Researching on a Tangent: Miscellaneous Tidbits by Richard Willis
It seems strange to many people who don’t do a lot of writing, but one of the most enjoyable things, to me, is research. With so much of my writing dealing with history or current events in one way or another, I end up doing quite a lot of research. Actually, I may spend as much (or more) time researching than I do writing – which makes the writing generally go pretty fast, too.
With so much research on my plate, it stands to reason that every so often – in my case probably three or four times a month – I come across some very strange stuff. Some of it is funny, some dark and disgusting, and some of it just makes me scratch my head and ask “Seriously?” I would like to take the time to share some of it with you.
First off, a bit of North American military history. Fort Montgomery is located in Rouses Point, New York, near the northern end of Lake Champlain. Built in the 1840s, it saw use until it was sold at a public auction in 1926. Fort Montgomery was actually the second fort built at Rouses Point – wanting to prevent a repeat of the British invasion in 1814, the army started construction on a fort in 1816.
Construction was going well – President James Madison had even visited the site of the fort – until it was discovered that due to a survey error, the fort was not actually being built in New York. Rather, construction was taking place about three-quarters of a mile north of the border with British Canada. Nobody’s really sure why the mix-up happened (though many accounts claim that alcohol was involved, which wouldn’t surprise me), but needless to say, construction was halted.
In the end, the location of what became known as “Fort Blunder” played a role in the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which resolved several border issues between the United States and British Canada. The diplomats agreed to redraw the border where the abandoned fort would indeed be on American soil, and two years later, construction on what became Fort Montgomery started – this time, on American soil.
We’ll move from North America to Europe, and cover two curiosities from France over the years: the main key to the infamous Bastille, and a duke of Aquitaine with a name that probably belongs in a parody somewhere.. After the Bastille fell on 14 July 1789, the main key found its way into the hands of the new National Guard commander, Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. His service in the American Revolution had greatly increased his prestige and given the nobleman a taste for liberty, leading to his acclamation as commander of the Guard in Paris.
The key was given to Thomas Paine, an English expat who would help ferment patriotic fervor in France as he had in America. From Paine, it slowly made its way to New York City via London, until John Rutledge, Jr. presented it to President George Washington about a year after the fortress fell. Washington kept it in his personal possession, and it can be found and viewed at his estate of Mount Vernon, just outside Washington, D.C.
For the last oddity, we’ll stay in France and travel back more than a thousand years. For much of the country’s history, France had been a series of counties, duchies and other realms under the nominal suzerainty of the Frankish (later French) king. While the terminology of the various regions varied, it was a given that they were pretty much autonomous.
One of the largest regions was the duchy of Aquitaine – indeed, Aquitaine was not originally a Frankish state, but a Gothic kingdom, and some of the later dukes would indeed style themselves as “king of Aquitaine.” The historical sources for many of these rulers are very limited, and in some cases, the only mentions we have of them are in documents that have since been proven to be forged.
One of these Aquitainian overlords of dubious veracity is Boggis (sometimes seen as Bohggis or Bodogisel). First found in a (forged) charter trying to tie a royal bloodline to a later duke, Odo the Great, Boggis was supposedly a grandson of the Merovingian king Clotaire II. While such a line would have indeed conferred a royal lineage on Odo (mentioned as a son of Boggis), the document was in fact proven to date some eight or nine hundred years after the charter’s supposed writing.
While this leaves us with no proof of the existence of Duke Boggis, it does leave us with a strange name that (to my knowledge, at least) has not been found anywhere else. This was one of those things that caused me to drove my legitimate research and see what I could dig up about this figure. Didn’t turn out to be that much – in fact, what you see above is pretty much everything I’d found on him. Real or not, he’s a part of the historical record – if only as an amusing footnote.
I’ve been writing for more than a decade, and in that time, I’ve found many interesting things. Some of it has made its way into my writing, some of it has been forgotten, and some of it is retained for times such as these. It’s a small reminder that when researching and writing, never be surprised by what you find. All these strange findings have merely confirmed my agreement with Arthur C. Clarke. In the introduction to2001: A Space Odyssey, he noted that no matter how far-fetched your story may seem, “…the truth, as always, will be far stranger.”
Contacting Richard: @elephande