...english people have surnames because of people called william (kind of)
You can tell a lot about family history from a surname. For instance, being a Smith, one of my ancestors would have been a metalworker. This is an example of a ‘trade’ surname and there are many out there; thatchers, fletchers, butchers, bakers and the like. But where did the practice of giving people surnames come from? Surnames came out of a need to differentiate between individuals with the same given name. You might think that therefore they have been around as long as people have. However, we can actually trace this phenomenon back to the late middle ages and the centuries following the Norman Conquest.
In Anglo-Saxon England there was a great variation of personal names, and this variation meant it was not too hard to differentiate; there was most likely only one Athelstan or Wulfric in your village. After the Norman Conquest however, there was an increasing homogeneity to the names that people used. With the influx of Norman aristocracy some names such as Robert, Elizabeth, Mary and Thomas, became associated with a higher social standing, and seem to have been chosen by those who desired their children to be upwardly mobile. In the early 13th century in Lincolnshire, records show 15% of people called William. This trend towards similar names accelerated; when assessing the people in order to charge them the poll tax in 1379, the returns for Sheffield showed that 33% of people were called John and another 19% were named William. Yes, that’s right, over half of people carried one of these two names meaning you would meet a constant stream of Williams and require a means of distinguishing.
Such a lack of variation was clearly the main causal factor in the need to add a second name for identification. Yet the concurrent growth in taxation bureaucracy and the requirement to know which William had paid his taxes and which had not, acted as an important catalyst. Steady population growth until the mid 14th century probably played a background role too. Initially, these extra names were descriptive of the individual and often changed during the course of your life. If you changed your job or where you lived, so your epithet could too. William Townsend (who lived on the edge of town) might become William Walton (his village of origin) if he were to move to a town for example. Over time these names stuck and by 1400 most people seem to have names that passed down through the generations as most still do today.
Dr Carrie Gibson's first book, 'Empire's Crossroad's', was an epic 'tour de force' on Caribbean history. In 2019, this was followed up with her new critically acclaimed book, 'El Norte. The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America.'
The glowing reviews speak for themselves! The New York Time Review is here. The Guardian Review is here.
Dr Carrie Gibson joined the @VersusHistory Podcast on Episode #67 to discuss her new book. No doubt you would like the opportunity to win a free copy! If so, just listen to the question on the Podcast, set by Carrie herself, and enter using the form below. The winner will be selected at random Saturday 20 April 2019. Good luck!
If you do not win, why not buy the book anyway?! The link is here.
...THAT THE ‘WILD WEST’ ONLY LASTED FOR 30 YEARS.
“Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines.”
― Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History
In his 2001 book, The American West: The Invention of a Myth, David Murdoch asserts that America is ‘exceptional’ inasmuch as it is the only country to have chosen its own self-image: "No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America's creation of the West". The ‘selection’ of a particular place and time in history to use in the assembly of a symbolic self-image, if true, is a remarkable piece of history-making.
The ‘Wild West’, or the ‘Old West’, is so dense with historical imagery and meaning that a single mention of either of these two terms immediately conjures in the mind, gunslingers, sheriffs, wagon trails, gold rushes, saloons, western expansion, the frontier, Davy Crockett, grit and American determination, among countless other imaginings. But did you know that this foundational imagery (imagined or otherwise) is rooted in a period of only thirty years after the American Civil War? That’s 1865 to 1895.
Although westward expansion into the interior of the North American continent began in earnest with President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803 - for roughly $15 million in today’s money - the period of time upon which many Americans model their historical character came after the Civil War (1861-1865). More specifically, the ‘Wild West’ comes after Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act of 1862. This act, along with subsequent laws, essentially opened up what amounted to roughly 10% of the total area of the contiguous United States to anyone who had not taken up arms against the Federal Government. For free. 160 million square acres west of the Mississippi River were given to 1.6 million homesteaders who promised to build on and improve the land they were given - which was usually around 160 acres.
Certificate of the first homestead according to the Homestead Act. Given to Daniel Freeman in Beatrice, Nebraska 1963
(Source: http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/homestead-act/images/homestead-certificate.jpg |Date= 1868)
Regardless of the reasons for the giving away of free land (perhaps a discussion for another blog post), give it away the Federal Government did. And people rushed westward to stake their claim. Millions of them. It is during this period of dynamic western movement and land-claiming (‘land rushes’ were more frequent than ‘gold rushes’) that the imagery of the ‘Wild West’ - historically accurate or otherwise - is forged. From gunslingers like Billy ‘the Kid’ and Jesse James, to the ‘lawless’ frontier towns with saloons, gambling dens, brothels and noble sheriffs such as Wyatt Earp, as well as the ‘taming’ of the American land through hard work and bloody conflict (Wounded Knee was in 1890), the symbolism of the American West was very much created in this period.
William H. Bonney A.K.A. Billy 'the Kid'
Although westward expansion, as a concept, ended in 1912 with the admittance of Arizona to the US as a contiguous land mass, according to Frederick Jackson Turner, the ‘frontier life’ that had so completely shaped the character of America, was at an end long before then:
"...the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history."
Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History
Turner wrote this in 1893. In those three brief decades after the Civil War, the mythology of the ‘Wild West’ - that which is embedded so deeply in American popular and historical culture - was born.
Westward Expansion in a GIF. Source: Vivid Maps
Elliott L. Watson
What is History? To many it is the remembering and celebrating of important dates. To others, it might be the study of influential people in the past. However, History must be more than this. Historiography is the study of the methodologies and perspectives employed by Historians and it involves examining how and why historians have divergent perspectives on the same event or individual. In this sense, History can often be fluid and dynamic; the past is rarely fixed.
For example, let’s look at Whitechapel, London in 1888. Jack the Ripper murdered five women and apparently left a series of letters taunting the London police and ridiculing their attempts to catch him. Simple enough, perhaps. However, historians have debated whether Jack actually murdered more than five women and whether the letters were actually from the killer. In Philip Sugden’s book, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, he claims that many historians have actually invented detailed about the murders from incorrect research. Although he reaches a conclusion that the murderer was most likely to have been George Chapman, Sugden argues that an important reason for studying the Whitechapel murders involves more than identifying a serial killer. He argues that looking at living conditions in Whitechapel is of great value to Ripperologists. To Sugden, the socio-economic conditions and poverty of Whitechapel are of equal importance to, or at the very least heavily informing of, the study of the murders themselves.
Sugden’s views were challenged in the early 1990s when a ‘startling’ discovery was made. Michael Barrett claimed to have found the diaries of Jack the Ripper, claiming that he had evidence to prove their validity and truth. Shirley Harrison’s book The Diary of Jack the Ripper claims to have been supported by scientists who date the diaries to the 1880s. Although Sugden challenged the diaries, it proves that 100 years after the Whitechapel murders, historical debate is still very much alive. Every historian has their own interpretation of the facts available, which is what makes studying History unique and exciting.
Therefore, as interpretations of the murders continue to develop, the role of the historian becomes ever more crucial. Although the identity of Jack the Ripper is unlikely to be solved any time soon, the murders themselves and the historiography surrounding them are incredibly useful for highlighting the varying approaches to the collection and study of evidence. One recent publication of obvious note on the subject of the Whitechapel murders - and one which clearly demonstrates the need for renewed perspectives on history - is Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, which examines the lives of the five female victims rather than attempting to solve the crimes. It is a remarkable book, and one that is vital in its refocusing of our historical lenses.
Tim Love, Guest Contributor