CLOSE

2 Poles Who Aided the American Revolution

Warm up the pierogies, Polish American heritage month is here again! Last year, we ticked off a list of 8 things you need to know about Polish Americans. This year, we're going to change things up a bit and profile two men who helped make the very idea of a Polish American (or any other kind of American for that matter) possible through their efforts in the war for American independence.

1. Kazimierz Michał Wacław Wiktor Pułaski

Pułaski was born in 1745 to a family of wealthy nobles in the village of Winiary. He studied at a college in Warsaw and became a page of one of the vassals of the Polish king. Not long after Pułaski began the job, though, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became a protectorate of the Russian Empire and the court was expelled by Russian forces occupying Poland.

In 1768, Pułaski, along with his father, became one of the co-founders of the Bar Confederation, an association of nobles that aimed to defend the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from both the Russian Empire and Polish reformers attempting to limit the power of the Commonwealth's nobility. Pułaski became a commander of confederate soldiers and engaged Russian forces in combat for the next four years.

In 1771, Pułaski helped organize an attempt to kidnap King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, who supported the Russian occupation.

The kidnapping plot failed and Pułaski was sentenced to death in absentia for attempted regicide. He fled the Commonwealth and found no state that would accept him. He finally settled in France illegally, where he encountered Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin recommended to General George Washington that PuÅ‚aski, "renowned"¦for the courage and bravery he displayed in defense of his country's freedom," be recruited for the American cavalry. PuÅ‚aski accepted the American offer and arrived in Philadelphia in 1777, taking part in the Battle of Brandywine just a few months later. Washington acknowledged PuÅ‚aski's skills and bravery with a promotion to the rank of brigadier general of the American cavalry and gave him command of four light cavalry regiments.

The 111th Congress has, as of 10/09, passed resolutions in each house proclaiming Pułaski an honorary citizen of the United States. The House bill and the Senate bill will have to be reconciled before President Obama can sign a bill. If the rest of the process goes smoothly, Pułaski will be only the seventh person to receive honorary citizenship. Winston Churchill was the first in 1963, followed by Swedish diplomat and Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg, Pennsylvania co-founder and governor William Callowhill Penn and his wife Hannah, Mother Teresa, and Marquis de Lafayette.

Pułaski's poor grasp of English and domineering personality caused difficulties in his new position, which he soon resigned. But Washington allowed Pulaski to organize an independent corps, dubbed the Pułaski Cavalry Legion. Pułaski led the legion for the rest of his involvement in the war, dipping into his personal finances to furnish equipment for his troops when money from Congress was scarce. The legion fought at the Little Egg Harbor massacre in New Jersey, the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina, and the Battle of Savannah, Georgia. During this last battle, in 1779, Pułaski led a cavalry charge while probing for weaknesses in the British line and was wounded by grapeshot fired from a cannon. He was carried from the battlefield by his troops and placed aboard a merchant ship. He was buried at sea.

One month later, Washington paid tribute to PuÅ‚aski by issuing a challenge-and-password set to the Continental Army for identifying friends and enemies when crossing military lines: "Query: Pulaski, response: Poland."

In 1929, Congress passed a resolution to recognize October 11 "General Pulaski Memorial Day," in order to recognize the "father of the American cavalry" and celebrate the heritage of Polish Americans. Several states and cities—Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadlephia and New York City among them—also have memorial days or parades that commemorate Pulaski's birth or death.

2. Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko

Kościuszko was the youngest son of a Polish noble living in the village of Mereczowszczyzna (in what is now Belarus, but was then part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). In 1765, he enrolled at the newly created Szkoła Rycerska (Knight Academy) in the Corps of Cadets, studying military subjects and the liberal arts. After graduating, Kościuszko and a colleague received royal scholarships and went to Paris, where Kościuszko studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. He decided that he did not want to be a painter, but could not transfer to a French military academy because he was a foreigner. He earned his own French military education, though, by going to free lectures and visiting the libraries of Paris' military academies.

polishamericansWhen Kościuszko returned home in 1774, there was no position for him in the army, which had been drastically reduced in the First Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He took a job tutoring the family of a governor instead and fell in love with the governor's daughter. The two planned to elope in the American colonies, but were tracked down and stopped by employees of the girl's father. Kościuszko received a beating from them which would inform his views on social pretense and class inequality.

The following year, he again left the Commonwealth, for Paris, where he learned about the war in the American colonies. KoÅ›ciuszko went to America and volunteered for the army. In 1776, Congress commissioned him as a Colonel of Engineers was then named head engineer of the Continental Army. He was sent to Pennsylvania to work on the fortification of Philadelphia. There, he constructed Fort Billingsport and fortified the banks of the Delaware River. He also got a chance to read the Declaration of Independence—he was so moved by it, he sought out a meeting with Thomas Jefferson. The two eventually became close friends.

From there, Kościuszko went on to oversee the construction of forts and military camps along the Canadian border, was given command of the military engineering works at West Point by George Washington and then oversaw more fort construction in the Southeast.

In 1783, Kościuszko was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and received American citizenship, a parcel of land, and memberships in the Society of the Cincinnati and the American Philosophical Society. The next year, he returned to Poland and settled in his home village. He would later defend his homeland in the Polish-Russian War of 1792 and receive Poland's highest military honor, the Virtuti Militari medal, for his actions at the Battle of Zieleńce.

Kościuszko's body is interred in a crypt at Wawel Cathedral in Kraków, the final resting place of many Polish kings and national heroes. His heart, removed from the body during embalming, is kept at a chapel at the Royal Castle in Warsaw.

When King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski surrendered to the Russians in August of that year, Kościuszko fled to Leipzig, where Polish commanders and politicians were preparing an uprising against Poland's Russian occupiers. Kościuszko made a trip to Paris during this time to accept honorary citizenship in France, and to gain French support for the uprising in Poland.

The Second Partition of Poland in 1793, and the subsequent reduction of the army and mass arrests of Polish politicians and military commanders by Russian agents, forced Kościuszko to begin the uprising earlier than planned. After early victories, Kościuszko's forces were outnumbered at the Battle of Maciejowice, and Kościuszko was wounded and imprisoned in Saint Petersburg. The uprising ended with the Siege of Warsaw, Tomasz Wawrzecki's (the new commander of the uprising) surrender.

In 1796, Tsar Paul I of Russia pardoned and freed Kościuszko, who settled in France and remained politically active among the Polish émigrés. He died of typhoid fever in Solothurn, Switzerland, in October, 1817.

KoÅ›ciuszko's global freedom fighting made him a national hero in Poland, Lithuania, and the US, so he has received his fair share of tributes around the world, both great and small: from Kosciuszko Street in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, to Mount Kosciuszko in Australia; from Thomas Jefferson calling him "as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known," to an occasional salute from a certain blogger as he passes KoÅ›ciuszko's statue on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
The Secret Underground Life of Newborn Meerkat Pups
iStock
iStock

The Secret Underground Life of Newborn Meerkat Pups. Nature photographers fitted a meerkat with a camera to get a look inside.

*

America’s Secret Ice Base Won’t Stay Frozen Forever. When the glacier hiding it is gone, environmental hazards will be exposed.

*

All 11 Versions of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Ranked. With each described in excruciating detail.

*

How Tennessee Became the Final Battleground in the Fight for Suffrage. The process was much dirtier than we ever learned in school.

*

A Remix in Tribute to Han Solo. He had a lot of great lines over four films, so Eclectic Method gave them rhythm and rhyme.

*

Ishmael Beah tells what it was like to go from child soldier in Sierra Leone to high school student in New York. His classmates couldn't figure out why he was so good at paintball.

*

A Brief History of Credit Cards. They aren't as old as you might have thought.

*

10 Allegedly Cursed Objects. Just keep telling yourself that all the bad things that happened around them could be coincidence.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
arrow
science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios