morgan history · Uncategorized

Some Writing Progress

Image result for morgan horse linsley

Longtime readers may remember that for some years now I have been poking away at a research project about the history of the first Morgan horse. It’s a fascinating tangle of history and myth.

Earlier this year, I put a tentative shingle out to say that I would talk about my research if anyone was interested. I give other talks on other history topics fairly regularly as part of my job and as part of other research I’ve done, but I felt more nervous and guarded about the Morgan research. It’s something that is well-worn territory for many people, many of whom feel very possessive and intense about it, and I didn’t feel right stepping on toes. But finally I said to hell with impostor syndrome and put myself out there.

I did it partly to see what the audience would be, and partly to force myself to focus my thoughts and sharpen my research. And then 2019 happened, and, well, I haven’t had nearly the time or mental space I thought I might.

But last Friday I gave my first talk. And having it on the horizon meant that a week and a half ago, when I sat down to coalesce all the thoughts and ideas and research notes I’ve been compiling for so many years now – I wrote 6,000 words in about five hours. I walked away from my computer, dazed, and then the next day wrote 2,000 more, and continued to edit and refine those words over the course of a week. Then I wrote a book outline, because spilling all that out on paper meant I could finally see the shape of the project.

My goal for 2019 was to write 20,000 words, and to be honest – I’d given up on that. But all of a sudden it feels within my grasp again. I still need to keep sitting down and pouring out the words, and I still have a million loose ends to chase, but writing that out – and then giving the talk itself – was a huge boost to my confidence.

Here’s hoping I can keep building on that success, because I have two more talks scheduled for the fall, and I can feel, deep in my bones, the itch to write – finally.

morgan history · Uncategorized

Morgan Monday: More Stallion Advertisements

Previously, I explored the stallion advertisements that Justin Morgan placed for his stallion Figure.

Today, I’ll talk a little bit more about some other stallion advertisements that may or may not be connected to Figure.

I’ll start by going back in time from the last post a bit. In one of his advertisements, Morgan claimed that Figure was famously at stud in Harford. (“Famous” being I think a bit of marketing.)

Generally, people agree that a series of stallion advertisements placed in May 1792 by a Samuel Whitman are for the same stallion Figure.

hartford courant, 5-5-1792, samuel whitman

Why do we think this stallion is “our” figure?

It’s not entirely clear, honestly. Here’s how the evidence lines up.

In 1788, Justin Morgan moved from Springfield, MA to Randolph, VT. He sold his farm in Springfield in March 1788 and brought his young family up to Vermont with him, but we know that he traveled back and forth to Springfield from time to time.

We also know that he had business dealings with Hartford and with people in Hartford, and that some of them were related to horses – the stallion most commonly named to be Figure’s sire, True Briton/Britain (about whom much, much more later) came from Hartford. Morgan leased him for a few seasons of stallioneering from a man named Selah Norton.

We also know that Figure was roughly 15 hands and bay, but that doesn’t tell us much. Loads of the stallions in advertisements at the time were 15hh bays. There were also plenty named Figure, a name which is supposed to evoke the good looks of the horse. (Like saying “a fine figure of a horse.”)

There is one piece of compelling coincidental evidence: Whitman’s stallion ad ran for just two issues of the Courant, terminated on May 21. On June 20, Justin Morgan’s Grand List valuation (basically a list saying how much property he had) jumped to 23 pounds from his 1791 listing of 10 pounds. He added 10 pounds to his net worth in a year. In 1791, the Vermont legislature passed a law saying that any stallion of two years or older was valued at twenty pounds. The argument there is that Morgan’s valuation jumps because he adds Figure to his property.

So, if we follow that through-line, Figure either outright belonged to or was leased to Samuel Whitman of Hartford sometime in the spring of 1792 (or earlier). It’s commonly accepted that Morgan himself bred Figure; let’s say he was bred in that last month before the family left for Vermont, March 1788, and foaled in February or March of 1789. That puts him at just barely three years old when Whitman was using him at stud in Hartford.

Was he started under saddle? If so, who trained him? Why did he then move from Whitman to Morgan – was it, as many stories have it, that he was payment for a debt? Had Morgan simply leased the stallion out and now that he was settled in Vermont, he was returning for him? Had Morgan himself made the arrangements with Whitman or had his brother John? (The two frequently worked together in the horse breeding business.) Why return then?

One of the focuses of my research is to try and untangle those questions if they can be, starting with trying to establish a clear link between Justin Morgan and Samuel Whitman.

equestrian history · morgan history · Uncategorized

Justin Morgan’s Amanda

I’m tired and grumpy and generally fed up with the world right now, so I am not up to an actual blog post, but here: have a hymn composed by Justin Morgan (yes, the one who had a horse) and named after me.

Not really, probably a random name he picked out of a hat more or less, but definitely a lament/love song written for his wife. (Who was not named Amanda.)

In his lifetime, Morgan was far more famous as a singing master and composer than as a stallion owner. In certain circles, he still is. The tune is still popular in shapenote circles.

If you’ve never heard shapenote singing before, it’s kind of a trip and worth watching the second video. It also has the actual hymn words in caption, though they’re super depressing. (“Death, like an overflowing stream/Sweeps us away, our life’s a dream, etc.”)

I like the Canning/orchestral treatment of the melody better, though.

I’d known about the melody for quite a while, but a few weeks ago came in to work to find a copy of the sheet music on my desk, so now it decorates my tiny little half-cubicle and makes me smile at least a little bit when I see it.

morgan history

Justin Morgan, composer

You may know that Justin Morgan acquired a young colt named Figure and in doing so founded the Morgan horse breed.

You may not know that Justin Morgan’s primary profession was actually singing teacher, one of those location- and era-specific professions that baffle us today.

He also composed a number of songs, one of which is still somewhat famous today, AND was named after me.

(obviously not really but I’m still going to claim it)

Here’s a gorgeous symphonic interpretation of that same basic melody by composer Thomas Canning.
So, if you’ve read Marguerite Henry’s Justin Morgan Had a Horse and like me hold dear the image of a lanky and laconic New Englander striding his way through the wilderness, followed by a scrubby colt: this is the music that was in his head.