News of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Although I am happy that modern technology allows us access to news almost immediately, I enjoy looking at the first newspaper reports of historical events. I like to see how much we learned after the initial reports as well as how the public’s attitudes towards those people and events have evolved. I have previously blogged about newspaper reports of Lizzie Borden and the Titanic.

This time I’m checking out the first public reporting of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also commonly known, as if it were a morality play, as Custer’s Last Stand. On June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer led a cavalry regiment of the U.S. Army against a coalition of Native American tribes. For a variety of reasons, including the simple fact that the U.S. forces were completely outnumbered, 286 soldiers died that day, including Custer.

Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer, wearing a custom-made blue velvet uniform, ca. 1864. Don’t judge – maybe all soldiers had custom-made blue velvet uniforms. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

For the past 141 years, this battle and the participants have been studied and debated thoroughly. I was always less interested in the strategies and errors of the battle than in how the opinions of the American public shifted throughout the years. Was he hero or villain? Master strategist or vain publicity hound? Does it even matter how we view him from 25 or 50 or 141 years on, when the facts of the battle don’t change?

The New York Times has a great searchable archive available online, and this is their first report of the battle on July 6, 1876, which had been reported in Salt Lake on July 5 from a July 2 report from Montana.




SALT LAKE, July 5. – The special correspondent of the Helena (Montana) Herald writes from Stillwater, Montana, under date of July 2, as follows:

Muggins Taylor, a scout for Gen. Gibbon, arrived here last night direct from Little Horn River, and reports that Gen. Custer found the Indian camp of 2,000 lodges on the Little Horn, and immediately attached it. He charged the thickest portion of the camp with five companies. Nothing is known of the operations of this detachment, except their course as traced by the dead. Major Reno commanded the other seven companies, and attacked the lower portion of the camp. The Indians poured a murderous fire from all directions. Gen. Custer his two brothers, his nephew, and brother-in-law were all killed, and not one of his detachment escaped. Two hundred and seven men were buried in one place. The number of killed is estimated at 300, and the wounded at thirty-one.

The Indians surrounded Major Reno’s command and held them one day in the hills cut off from water, until Gibbon’s command came in sight, when they broke camp in the night and left. The Seventh fought like tigers, and were overcome by mere brute force.

The Indian loss cannot be estimated as they bore off and cached most of their killed. The remnant of the Seventh Cavalry and Gibbon’s command are returning to the mouth of the Little Horn, where a steam-boat lies. The Indians got all the arms of the killed soldiers. There were seventeen commissioned officers killed. The whole Custer family died at the head of their column.

The exact loss is not known as both Adjutants and the Sergeant-major were killed. The Indian camp was from three to four miles long, and was twenty miles up the Little Horn from its mouth.

The Indians actually pulled men off their horses, in some instances.

This report is given as Taylor told it, as he was over the field after the battle. The above is confirmed by other letters, which say Custer has met with a fearful disaster.


SALT LAKE CITY, July 5. – The Times publishes a dispatch from Boseman, Montana Territory, dated July 3, 7 P.M.

Mr. Taylor, bearer of dispatches from Little Horn to Fort Ellis, arrived this evening, and reports the following:

The battle was fought on the 25th of June, thirty or forty miles below the Little Horn. Gen. Custer attacked an Indian village of from 2,500 to 4,000 warriors on one side, and Col. Rneo was to attack it on the other side. Three companies were placed on a hill as a reserve.

Gen. Custer and fifteen officers and every man belonging to the five companies were killed. Reno retreated under the protection of the reserve. The whole number killed was 315. Gen. Gibbon joined Reno.

When the Indians left, the battle-field looked like a slaughter-pen, as it really was, being in a narrow ravine. The dead were much mutilated.

The situation now looks serious. Gen. Terry arrived at Gibbon’s Camp on a steam-boat, and crossed the command over and accompanied it to join Custer, who knew it was coming before the fight occurred. Lieut. Crittenden, son of Gen. Crittenden, was among the killed.

George Armstrong Custer. This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 558719. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

So that was the first report. That was what they knew, or at least reported, at the beginning.

The next day, July 7, 1876, they printed much more information, including a “sketch” of Custer with his school and Civil War history. They included more details of the battle, the “scene of the massacre”, the causes and consequences, and the views at the War Department.

What stuck me most about this second day of reporting was that it was less a linear report of facts and more editorial. No longer are they “Indians”, they are now called “red devils”. Oh, and there were “no less than ten thousand red devils”. Also on this second day it was reported that:

It is the opinion of Army officers in Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia, including Gens. Sherman and Sheridan, that Gen. Custer was rashly imprudent to attack such a large number of Indians, Sitting Bull’s force being 4,000 strong. Gen. Sherman thinks that the accounts of the disaster are exaggerated.

And that’s how the news was back in the day when it wasn’t immediate. Should you be interested in seeing how this story progressed, check out The New York Times archives online. Go ahead, see what they reported the NEXT day.


Tarot Cards for Gambling?

I have a couple of friends who are interested in tarot cards, so I decided to check out the history.

  • There are historical references to tarot cards, mostly from Italy, from the 15th century.
  • Playing cards came to Europe from Islamic regions.
  • Originally these were playing cards, used to play a game like bridge. (Which made me wonder if anyone still plays bridge, leading to a research detour where I learned that there are a whole lot of bridge clubs throughout the U.S.)
  • Technology being what it was in the 15th century, the cards were not mass produced. Each card was individually hand-painted, meaning that only the wealthiest could afford them.
  • The images on the cards varied by region.
  • The games played with these cards were not only for fun, but also for gambling.
  • The oldest surviving cards are from 15 decks painted in the 15th century for the Duke of Milan.

The Popess, card from the so-called Visconti-Sforza tarot deck drawn by Bonifacio Bembo, ca. 1450. The Pierpont Morgan Library (inv. M. 630), New York City, USA. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • They weren’t used for divination until the late 18th century.
  • Using tarot cards for divination increased during the Victorian Age, as did other practices associated with spiritualism and the occult.
  • The most common tarot deck in the English-speaking world since its release in 1910 is known as the Rider deck (or Rider-Waite deck, or Rider-Waite-Smith deck). I don’t tarot, but even I recognize these cards and their distinctive yellow box.

Photo by Cathy Hanson

  • Even if you don’t tarot, you may know about the tower card. This card represents a sudden, dramatic upheaval, which is not generally pleasant or wanted, even if it ultimately leads to good. So if someone goes through life events that are awful and life-changing, they may say that they’ve been “towered”.

Trump card from Tarot de Marseille by Nicolas Conver (ca. 1760). Recolored version. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • I love some of the artwork on modern tarot decks. The artists are working within a thematic framework, but they have freedom within that structure. I’ve seen decks based on Vikings, vampires, fairies, angels, pirates, ghosts, steampunk, voodoo, and of course, cats. I even saw a tarot deck that you can color, just like those adult coloring books that are all the rage.

Feel free to share. Do you tarot?



My Favorite Statue

There’s a lot of buzz about statues lately, so I thought I would share my current personal favorite.

Although our vacation last year was not my first trip to London, it was the first time I remember seeing this particular statue. It’s located at the Horse Guards Parade, which is across St. James’s Park from Buckingham Palace.

Cadiz Memorial. Photo by Cathy Hanson

First, a very little bit of background. The Peninsular War (1807-1814) was fought by allies Spain, Portugal and Britain against Napoleon’s French Empire for control of the Iberian Peninsula. When the Spanish city of Seville was occupied by the French, Spain moved their government and seat of power to Cadiz, a Spanish naval base.

In 1810 the French laid siege to Cadiz, with 70,000 French soldiers surrounding about 2,000 troops in Cadiz. The siege lasted two and a half years and was finally lifted after the Duke of Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Salamanca in 1812.

Check out those claws! Photo by Cathy Hanson

A standard piece of equipment in any siege was a mortar, or what I would call a cannon. When the French forces were driven out, they were forced to leave some of these cannons, which is not surprising when you consider how heavy they must be.

Now THAT’S a cannon. Photo by Cathy Hanson

After the war, the Spanish gave one of the French cannons to the British Prince Regent (1762-1830) to commemorate these events. Instead of just placing the cannon in a park with a plaque, the Prince Regent, who would become King George IV, had the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich create a real statue.

Back of the cannon, with two dogs. Not sure what they symbolize, but I still love the statue. Photo by Cathy Hanson.

Known as the Cadiz Memorial, the statue was placed in 1816. There is an inscription on one side in Latin, with the English translation on the other side.

To commemorate

The raising of the siege of Cadiz in consequence of the glorious victory gained by the

 Duke of Wellington

Over the French near Salamanca on the XXII of July MDCCCXM

This mortar cast for the destruction of that great port with powers surpassing all others

And abandoned by the besiegers on their retreat

Was presented as a token of respect and gratitude by the Spanish nation

To His Royal Highness The Prince Regent.

Here’s part of the inscription, demonstrating why I don’t earn a living as a photographer. Photo by Cathy Hanson

I can’t possibly write about the Cadiz Memorial without mentioning the “bum”. The slang for cannon was “bomb” and was pronounced “bum”. The memorial was known as the “Regent’s Bomb”. Proving that our humor hasn’t evolved much in two centuries, which is not necessarily a bad thing, the jokes were immediate. You can’t really blame them as it seems the Prince Regent had a rather large posterior.

How about you? Do you have a favorite statue? Is it your favorite because of what it represents, because you love the way it looks, or both?

Fashion Becomes Tradition

You’ve probably all watched a TV show or scene from a movie that takes place in a modern British courtroom. Admit it, you either wondered about or giggled at the wigs. Turns out those wigs generate a lot of interest, making it easy to find answers online.

  • The wigs were originally a fashion statement, worn by all fashionable men of means. Good or bad, the legal profession hangs on to tradition even when others let it go.
  • Wigs, originally known as perruques in French and perukes in English, became fashionable in France during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715). His cousin, Charles II (1630-1685), was the English king who fled the country when Oliver Cromwell forcibly took over. After Cromwell died, Charles II was restored to the throne, a period known as the Restoration. Huge and fascinating story, but for this post, just know that Charles II returned to England in a wig.
  • Wigs were fashionable in France and England partly because they hid embarrassing things like lice, or the premature baldness caused by syphilis.

A judges’s wig and advocate’s wig on temporary display in Parliament Hall, Edinburgh. Photo by Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons

  • The term “bigwig” actually comes from this period. Because wigs were a symbol of wealth and status, people started wearing bigger wigs to show everyone exactly how wealthy and important they were. So we still use “bigwig”, although often disparagingly, to describe someone important.
  • As lawyers were men of means, they were initially just following fashion when they started wearing wigs. Wigs fell out of fashion with the general public in the late 18th century.
  • The Duty on Hair Powder Act of 1795 was a tax on the powder used on hair and wigs. This tax was repealed in 1869.
  • Even today, most of these wigs are made from white horsehair. As the wig ages, the horsehair yellows. Sounds gross, but it’s actually seen as an indication that the attorney is experienced.

Gesehen bei Ede & Ravenscroft, legal wear tailoring and wig making, London, UK. Photo by Oxfordian Kissuth via Wikimedia Commons

  • One of the reasons the tradition continued within the legal profession is that the wigs provided a certain amount of anonymity. Members of the court believed that anonymity protected them from anyone who didn’t like their rulings.
  • Wigs were worn by the legal communities in most of the former British colonies.
  • The wigs and robes worn by barristers and judges are a uniform, an identifier of their livelihood.
  • Wigs are only worn in court, not while attorneys are in their offices doing research. And since 2007, English barristers only wear wigs in court for criminal cases.
  • Judges wear longer wigs than barristers. Bigwigs, indeed.

Judge John Laskey Woolcock, Puisne Judge, 1 February 1927, died 18 January 1929. Identified from Brisbane Grammar Magazine, July 1929. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • Most wigs last a barrister or judge’s entire career. That’s good because a barrister’s wig will cost approximately $500, while a judge’s wig will be closer to $3,000.

Those in the legal profession in England are divided over the fate of this tradition. They may just chip away at it until there is nothing left.

What do you think? Dignified or goofy? Do you think this tradition should continue?

But They Were “Men of Their Times”…

I try not to get into current political stuff here because that is not the purpose of this blog. But there is one thing I’ve heard over and over this past week that had me yelling at the television and my phone.

I was bothered by comments that George Washington (1732-1799) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) were slaveholders, BUT they were just “men of their times”. Like they didn’t have any choice. Like everyone else was doing it, so they had to do it. Yeah, did that argument ever work with your parents? Because it didn’t work with mine.

And the thing is, not everyone was doing it.

This is, of course, not a complete history of slavery in the United States. I just wanted to share a couple of thoughts as a reminder to myself and others that historical and current issues are not as simple and one-dimensional as we like to portray them.

During the time of these “men of their times”, there were a variety of abolitionist, anti-slavery and emancipation organizations. Some were black, some were white and some were mixed. They had varying ideas about how quickly the enslaved people should be freed and what should happen to them once they were free. But there was a definite movement in the United States and internationally to abolish slavery.

Reads: “On this 30th day of April 1828 personally appear George Rice before the ?abricut a justice of the peace in and for said County, and made Oath on the Holy Evangely of Almighty God that James Tooley the Negro man now in my presence is the same that manumitted and let free by Phillip Winebrenner. Sworn before George Rohm”. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

During the time of these “men of their times”, the reasons given for being ant-slavery were often religious, but often just basic human morality not tied to religion. It was the belief that humans were humans, not property. One of the ideas of our Revolution was that all men are created equal. (No feminist rant. Must stay focused.)

Although the Civil War happened after Washington and Jefferson were both gone, at the peak of the slaveholding years in the southern states, approximately 32% of white families owned slaves. Most of those families did not own huge plantations, but smaller farms with 2-4 slaves. Again, not everyone was doing it, although many who couldn’t afford to be slaveholders did aspire to it as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

And during the time of these “men of their times”, there’s my favorite story of a man who was a contemporary of Washington and Jefferson. An actual man of their time. His name was Robert Carter and he at one time owned more slaves than Washington and Jefferson combined. And then he freed them. I wrote a blog post about him last year and would love for you to check it out.

Historical figures are people, so are as flawed as the rest of us. We are also marvelously complex, and this type of simplistic argument is a disservice to all. Rant over.

History and Heritage

If you travel to the United Kingdom and tour a historic house, park or garden, there is a good chance that attraction is part of the National Trust. To preserve and protect history and heritage, the United Kingdom has a charity called National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, more widely known as the National Trust.

Dover cliffs, South Foreland Lighthouse. Photo by Archangel12 via Wikimedia Commons

You can learn a lot about history by visiting a country home, especially one that has been preserved from a specific point in time. Besides what you can learn from the basic layout and architecture, these homes usually include furniture, art and books. And you can learn about the history of the family that once lived there, possibly for many generations. This experience gives you a well-rounded knowledge about this one house, family and area.

Eastbury Manor House, Barking, UK. Photo by Gordon Joly via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s some information (and photos) about the group that allows so many tourists, families and schoolchildren to enjoy those experiences.

  • This charity was founded in 1895 to preserve the nation’s heritage and open spaces.
  • The National Trust is a registered charity and not part of the government.
  • Their motto is “for ever, for everyone”.
  • Anyone can become a member of the National Trust as long as they pay the membership fees.
  • The National Trust includes England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has their own National Trust of Scotland, although there are reciprocal benefits.

Old Harry rocks peak, in Dorset, England. Photo by Graffity via Wikimedia Commons

  • Members receive free entry to all properties.
  • Private land and houses that have been donated or bequeathed to the National Trust can never be sold. Well, except by an Act of Parliament. So never say “never”.
  • There are more than 4.5 million members.
  • How do they take care of all these properties and visitors? Besides a staff of almost 6,000, approximately 60,000 volunteers donate more than three million hours of time each year.

Mow Cop Castle. Photo by Martyn Wright from Stoke on Trent, England via Wikimedia Commons

  • According to the National Trust website, they “look after coastline, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages, historic houses, gardens, mills and pubs.” Yes, you can do your part to support the National Trust by buying a pint.
  • Funds for preservation efforts derive from membership fees, entrance fees, donations, legacies and income from gift shops and restaurants.
  • Their most visited site is the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
  • They are one of the largest private landowners in the United Kingdom.

Anglesey Abbey. Photo by Wehha via Wikimedia Commons

  • The childhood homes of both Paul McCartney and John Lennon are National Trust properties.
  • Many of their country houses and gardens were acquired during the middle of the twentieth century when private owners were no longer able to afford to maintain these large properties or to pay the death duties.

Ashdown House, Oxfordshire. Photo by Des Blenkinsopp via Wikimedia Commons

  • English writer Beatrix Potter was a supporter and donor.
  • Their Facebook page and Twitter feed, @nationaltrust, include great photos, but also notifications of specials and events. And recipes, yum.

You want history and heritage? Tour a National Trust site. It’s one of the easiest ways to learn some history.

Moving Sand

Most days I drive past the Agua Hedionda Lagoon and the Encina Power Station, with its 400-foot smokestack, on my way to and from work. Doing research about something else, I learned that the power plant, which is owned by NRG Energy (say the company name out loud to see how clever they are), was commissioned in 1954.

The lagoon is next to the ocean, but wasn’t always open to it. When they built the power plant, they opened the lagoon to the ocean so that the tidal flow could cool the plant’s gas-fired boilers. And in 1954, to make the most of that tidal flow, they dredged sand from the bottom of the lagoon and moved it over to the beach.

Here’s the break created to let the ocean’s tidal flow into the lagoon. Apparently the jetties keep the entrance from migrating and keeps it flowing under the bridge. Photo by USGS via Wikimedia Commons

I had been here a couple of years when I first noticed a sandbar in the middle of the lagoon during low tide. I assumed I was not terribly observant and had never noticed it before. But the way it was explained to me by a long-time resident of the area, the tide going into the lagoon is strong and carries in lots of sand. The tide is not so strong going back out to sea, leaving much of the sand in the lagoon. (If I received incorrect information, please feel free to correct me.)

After a few years the sand builds up, impeding the flow of the water, and NRG Energy brings someone in to dredge the sand out again. I got to watch this process over the winter of 2014-2015. A big boat (that’s the technical term) sits over the top of the sandbar and vacuums up the sand, sending it through huge tubes that go under the bridge and deposits all the sand and organic matter onto the beach on the other side of Highway 101.

Agua Hedionda Lagoon from the north end, with the Encina Power Station and its smokestack in the background. The sand builds up right in the center where the water looks ripply. The bridge is just out of the photo on the bottom right. Highway 101 separates the lagoon and the beach. Photo by Bovlb via Wikimedia Commons

When the sand pours onto the beach, it is almost black, but eventually dries in the sun to it’s normal sandy color. When it’s freshly poured and full of all sorts of sea creatures, the seagulls and pelicans and other birds that hang out at the beach are all over it like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Since they move about 500,000 cubic yards of sand, that’s a lot of food.

I noticed yesterday at low tide that the sandbar is back. Kids were out there fishing and playing. Looks like it’s about time to dredge again.

Here in Carlsbad, we just move our sand across the road, but there is actually a global sand trade. Sand is used in everything from glass to concrete to computer chips, so this non-renewal resource is in great demand. Desert sand doesn’t work in concrete to make buildings or roads because the grains are round and don’t stick together. So the quest for beach sand is not only affecting our environment as the oceans and rivers are dredged, but also creating criminal enterprises as beach sand is now a hot commodity. Maybe don’t wait to take your beach vacation.

Too Much of a Good Thing

One of the reasons I enjoy learning about history is that human nature doesn’t change much. For example, there will always be a good number of people who believe that if a little bit of something is good, then a lot of that something is even better. As you can imagine, this happens a lot with cures for various ailments.

A goiter is an enlarged thyroid gland. Sometimes really, really enlarged. People have suffered from goiters throughout history, but it was hard to cure them when the cause was unknown. Historically marine sponges have been used where they were available, although they didn’t completely solve the problem.

This is a modern photo of a goiter, which means people still suffer from this. Photo by Almazi via Wikimedia Commons

During the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907), goiters were treated with the thyroid glands of various animals, which were dried, crushed into a powder and consumed. I don’t know if they knew why it worked, just that it worked. Then, as now, medical treatment included a whole lot of trial and error.

We now know that goiters are the result of iodine deficiency. Those marine sponges and animal thyroid glands worked because they were rich in iodine.

Iodine is a trace element and an essential nutrient for us humans. It is found naturally in food in some regions, primarily coastal regions. Today iodine deficiency is the leading preventable cause not only of goiters, but also intellectual and developmental disabilities. And it still effects approximately two billion people worldwide. Knowing the cause of a problem doesn’t always mean it gets fixed.

Such pretty purple. Evaporating pure iodine. Photo by Jurii via Wikimedia Commons

But back to iodine. Like so many things, iodine was discovered accidentally. In 1811 French chemist Bernard Courtois (1777-1838) was working with seaweed ash to get what he needed to make gunpowder. Don’t worry, I don’t understand the science well enough to tell you more than that. He made a little mistake and suddenly he had iodine. Unfortunately, this was during the Napoleonic Wars, France didn’t have the money to fund any of his experiments, so he went on to other things.

But others were able to work with the newly discovered iodine, including a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland, Jean Francois Coindet (1774-1834). In a series of papers published in 1820, only nine years after Courtois’ discovery, he announced that he could reduce goiters. He also mentioned other symptoms and ailments that could be helped with the use of iodine.

Iodine became all the rage. It was the fashionable new drug, easily available and seen as a bit of a global cure. But iodine is a funny thing. Too little, a deficiency, causes problems, but there are also major side effects if you have too much. And back to that human nature thing, some people had too much. Iodine, used incorrectly, was more a poison than a cure and became a semi-controlled substance.

It wasn’t until several decades later that it was discovered why iodine worked on goiters. It took that long to realize that humans need iodine and there are consequences when they don’t have it. Like goiters.

And it wasn’t until 1922 that the Swiss once again led the way and found a way to ensure that more people had enough iodine in their diets. They added it to table salt. The United States followed their example two years later.

late 1935. “Movie theatre on Saint Charles Street. Liberty Theater, 420 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana”. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Table salt has said “iodized” on the carton for so long that we don’t really notice it anymore. Salt was decided on as the vehicle for iodine because it does not spoil and is used by most people. It’s also simple and cost-effective. Unfortunately, iodine deficiency hasn’t been eliminated.

The World Health Organization and other agencies are still working on it.


History Lost, and History Created?

Considered the first modern natural disaster, the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, is well studied. If you are specifically interested in the scientific, philosophical, religious, economic, literary or political consequences of this event, an internet search will show you a treasure trove of information.

These are the basic facts about what happened. On the morning of All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755, there was an earthquake in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Lisbon. It is speculated that the earthquake would have measured between 8.5 and 9.2 on the Richter scale, had that resource been available at the time.

Ruins of the Church of Saint Nicholas, following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.Painting by Jacques-Philippe Le Bas (1707–1783). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Not long after the earth stopped shaking, the earthquake also brought a series of tsunamis. And then there were fires, lasting almost a week. I’ve read estimates of the number of deaths being anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000, although most estimates are in the 50,000 range.

Scholars in all disciplines can study the effects of this series of events on the Portuguese Empire and on what was one of the wealthiest and most populous cities in Europe. Aiding in this research about the destruction are historical resources that are only available because of the devastation.

Lisbon, Portugal, during the great earthquake of 1 November 1755. This copper engraving, made that year, shows the city in ruins and in flames. Tsunamis rush upon the shore, destroying the wharfs. The engraving is also noteworthy in showing highly disturbed water in the harbor, which sank many ships. Passengers in the left foreground show signs of panic. Original in: Museu da Cidade, Lisbon. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

There are first person accounts from survivors in Lisbon and the surrounding areas. Visual artists depicted the events and the aftermath. Others wrote not only of what happened, but opined about the how and the why. The case has been made that this is the beginning of seismology. Learning the reasons why they chose to rebuild an entire ruined city in this particular way is fascinating.

We have available this entire array of primary resources to help explain not only what people did, but how they felt and what they believed after the earthquake, the tsunamis and the fires. If you read my posts regularly, you know how I feel about primary sources. This is an amazing window into mid-eighteenth century European life and their reaction to adversity.

But don’t forget what we lost. I first heard about 1755 Lisbon when I was researching primary source material about the great navigators and explorers from the Age of Exploration. Much of that is just…gone. Original records, logs, journals, maps and charts that were in the royal archives are no longer available to study.

The royal library in Lisbon contained 70,000 volumes. Remember, we’re not talking about mass market paperbacks readily available. As far as I know, there is no inventory, no way to completely know what we’re missing. Another palace library held 18,000 volumes. That palace also had art by Titian, Ruben and Correggio.

It looks like my message changed along the way. Originally I was lamenting what was lost. But people did what people do. They learned. They rebuilt. They moved on. Much better message.

Thank the Finns for the Molotov Cocktail

I don’t think there has ever been any question that fire can be used as a weapon. The main change throughout the millennia is the delivery system.

One modern delivery system is the Molotov cocktail. Cheap and easy to make using accessible ingredients, these little bombs are easy to carry and can do some big damage.

As demonstrated in many, many movies, the Molotov cocktail is a bottle filled with gasoline, using a gas soaked rag stuffed in the opening as a wick that is lit to start the fire. You throw the bottle and when it breaks, gasoline and fire spread everywhere. Easy peasy.

Finnish Molotov cocktail with fixed storm match to ignite instead of rags. Photo: Ohto Kokko via Wikimedia Commons

But Hollywood doesn’t always tell the whole story. Molotov cocktails generally have a few extra ingredients to increase their effectiveness. The most damaging Molotov cocktails add a little something extra to the gasoline or ethanol. If you add some tar or motor oil, you get a more sticky mixture. Sticky is good in this case. When the bottle breaks, you want the fire to stick where you’ve thrown it. These add-ins also provide extra thick smoke, which is good to disorient your enemies.

I would guess that people have used variations of Molotov cocktails since there was glass and accelerants. Tossing a lit kerosene lantern to purposely start a fire is, in my view, a precursor to the more standardized modern version. And yes, I’ve watched a lot of Westerns in my life.

It’s turns out we can thank the people of Finland for naming a weapon they standardized and used extensively against the Soviets. In 1939 the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986), signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. Billed as a non-aggression pact between the two countries, it also secretly divided territory between them, giving the Soviet Union control of Finland. Again.

Vyacheslav Molotov. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Then the Soviets invaded Finland and started dropping bombs. When the news reported on the bombs, Molotov declared that they were dropping food and supplies. The Finns started called the bombs “Molotov bread baskets”. It only made sense to call their weapon of choice the drinks portion of the meal, hence the Molotov cocktail.

These small weapons were extremely effective against tanks. If you have enough Molotov cocktails and they are sticky enough, you can keep a tank aflame and completely surrounded by thick, black smoke. And the Finns did have plenty of Molotov cocktails because, surprising, they mass-produced them in a distillery during the war. Way to go, Finland!