February 13

GUEST CURATOR: Dillon Escandon

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (February 13, 1772).

“BOOKS … which have just been received in the Paoli, Capt, Cazneau.”

This advertisement struck me particularly because I have always been curious about what kinds of books people read during the era of the American Revolution. Henry Knox listed books of divinity, surgery, sea books, and bibles. The source of the books also caught my attention. Many of the books were recently shipped in the Paoli by Captain Cazneau.

I wanted to learn more about the people mentioned in this advertisement, Henry Knox and Captain Cazneau. I learned that Henry Knox lived in Boston and worked as a bookseller before joining the Continental Army and participating in the siege of Boston. He ultimately became a member of George Washington’s cabinet as the first Secretary of War for the United States.  I did not locate as much information about Captain Cazneau.  In my research, I found a letter from June 8, 1780, written by Thomas Digges to John Adams that mentioned a “Capt. Cazneau” and a voyage to Ireland during the American Revolution.  Cazneau delivered “four Louis D’ors” to Digges to pay one of Adams’s debts.  I did not find out as much about his role in the American Revolution as I did about Henry Knox.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

I often tell my students that being an historian is similar to being a detective.  Reconstructing the past requires searching for clues in a variety of places, both primary sources and secondary sources.  Especially when consulting primary sources, historians sift through many, many items to determine which provide helpful clues and which do not.  It is a laborious and time-consuming process.  In the end, we do not always uncover all the clues that we want or need to offer a complete explanation of what happened.

Dillon had that experience in his effort to learn more about the people mentioned in the advertisement he selected.  When he embarked on his research, he consulted both primary sources and secondary sources, distinguishing his approach from the work undertaken by most students in my Revolutionary America class working on their own contributions to the Adverts 250 Project.  Working with eighteenth-century newspapers gave them an opportunity to consult primary sources from the era of the American Revolution.  After selecting their advertisements, each student needed to identify at least one additional source that helped them provide historical context as they explained what we might learn about the past from newspaper advertisements.  In most instances, students chose secondary sources to aid in analyzing their advertisements.  That presented many opportunities for discussing what constituted authoritative and reliable sources.

When Dillon went in search of primary sources, his research prompted a different conversation about the challenges of “doing” history.  He found a reference in a letter to John Adams to a “Capt. Cazneau” that might have been the same “Captain Cazneau” in Henry Knox’s advertisement published nearly a decade earlier.  Dillon identified a tantalizing clue, but one that requires much more research and consulting many more documents than the scope of the project assigned to him for my Revolutionary America class.  In this instance, I did not expect him to tell a complete story about Cazneau’s life and career.  Instead, I considered it valuable for him to have the experience of doing some of that detective work required of historians in order to gain greater appreciation for the research, writing, and revising that goes into crafting the narratives in secondary sources we read and discussed throughout the semester.

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