Saturday, May 09, 2009

Learning Dates in History

I remember, like most high school students in the '70's, complaining that we students had to learn certain things that we considered useless at the time. At the top of that list has to be the infamous bank of ancient Greek and Arabic knowledge we distastefully called "ALGEBRA." Rene Descartes gave us the "cartesian coordinate system" that we are all painfully familiar with, even though most of us still can't get the abstract notion of geometry to blend with real life problems like a speeding car over a stretch of highway on an incline. What!!?? Just ask the eighth grade fellow I tutor in math. He won't give you a good reference on Descartes.

But, did you know that Descartes was an eye witness to the Siege of La Rochelle in 1628? The last stronghold of French Protestants in a predominantly Catholic country? Did you know that these Protestants left France before 1700 and went to many other parts of the world, especially to very protestant America? If you remember, our ancestors left Europe because of Martin Luther demanding that the Bible be translated into German. Our ancestors tended to agree with Luther and... here we are! Most of us has a French name or two in our genealogies. For me, we have the well-told story of Jean de Fonvielle of Craven County, NC. Most North Carolinians call him John Fonville. And descendants of his include noted Wilmington historian, Chris Fonville, and... of course, me! There's also Mr. Thomas "Tommy" Fonville of Fonville-Morisey Realty Company so well known in this part of the state.

Another big issue with high school students and college students concerns the importance of dates in history. My history professors today don't stress dates so much as they do the issues. This is an important consideration so long as you remain aware of the time period you are concerned with. You know, George Washington wasn't a statesman who had to concern himself with Civil Rights because slaves had not yet been freed in the 18th century. Washington was our first President, right? I hope you said "yes." That was in the 18th century, seventeen hundreds, somewhere around 1776. We hit the general aspects of the date without demanding that you know July 4, 1776 precisely, for the Declaration of Independence. Although the big summer holiday with the fireworks will help you remember that date, I'm sure.

Still, the concepts are stressed more. But, dates are important, too. For instance, I just recently received an email about my genealogy from a man who descends from a neighbor of my ancestor. The 1843 dispute over land commonly held between the two families at different times became an issue that went to the state supreme court. The date of 1843 stirred in my head when I read the email. Why? Well, I looked up the genealogical information for my ancestor and found that he died in 1842. It was certainly significant that he died before this supreme court case.

Another point of research that I was doing for colonial NC concerned some microfilm that I wanted to look at. The lending library informed me that they couldn't send 185 rolls of film on an inter-library loan. So, I looked up the dates associated with each individual roll, knowing that Wilmington's significant date of formation was April, 1733. James Wimble and John Watson had just purchased the land that later became Wilmington in that period... although official records will show 1735. Edward Moseley's map of 1733 was finished and presented to Governor Johnston in April of 1733 and James Wimble's version of the same area was started in... April 1733. The dates of three rolls of the microfilm were 1724-1732, April 1733- January 1734, and January 1734-November 1734. Notice anything? The second roll starts with April 1733 while the first roll wasn't specific at all. These documents are official British correspondence for the Duke of Newcastle who was concerned more with European foreign affairs and his numerous expensive soirees than he was with those "provincials" in America, all the way across the Atlantic. Supposedly, he's not concerned with a little, remote place like North Carolina. Supposedly...

So, why does the second roll, probably the start of another volume of Newcastle's journals, begin with "April 1733?" Did Newcastle himself consider this month important for some reason? Guess I'll find out when I get the microfilm. But, it sure is intriguing and it all depends on a date.

Dates make a difference. They do. Simple notions of "April 1733" could very well change our understanding of the development of one of our most important North Carolina cities. I'm sure that a publication titled "April 1733" is in my near future. I'll know for sure after I spend the countless hours, possibly days in front of a microfilm reader in the basement of the library. My point is... you sometimes have to pay attention to those dates.

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