Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Armenian Genocide, Philadelphia & the Knights of Vartan

Next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, stands a 22 foot high monument, dedicated on April 24, 1976, as a tribute to the spirit and sacrifice of the Armenian people, designed to remind Philadelphians of the 'Day of Infamy,' or April 24, 1915, which is associated with the genocide and massacres carried out against the Armenians by Turkey, which occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1915 alone, some two-thirds of the Armenian population of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, were murdered, well over a million individuals, a people and culture that existed far back into antiquity. Severed heads, mounds of bones and skulls, starvation & rape, forced evacuations, separation of families, destruction of homes & villages, forced conversions to the invader's religion, etc., characteristics often associated with many 'genocides' of the past and present, were all commonplace attributes during this atrocity, which has very recently returned to the forefront for recognition or denial, from Turkey, to the halls of Congress.

Significantly, it was at the 'Bingham House Hotel' in center city Philadelphia, on 1026-1044 Market Street, where on May 27, 1916, members of the 'Armenian-American' community of the city, created the heritage organization, known as the 'Knights of Vartan,' in response to the atrocities being committed by the Turks against the Armenian people and culture at that time.

Though not Armenian, I nevertheless, carry on my key chain, a medallion of 'Vartan the Great,' or Vartan Mamigonian, commemorating this nobleman who served as 'commander-in-chief' of all the Armenian Christian forces, in 451 A.D., against the invading Persian Army, who were attempting to crush the oldest Christian nation in existence, and force them to convert to the Zoroastrian faith. Though he would be killed at the 'Battle of Vartanantz' on June 2nd, his heroism became a symbol and personification of Armenian ethnicity.

Like so many other subjects discussed at this blog, 'The Historical Society of Pennsylvania' has a rich collection of publications, manuscripts and materials, relative to the 'Armenian Genocide' and Armenian culture & history in general, including portions of the personal library, of 'His Beatitude Archbishop Torkom Manoogian-96th Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem,' who at one time served as the "pastorate of the Holy Trinity Armenian Church in North Philadelphia."

Among other items, the Historical Society has the 'Citizens Permanent Relief Committee Papers', for 1885-1899, which includes primary source material on the 'Armenian massacres in 1896,' as well as the Herbert Welsh Collection, which are papers of the Executive Secretary of the 'Philadelphia Committee for Armenian Relief,' containing correspondence between local & national politicians, civic & ecclesiastical leaders, both in the Philadelphia area and elsewhere, concerning the Armenian massacres, from 1916 to 1924.

The Herbert Welsh Collection also contains correspondence documenting the genocidal atrocities committed against the Armenian people, from 1896 to 1924.

Regrettably, 'genocides' are still in the news even today, and though many are familiar in history with the 'Jewish Holocaust' of WWII, too few are aware of the 'Armenian Genocide' which would eventually bring thousands of Armenians to America, a culture & people, though numerically a minority, have contributed significantly to American society & history in the modern world.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

To the Frozen North: Arctic Exploration & Philadelphia

Later this month, in Philadelphia, the 'International Conference on Arctic Exploration: 1850-1940,' will be held, entitled, 'North by Degree.'

When one thinks of Arctic exploration, visions of adventure, hardship & trajedy vividly come to mind, yet too few realize, that Philadelphia has played a significant role in this fascinating period of history.

As early as June of 1749, through the missionary efforts of the Moravians in Greenland, three young Eskimo Christian converts arrived in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin, in his publication, the Pennsylvania Gazette, recorded how these individuals were "clad in Seal Skins...their Eyes and Hair black, like our Indians, but their Complexion somewhat lighter." (Pennsylvania Gazette, June 15, 1749)

On March 4, 1753, one of the earliest attempts of Colonial Americans, to search for the elusive 'Northwest Passage' for the riches of the Orient, left Philadelphia, financed by a group of merchants, in the ship Argo, under the command of a Captain Charles Swaine, a venture supported by Benjamin Franklin as well. Capt. Swaine had made previous attempts to find the Northwest Passage, as recorded in a document written by Governor Samuel Ogle of Maryland, in November of 1750, which states:

"Whereas an Act of Parliament hath been made for the Encouragement of his Majesty's Subjects to attempt a North West Passage, with a Bounty assured of Twenty Thousand Pounds for any Person or Persons who shall discover the same, And Whereas Charles Swaine, late clerk of the ship California..." (Samuel Ogle, November 3, 1750, Society Collection at HSP).

Like Arctic & Antarctic explorers of the future, Capt. Swaine would once again attempt another expedition into the frozen North country in 1753, as stated, but was forced to return to Philadelphia because of "heavy ice in Hudson Bay," though he was successful in mapping the coast of Labrador. Undeterred, Swaine journeyed once again into the Arctic, during the spring of 1754, but lost some of his crew to death by conflicts with the Eskimos, and returned to Philadelphia in October, presenting the Library Company with "some tools and Eskimo parkas."

Though Capt. Swaine would venture into the Arctic during the 18th century from Philadelphia, he would by no means be the last individual to leave the Delaware Valley, for the Northern frontier.

The most famous Arctic explorer from the 'City of Brotherly Love,' was Elisha Kent Kane (1820-1857), a veteran of the 'Mexican-American War,' graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, accomplished naval surgeon, and the son of U.S. District Judge, John Kintzing Kane.

'Elisha Kent Kane Portrait,' Gratz Collection, Case 6, Box 6

Almost exactly one hundred years after Capt. Swaine's voyages, Elisha Kent Kane would make two voyages into the Arctic, from 1850 through 1855, not to discover the 'Northwest Passage,' but to locate the lost expedition of the famed British Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin. One of Kane's Arctic boats, 'The Faith,' is rendered in a watercolor housed here at the Society.

The Faith
, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane's Arctic Boat.' David M. Kennedy Collection, K: III-5.

In a letter dated July 7, 1854, to his brother, Thomas Leiper Kane, Elisha relates the familiar but horrendous trials and tribulations, which plagued Arctic exploration for generations. Kane states:

"My Dogs died of tetanus...during the winter darkness. It extended to the men and scurvy came-and the daylight found us diseased-but we fought...Two men dead from exposure-two living with amputated toes...Two men down-bears eat up our provisions-scurvy...I have 800 miles of newly discovered coast...more than any navigator since Parry...Fresh trials are ahead for the ice is unbroken around me-and I am well aged and worn. Yet the brig and my comrades must get back to tell their story..." (Letter of Elisha Kent Kane, to his brother, Thomas Leiper Kane, July 7, 1854, John Kintzing Kane Papers: 1826-1860, Collection No. #1851, in the 'Kane Family Letters Box.')

Elisha Kent Kane would die in Cuba, in 1857, as the result of the fatigue & hardship experienced during his Arctic explorations, but many of his writings survived and have been published, which are available here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, another example once again, of the 'Hidden Histories' waiting for researchers at our repository.


For references to primary source material & further reading about Philadelphia and its 'Arctic' connections, the following resources may be examined at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Also remember to consult the 'on-line' card catalog & 'Guide to the Manuscript Collections' of the Society, for both published & unpublished materials, at:

One should also visit the Society to utilize the 'Card Catalogs' to the Mss. collections which are NOT online, as well as the 'Graphics Card Catalog,' for further materials, available in the Reference Room of the Society's Library):

John W. Jordan, "Moravian Immigration to Pennsylvania," PMHB 33 (1909): 228-248. {This contains an account of the three Eskimoe Greenlanders, and their 'Christian' names, that of 'John, Matthew & Judith}

Edwin Swift Balch, "Arctic Explorations Sent From the American Colonies," PMHB 31 (1907): 419-428. See also, 'Journals of the Argo,' in the 'Notes & Queries' section, of PMHB 3 (1879): 236.

Bertha Solis-Cohen, "Philadelphia's Expedition to Labrador," Pennsylvania History 19, no.2 (April, 1952): 148-162.

Gentleman's Magazine XXIV (1754): 46, 542-543, 577.

Leonard W. Labaree, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. IV:July1, 1750, through June 30, 1753 (New Haven: Yale University Press., 1961): 381-383, 446-449; ibid: Vol.5: July 1, 1753, through March 31, 1755, pp's. 12-13, 190-191, 227, 330-331, 438-439.

John Kintzing Kane Papers: 1826-1860. Collection no.1851 at HSP.

William Elder, Biography of Elisha Kent Kane (Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson; Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co., 1858).

Elisha Kent Kane, Arctic explorations: the second Grinnell expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, 1853, '54,' '55.' (Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson, et al, 1856).

Elisha Kent Kane, Arctic Explorations: the second Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, 1853, 54, 55, ed. by Chauncey Loomis & Constance Martin (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1996).

For information concerning the 'North by Degree,' International Conference on Arctic Exploration: 1850-1940,' to be held in Philadelphia: May 21-23, 2008, contact: