers — made their appearance, and the Prince, absorbed in their perusal, would answer no questions.”2 The Prince’s influence was so great on her that, even well after the Prince’s death, Queen Victoria often made important decisions based on what she thought he would have done.3 In between state affairs, the Prince also spent a large amount of his time with his children. He setup strict educational tracks because he emphasized the importance of education — especially for the leading roles he knew his children would play in European politics as adults.4 Most of his daughters grew up to marry future kings and emperors. The Prince, himself, also heavily influenced European politics.

Not only did he serve as advisor to one of the most powerful people in the world, but he also directly took part in the dealings of the government. One of his biggest accomplishments as a politician was helping to prevent another war between the United States and Britain at the beginning of the American Civil War.5 At home, he also encouraged social reform and programs to help the poor. After his death, the Monarchy’s influence on political affairs began to suffer severely. The Queen withdrew from public life for several years and when she finally re-emerged, she represented a Monarchy which had become “merely a camp joke.”6 Ironically, Prince Albert’s death may have been what saved the British Monarchy from the fate of so many of its continental European counterparts in the early twentieth century. Its newly found ‘modesty’ may have put it “into a position where it was not worth abolishing.”7 If Albert had lived on, the Queen would probably not have retreated from public life and political affairs and the strength may have arguably grown rather than diminish.

Although Prince Albert died only twenty-one years after Queen Victoria ascended the throne, his role was so great that his influence is felt throughout the entirety of her reign. He prevented catastrophe while promoting social reform and raised a generation of children who would marry into Europe’s most powerful royal families making his influence felt even outside of the British realm.

A 19th Century Journal – William Steinway

William Steinway

William Steinway
Source: Wikipedia

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has just released an online version of the journal kept by entrepreneur William Steinway throughout most of this life. He documented his life in almost daily increments for over 36 years of his life. The journal contains 2,500 pages in nine volumes.

William Steinway was born in 1835 in Seesen, Brunswick, Germany. In 1850 he came to the United States with his father and brothers, Henry and Charles, with whom he then founded a company called Steinway & Sons in 1853. The company, later under the direction of William, setup the Steinway Piano Factory which still operates today.

In 1888, he met Gottlieb Daimler who was behind the production of the then brand new Mercedes automobiles. Later that year, Steinway help Daimler, who until then had just produced Mercedes in Germany, setup the Daimler Motor, Co in New York to help him capture the market in the United States.

After Steinway’s death in 1896, his family, who was not convinced by the new “motor car,” sold all of his shares to the General Electric Company. Before his death, Steinway also served as head of the relatively newly formed New York Subway Commission.

The journal is a fascinating look into life in 19th century America and particularly that of a German immigrant who was an extremely successful businessman. You can find the diary on the Smithsonian’s dedicated website to it.

A politically correct (censored) Huckleberry Finn?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Source: Wikipedia

As most of my readers probably know, I am a huge fan of Mark Twain. The name of this blog comes from a quote he made about history and a lot of my inspiration comes from his works. The recent news of a Montgomery, Alabama-based publisher publishing a censored version of one of Twain’s most famous books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is really rather sickening to me. The publisher has decided to replace the word “nigger” with “slave” as well as to replace the word “injun” with a less offensive word.

While I certainly understand that these words are not politically correct and are offensive to many in our current times, the words should not be taken out of context when it comes to the story. In Twain’s time, both were acceptable words. The novel contains a story which is extremely critical of Twain’s own time and racism during that time. People spoke that way in Missouri at that time. That is a fact that will absolutely never change.

I understand the arguments that they want to create a “teachable” version of the novel, but this simply furthers one of the most fundamental problems of the American education system: censorship. Parents and teachers don’t want kids exposed to such things even as late as high school. The problem is that they find out on their own anyway. Isn’t it better they have the proper training when they discover it rather than not know what to do with it when they run across it for the first time? The same applies to sexual abstinence versus teaching safe sex practices. But I digress.

The novel itself is an anti-slavery commentary. Twain has his main character, Huckleberry Finn, befriend a run-away black slave named Jim. Throughout the novel they share adventures and good (and bad) times. This was a revolutionary idea for the time for most people — especially in Missouri and the south where the novel takes place.

Racism is still an extremely prevalent problem in our current society. There is no doubt about that. People like the publishers of this hacked up version of Twain’s masterpiece, however, only further the problem. The way to combat racism is to teach people about it. Simply sweeping the problem under the rug so that people aren’t exposed to it is not going to help anyway. In fact, it is going to make it far worse.

For more interesting commentary on the subject, visit these two sites:


The Mark Twain House & Museum

Pardon for Billy the Kid?

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid
Source: Wikipedia

Update: I have just read that Bill Richardson did NOT give Billy the Kid the long-promised pardon.

While reading the news today, I discovered that the current governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, is considering pardoning Billy the Kid for killing a sheriff. Richardson only has until Friday to decide because that is when his term will end.

The reason behind the possible pardon is based on a promise made to Billy the Kid by then-governor Lew Wallace. In return for appearing before a grand jury in another murder case, Wallace made a deal with Billy the Kid to pardon his crimes. The pardon was never given which is why Richardson argues that Billy the Kid still deserves his pardon even posthumously.

The majority of people support the proposed pardon, but many also oppose it. The family of Pat Garrett, the sheriff who fatally shot Billy the Kid, opposes it strongly by arguing that no matter what promises were made, Billy the Kid was still a thief and a murderer. Supporters argue that a deal is a deal and that Billy the Kid deserves his pardon even if it is well over a century late.

What do you think about this? Do you think he deserves the pardon? I, personally, have mixed feelings about it. Both points are valid in my opinion which makes it quite difficult to decide.

Rocky Mountain Mining Towns: Bannack, Montana

Bannack, MT, late 1800s

Bannack, MT in the late 1800s.
Source: Legends of America

The first part of the new series about mining towns in the Rocky Mountains will begin with Bannack, Montana. Nothing, but a ghost town now, Bannack was the site of a major gold discovery in 1862. The town was founded the same year as a result of the discovery and is named after the local Bannock Indians. The town officially received its name with the establishment of the post office on November 21, 1863, however, when the name was submitted to Washington DC, the final ‘o’ was mistaken for an ‘a’ and therefore it is Bannack instead of Bannock.

Gold was first discovered on July 28, 1862 by John White and other members of the “Pikes Peakers” from Colorado in the creek where the town currently stands. What followed was one of the largest gold mining rushes to happen in the west since the California gold rush of 1848. By October of the same year, over 400 miners populated the new mining camp that was to become Bannack.

Henry Plummer - Sheriff of Bannack

Henry Plummer – Sheriff of Bannack from May 24, 1863 until January 10, 1864.
Source: Wikipedia

Many people came to Bannack with gold fever, but most did not strike it rich in mining. In fact, many people who came to Bannack, like many other mining towns, ended up profiting from other sources and other miners. One such example was a physician by the name of Dr. Erasmus Darwin Leavitt. Among one of the town’s founders, he gave up his medical practice in New Hampshire in 1862 to prospect for gold in Bannack. He quickly found it was more profitable to give up his mining dreams and practice his trade in Bannack taking care of the residents there. His story is typical of many who came west looking for fortune.

The town was not without its drama. The sheriff, Henry Plummer, was accused by some of leading a gang which were responsible for over a hundred murders and robberies around the west. The town was divided as to whether or not Plummer was guilty. Despite this, he was hung by a group of vigilantes from the very gallows which he himself had built on January 10, 1864.

At its peak, there were about three thousand residents who lived in Bannack, although sources vary as to the exact number. The town mostly comprised wooden buildings built out of logs, however, many of them, as is typical of many nineteenth century western towns, had false fronts. In the town, there were three hotels, three bakeries, three blacksmith shops, two stables, two meat markets, a grocery store, a restaurant, a brewery, a billiard hall, and four saloons.

By May, 1864, the town had grown large enough to become capital of Montana Territory. It lost its title as capital, however, only two years later in 1866 to Virginia City.

Bannack, Montana

The ghost town of Bannack, Montana.
Source: Wikipedia

The early twentieth century saw the end of the once bustling mining town. Most people had abandoned Bannack by the 1930s and, by the 1940s, the town had essentially become a ghost town. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks saved the town, however, by turning it into a state park on August 15, 1954.

The last residents finally left the town as late as 1970. All that remains now is a wooden shell of its former glory. The town has been made into a state park and is visitable as a tourist attraction today. Take a look at Bannack’s website for more details on visiting.

To see some modern photos of Bannack, MT, please visit

This post is part of a multi-part series about mining towns in the Rocky Mountains. See the rest of the series either on the Rocky Mountain Mining Town project page or in the category of the same name.


Bannack State Park – FAQ’s,’s.htm (accessed March 4, 2010).

Legends of America, “Bannack — Gold to Ghosts,” (accessed March 4, 2010).

Wikipedia, “Bannack, Montana,”,_Montana (accessed March 4, 2010).

Temporary Outage (Spambots)

I apologize for the temporary outage. I’ve been getting hit pretty hard with spambots and my hosting service shut down service to my account. I think I’ve got it taken care of after doing some careful research about redirecting traffic coming from spambots so that they don’t hit the server anywhere near as hard. If you have any difficulties with the site, please let me know as soon as possible by sending me an email.

Update: The site was down again for a while because apparently the actions I took against the spambots weren’t quite enough. I researched again some more and am trying something else now. Again, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have issues. Also, if you have suggestions for fighting off spambots, please let me know by either sending me an e-mail or leaving a comment here!

Thank you for your patience!

— Alex


First World War Officially Ends

Treaty of Versailles

Treaty of Versailles
Source: Wikipedia

I read something really interesting in the news today that I thought I would share here. According to the British newspaper, Telegraph, the First World War is finally coming to an end today. This past weekend, Germany made it’s final payment for the war and thereby finally cleared the debt given to Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.

Here is the article from the Telegraph:

The final payment of £59.5 million, writes off the crippling debt that was the price for one world war and laid the foundations for another.

Germany was forced to pay the reparations at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as compensation to the war-ravaged nations of Belgium and France and to pay the Allies some of the costs of waging what was then the bloodiest conflict in history, leaving nearly ten million soldiers dead.

The initial sum agreed upon for war damages in 1919 was 226 billion Reichsmarks, a sum later reduced to 132 billion, £22 billion at the time.

The bill would have been settled much earlier had Adolf Hitler not reneged on reparations during his reign.

Hatred of the settlement agreed at Versailles, which crippled Germany as it tried to shape itself into a democracy following armistice, was of significant importance in propelling the Nazis to power.

“On Sunday the last bill is due and the First World War finally, financially at least, terminates for Germany,” said Bild, the country’s biggest selling newspaper.

Most of the money goes to private individuals, pension funds and corporations holding debenture bonds as agreed under the Treaty of Versailles, where Germany was made to sign the ‘war guilt’ clause, accepting blame for the war.

France, which had been ravaged by the war, pushed hardest for the steepest possible fiscal punishment for Germany.

The principal representative of the British Treasury at the Paris Peace Conference, John Maynard Keynes, resigned in June 1919 in protest at the scale of the demands.

“Germany will not be able to formulate correct policy if it cannot finance itself,’ he warned.

When the Wall Street Crash came in 1929, the Weimar Republic spiralled into debt. Four years later, Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany.

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