THE UNFOLDING JOURNEY is a new blog written in association with Legacy Genealogy.

This blog is a blend of disciplines that reveal the rich texture of culture and history that surrounded your ancestors' lives, as well as your own. We will take you beyond just the names, dates, and places to give you the "back story" for the reasons your ancestors thought what they thought and did what they did. We invite you to also visit us at the Legacy Genealogy facebook page at http://facebook.com/legacygenealogy

Friday, December 13, 2013

(John Ericsson)

In 1862, the technology of naval warfare was about to take a giant leap forward. At the outbreak of the Civil War just a year earlier, the Confederate States found themselves without a Navy. The Union Navy had already blockaded all ports, which prohibited southern merchant ships from delivering cotton and other products to customers in Europe. The funds from those exports, desperately needed to support the war, were unavailable.

The Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, knew that he could never match the U.S. Navy in ships or officers, so he developed an alternative strategy. He would build a small fleet of “ironclad vessels” that would sink the enemy’s wooden ships and break the blockade. He planned for them to be invincible as shells would simply bounce off their sides. Mallory’s first such ship would be the Merrimac which was a wooden ship abandoned by the Union Army when they evacuated Norfolk at the start of the war. Workers began bolting heavy metal plates on the sides of the Merrimac’s hull.

At the same time, fears grew in Washington. Intelligence knew of Mallory’s plan and envisioned his iron monster destroying ship after ship. The Assistant Secretary of the Union Navy said, “Who is to prevent the Merrimac from dropping anchor in the Potomac and throwing her hundred pound shells into the city or battering down the walls of the Capital itself.” Of even more concern was that the blockade of southern ports, a major part of the strategy to win the war, might be broken.

Only one man came to mind that could design a ship to combat the Merrimac. He was John Ericsson - an eccentric, arrogant, vain, but brilliant engineer. The Navy hated Ericsson; and he hated the Navy. In 1845, one of Ericsson’s experimental weapons exploded during a demonstration and killed the U.S. Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy. Nevertheless, Ericsson billed the Navy for the weapon. They refused to pay him. The feud continued for the next sixteen years. Ericsson rejected the Navy’s new pleas for help . . . unless President Lincoln personally assured him that he would be paid. Lincoln agreed and Ericsson went to work.

Ericsson’s ship would not be iron platted - it would be made entirely made of metal! The Navy thought he was mad, and that it would sink as soon as it was launched. Ericsson wrote to Lincoln saying, “The sea will ride over her, and she shall live in it like a duck.” His vessel was constructed on a ramp in New York City’s East River. John Ericsson supervised every detail. He had 47 newly patented inventions on board. He named his new ship the Monitor, and it was built in just 101 days.

On the day of the launch, the Monitor entered the water but did not sink. Her debut was not without problems though. The crew found her to be difficult to navigate; they had trouble just getting the ship out of the harbor and down the river. The Monitor was terribly slow and water leaked through at several places; and ventilators worked poorly permitting fumes to sicken the crew. Still, the Monitor trudged southward toward her meeting with the Confederate ironclad.

On March 8th, the just completed Merrimac, which was renamed the Virginia, and came out to attack the Union blockade fleet. It headed for the U.S.S. Cumberland (the most powerful ship in the fleet). The Cumberland returned fire but its cannon balls bounced off the Virginia. The Confederate ironclad rammed her and sank the Union ship. The Virginia then turned on the U.S.S. Congress and set it on fire. The U.S.S. Minnesota tried to escape but ran aground.

Into the battle a strange ship appeared. It was hard to see exactly what it was. There was one very large gun turret sticking up out of the water but little else that could determined. The Virginia at long last had encountered the Monitor. The two ships fired at each other with little consequence. After a short time, the Monitor pulled away to resupply its ammunition. The Confederates thought that they had won the battle. The captain of the Virginia, Catesby Jones, withdrew intending to return the next morning to finish off the immobilized Minnesota.

That night the Monitor returned and anchored right next to the Minnesota, preparing to defend the grounded ship. After sunrise, the Virginia returned. Its crew was surprised to see the Monitor still on the scene. The two ironclads resumed their battle. They fired at each other for four and a half hours hull to hull; continuously colliding together. Finally, the Virginia withdrew and returned to Norfolk.

These two famous ships would never meet again. In May, Union troops approached Norfolk and the Confederates blew up the Virginia rather than having it fall into enemy hands. Ten months later, the Monitor was lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The episode was over but the story continued on. The North busily built a fleet of ironclads, still under the watchful eye of John Ericsson. The South was unable to keep pace, lacking materials and funds. The Union blockade held for two more years until the end of the war.

The story of the great battle of iron ships spread. Government leaders around the world knew that their once mighty fleets were now useless. Naval warfare had moved into a new age and there was no going back to wood and sails.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


The Polynesian colonization of the Pacific was one of the most significant achievements in human history. The homogeneous Polynesian people originated in Taiwan over 6,000 years ago. By 1500 B.C.E., they had migrated to Indonesia then eastward to New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawaii, and finally to Easter Island, the eastern most outpost of the culture. By the time European explorers entered the Pacific in the 16th Century, almost all of the inhabitable islands had been settled for hundreds of years.

Until the last 20 years, most scientists believed that the Pacific island people had only a small environmental effect on the natural habitats; and that drastic changes were due to the more recent actions of European colonizers. This turns out to be inaccurate. More recent research is showing that the Polynesians had been altering their environments in major ways well before the arrival of the Europeans. Deforestation and forced animal extinction were much more common than originally thought.

With migration, Polynesian cultures became more specialized which extended to their relationship with the natural environment. This diversification is seen as related to the extreme distances between islands and the different types of island geologic formation (which allowed different types of vegetation to exist). Each island developed its unique culture in response to the different environments and the resources available.

One of the most studied Pacific cultures was on Easter Island. The island, also referred to as Rapa Nui, lies 2,000 miles west of Chile and is 1,300 miles from the nearest other Polynesian island. It is best known for the huge stone statues that were carved in a volcanic quarry, dragged about 12 miles to the coast, and then raised vertically onto platforms. Some weigh as much as 80 tons. The Islanders had no machines, pulleys, or draught animals to assist them. Why the statues were built is still largely unknown.

Today, Easter Island is a barren place. Once a tropical forest, there are no native trees remaining. At the time of the Polynesian settlement about 800 C.E., there were at least 43 species of land and sea birds; the largest number known on any Pacific island. The population reached as high as 15,000 people but had declined to 2,000 by the arrival of Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday in 1722. He witnessed the islanders toppling over some of their revered statues.  

The Easter Island civilization collapsed 300 years ago due to human environmental damage. There was no other Pacific culture located close enough to interact with the Easter Islanders so their rise and fall was theirs alone. So what caused this ecological and sociological disaster?

When the Polynesian settlers first arrived there, they began to clear the forest for their gardens, canoes, and firewood. They also used tree trunks as rollers to move the giant statues from the quarry to the coast. Agriculture was limited, so they fed on the available birds and on the porpoise and tuna in surrounding waters. Over the generations, the deforestation and reduction of animal stocks had consequences for the people. Without trees they could not transport their statues, so they stopped carving them. They had little firewood for warmth and cooking. With the trees removed, they had no way to stop soil erosion. The absence of wood also meant that they couldn’t build adequate canoes to venture out into the ocean to catch fish.

Ultimately, they turned to the largest animal left to eat on the island - other humans. Cannibalism reached epidemic proportions. The societal structure collapsed. Small groups warred against each other. People moved into caves for protection.

The collapse of the Easter Island civilization was due to both environmental and human factors. The island did have less rainfall than others, cooler temperatures (due to its latitude), and almost no water runoff from higher elevations. But the key factor in initiating the sequence of events that brought down the society was the human action that removed the trees. Once gone they could not be regenerated.

Polynesian groups on other islands did persevere without interruption for 3,600 years without any sign of decline. Many of those were isolated as well (although none as completely as Easter Island). Some avoided deforestation by abandoning the slash and burn method of land clearance. Others focused on cultivating garden plots and relied less on animal consumption, or learned to irrigate their fields. Still others attempted to limit their population growth.

The people on Easter Island, once events spiraled out of control, had no means of leaving the island to escape their fate. They had no way of saving their island paradise. When their society collapsed, no one else in the world took notice and no one else was affected.