Wyrd Historie Locales: The Cave of Kelpius

This is the second local historical site with an interesting backstory that we have featured on the blog. Click here to view our first, on the Lower Swedish Cabin in Drexil Hill. Be sure to stay tuned in for more intriguing pieces on interesting places in the  Philly-Metro Area. 


In the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, deep within the Wissahickon Valley Park, there stands a remote cave-like structure that is subject of awe and debate. The cave rests on the known site of a ‘hermit’ religious congregation called the “Society of the Woman in the Wilderness.” Tradition holds that the Society used the cave like a spiritual panic room, a place for the near 40-strong group of men belonging to the would pray for salvation or over the fabled philosopher’s stone. Skeptics of this interpretation have convincingly argued against this, pointing to the size of the man-made structure, location of a nearby spring, and known design features such as a chimney (which was destroyed by vandalism in the 1940s). Some aspects of the landmark are however not contested. It was built sometime after 1694 by German immigrants belonging to a spiritual movement of Lutheran Pietists, who congregated as a celibate, meditative community and waited for some date in 1694 when the world would end.

In a park in North West Philadelphia there rests the last remnants of colonial America’s first doomsday cult.

Kelpius cave angle 1

Outside of the Cave of Kelpius. While the structure’s purpose is debated, this man-made cave was certainly part of the “Hermits of Wissahickon” led from 1694 to 1708 by Johannes Kelpius.

The leader of the “Hermits of Wissahickon” the namesake of the cave, Johannes Kelpius, was a man of intense belief in faith, humanity and transformation through passionate learning. Originally called Johannes Kelp, the soon-to-be spiritual leader was born in Schäßburg, Principality of Transylvania (modern day Romania) on January 1st, 1667. He attended the University of Altdorf in Nuremberg, where he received an education in theology, earning a Master’s degree by the age of 22. As per the Latinizing customs of the self-styled and respecting scholars of his age, the young Kelp added the  suffix ‘-ius’ for his last name. These academic stylings, and the wide array of subjects he studied (theology, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, botany) demonstrate that Kelpius, was part of a growing but priviledge few in society, and held learning in high regard. Indeed Kelpius would later see education, thought necessary to become learned enough to be a paster, as essential to developing the inner self, a concept very important Pietism. The variety of subjects studied also points to wider social and intellectual rifts that were changing how religious communities came to understand and synthesize scientific methods into their beliefs.

While at university, Kelpius had a voracious if unconventional academic appetite. Sometime after 1685, Kelpius became a follower of former Lutheran Minister, mathematician, millenarianist and astronomer Johan Jacob Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s works include Scriptura Sacra Copernizans (1690) and Exerci-tatio theoricorum Copernico-coelestium (1689) both of which argued for a heliocentric understanding of the solar system, and sought to expand on the theological and metaphysical meaning of this discovery.[1] Zimmerman’s beliefs in the necessity of a new theology of practicality, community and reform were influenced by the well-known German theologian and mystic Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) [2] and the father of Lutheran Pietism Philipp Spener (1635-1705).[3] Spener laid down general Tenets of Pietism which advocated for more laity involvement in the practice of ‘church’ from its administration as  well as interpretation, a focus on the ‘inner man’ as opposed to evangelizing and aggrandizing rhetoric, and a sympathetic treatment of those “heretics and unbelievers.”[4] Kelpius, under Zimmerman’s tutelage, found himself in embroiled in an intellectual environment seeking truth in nature at the intersection of scientific understanding and religious belief. Commonplace throughout was that  individual devotion and transformation lead to spiritual renewal. Zimmerman, however was unique for his application of Pietist principles to a belief in the nascent second coming of Christ.


Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), influential German mystic, theologian, and anti-authoritarian Protestant. He is most know for combining scientific knowledge with spirtual models to explain arguments. Influenced other anti-authoritarian Christian mystical movements, such as the British Behmenists, The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness, and the Quakers.


Philipp Spener (1635-1705), considered the founder of Pietism (even though he would have rejected the claim, after the publication of  Pia Desideria in 1675. Though Pietism is more an association of many anti-establishment Lutheran traditions, the six suggestions of this work, which generally call for increased diaglogue between religious groups with difference, increased lay power, education of pastors, echo the wider concerns of Pietism with transformation of the individual. 

Having noted the passing of two comets (even going so far as to correspond with English mathematician Issac Newton about the 1680 comet) and being particularly moved to action in this new time of religious tumult, Zimmerman became convinced of that natural evidence pointed to the imminent advent of a heavenly kingdom. Deeply influenced by the story of revelation 12: 5-9[5] as well as the influence of correspondence with Jane Mead and their experience or expected persecution in German institutions, both Zimmerman and Kelpius decided to flee to the wilderness of the new world, and to name for their new spiritual group after this “Woman of the Wilderness”. Before Zimmerman could help see out the groups plan to explore their faith in a safe place however, he died in 1693, although there is some evidence to suggest that he attempted to leave for the New World, but died en route. Kelpius was voted leader of the spiritual group, and continued with the divine mission. Though founded only in 1682, Philadelphia had already had a gained a reputation as a community friendly to German immigrants, and tolerant of nonconformist, free thinking Christian groups seeking refugee from oppression. Welcomed by governor William Penn, the group sailed for Philadelphia, by way of first landing in Bohemia Landing, Maryland and then onto Philadelphia and finally Germantown.[6]

cave inside

A view from inside the Cave.

Despite their lifestyle choices, and their belief in a coming apocalypse, Kelpius and the rest of his “Society” were active members of the larger Greater Philadelphia community in ways that went beyond correspondence. It is believed that they were instrumental in documenting early botanical features of the land and shared medical knowledge freely, set up a school for children, held public almost non-denominational public services. Together, the ‘monks’ built an astrological lookout, maintained a botanical garden The largely German group even attracted followers from Great Britain, especially Christopher Witt.

However, after the millennium pasted, suffering too many promises of paradise, and very importantly, the death of Johann Kelpius in 1708 at the age of 35, the numbers of the community dwindled. Some married and remained in the general area, others moved to different, like-minded movements such as the Ephrata Cloister. The official presence of the Society was snuffed out with its last two remaining members, Johann Seelig and Konrad Matthaei who both died sometime in the 1740s. Still, the ideas espoused by Kelpius and monks have an impact in modern times: in 1961 the Grand Lodge Rosicrucian’s AMORC claimed Kelpius’s Society as the first of their colonies in America. While this claim in particular, as well as the claims of the cave’s use are dubious the want to connect Kelpius to modern day religious movements shows a powerful resonance of his beliefs and ideals.


Rosicrucian Plague dedicated in 1961. Still stands outside the cave to this day. Note the plague attempts to retroactively claim Kelpius as member (unclear whether or not he or his group was, could be called Rosicrucian), and the year of brith is incorrect.

Kelpius himself left behind a considerable archive and legacy for the short time he lived and the even shorter time he led his Hermit community. His original works, including his published and well known prayer book A Short, Easy, and Comprehensive Method of Prayer, which was republished several times for mass consumption, including as late as 1951, and a diary that is at once a useful botanical, astrological, and spiritual reference. Kelpius was also an accomplished musician, who most likely wrote the manuscript for The Lamenting Voice of the Hidden Love (1705) a 70-page songbook.[7] This has led some to declare Kelpius the first composer in the thirteen colonies. Among other notorious first for Kelpius, were the first privately owned organ, and as subject of the first oil-based portrait painting, both created by Christopher Witt.


Johannes Kelpius, 1705 by Christopher Witt. A marvelous musician who may have been colonial America’s first composer, spiritual writer, a scholar of theology, astrological, botanical sciences who also happened to be the first ‘Cult Leader’ in colonial American History credit: ExplorePAHistory.com – Johannes Kelpius, by Christopher Witt, 1705.

The cave is easily denoted by its man-made stone entrance. Getting to the cave, however, is a different story. Tucked away in the woods of Wissahickon Valley Park, it is said that most people looking for it struggle to locate footpaths in the park that lead to the cave.  Luckily the Kelpius Society offers tours of area known as Hermits Glen, which includes but is not limited to the Cave of Kelpius.  To arrange a tour, email info@kelpius.org or visit www.kelpius.org to learn more. For those intrepid explorers among you, a general approximation of the cave within the park has been provided below.


Photo Credits for the site itself:

Much thanks to Jon Spruce whose post http://phillytrees.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-cave-of-kelpius.html provided some great visiuals for someone who has yet to visit this cool site.


Further Reading:

Scott, Jonathan. The Woman in the Wilderness. (Middleton Books, 2011) (A historical novel, supports historical events. Develops a narrative of the context of Kelpius’ life in a literarily, meaningful way.)

Sachse, Julius F. The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania, The PA German Society Press, 1896.

Kelpius, Johannes. “A Method of Prayer. A Mystical Pamphlet from Colonial America.” Edited and translated by Kirby Don Richards, Ph.D. Philadelphia: Schuylkill Wordsmiths, 2006.

—-“ Scylla theologica, aliquot exemplis Patrum et Doctorum ecclesiae … ostensa [The Theological Scylla]. Altdorfium, 1690. co-written with Magister Johannes Fabricius (from the Bavarian State Library / Die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek)

Zuber, Mike A. ‘Copernican Cosmotheism: Johann Jacob Zimmermann and the Mystical Light’, Aries 14.2 (2014); https://www.academia.edu/7692264/Copernican_Cosmotheism_Johann_Jacob_Zimmermann_and_the_Mystical_Light

Winn, Christian T. et al. eds. The Pietist Impulse in Christianity (2012)

And these web based sources:

1  A Short, Easy and Comprehensive Method of Prayer: Johannes Kelpius (1673 – 1708) Authentic On-line Manuscript

2  ExplorePAHistory.com – Johannes Kelpius, by Christopher Witt, 1705.

3  Johannes Kelpius  collection of German hymns Am.088 Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

4   Joe Tyson “The Monks of the Ridge” Southern Cross Review, 2003.

  Poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Pennsylvania Pilgrim” AMESBURY, 1872

6 Kelpius Society Official Website


Direct Sources in Text

[1] Johann Jacob Zimmerman, Scriptura Sacra Copernizans (Hamburg: Zimmerman and Altona II. Theil, I Capitel pp. 37-41

[2]  Boehme’s influence out of the four mentioned Pietists is clearly the most lasting a far-reaching for later philosophers, novelists, anti-authoritarian relgious communities and others. Some of the people influenced by his works include: William Blake, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Paul Tillich (one of the most influential theologians in the 20th century) as well as thematic influences in the literary works of Borges, Cormac McCarthy, C. S. Lewis, and Philip K. Dick, among others.

[3] Julius F. Sachse, The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania, The PA German Society Press, 1896.

[4]  Winn, Christian T. et al. eds. The Pietist Impulse in Christianity (2012)

[5] She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. “And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. 7 Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

[6] Records of himself and some followers https://web.archive.org/web/20060323082651/ http://www.progenealogists.com/palproject/pa/1694smhope.htm

[7] Johannes Kelpius  collection of German hymns Am.088 Historical Society of Pennsylvania.http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/k/Kelpius088.html

Oh, Those Vexing Vexillologists!

Above: The Official Flag of the International Federation of Vexillological Associations, depicting a golden sheet bend, in front of a field of light blue. The flag is meant to show that the IFVA joins all the amateur, professional, and academic tendencies within vexillology, the study of flags, just like a sheet bend connects two ropes.

On August 15, 2017, the west African nation of Mauritania held a successful referendum to change the design of the country’s flag. In addition to the original flag’s green background surrounding a gold star nestled in an upward pointing crescent of the same color, Mauritania’s citizens voted to include two thin red bands running across the top and bottom of the layout. The change represents the latest change to a national flag in the world, making Mauritania’s flag the youngest unique national symbol in the world.  The choice in color and design was by no means trivial.

According to the countries President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the “red horizontal stripes rerpresent the efforts and sacrifices that the people of Mauritania will keep consenting, to the price of their blood, to defend their territory.” Historical bloodshed by anticolonial independence and future popular sacrifice are now enshrined as symbols of the country values and identity. This new addition to the pantheon of cultural values joins the majority religion of Islam (denoted by the crescent, star, and green background), future economic development (also green), the Sahara Dessert. Furthmore, the colors red, gold, and green are three of the four color generally considered to denote Pan-Africanism, with black being the final, unused color.

Clearly changes to the designs of flags are more than changes to cloth; they are carefully thought out attempts to create an identity around shared values. These connections are not always national ones, but could instead denote, shared identities, or political inclinations, or even denote extraterritorial organizations and institutions.

Despite these claims, some skeptics amongst you might wonder whether the people and politicians of Mauritania as well as anyone else who uses a flag are reading to much into the piece of fabric. Do flags really matter that much? These skeptics, I would apparently have never seen a documentary on Napoleons retreat from Russia, ot the lengths soldiers would go to in other conflicts to ‘hoist the colors’. They might have never heard the Star-Spangled Banner, and possibly don’t watch news networks, especially when representative from country X meets passive-aggressively with diplomat from country Y in front of a background of golden-fringed flags, Perhaps it is possible that they have never been to a parade and worst of all probably swim at their own risk on beaches. Flags are everywhere, the matter, and are  used for more than designs for clothing…

whitney smith

Whitney Smith Jr., (1940-2016); considered the founder of modern vexillology. Not only did he create numerous organizations and publications dedicated to the field, he also popularized its practice and even created/consulted on the successful desgin of a number of flags.

Still the question lingers; are flags important enough to study? Per Whitney Smith (1940-2016), the father of the modern study of flag design and meaning, the answer is an emphatic yes, followed by several rude retorts aimed at the questioner for even attempting to ask such a ridiculous question. Smith coined the term vexillology in 1957, a chimeric word derived from the Latin vexillum, or “flag” and the Greek suffix –logia meaning study. Besides making up a word sure to leave most Classicists feeling irate and disgusted with humanity (fun fact: the same effect can be achieved by uttering words like television, genocide, liposuction, and sociology in conversations with these rare creatures), Smith wanted to study how human-beings since the Agricultural Revolution sought to mark community and difference through standardized images. A prolific writer, Smith wrote 27 books on the subject, including his well received and authoritative Flags: Through The Ages And Around The World. While large portions of his writing deal with meaning, historical contexts for symbols and aesthetics, a continual argument is made of the usefulness, yet changing character of these useful symbols.

Since roughly 10,000 BCE to the modern day, Smith argues, groups of human beings have used, artifacts of art and culture to show connection, define boundaries, and find purpose. From cave paintings, to stone alignments, to material carvings, symbolic glyphs, genealogical prestige to coats of arms, flags, all the way up to hastily created logos with a comic sans font, social constructed entities (nations, businesses, political movements, etc.) have all used symbols to define its collectively. All are important historical artifacts, showcasing the changing nature of our representations. With associate Gerhard Grahl, and before the age of 21 Smith cofounded The Flag Bulletin, the world’s first academic journal devoted to the study of such symbols. In part, the new waves of decolonization efforts around the world leading to new nations, especially in Africa, and Asia lead to an early and continuing interest in national flags. With help from scholars like Grahl and Klaes Sierksma, Smith basically outlined and popularized an entirely new and distinct field of academic study before he could legally order a drink from a bar to celebrate his success.

Smith is no amateur at vexillography, known on the streets as flag-designing, either. In 1966, he designed The Golden Arrowhead, a winning proposal for the flag of Guyana, helped designed this tasty treat of a flag for Bonaire, and even has created a design for the flag of Antarctica (though to be honest, I prefer Graham Bartrams Design). In all of his creations, Whitney Smith gave special consideration to aesthetics, symbolic representation, inclusion of all, and utility. In his own words, Smith was a ‘monomaniac’, relating flags to almost every aspect of his life. He continued to write, consult and create as he was able, until finally passing away from complications to Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 76.

Smith showed the world that flags have contested and important meaning and have been around for a long time. Troubles, change and flags it seems, go hand in hand. Even Mauritania’s recent flag referendum was not as innocent as it was made out to be: the vote has been tied to President Abdel Aziz’s attempt to hold onto power, by including a provision to abolish the senate, and tie his image to nationalist sentiment. 

Next time we will look at some notable examples, past, present, and potentially future issues, of flag controversies around the world. Also be on the lookout for our upcoming shortlists of some of the most interesting, and least appealing historical flags as well as their intriguing backgrounds and meaning.


Further reading and notes:





Also check out these Vexillology links

The Flag Institute, United Kingdom’s foremost National Flag Charity

Flags of the World. Despite its pre-millenium look, the site is regularly updated with imformation of conferences, changes to flags and new entries

The North American Vexillological Association 

The Fédération internationale des associations vexillologiques

The Raven: A journal of vexillology produced by NAVA

The works of Whitney Smith are preserved by the Briscoe Center for American History

Reviewed #1: Russia, Revolution and … Reproduction policy?

The following is the first in our new series Reviewed, a outlet dedicated to providing an avenue for students to craft and showcase their literature-reveiwing skills as well as their extensive libraries. It is also the second of a series of posts on various aspects of the Russian Revolution(s) of 1917, as we mark the upcoming centennial anniversary of the October Revolution. 

This book review focuses on Wendy Goldman’s Women, the State and Revolution an insightful investigation of the outcomes of Bolshevik attempts to “remake the family.” Throughout the text Goldman broaches several fascinating questions, namely: What role did women and shifting conceptions of gender play during and after the October Revolution? How did the Soviet state govern and theorize the family under socialism? Possibly, most intriguing of all, when does a revolution end? 



Wendy Z. Goldman Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936 Cambridge University Press, 1993. 351 pp., $39.95

After the October Revolution, the Bolshevik Party focus shifted from gaining political power to transforming and administering a country ravaged by revolution, famine, and war. The Bolsheviks aspired to create for an equal and free society, in which hierarchical relations of all kinds would wither away. Wendy Goldman’s trailblazing study, Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life 1917-1936 examines these aspirations in and the creation of Soviet Family Policy. Soviet lawmakers sought to implement legislation that would radically transform the family, which meant radically changing women’s economic and legal relations to men. For a period, women’s issues became incorporated into official Soviet policy. However, progressive policymaking proved a contentious battleground and short-lived in practice. The 1936 Family Code struck down the achievements of an earlier generation of Soviet law-makers, as the state sought to promote family cohesion at the cost of gender equality. This book examines this social policy reversal, as the Soviet State retreated from the ideology of the October Revolution and towards a more conservative family policy, specifically focused on the dynamic relationship between state and society.

Women, the State and Revolution, add a new perspective to a growing body of literature on the experiences of women living through the Russian Revolution. Goldman investigates the relationships of identities in the Early Soviet period and illuminates the ways state and society interacted and engaged with one another. Goldman’s contributions to this field are most apparent when compared with other efforts to capture women’s engagement with revolution, namely Rochelle Ruthchild’s Equality and Revolution. Ruthchild’s work relied heavily on biography, political history, and sought to write the story of a select group of privileged women into male-dominated narratives of political change. Goldman studies how working class and peasant women and men, Soviet jurists and judges, and leading proponents of women’s liberation in the Bolshevik Party navigated and contributed to the changing discourse on the roles of women and family in society. Unlike Ruthchild, Goldman’s timeline of revolutionary action extends well into the formation of the Soviet state, which allows Goldman to consider how political institutions and social relations changed. Goldman’s examination of the social aspects of revolution provides a fuller account of the impact women had on the Russian Revolution.

In the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, the primary concerns of Soviet jurists and policy-makers were intimately tied to women’s liberation as part of a broader effort for societal transformation. The 1918 Family Code, the creation of the Women’s Department (Zhenotdel) as part of the official government apparatus, the 1920 abortion decree, as well as the legal discourse these policies created up until the late 1920s are examples of Bolshevik policy commitment to women’s rights. However, Goldman does not want to portray these early Bolsheviks as the champions of women’s emancipation. Instead, she argues that the progressive social nature of their rule continued the possibilities for new identities and changing social relations. Commitments to free and mutual association codified into law “simply abetted a profound process of social breakdown and transformation” (109). The process, Goldman argues, includes personal action among women, exemplified by court testimony, requests for alimony, and repudiation of socially limiting labels, such as the status of legitimacy of children. Law did not, in this early Soviet period, dictate social relations, but engaged them in an effort of radical transformation.



A group of  women from the Zhenotdel (Women’s Department). International Women’s Day, Russia, March 8 1923 Credit: Brendan McGeever


The book investigates how radically new policies on the family developed as a balancing act between instituting the vision of a socialist society, coping with the dire material conditions of post-civil war Russia, and the advocacy and reaction of various groups in Russian society. Goldman argues that this balance was responsive but fragile. She points to the 1922 Land Code, a compromise with peasants that upheld the door (household) as a unit of production, and the vigorous Family Code debates as evidence of an engaging discourse (155). However, Goldman argues that an inability to govern this changing social landscape and subsequent financial strains on a fledgling social service apparatus shattered the liberationist vision of early Soviet policy. Without state funding, women bore a considerable economic, and social burden (127-9). The laws also had some unintended, yet detrimental effects on women. Though abortion laws were initially drafted with the goal of easing rural maternity rates, urban women underwent 86% of all legal abortions in Russia during this period (266). Without sufficient economic and legal constraints on men, mutual affection led to husbands freely divorce their wives and relinquishing their childcare obligations. Billed as a solution to these problems, the 1936 Family Code promoted the traditional family, ended legal discourse, and abandoned Bolshevik ideas, effectively ending the revolutionary period.



A kindly ‘Uncle Joe.’ This 1936 poster reads “We thank the beloved Stalin for the happy childhood!” Credit: Viktor Iwanowitsch Goworkow (1906-1974) and Getty Images


Goldman’s marshaling of sources makes her argument successful. This book, first published in 1993, benefits from sources made public after the opening of the Soviet archives. The sheer volume of records from peasant women is especially of note, helping to give a voice to this often-underrepresented group. As crucial as the new sources Goldman is at her argumentative best when she connects her diverse sources to underscore tensions and connections. One aspect of change and identity seems missing from her investigation: migration between the urban and rural. This book investigates the connections of identity and places (urban, rural) and yet, there is no discussion of the impact that human movement had on the implementation of Soviet Family policy. Such a discussion would help to interrogate some of the claims made in this book. Of those urban women that had abortions, how many migrated from the countryside? Does the state control how people move before 1936? Where there any state-run housing schemes that could further show the intentions of the state regarding the family?

Those interested in gaining a fuller understanding the relationship between law and society, and the impact of the October Revolution on Russian society will find this book useful. Specifically, sociologist, legal historians, and gender studies scholars should find the primary sources explored, statistics used, and arguments advanced compelling. Overall, the descriptions and sketches of official and public attitudes offered by Goldman help piece together the complexities of the Soviet state’s attempt at socio-economic engineering.




Wendy Goldman, the Paul Mellon Distinguished Professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University, specializes in the social and political history of Russia. Her most recent work Hunger and War: Food Provisioning in the Soviet Union During World War II (Indiana University Press, 2015) looks at food policy on the homefront and on the battlegrounds during the Second World War. Goldman will be a Keynote Speaker at the upcoming event Legacy of the Russian Revolution held at Chesnut Hill College on Nov. 16-18, 2017. 


Why Name a Hurricane?

As the 2017 tropical storm season, mercilessly trudges on, images and stories of the destructive power of nature dominate headlines. These tales of emotion and survival work in tandem with massive data sets to produce empathy and useful models of understanding that help create storm tracks, evacuation plans, coordinated rescue efforts and potential loss assessments. While the measurements and narratives seem similar every year, sometimes to the point of dull duplicity, context matters.

The devastation wrought by this year’s storms to the Caribbean is of historic importance both for its grim records and how current effects manifest from past relationships.  For the first time in 300 years the island of Barbuda completely evacuated. Meanwhile, former status as colonies impede recovery efforts in affected areas like Puerto Rico, Sint Maarten, and the British Virgin Islands.

Beyond the incomprehensible numbers, the one constant and eye catching element of the headlines has always confused me. Storms have names. Names like Harvey, Irma, Maria join the ranks of Camille (1969), Andrew (1992) and Katrina (2005). Personal first names suddenly become monikers for some of the most devastating ecological and social disasters. Why do we name hurricanes?[1]

Historically, naming storms served as a place maker, a milestone in history of the “notable storms”. Some are named after the places they devastated (Galveston 1900, Great New England 1938), the time that they hit (Labor Day 1935). Even storms depicted in historical accounts gain names because of their proximity to larger historical events. The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 was recorded in accounts of life in Jamestown, the first hurricane reported by a North American British colonial settlement. 1780 Storm-naming however was far from uniform. The record of the October 1780 tropical cyclone considered the deadliest on record consistently notes that more than 20,00 people in the Caribbean died. However, the storm’s name varies in accounts (San Calixto, Junon, 1780 Disaster, or simply The Great are but a few used). Two San Felipe (1876, and 1928, aka Okeechobee) hurricanes both hit Puerto Rico on the feast day of St. Phillip, September 13th.

Credit for uniform storm naming is often given to Clement L. Wragge, an eccentric British meteorologist who worked extensively in the South Pacific. After abandoning a future in law for the natural sciences, the North Strattfordshire-born Wragge moved to Australia where he worked from 1887-1907. ‘Wet’ Wragge worked tirelessly and through his publication (The Wragge) set about naming almost any major storm system he could.[2]


Clement “Wet” Wragge (pictured) is often credited with inventing the modern naming convention of  tropical cyclones and weather systems (Credit: Auckland Weekly News July 28, 1904 p3

Running out of letters and mythological figures from Greek and Latin, Wragge turned to feminine first names in 1898, with Eline being the first storm system so named.[3] Though he would later turn to naming storms after politicians he did not like, his practice of using feminine first names stuck. George Stewart’s 1941 novel Storm featured a cyclone named Maria inspired GIs working on meteorology during World War II in the South Pacific. After the war, and a failed attempt at uniform phonetic ordering, the alphabetical list of first names was used in 1953.

Only feminine first names were used to denote storms from 1953-1979, a practice that ended only after longstanding protests from various feminist organizations. Using first names however, stayed common practice. Per the World Meteorological Organization short personal names “help in the quick identification of storms in warning messages,” making these storms, “far easier to remember than numbers and technical terms.”[4] Communication between media, the public, researchers, and responders benefits from using distinct, yet short first names.

The Tropical Storms Chart at Weather Unground catalogues important tropical cyclone information and extends as far back as 1851 while a list of retired hurricane names  going back to 1954 shows us that some storm names can be devastatingly unique. More future focused? Then check out the six-year cycle list of future hurricanes-in-waiting.


[1] Hurricanes, like typhoons and cyclones, are types of tropical cyclones. Typically, the only distinguishing feature between the storms is where they occur (Hurricanes occur in the Atlantic and NE Pacific, Typhoons occur in the NW Pacific, and Cyclones occur in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean). All storms are given a name once a level of sustained winds reach 40mph, although category barriers based on strengths can differ in the 11 basin-monitoring organizations that track tropical cyclones associated with the World Meteorological Organization.
[2] Western Mail, Perth, WA, Friday, November 1, 1895, p.11
[3] The Brisbane Courier, Wednesday February 2, 1898 p. 5
[4] Adamson, P. (2003), Clement Lindley Wragge and the naming of weather disturbances. Weather, 58: 359–363.
Credit for the featured image goes to Joshua Stevens of the NASA Earth Observatory Sep 20th, 2017.

Wyrd Historie #1: The Last Log Cabin of Sweden’s Odd Empire


It’s no secret that the Greater Philadelphia Area has a lot to offer for the lover of places and spaces of importance in Early American History. From the newly opened Museum of the American Revolution, to Independence National Historic Park, home of the Liberty Bell, the city boasts an impressive array of resources, and sites for engaging history. However, some sites (*ahem* anywhere in Old City *ahem*) seem to get more love than others.

We here at Wyrd Historie want to rectify that. We pride ourselves on being as odd as the number 7 and seeking the wild and wacky people, places, process and events. As we see it, history encompasses many dynamic and entangled threads, and the study of history encourages an appreciation of unusual tensions and connections among those threads.

With open minds, let’s start our adventure in the 17th century exploring a wonderful public history site that is: outside of Center City, close to home, and one of the last remaining structures of Sweden’s attempt at Empire.

Lower Swedish Cabin 

Last Cabin

The Lower Swedish Cabin is the last extant structure of its kind, and possibly the first log Cabin built-in the US.



Lower Swedish Cabin
9 Creek Road
P.O. Box 372
Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, 19026

Tours offered on 1-4pm on Sundays from May to October. 

It’s easy to forget that other European countries attempted to colonize North America (easier still to forget native sovereignty and land rights). Eventual British domination, the growth of urban centers, and time are all responsible for our less than comprehensive knowledge of the contested frontiers of North America. However, the changing nature of space and the distance in time from 1638 to today doesn’t make the following statement any easier to comprehend, at least for myself:

17th century Sweden was a transoceanic Empire.

Land of fragile furniture and military strength sedans? Home of EDM, ABBA, hipster-baiting music, and this gem of internet culture? Defenders of social justice, migrant rights and curators of human achievement and understanding?


Yes, that Sweden.


This map of the Swedish Empire at its height in the mid 17th century, with routes of migration highlighted, proving we are in fact referring to THAT SWEDEN


If you a stickler like me, you can head over to the Lower Swedish Cabin located in Upper Derby and built during the existence of Nya Sverige (New Sweden) 1638 to 1655. The two-story structure initially functioned as a trading post for Swedish colonists and the local Susquehannock Nation, and later became a private residence until 1937. There are contested claims that film pioneer Siegmund Lubin (possibly coined “cliffhanger” and certainly a pioneer of film piracy) used the site as a set during this time. After years of neglect, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and got a full-makeover in 1987. Today the refurbished site stands as possibly one of the oldest log cabins in the United States.

The Cabin is more than a structure, it is a testament to the changing connections of the Atlantic World, the promise of colonization, and impact of Finno-Swedish settlers on America. Delaware’s largest city, Wilmington, began as Fort Christina, and recognizes this heritage in its city flag. Log cabins pioneered by colonists in New Sweden, hold an incredibly important place in American history. Iconic in both their widespread use and constructed meanings, log cabins shaped culture and contours of the frontier. Elsewhere, settlers of New Sweden became a symbol of assurance for later generations of Swedes: from 1870 to the early 20th century at least one million immigrated to the midwest.



Other unique connections of New Sweden demonstrate that despite lasting only 17 years it’s existence had important political implications in its time. The Dutch invasion of 1655 might have ended a rivalry with New Sweden, but it unexpectedly stoked the ire of another. The Susquehannock Nation and their allies enjoyed deep political and trade connections with the Swedes so in retaliation, they led an invasion of Dutch settlements across four mid-Atlantic states. The erroneously named Peach Tree War, devastated Dutch colonial authority. Farms were burnt, hundreds were killed, and even whole settlements, like Staten Island were permanently abandoned. The economic and psychological cost of Susquehannock victory likely contributed to the events of August 27th, 1664. On that date Peter Stuyvesant ceded the colony of New Amsterdam to British control, effectively ending the Dutch colonial presence in America.

For more information on the Lower Swedish Cabin, check out the Friends of the Swedish Cabin website or contact them at contact@swedishcabin.info.  A treasure-trove of information on the early history of colonial interactions in the Delaware Valley can also be found  at the The American Swedish Historical Museum located in South Philly.

Other Sources:

BartonHArnold (1994). A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish Americans18401940. (Uppsala: ActaUniversitatis Upsaliensis).

ShortoRussell (2004The Island at the Center of the World (DoubledayNew York ) ISBN 0385503490




Planning Leisure in The Indian New Deal

As part of the “alphabet soup” of New Deal public work programs, the Indian Emergency Conservation Work (IECW) ambitiously attempted to stimulate American Indian economic activity and land development during the Great Depression. Though waged work for improvement projects on reservations was the IECW’s primary function, the program also pursued a different approach to development, reversing a century of federal government policy towards American Indians in the process. Federal policy since the middle of the 19th century preached assimilation into the Euro-American culture as the only future available for American Indians. In practice, this policy operated in three important ways: a massive land allotment program that privatized land and deregulated its sale, separating children from communities in pursuit of “proper education”, and consistent reductions in the power of tribal governments and associations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Commissioner John Collier, who held the position from 1933 to 1945 denounced past policies as underhanded tactics to grab more native-owned land while effectively promoting cultural genocide.[1] Collier and the BIA developed a plan for land cultivation with Indian economic and political independence as future goals, through community-based central economic planning. Whether the plan’s aspirations were compatible with BIA practices remains an issue of contention in the historiography of U.S. federal Indian policy.[2] One aspect of this program, however, appears unambiguously coherent; BIA policies from 1933-1935 considered cultural and community development. An analysis of internal newsletters circulated within the BIA during this early period, called Indian At Work, demonstrates how government agents and American Indians placed critical importance on “time off the clock”, specifically leisure time activities and organized sports, in constructions of economic and political development.


John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933-1945

Understanding individual and communal health as interconnected and mutually beneficial became a central idea of BIA policy. Funds from the IECW were allocated to provide equipment, construction, wages, and infrastructure for new community centers enrichment programs for residents. These community centers functioned as hubs for communal teaching and learning. All reservation residents had access to the center and were encouraged to participate in planning and engaging with the center’s curricula. Individualized skill-building for technical jobs and lessons in agricultural self-reliance was deemed essential for the reservation’s economic vitality.[3] Typically, during the daytime, the centers operated as school houses for children, libraries, and as locations for cultural and political events while working adults used the space for night classes, and native literacy and language courses.

Even with such space effective engagement in education, BIA administrators continuously noted that organized sports teams and other athletic activities dominated free time on the reservations.[4] The low capital participation threshold and high motivation displayed by both men and women to participate made organizing sport on the reservation a cheap way of keeping individuals physically fit, engaged in the community, and therefore more happy and productive on the job. Participating in baseball and basketball games, and boxing matches were especially considered positive for the individual and community. Efforts to organize teams, clubs, and gyms through the BIA were undertaken as early as 1933 in some reservations. Organized sports provided more than just an ancillary activity that enhanced individual growth and communal cohesion. Increased funding for American Indian teams and athletes lead to increased levels of participation on the reservation, and more competition at local and national levels. Sport also became a space for cultural preservation and education: Indians At Work editions from April 1934 to February 1935 indicate that cultural events featuring archery, horseback riding competitions, and tribal specific games were largely financed by BIA funds.[5]

Unforeseen tensions between American Indian participation in sports and IECW goals did occur, largely at the expense of education. In an editorial, Commissioner Collier criticized the proliferation of Sports Therapy and Education degrees earned by American Indians as contributing to a dangerous dearth in diverse technical education and lacked practical application for necessary land development.[6] While an essential part of development, BIA officials feared that sports would become an indispensable part of Indian life, constricting the abilities of individuals to develop skills through other types of enrichment, and therefore negatively impacting the entire community. The story of Sullivan Miller, a Cheyenne resident of the Tongue River Reservation (Now Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation), provides a unique example of this tension. Miller received praise from the BIA newsletter for turning down an offer to play sports professionally in the National Football League, and choosing to attend a leadership camp for IECW crew work. Instead of taking a “lucrative contract with a professional football team” it was claimed he strengthened the future vitality of his people through his choice to improve himself and his skillset.[7] The fact that Sullivan Miller could choose to play, however, captures the way sports participation provided alternatives to reservation living, if only for a few talented individuals.

∗            ∗           ∗

This week marks the beginning of the 2017-2018 NFL season. Since the 1930s the NFL has grown from humble beginnings into a lucrative business model and currently sits on the verge of becoming a global, or at the least, a transatlantic brand. With the minimum rookie salary, currently, at $465,000 a year, witnessing a modern-day Sullivan Miller turn down a contract seems an unlikely prospect. However, despite the growth of the organization, today’s NFL still shares one important aspect of the 1930s game; football, whether consumed as spectacle, competed in for gain, or refused as part of a centrally planned economic development program has importance beyond the gridiron, after the end of the game. The importance of leisure activities on American Indian reservations in the 1930s was based on its effects. Sports, while dangerous to the goals of the IECW, proved a very useful tool for promoting productivity, developing interpersonal and technical skills, and in victory, instilling a sense of pride in self and community.


July 15th, 1935 issue of Indians At Work, the internal newsletter of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and later the Indian Service

[1] Indians at work v. 1 no. 11 (1934: Jan. 15). Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1933. http://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/indiansatwor111193415unit

[2] Rusco, E. R. (1991).”John Collier, Architect of Sovereignty or Assimilation?” American Indian Quarterly, 15(1):49–55; Kelly, L. C. The Assault on Assimilation: John Collier and the Origins of Indian Policy Reform. (University of New Mexico Press, 1963); Collier, John. 1947. The Indians of the Americas. New York: W.W. Norton.

[3] Indians at work v. 3 no. 16 (1936: Apr. 1). Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1933. http://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/indiansatwork31619361unit

[4] Each newsletter contained a section labeled IECW Reports, where both white BIA officials and American Indian supervisors and crew leaders would document the work completed and activities engage in. A sizeable majority of these reports mention participation in organized sporting events in a positive light, outnumbering mentions of education

[5] Indians at work v. 2 no. 10 (1935: Jan. 1). Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1933. http://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/indiansatwork21019351unit

[6] Indians at work v. 2 no. 10 (1935: Jan. 1). Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1933. http://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/indiansatwork21019351unit

[7]Indians at work v. 1 no. 5 (1933: Oct. 15). Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1933. http://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/indiansatwork15193315unit ; The NFL of the 1930s did not enjoy the cultural resonance of the league today, as teams struggled to compete with college football programs for talent and audiences