Hidden Histories: The Quest to Put Names to Our Past

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Construction on the arcade of the Library wing, February 1935.

It began a few years ago with a handful of old, unlabeled photos. Images of workers who placed the bricks and the cinder blocks for the Museum’s walls and also installed the statues on Lions Bridge and in the Park. They were literally part of the very foundation of our Museum. Then the questions began. What were their names and their stories? Why were they so important to our Museum, but we didn’t know who they were? What we found, and are still finding, has evolved into one of the most interesting, impactful, heartbreaking, joyous, and eye opening projects we have ever worked on. A project we named “Hidden Histories.”

The earliest beginnings of the project actually started from several other initiatives. A quest to gather as much information about our Park and grounds as possible, and a look forward to our 100th Anniversary coming up in 2030. The emphasis on our Park is part of a long term project focused on issues like conservation, sustainability, ecology, preservation and the history of the area. This work has helped with the formation of our new Park Department which was announced earlier this month. The 100th Anniversary project is taking a look back at our history and also a look forward to see where we are headed in the future.

Both projects led to the discovery of photos showing the men who did the construction on our Museum and Park. As well as a number of images showing members of our Museum team dating from the 1930s and beyond. The photos are part of our Institutional Collection that documents what happens here. They include famous visitors, parties, exhibitions, large artifacts arriving, personnel photos, and just about anything else related to our day to day activities. While we knew what types of photos we would find in the collection, we didn’t anticipate finding out what we didn’t have. The men’s identities and a realization that despite our Museum’s focus on inclusion and connections within our community, we hadn’t made a connection with ourselves. In the 91 years since the first of those photos were taken, we hadn’t made a connection with the men who were the very foundation of our success. And the hard truth is that because of who they were, no one in the 1930s thought it important enough to label these images and ensure they would be known by their names and faces. The time was way overdue to correct this.   Read more

What is “Hidden Histories”?

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“Photographs of the Personnel of The Mariners’ Museum” dated 1935. INST-ST-28, Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

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Just as I was about ready to post this blog, I had to rewrite my opening because I just spent 45 rewarding minutes on the phone with a wonderful gentleman, Mr. Brown. Our mission at The Mariners’ Museum and Park is to connect people to the world’s waters – because through the waters, through our shared maritime heritage – we are connected to one another. 

Why is this so important? Hidden Histories will give names, agency, and interpretation of the unidentified Black people depicted in our Collections. The purpose is to tell a fuller history of our shared maritime heritage. It will expand our understanding of our local, national, and global communities’ richness. The best part? We will be seeking opportunities to engage with the community for help gathering these names and personal stories. 

This is exactly what our program, Hidden Histories, is all about. Last summer, when we realized that we would not be back in the office any time soon, we decided it was the perfect time to reevaluate our Collection. Staff members had discovered photos in the corporate archives. They were then shared with our department of interpretation. 

You may think that some of this sounds strange. Collections? Corporate archives?

Here is a summation by Mr. Bill Barker, Archivist for The Mariners’ Museum and Park, “The institutional archives are the documents that the museum has generated during its existence.  It contains things like presidential correspondence, board minutes and reports, financial statements, and etc.  The early personnel records in the institutional archives included the images of early African American workers at the Museum.

The archival collections consist of the letters, photos, diaries, ephemera, maps and etc. that the museum maintains and uses to tell our maritime history.  They originate from outside the institution and have been intentionally collected by the museum.”

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Looking at a photo of 21 men with no identification, how does one even begin?

So, the first thing we did was form a committee. Taking part in the investigation are team members in the Department of Interpretation, Collections, Digital Services, Library and Archives, Conservation, and Park & Lake all on board with the project. The “golden photo” which triggered our committee formation is above. 

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While we expect this to be an ongoing process and a constant reinvestigation of the Museum’s practices, we are starting with the portion that is incredibly close to home. So our first goal is to identify the Black Americans who built The Mariners’ Museum and Park that we see in our pictures and historical documentation. We want to honor these currently unidentified community members. We want to give them the credit they deserve for their efforts and talent building our institution. As we tell our own story better and more fully, we will turn to the other Black Americans’ stories within our Collection. We will be continuing to build the evidence that we are all connected to one another through our shared maritime heritage. It is time to practice what we preach and identify those important community members!

The Daily Press published an article on the Museum’s 90th birthday celebration that appeared on October 21, 2020:  Mariners’ Museum set sail 90 years ago, and it’s reaching more people than ever – Daily Press. The story happened to use a photo of Mr. James Scott and Mr. McKinley Banks, brick masons, in 1934, working on the Museum’s entrance. Mr. Banks’s granddaughter saw the picture and contacted the Museum. I had a lovely Zoom meeting with her. I learned even more history about Newport News, our Park, and “Daddy May,” as they called him. We then realized he was in the original photo of the 21 men, as was Mr. James Scott. 

We got a huge surprise during the Christmas holidays from one of the archivists at the Museum,  Bill Barker. He found the same photo but with notations! 

NAMES.

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Well, this certainly was a treasure trove of information. Honestly, the “Queen of Research and Detective Skills” title belongs to Cindi Verser, Collections Management Specialist. She put complete names to faces thanks to her attention to detail. She found draft registrations, census records, obituaries, and more. We have been able to identify some of the employees. We are still working on several others. As you can see, some of the names are very common in this area, like Spratley and Diggs. And Brown? Johnson? Moore?

An archivist found additional paperwork. Two gentlemen pictured stayed on after construction.  They became part of the Janitorial Department. Here are their staff photos:

Two other gentlemen were also in the Janitorial Department at this time. Here are their photos:

I was thrilled to have the following photographs shared with us from the corporate archives. These are all from June to September of 1935. They include exterior museum buildings or “great hall.” Pouring footings and the first library section on the right. 

And even more information from the corporate archives, thanks to Museum Archivist Bill Barker! Many of these employees have no photos or first names.

“The Mariners’ Museum Report 1930-1937”, Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

Thanks again to the Daily Press for the article published on February 7, 2021, about our programming in honor of Black History Month:  Who built the Mariners’ Museum? Staff is trying to identify people in old photos for Black History Month. – Daily Press This triggered more interest from the community. A gentleman reached out to the reporter who had written the story. That’s the gentleman that I just spent 45 minutes with on the phone, Mr. Brown. He generously shared with me where the families were living. He shared family connections, and a little bit of gossip. And when the pandemic allows, he has offered to walk around the local African American cemetery with me to share even more Hidden History. I can’t wait!  

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Oh, and if you need an example of how small this world is, my new friend, Mr.Brown,  worked at the Naval Weapons Station the same time that my Dad, Cdr. Donald L. Hark, was the base’s Executive Officer. My Dad was the kind of guy that would have met everyone who worked on the base. So they very well could have spoken with each other!

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To us here at the Museum, this Hidden History project is a  perfect example of community involvement. What stories have you heard about your family? Do you remember a family member working at the Museum in the early 1930s? Maybe you’re the one who inherited the family photos? You may have contacts in your local network like business organizations, churches, or women’s clubs to share information about our project. If so, I would love to talk with you. Please contact me at [email protected]

 

Success (and Liquor) on the Rocks

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The Success Wedged on a Rock, LE 1452. The image can be found after page 94 of John Hamilton Moore’s 1778 book, “A New and Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels,” online here.

2020 has been a rocky year but humor has definitely helped me along the way. So when I stumbled onto this print and couldn’t stop laughing, I knew that I had to share it. The print is titled “The Success wedged on a Rock, being at the same time between the fire of the Spanish Fort at Umata and a Ship in the Harbour.” Irony anyone?

With such a hilarious title I dug deeper and just laughed more. The captain of Success was John Clipperton, a British sailor who was born in 1676 and joined Captain William Dampier on Saint George for an expedition to the Pacific from 1703-1704. This voyage gave Clipperton knowledge of the Pacific islands, which he put to good use when he led a mutiny against Dampier and left in a prize ship. That didn’t end well: the Spanish captured and imprisoned him in Panama for four years under Juan Antonio Rocha Carranza, Marquis de Villa-Rocha.

Several years later, Clipperton joined Captain George Shelvocke on a second privateering trip to the Pacific. Shelvocke was to be the leader of the two ships which he and Clipperton would captain, Speedwell and Success respectively. However, the owners of the ships were not at all happy with Shelvocke’s behavior, so they demoted Shelvocke. The owners claimed that he wasted supplies (alcohol and gunpowder) and flew a foreign flag, among other offenses. He remained as captain of Speedwell, but did not have overall authority by the time the two ships departed Plymouth, England on February 13, 1719.

Setting Out for the Pacific

As you can imagine, Shelvocke wasn’t thrilled. He chose to follow a different route to their destination than that which Clipperton took, separating the two ships for roughly two years! Shelvocke later claimed that Clipperton held all of the maps for the expedition and wouldn’t share. However, Clipperton was reportedly upset because Shelvocke kept all of the alcohol for the expedition. I really want to laugh at this, imagining two captains on deck stamping their feet and shaking fists as the two ships parted ways. But maps are a necessity, and alcohol was important for the medicinal health and general morale of the crew, so I can see the frustration.

During those two years after Clipperton set out as a legal privateer against the Spanish, the war between Spain and Britain ended. This meant that Clipperton was now a pirate. There is a very fine line between privateer and pirate, and Clipperton had crossed it without a care in the world. He was well aware of the peace settlement, because the prize ships he captured informed him. But business was good and he was in the middle of the Pacific, so who was going to stop him?

That Didn’t End the Way They Imagined

By 1721, Clipperton had made his way to Guam where Spain had built a fort at what is now Umatac. On the way there Clipperton’s chief mate kept a journal, which the captain of the marines, William Betagh, later published (more on that in a bit). Taylor wrote on May 10, 1721, “Nothing worth notice has happen’d in this tedious passage, only burying six of our hands. All our people are very weak, and take the scurvy apace : so that land is now a very welcome sight.” Only burying six people? The dangers of the sea in the 1720s seriously jaded these guys.

Success reached Guam just three days later, on May 13, 1721. The plan was to resupply the ship with food and water, which required the governor to grant permission to the locals before they could trade. The governor was hesitant, but Clipperton assured him that Spain and Britain were at peace. (See, the guy knew what he was doing!)

The governor granted permission for the trade, and over the next few days Clipperton sent arms and ammunition to the shore while the Spanish sent cattle, bread, sugar, brandy, fruit, palm wine, sugar, and chocolate. But Clipperton wanted more from the Spanish so he offered a prisoner, the Marquis de Villa-Rocha, whom Clipperton had captured over a year earlier in the voyage. The ransom money would make this supply stop very lucrative!

Unfortunately for Clipperton, he doesn’t seem to have been a super savvy pirate. He sent Villa Rocha onshore with two men from the ship’s crew, Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Pritty. They were to return with the ransom money, except the governor didn’t see the point in paying when Clipperton had already released the prisoner. In turn, the Spanish governor kept Godfrey and Pritty until Clipperton sent jewels and other prisoners.

Too Much Alcohol on the Rocks

Of course, Clipperton realized his mistake too late and made several threats against the Spanish. That didn’t go over well, and William Betagh titled a section in his book, Clipperton “finds his error and takes to drinking.” Apparently the crew of Success had managed to find more alcohol after separating from Shelvocke, so the pirate captain spent the next few days passed out drunk. I suppose he thought ignorance would be bliss.

In the meantime, the crew had to choose another captain because the Spanish began firing at Success and someone had to handle the ship. And that’s when things went from bad to worse. The ship journal stated, “At six afternoon…we run aground, they having carry’d her into shoal water, so that now we sustain two fires together, one from the battery over our heads, and another from the ship [that happened to be in the harbor].”

By nightfall the Spanish cannons had killed one man, wounded two more, and seriously damaged the ship. They must have been absolutely giddy at having such a close target. They were probably also entertained as they watched the crew of Success scurry around dumping cannons and almost every anchor into the water to lighten the ship and lift it off the rocks. Clipperton was useless, “our captain being overcome with liquor, and quite unable to command the ship…”

The crew managed to free the ship the next day, about 4 p.m. on May 29. However, the celebration lasted for only 10 minutes before the ship settled back onto the rocks. Finally, on May 30 about 48 hours after they first ran aground, Success floated free of the rocks and limped away from Guam. The crew left behind both Godfrey and Pritty to the whims of the Spanish. The casualties included two dead sailors and six wounded, plus one very large hangover.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Clipperton finally sobered at some point, and Success sailed for China. By the time the ship pulled into port it was in such bad shape that Clipperton sold it. He then paid the crew their share of the profits. Clipperton sent the money for the owners, £6,000, to England onboard a Portuguese ship, the Queen of Angels, which subsequently caught fire and burned at Rio de Janeiro.

Of course it caught fire! What else could have gone wrong with the end of this trip? Oh, John Clipperton succeeded in making it home in June 1722, but was ill and only lived a few days. Well, that ended badly.

Back to Shelvocke

Captain Shelvocke was not present for the rocky incident at Guam, as he had purposely avoided being with Clipperton. They met up a few times but never for long. Shelvocke also was no longer on Speedwell, which had wrecked on Juan Fernandez Island, and Shelvocke rebuilt the ship as Recovery, then later switched to the prize ships Jesus Maria and later Sacra Familia. He and the crew finally returned to England in August, 1722 but Shelvocke was in for a surprise.

William Betagh, the marine captain I mentioned earlier, served on Speedwell under Shelvocke until February 1721 when the Spanish took him as prisoner. Betagh made his way home to England in October 1721 (10 months prior to Shelvocke’s return), and immediately began accusing the captain of fraud. One of the accusations stated that Shelvocke had purposely wrecked Speedwell and rebuilt it, allowing him to negate the contract with the owners of the ship and call himself the owner of the new vessel. In that way, he would keep most of the profit from the privateering adventure.

A War of Words

When he arrived home, the police immediately arrested Shelvocke. He wasn’t in jail for long, then laid low for several years. In an effort to clear his name against the verbal accusations from Betagh, Shelvocke published his version of the 1719-1722 expedition in a book titled, “A Voyage Round the World By the Way of the Great South Sea,” in 1726.

In response, Betagh published his own book in 1728, also titled “A Voyage Round the World, Being an Account of a Remarkable Enterprize…” Betagh included George Taylor’s journal from his first hand experience with Clipperton on Success. In the dedication Betagh wrote, “I had the happiness of being several years a purser in the Navy, tho afterwards unfortunately ingaged [sic] under the command of captain Shelvocke in this cruising expedition. As his pretended narrative is intirely [sic] a deception, and his whole conduct an indignity to his country, I thought it my duty to give your Lordships a genuine account of the man as well as our voyage…”

These sound so much like 1720s versions of modern angry social media posts! Except they come in a book format with formal documentation and everything.

 

Let’s Sum This Up

So, two privateers turned pirate captains who disliked each other and jealously guarded their maps and alcohol ventured into the Pacific. While successful at capturing prize ships, neither were very good at diplomatic negotiations with foreign countries or their own crews, and Success wound up on a rock while Clipperton drowned his sorrows in liquor and the Spanish played target practice. The ship carrying the money from the entire voyage and sale of the ship back to the owners caught fire and burned, Clipperton died right after he got home, and Shelvocke wound up in a very public war of words with his shipmate. If that doesn’t say Success then I’m not sure what does!

For Further Reading:

  • William Betagh, “A Voyage Round the World, Being an Account of a Remarkable Enterprize…” 1728, TMMP Library G420 .B56 Rare, The online version is here, and the tale of Success begins around page 150.
  • David Henry, “An Historical Account of all the Voyages Round the World…” 1774, TMMP Library G240 .H5 Rare
  • Charles Rathbone Low, “Maritime Discovery: A History of Nautical Exploration from the Earliest Times,” volume 2, 1881.
  • John Hamilton Moore, “A New and Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels,” 1778.
  • Pen & Sword Books, “A Privateer’s Voyage Round the World,” 2010. The book republished Shelvocke’s book, but the introduction provides a great overview of the events.
  • George Shelvocke, “A Voyage Round the World By the Way of the Great South Sea,” 1726, TMMP Library F1409 .S5 1726 Rare, the online version is here. 
  • George Shelvocke’s journal is online here with the National Library of Australia
  • A great article about William Dampier is here.

Opening Day: What The Mariners’ Museum looked like in the 1930s

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Today, The Mariners’ Museum and Park’s exhibition space is roughly 90,000 square feet; but when the Museum opened to the public in November 1933, there was only a little over 12,000 square feet of gallery space. Sure, this is not a “small” space. All of our houses are probably significantly smaller, but this is a far cry from the originally intended Museum – a grand, sprawling, geometric affair. 

In April 1931, Archer Huntington stated, “My idea for the museum is a structure built not by architects but by engineers, and I think we can do this in the Yard. The moment you attempt to produce an art building on the usual Greek or Roman lines, you have made something which will clash entirely with the exhibits, which are purely scientific and mathematical.” To that end, the Museum’s projected budget for 1931 included $50,000 to “start museum”. The rest of that year’s budget was allocated to the dam, roads, and property maintenance. This vision would not come to pass, though, at least not as originally intended. Instead, the idea of a new building was put on hold (thanks Great Depression), and The Mariners’ Museum exhibits were put in a “temporary” gallery space located in the Museum’s service building. 

Construction on the Service building started in the last quarter of 1931 and a “second unit” (addition) to the service building was completed in July 1933. When transformed into gallery space the building was U-shaped, with exhibits along the front and library, offices, storage areas, and garage space on either wing. To give some perspective to those who have visited the Museum before, what is today the Huntington Room, was at that time one of the two main gallery spaces. Visitors entered from the right (where our marketing entrance is now), and were greeted by makeshift table after makeshift table of artifacts. These tables were just boards on top of saw horses, and they were jam packed, full of artifacts; all tagged, but not covered by any case. There were also paintings, figureheads, and name-plates covering the walls in a very Victorian gallery (or for y’all youngins, #cottagecore) style. And there were large artifacts, like small craft and ship’s wheels, and globes, taking up a significant amount of the galleries’ floor space.

 

On November 14, 1933, the Daily Press reported, “The recent opening of the temporary quarters for housing the maritime exhibits collected for the Mariners’ Museum reveals a wealth of material for first hand study of the means by which man has mastered the sea and the denizens of the sea…” This temporary solution became pretty permanent, though. As you may have already realized, we are able to reference these original gallery spaces with their modern day counterparts because we are still using the service building. Wild, right?  

Because it was apparent that “temporary” was becoming “permanent”, the garages were converted into workshop space for the model makers (who also acted as the Museum’s original conservators) and new garages were built in fall 1934. Additionally, colonnades were added at the same time, behind the Museum (in what is now the South Courtyard) to cover the ever growing small craft collection. And as buyers traveled around the world actively growing the collection, objects were added to the Museum’s exterior, too. For example, the Lancaster eagle, and numerous anchors and cannons were displayed attached to the exterior walls or on exhibit mounts in the front lawn and rear courtyard. In March and April 1934’s monthly report, staff wrote: “The purchase of books and exhibits has proceeded. The small boats, including whale boat, Spanish and Portuguese boats, and outrigger canoe from Tahiti, are arranged in the court at the Service Building. The Eagle Figurehead, anchors, etc, are also placed outside the building. Even so, the exhibits in the Service Building are becoming more and more crowded as new paintings and exhibits are acquired”. 

Therefore in summer 1935, work began on the creation of an addition to the (relatively) small museum space. The addition was put on the north side of the existing building and provided over 8,800 square feet of additional exhibit space, as well as new storage space, offices, and guest facilities (eh hmmmm, bathrooms)

The most jaw dropping addition, though, was the new Museum entrance. In January 1936, the Museum unveiled the addition, and visitors entered the new space through the striking Bronze Doors. When these doors were opened, the whole room behind them was an open air entrance. At the back of that room, new fangled electric entrance and exit doors were installed. They were “a novelty in this vicinity, [and] proved very attractive” (FF box 14, February 4, 1936). This kept climate control in the main gallery space. Today, this 1936 addition space houses AC-72 and talks about the America’s Cup; but when this addition opened exhibits were laid out as such: 

“The main unit (America’s Cup gallery) contains the large Portuguese boat, figureheads, paintings and exhibits in cases and on tables. 

The wing immediately south of the main unit (Huntington room) contains figureheads, paintings and exhibits, including the whale boat. 

The former library (today the IT office space) contains prints and exhibits. The south end of the south wing (former gallery space, today a storage area between Huntington and the Marketing area) is the new library and reading room, with prints, paintings, etc, on the walls” (FF Box 14, February 4, 1936). Some objects previously stored outside, like the Lancaster eagle, were brought inside, too. This last statement is relative, though, as buyers were still gobbling up new artifacts from around the world. Outdoor exhibition remained a primary feature of the Museum.  

Of course, the Museum has grown time and time again over the last several decades. In fact, this blog covers less than 20% of our current gallery space…but it’s a start. 

 

Episode III – Mariners Still Sailing Together…Apart

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Rachel, the Museum's Information Specialist, searching the archives.
Rachel, the Museum’s Information Specialist, searching the archives. All images in this blog: Amanda Shields/Mariners’ Museum and Park.

Episode III – Digitization of the Print

In a museum not so far far away there’s not just one, but two Mariners’ crew whose work is so interconnected that even a pandemic can’t change that. Now, our Library Information Specialist and Cultural Heritage Photographer are discovering what “working closely” looks like at a distance.

A Reference in References

An unassuming white door is nestled in the center of a white wall you’d never even notice was there unless someone pointed it out to you. Through that door is what we call Gallery 1. Inside it, a large table fills the front of the room to lay out large items. It’s filled with books, photos, drawings, and the most high-tech shelves I’ve ever seen! Seriously, these are not your grandpa’s stagnant library shelves. With the push of a button, they slide together, closing one aisle and revealing the next aisle of records.

My geeky brain was immediately reminded of that scene in Star Wars – Episode IV. It’s the famous scene when Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie are trapped in the trash compactor and the walls are literally closing in on them! But don’t worry, these walls have sensors so if you leave so much as a stool in the aisle they won’t be closing. No Death Star scenes being reenacted at The Mariners’ Museum. 😉 Although, there may be an extremely high potential for lots of Star Wars references!

“These are not the records you are looking for.”
~ Obi-Wan Kenobi/Amanda Shields   Read more