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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Thursday, March 28, 2013

“Making Saltpetre” Seminar in Boston, 2 April

On Tuesday, 2 April, the Massachusetts Historical Society will host a session of the Boston Area Early American History Seminar starting at 5:15. David Hsiung, professor at Juniata College, will present a paper on “Making Saltpetre for the Continental Army: How Americans Understood the Environment During the War of Independence.” His précis:
This case study focuses on how Americans understood the workings of the natural world as they imperfectly made gunpowder for the Continental Army. It argues that paying attention to the interactions between humans and the natural environment leads to a richer understanding of the war, and that modern American attitudes towards the environment have important roots in the Revolutionary period.
Juniata is known for its environmental study programs, and Prof. Hsiung is working on a history of the siege of Boston through the lens of environmental history.

The expert commenter on this paper will be Rob Martello from the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, who wrote a book on Paul Revere as manufacturer. I look forward to another uncommon perspective on the past. The paper is available online to seminar subscribers (in three pieces), and some hard copies might be available for members of the public to read before the discussion that afternoon.

American governments scrambled to promote the manufacture of gunpowder in 1775, but they had actually been trying that off and on for over a century. Back in June 1642, the Massachusetts General Court passed this resolution:
by raising and producing such materials amongst us as will perfect the making of gunpowder, the instrumental meanes that all nations lay hould on for their preservation, &c., do order that every plantation within this Colony shall erect a house in length about 20 or 30 foote, and twenty foote wide within one half year next coming, &c., to make saltpetre from urine of men, beasts, goates, henns, hogs, and horses’ dung, &c.
Urine provided nitrogen, a crucial ingredient of gunpowder. But it’s not hard to think why towns didn’t keep up that part of their local infrastructure.

(Satirical print from 1783 Britain courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

4 comments:

John L Smith Jr said...

I have generally understood that colonists & people of the 18th century cared nothing of the environment because there was so much of it! Obviously if they relieved themselves near water supplies, they were ignorant of "pollution". But more so it seemed like in their minds things like wooded forests were of no use to anyone because they weren't cleared for planting. Plus they made great hiding places for Indians. Thoughts?

Robert S. Paul said...

Makes me hate every time I accidentally get powder in my mouth.

J. L. Bell said...

In researching this posting I came across information on how eighteenth-century gunpowder dealers refreshed old supply. It involved mixing in fresh powder, wetting everything down with urine, regrinding the mix, and selling as new. Tips you can use!

J. L. Bell said...

To the first comment, I agree that eighteenth-century Americans didn't share our concepts of pollution and littering. But they did understand the environment, albeit in different terms. With almost all of them farmers, fishermen, and others relying on natural resources, they were keenly attuned to the world around them, seasonal changes, and so on.

What really set them apart from us, I think, is the concept of preservation. They didn't see that natural world as something to be preserved for its own sake. In fact, I sense they had a hard time pulling back for more than a year or two in order to preserve that environment as productive. Their theology and lifestyle was based on getting as much out of the environment as possible by "improving"—i.e., using—it. Already there were signs that their activity was changing things: farmland being depleted, whales having to be hunted farther from shore. But no one was suggesting major compromises to avoid making those problems worse.

Not valuing preservation also affected how eighteenth-century Americans dealt with the historic landscape, preserving battlefields and buildings from replacement. That's why the Battle of Bunker Hill, the bloodiest and one of the most important fights of the war on American soil, is now commemorated with only a patch of land in a dense urban development.

My values developed in the twentieth century mean I dislike pollution and favor environmental and historical preservation. But my lifestyle also means I don't need to keep track of how bright the Moon will be tonight, when the first freeze will come, or how the tides will flow. So am I more or less attuned to the environment?