Yesterday’s story on the Westport Library’s “River of Names” mural was one of the longest I’ve ever posted on “06880.”
If I had included the Westport Museum for History & Culture’s 1,600-word, October 2021 letter to Library director Bill Harmer, it would have been even longer.
Here is what Museum director Ranim Ganeshram and chairperson, history educator and archivist Cheryl Bliss wrote then, as the Library was discussing next steps for the mural.
They note in detail “historical inaccuracies, inaccurate representations, and
perhaps most importantly glaring omissions of fact based on idealized Euro-centric views of the past.”
They recommended re-installation of the mural with replacement of tiles that “demonstrate history accurately.”
If the panels were not replaced, the report said that “extensive wall labels and text panels should accompany it to point out and counteract the errors and misconceptions it represents. The wall could be an object lesson about how the viewpoints of the era in which it was created was an informing factor in this Eurocentric view. Correction of the history on the digital site should follow the same format.”
Here is that October 2021 letter to Harmer:
Myself, Cheryl Bliss (chairperson, history educator and archivist), and various researchers here at Westport Museum have reviewed the Westport Library’s River of Names Tile Wall per your concerns in anticipation of its potential re-installation. It is our opinion that the wall is rife with historical inaccuracy and a myopic view of history that will be hurtful and unwelcoming to modern viewers. The details of our assessment follow.
It must first be said that projects like the Westport Library’s River of Names which endeavor to use “non-traditional” methods—in this case an art installation—to teach local history enter the realm of Public History defined by the National Council on Public History as “history beyond the walls of a traditional classroom.”
Those practicing Public History–Public Historians–span fields and disciplines and may include teachers, librarians, museum professionals, artists and many others. However, regardless of the professional discipline from which public historians may originate, they are called upon to apply rigorous methods to ensure the history presented is accurate: “In terms of intellectual approach, the theory and methodology of public history remain firmly in the discipline of history, and all good public history rests on sound scholarship.”
In the opinion of Westport Museum, The River of Names Tile Wall, does not meet the standard of sound scholarship. The Wall features historical inaccuracies, inaccurate representations, and perhaps most importantly glaring omissions of fact based on idealized Euro-centric views of the past.
Beginning with tile numbered 1 in River of Names: A History of Westport, CT 1637-1998 in bas-relief ceramic tile donor mural catalog by Dorothy Curran: 1637–Puritans and Pequots End The Swamp War.
This is an entirely misleading tile and description. There was not simply an end to the Pequot War but rather a complete massacre of native people by European colonists. The implication within the description is that “peace-loving Pequannock” were supporters of the Puritan colonists who had driven and massacred members of fellow tribes. There is no historical River of Names Historical Accuracy proof of this. Rather tribal oral history and European written history indicates that the tribespeople of the various tribes of what would become Westport (Paugusset-Sasqua-Aspetuck-Pequannok) supported the Pequot in the fight. When the Europeans prevailed, native men were slaughtered, and the women and children enslaved. The rosy view of this event is both inaccurate and extremely insensitive to the remaining tribal people in the area. The flimsy explanation that native men are depicted as white because they are “ghosts” is a paltry excuse for lack of care in the depiction of non-white individuals.
Tile #2 (Curran) entitled: 1648: Pequannock Tribe agrees to sell “Machamux” to the five “Bank-side” farmers” This persistent myth that local tribes “sold” their property to Europeans has been widely discounted by scholars of native history, colonial history, and legal history. Research into land transactions between natives and Europeans indicate that native individuals–who did not operate within Western legal constructs–were not always aware of the nature of the “contracts” to which they agreed. This simplistic representation belies a long, legally documented history of betrayal and violence of and toward native people in the area for the purpose of taking their land. Again, the indigenous people are depicted as white.
With respect to the tile #7 (Curran) 1705—Tidal mill for emerging West Indies trade; 1775—Coley Store; Tile #13 (Curran) 1790 E. (Ebenezer) Jesup Builds Wharf on Saugatuck’s east Bank; Tile # 10 (Curran) 1775 E. (Ebenezer) Coley builds saltbox home, shop and wharf. The West Indies trade specifically refers to the Transatlantic Slave Trade in which local farmers and millers produced goods to sell to West Indian slave plantations. These plantations provided the greatest source of income for men like Coley and Jesup—who were among those who owned the greatest number of enslaved people in the town. This is not indicated anywhere on the wall or the write up. Last, the Coley store was not a residence as depicted in the tile and in the tile’s description,
Tile #17 (Curran) 1810 tile referring to the Captains Sherwood (triplets) also omits that the triplets conducted regular business with the American Southern Slave plantations after the end of slavery in the British West Indies. The reference to the 1814 Saugatuck Manufacturing Company focusing on cotton twine and cotton goods fails to consider that cotton from Southern Slave
plantations, came into Westport on trading vessels. Without this product of slavery mills such as this one would not have prospered.
The description of Tile #19 (Curran) 1832 founding of Saugatuck Congregational Church refers to the1818 Connecticut Constitution—but does not make it clear that this document was created in part to disenfranchise non-white voters specifically and legally by including a race requirement. This was a specific response to the enfranchisement of formerly enslaved men emancipated during Connecticut’s Gradual Abolition (1784-1848).
Tiles #18 & #20 ( about the Kemper Tannery and Saugatuck Manufacturing Company do not indicate that immigrants and child laborers were employed at this site while “1840’s, 1850’s & 1860’sEmerging diversity of religious worship” only refers to Christian religious institutions. The write up about Louise Lortel omits what is perhaps considered her greatest legacy—the opportunity she gave to the Black performers in the era of segregation. 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.
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. The wall features other details of historical inaccuracy such as the tile depicting Washington’s visit to Marvin Tavern in 1789 on tile #11 (Curran). 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.
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.
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. 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.
In conclusion, the River of Names represent a singular view of history, that is an exemplar of the time in which it was produced: A time in which a Eurocentric lens of the past, devoid of the complexity of the eras it purports to depict was acceptable. The omission of provable facts that could offer context to the actual history was the norm for the time the River was installed but it is inappropriate given the call upon public historians to present a holistic and accurate view of history.
We have no doubt that those who worked on this project when it was installed did the best they could, given the level of their research skills and the information that was available to them. Further, the way the tiles are presented was, no doubt, acceptable at the time they were made.
Certainly no one is at fault for being a product of their own era and viewing the world through that lens. However, as is often the case as time marches on, new information and new viewpoints come to light. When historical data makes it clear that a misrepresentation of fact has occurred it is the obligation of any institution engaging in public history to correct those errors.
Most of all, and perhaps most importantly, the singular view of history represented on these tiles present a one-note image of the town that has never been true. The wall effectively erases indigenous people, African Americans, Jews, and others who were part of the story—from the beginning—even when that story was not pretty. It is hurtful and diminishing to our diverse citizenry—both within Westport and visitors from outside of the town—to see a proudly whitewashed display of this kind without explanation.
Within our field of public history there is constant discussion about how to deal with monuments, statues, history books, panels and other items that have since proven to be false in their information or offensive in their presentation. It is our opinion that should the River of Names be re-installed, the tiles that represent history should be replaced entirely with ones that demonstrate history accurately. Should the panels not be replaced, extensive wall labels and text panels should accompany it to point out and counteract the errors and misconceptions it represents. The wall could be an object lesson about how the viewpoints of the era in which it was created was an informing factor in this Eurocentric view. Correction of the history on the digital site should follow the same format.
Last, we suggest that you might want to contact Dr. Matthew Warshauer in the History Department of Central Connecticut State University. He has done extensive work around revealing hidden and erased histories, particularly as it relates to non-European populations in Connecticut. I believe he may be best placed to give advice on this matter. Should you choose to contact Dr. Warshauer please feel free to share this assessment with him.
Ramin Ganeshram Cheryl Bliss
Executive Director Chairperso