When the Westport Library asked the Westport History for Museum & Culture for advice on the “River of Names” mural, the Museum cited a number of what they called “historical inaccuracies, inaccurate representations, and perhaps most importantly glaring omissions of fact based on idealized Euro-centric views of the past.”
Dorothy Curran disagrees.
She wrote and helped publish an art historical catalogue that accompanied the tile mural, and upon which the Museum based much of its criticism. Offering a fascinating (though of course incomplete) tour of local history, Dorothy writes:
In October 2021, the Westport Library, seeking not to return the “River of Names” historical bas-relief ceramic donor tile mural to the Library interior, asked Ramin Ganeshram, executive director of the Westport Museum for History & Culture, for a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion opinion on the mural’s content.
Ramin, along with WMHC colleague Cheryl Bliss, focused not on the mural itself, but on “River of Names: An Historical Tile Mural at the Westport Public Library” — my accompanying art historical catalogue. As a then RTM-appointed Library trustee, I donated my time writing it and raising another $25,000 to pay for photography, graphic design, printing, binding and shipping of 5,000 copies.
The aim was for a portable “art docent tour” of the mural, and a long-term book sale revenue stream for the Library. (If you need last-minute holiday gifts, the beautifully printed and bound volumes still sell, for $5 or less, at the Westport Book Shop. All proceeds benefit the Westport Library.)
Here are my reactions to the DEI report:
Tile #1, 1637 Puritans & Pequots end Swamp War; Puritans plan settlement
The Pequot War of 1636-1638 began as a colonial Puritan response to the alleged murders of English colonists by Pequots. Rival tribes joined the Puritan initiative, but were horrified by English tactics. Puritans attacked and burned the Pequot village in Mystic, massacring most of the tribe’s women, children and elderly. Surviving Pequots sought to migrate west, but the English followed. The final battle — the Fairfield Swamp Fight in 1637, near what today is I-95 Exit 19 — was devastating. But thanks to intervention by Thomas Stanton, who spoke Algonquian, a massacre was avoided. For a very brief overview of a very complex series of events, here is a link with footnotes and bibliography for deeper study: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pequot_War
Why was this event included in the River of Names? Because following the Pequots across Connecticut was how Roger Ludlowe discovered Fairfield’s lovely salt meadows and decided to move his settlers from Windsor’s flood-prone Connecticut River banks to Fairfield. Westport later formed from parts of Fairfield and Norwalk. Neither the caption nor the catalogue’s summary provide the full story, but together they certainly inspire curiosity.
Tile #2, 1648 Pequannock Tribe agrees to sell “Machamux” to the five “Bankside” farmers
Yes, the concept of “selling” land to the English colonists was alien to migratory Native American tribes, but colonial records do document acceptance of the English purchase offer and remuneration. As for the Native Americans’ skin color, it is darker than the English, but not as deep as exhibit model photographs provided by the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. When I first saw this tile, I remarked to artist Marion Grebow; “They look like ghosts.” She smiled, knowingly. Very aware of how local Native Americans were ravaged by European diseases and warfare, she was making an artistic statement.
Tile #7, 1705 John Cable builds tidal mill, produces corn flour for emerging West Indies trade and Tile # 10, 1775 E. (Ebenezer) Coley builds saltbox home, shop and wharf; Tile #13, 1790 E. (Ebenezer) Jesup Builds Wharf on Saugatuck’s east Bank
Under British colonial rule, trade by its American colonies was restricted to England, and exports, to raw materials like lumber, in exchange for English finished goods. But thanks to lax enforcement, many locals became maritime commerce entrepreneurs (aka black-market bootleggers), trading products like corn meal for Caribbean molasses and rum. After 1763, increased enforcement helped precipitate the American Revolution. Yes, there were slaves in Puritan Connecticut, including enslaved Pequot survivors, but what now is Westport never was a hub for the larger transatlantic “triangular trade,” involving larger ships, sailing to Africa.
Tile #11, 1756, 1775, 1780, 1789 George Washington’s diaries record four trips through town, including an overnight stay at Marvin’s Tavern
You complain that in 1789, when Washington stayed overnight at Marvin’s Tavern: “The wall features other details of historical inaccuracy such as… Washington’s visit to Marvin Tavern in 1789… As a point of fact, Washington only rode white horses, however he would have been travelling by carriage during this presidential tour. Further, in 1789 he was President and made a point of wearing civilian clothing—not his Continental Army uniform as portrayed on the tile.”
In my catalogue discussion of Tile #11, I wrote: “By November, 1789, in reality, Washington was the first President of the 13 United States, a national icon, weary of war and no longer in military attire. Literal reality, however, is not Grebow’s primary concern. Instead, by returning Trumbull’s image of Washington, the Yorktown victor, the archetypal American Revolutionary War hero, to Marvin’s Inn in 1789, Grebow expresses completion of a cycle. Among the people who welcomed him back in 1789 were some who first greeted him in 1775, before the war began, some who suffered loss of life and property in 1777 when the war arrived here, and some who witnessed his 1780 meeting here with the French to end the war. While few if any were present at Yorktown when the fulfillment of this vision was realized, his victory there validated the personal and political dreams and values he epitomized and they shared. Grebow’s Washington, by extending a greeting with the same hand he refused to a British general, offers both a politically powerful and profoundly human statement. Grebow’s Washington, like the one we all revere, transcends the limits of space and time.”
P.S. Washington notes in his diary that he was less than pleased with his stay at Marvin’s Inn, which makes his gesture even more gracious.
Tile #17, 1810 Catherine Burr Sherwood, farm wife & mother of ten, including triplet sea captains
Commemorating the birth of the Sherwood triplets during a heavy snowstorm, this tile illuminates the vital, often overlooked impact of women in local colonial history, including building and maintaining families with very little medical assistance. In fact, at about the same time that Catherine Burr Sherwood gave birth to her eighth, ninth and tenth children (the triplets), her sister-in-law died in childbirth, so the family then had 11 to raise. The later maritime careers of the 3 triplets are a topic for separate study.
Tile #19, 1832 Saugatuck Congregational Church and Saugatuck Fire Co. established
Well into the 19th century, Puritan governance practices persisted in Connecticut. For example, new towns first needed a new seat of government: a Congregational church, with selectmen presiding. Only after the Saugatuck Church’s 1832 completion could Westport petition the state for a town charter. Likewise, forming the Saugatuck Fire Co. ended emergency dependence on Norwalk and Fairfield. The scope, limits and flaws of the 1818 Connecticut Constitution are topics for separate study.
Tile #18, 1814 Saugatuck Manufacturing Co. makes cotton yarn at Richmondville Ave. site and Tile #20, 1835 R.H. Haight’s tannery, later Kemper Tannery, makes leather hat bands
British rule forbade American colonial manufacturing, forcing Americans to buy British finished goods, at Britain’s prices. After American manufacturing began, the British War of 1812 coastal shipping blockade caused such severe economic hardship that Connecticut briefly considered secession from the new union. Happily, the war ended.
That era’s Connecticut manufacturers (and families, for supplemental income) relied on labor by children, immigrants, apprentices and indentured servants for success. Most children, like their parents, attained only an elementary education, but received training in other skills needed for farm and household management.
Neither tile can begin to probe the era’s labor practices, but each can inspire curiosity to learn more.
Tile #24, 1852 First Bank
You are correct that: “Descriptions of the building of the Westport Bank by Horace Staples and later refurbishment of the property at large (National Hall) on tile #24 (Curran) fails to indicate that the National Hall portion of the building referred to the 2nd floor where a theater was located. Minstrel shows, caricaturizing African Americans, were a popular attraction at this theater.”
That’s asking a lot of an already crowded 6″x4″ tile.
Tile #25, 1840’s, 1850’s & 1860’s Emerging diversity of religious worship
In mid-19th century Westport, where the 1832 Saugatuck Congregational Church was the seat of government, one way to observe emerging diversity was construction of churches by other denominations: Episcopalian, Methodist and Catholic. Yes, other religious congregations existed then, but were not in construction mode. A 6″x8″tile can only prompt curiosity to learn more.
Tile #35, 1899 First autos on Post Road
Your complaint: “The tile #35 (Curran) referring to the first automobiles in the town misses the opportunity to talk about the Toquet Motor Company here in Westport which produce a motor car earlier than Ford.”
As my catalogue states, #35 depicts an eyewitness account by local historian Edward Coley Birge, astonished at being passed on the Post Road by a “self-propelled open buggy,” likely a Stanley Steamer. Discussing Toquet Motor Company was not a fit for this tile. That does not make it historically inaccurate, Euro-centric or exclusive.
Tile #49, 1947 Lucille Lortel founds the White Barn Theatre
Yes, Lucille (not “Louise”) Lortel protected, nurtured and paid talented actors, writers, composers and designers. Agreed that not much can be said on a 6″x8″ tile about the “the opportunity she gave to the Black performers in the era of segregation.” Likewise, not much could be said here about her equally important role in continuing to employ “unemployable” McCarthy-era black-listed writers and actors. But naming her and the White Barn on a tile is a start.
Tile #68, 1980 Westport Historical Society, established 1889, acquires its home, Wheeler House, built 1795
Your complaint: “The information about Westport Museum (Westport Historical Society) on tiles #68 (Curran) is inaccurate. The original building on this site was a 2nd period colonial style, like the building currently across the street. The ocular windows in the current structure are not unique as stated—two other Italianate houses on Main Street feature them.”
In fact, the 12″x12″ River of Names tile #79 makes no such statement. My catalogue does refer to the original structure (still inside the Bradley-Wheeler house) as probably a saltbox. Agreed that ocular windows per se are not a unique feature of Italianate architecture.
P.S. What does this discussion of architectural detail have to do with diversity, equity and inclusion?
Tile #79, 1996 Bradley-Wheeler Museum restored
You complain that: “The tile referring to the Bradley Wheeler barn refers to the statues on our property as sculptures—they are, in fact, miniature golf statues, made for use on a private miniature golf course. They are not sculptures.”
Tile #79 makes no such statement. My catalogue does call them sculptures, mostly because they are free-standing folk art created by famous, fun-loving Westport artists, whose major commissions included work at Disney World. The Einsel valentines to each other were remarkable.
Re: your comment that “The description refers to the towns “diverse cultural heritage” although there is virtually no representation of non-Europeans on the picture tiles of the River of Names Wall.”
The mural’s 84 picture tiles, ranging in size from 6″x4″ to 12″x12,” and covering over 350 years, offer only a glimpse of our history. My catalogue merely enriches that glimpse. In no way does that mean that this peek at our history is, in your language, “whitewashed.”
Diverse cultural heritage means many things. New England’s Puritan colonists were British subjects. Many River of Names tiles depict no people at all; instead, they show architecture and boats extending British tradition. Collectively, that makes our depiction of New England colonial history not so much “Euro-centric” as Anglo-centric. Over time, our town, state and country have grown and evolved. Today, looking back at the long, imperfect arc of our dynamic cumulative history, warts and all, I think most Westporters simply would call it “American.”