J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Curiosities in Connecticut

On 5 May 1775, the Massachusetts delegates to the Second Continental Congress were in Norwalk, Connecticut, on their way back to Philadelphia after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Enthusiastic crowds were greeting those men in every big town they passed through. They were concerned about converting that fervor into concrete support and supplies for the militia troops besieging Boston; gunpowder, for example, was already rare on the continent.

So what did the delegates do on that Friday? They visited a private museum! Robert Treat Paine wrote in his diary for 5 May about stopping in Norwalk “to see Mr. Edward Arnold & saw his Museum a very large Collection of Birds, Insects, Fossills Beasts Fishes &c.”

This visit eventually turned out to be more than just sightseeing. Two years later, on 10 May 1777, John Adams sent his wife Abigail a letter that said:

Upon a Hint, from one of our Commissioners [i.e., diplomats] abroad, We are looking about for American Curiosities, to send across the Atlantic as presents to the Ladies.

Mr. [David] Rittenhouse’s Planetarium, Mr. Arnolds Collection of Rareties in the Virtuoso Way, which I once saw at Norwalk in Connecticutt, Narragansett Pacing Mares, Mooses, Wood ducks, Flying Squirrells, Redwinged Black birds, Cramberries, and Rattlesnakes have all been thought of.
Just what an influential European noblewoman might want: a rattlesnake! (The snake would probably have been dead, but still.) With American wildlife still considered exotic, this was an early version of what we now call cultural diplomacy or even “panda diplomacy.”

Adams still recalled that Norwalk museum when he wrote to Abigail from Paris in May 1780:
When shall We have in America, such Collections? The Collection of American Curiosities that I saw at Norwalk in Connecticutt made by Mr. Arnold, which he afterwards to my great mortification sold to Gov. Tryon, convinces me, that our Country affords as ample materials, for Collections of this nature as any part of the World.
Arnold had moved behind British army lines to live in Huntington, New York, and sold his collection to Gen. William Tryon (1729-1788), governor of New York, who had actually led a military raid on Norwalk in 1779. Arnold died sometime before 15 Sept 1780, when the probate court approved an administrator for his estate.


Chris McNulty said...

I;ve always found it curiious, in hindsight, but abivous at the time, that many patriots were still associating with Tories. But the extnenht5 of the impending rift wqas probably hard to know, even as late as 1775.

America in 1775 was an interesting place -- in June of '75 New York's Wall Street coffee places were abuzz with figuring out how to simultaneously honor the return of the Roayl Governor William Tryon and the passing through of the new Continental commander, George Washington. New Yorkers, then as know, wetre also trying to figure out the best way out to Long Island for the weekend, but that's a different stroy, same then as now.)

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the lines definitely widened and hardened further into the war. And in the area around greater New York, including Long Island, southeastern Connecticut, and the lower Hudson valley, loyalties seem to have been especially mixed. The “neutral ground” indeed!