Tag Archives: Historiography

Designing a syllabus for Native American history

The final assignment in my Native American seminar was to develop an undergraduate syllabus for a course on some aspect of Indian history.  I decided to design my class around early American history, since it’s what I’m most familiar with.

I felt pretty confident going into this project.  Having spent several years doing adjunct gigs before going to back to grad school, I’d designed my share of syllabi.  And since I’ve done a fair amount of reading on colonial America and the early frontier, I knew of quite a few Indian-related books that I could assign.  As you might imagine, though, it turned out to be quite a bit harder than I expected.

In fact, there was a sense in which my background was actually a handicap, because it had predisposed me to think about early American history in particular ways.  As I’ve mentioned before, we tend to conceptualize the history of early America in simplistic terms of geographical and temporal progression.  You’ve got your Spaniards in Latin America at first, then your French around Canada and the Mississippi Valley, and then it’s Anglos moving from east to west from there on out.  Once the English get settled in at Jamestown, there’s a tendency to ignore everything west of the eastern seaboard until more colonists start pushing into the interior.  For too many of us, vast swaths of America don’t really have a “history” until Anglophone settlers show up.

If you’re trying to frame history from a Native American perspective, this simply won’t do.  Indian societies had been rising, falling, and coalescing across the continent for centuries before white settlements appeared in North America.  And over the course of the many decades it took Anglophone settlers to make their way to the Appalachians, the Mississippi, the Rockies, and the West Coast, history wasn’t at a standstill.  Native people in what we vaguely think of as “the West” had been encountering, trading with, fighting against, and living alongside Spanish and French settlers (and each other) during all that time.

I’m ashamed to admit that I forgot all this when I started picking readings for my syllabus.  My first slate of assigned books all dealt with Indian-colonist relations in the eastern U.S.  It didn’t occur to me to break out of that mindset until my professor gently reminded me that I was ignoring a good two-thirds of the continent.  Oops.

Periodization also proved trickier than I anticipated.  I knew that I didn’t want to cover all of Native American history down to the present, but every cutoff date seemed to present difficulties.  I thought about stopping with removal, but that sort of implies that Indians were no longer around or ceased to be a factor in American history after their relocation west of the Mississippi.  Bringing things forward to the end of the Indian Wars presented the same problem.  I knew I didn’t want to try to cover everything up to the present day, but I didn’t want to turn it into a syllabus for an early American course that happened to focus on Indians, either.  I finally settled on a rough cutoff date of ca. 1850.  It moved things past removal a bit, but without getting bogged down in all the tumultuous events that happened in the late nineteenth century.

With my end point in hand, I began accumulating a small pile of possible books to assign.  I wanted to avoid the mistake of geographical limitation I’d made with my first proposed reading list, but I also needed books accessible enough to assign to undergrads.  Here are the selections that ended up on the final syllabus I submitted to my professor:

  • First Americans: A History of Native Peoples, Volume I by Kenneth W. Townsend and Mark A. Nicholas.  Whenever possible, I like to have a main text around which to organize a class.  This book seems to hit a lot of the important sub-topics, and it’s concise enough to allow for plenty of supplementary readings.  Luckily, the first volume also ends at the exact same cutoff date I’d chosen for my course.  (Well, to be honest, the fact that this volume ends in 1850 played no small role in my decision to use that date as my end point.)  I therefore decided to use First Americans for coverage of the material and then set about looking for monographs and shorter readings for “uncoverage” of important issues.
  • What Caused the Pueblo Revolt of 1680? edited by David J. Weber.  One of the biggest problems I ran into was a shortage of accessible, concise books on the early Southwest.  This collection of essays filled a geographic void, and I also liked the idea of a collection of essays by different historians debating the cause of an important historical event.  I made this book the basis of a writing exercise designed to get my hypothetical students to consider history as an active process of answering questions and weighing contested explanations.
  • Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America by Daniel K. Richter.  After whittling down my list of books on the early history of eastern North America, this outstanding book was the last one standing.  Richter takes the conventional narrative of early American history and flips it around, keeping Indians at the center of the story.  It’s a great read, and it engages so many important topics that this one text effectively replaced three or four of the books I had on my preliminary list.
  • The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent by Kathleen DuVal.  Here is where trying to create an “Indian-centric” course with its own geographical perspective came into play.  DuVal looks at the American interior before its penetration by Anglophone settlers, showing how there were places where Indians maintained control of the terms of contact and exchange well after the arrival of Europeans.  If you want a corrective to the notion that Indians had to retreat ceaselessly before the vanguard of colonization after 1492, this book will do the trick.
  • Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 by Theda Perdue.  I had this book on the list from the get-go, and it stayed there.  Perdue covers Cherokee acculturation and change over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, demonstrates why these processes had a unique impact on women’s roles and prerogatives, and does it all in a very concise and readable manner.

I supplemented these books with additional short readings: primary sources, excerpts, and scholarly articles.  First Americans is pretty skimpy on pre-Columbian material, so I included some chapters of Alice Beck Kehoe’s America Before the European Invasions on the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods.  I also incorporated some of the primary source selections from Colin Calloway’s First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, a few doses of ethnographic observation from Coronado and John Smith, some other short secondary readings, a viewing of the Trail of Tears episode of We Shall Remain, and a trip to the McClung Museum’s excellent exhibit on Native Americans in Tennessee.

Looking back on the finished product, I was surprised at how different it was from my first sketchy outlines.  It ended up taking a much wider geographic perspective, incorporating a lot of new ideas, and leaving out a lot of material on Indian-colonist relations that I’d planned to use.  But I think the final version was a significant improvement.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to use this syllabus in a course of my own, but the assignment made me stretch some historical muscles I’d never used, and it was a heck of a lot of fun.

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Filed under Graduate School, Historiography, Teaching History

“Great Hera!” Historians’ unexpected projects

The prolific and talented Jill Lepore has anew book coming out on…the history of Wonder Woman.  Needless to say, it’s a bit of a departure; Lepore usually writes about early America.  It’s quite a long way from colonial New England to Themyscira.

But it also looks like a great read.  Wonder Woman has a fascinating origin story.  I don’t mean “origin story” in the sense that the phrase is generally used when referring to comics characters (although that story is pretty interesting, too).  Instead, I mean the story of how William Moulton Marston—psychologist, inventor of the polygraph, feminist, and polyamorist—developed a superheroine to be a model for what he called “the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

You can’t help but wonder how an early Americanist decides to switch gears and write an entire book on a comic character.  Most historians’ bibliographies seem to develop in an organic fashion, with obvious connections between one project and the next, but sometimes something unexpected will pop up.  I find these occasional departures fascinating, and I love to read interviews with authors who talk about their decisions to pursue subjects that are totally different from their usual fare.

One of the historians included on the syllabus of a Civil War seminar I once took wrote a biography of John Lennon, although now I can’t remember the guy’s name.  And one of my undergrad professors at LMU, the Civil War historian Earl Hess, co-wrote a book about the film Singin’ in the Rain as well as a book about another Gene Kelly musical.  Nathaniel Philbrick is best known as a maritime and New England historian, but he also published a book about Little Bighorn.

I find these unexpected projects encouraging, because ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to write dinosaur-related books.  One of my dreams is to do something on the history of paleontology.  I think I’ve mentioned before that when I had to pick a topic for a major research paper in my undergraduate methodology class, I wrote about the rivalry between two Gilded Age paleontologists.  Actually, if I’d thought more about it, I probably would’ve specialized in the history of science in grad school and written a dino-related thesis instead of a study on memory and the Rev War, but I’ve had so much fun with King’s Mountain that I can’t complain.

Anyway, if Jill Lepore can study both colonists and Wonder Woman, maybe someday I can juggle backcountry revolutionaries and nineteenth-century dinosaur hunters.  It might make for an unusual CV, but it would be a heck of a lot of fun.

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The “better angels” and the 1862 Dakota War

Cross-posted to the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

In 1862, as Lee carried the Civil War into Maryland and Lincoln prepared to turn the struggle for the Union into a battle of liberation, a bloody sideshow played out in Minnesota. Exasperated by broken promises and corruption among traders and federal agents, Dakota Indians launched attacks against settlers and the Lower Sioux Agency, setting off a conflict variously known as the Dakota War, the Sioux Uprising, Little Crow’s War, and a handful of other names. Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors by Gustav Niebuhr has joined a relatively short shelf of books devoted to the uprising.

The key player in Niebuhr’s account is Henry Whipple, a New York native who became Minnesota’s first Episcopal bishop and an advocate for better treatment of the frontier’s original inhabitants, working to change a system in which Indians were victims of corrupt officials and unscrupulous traders.  

Whipple’s concern for the Indians was unusual for a nineteenth-century white American, and an especially unpopular position for any resident of Minnesota in 1862 after four Dakota hunters initiated the war by attacking white homesteads and killing five settlers. As often happened in Indian wars over the course of American history from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth, many whites reacted to the uprising by calling for the extirpation of the Dakota, assuming that all the Indians on the frontier had settlers’ blood on their hands. As Niebuhr shows, the conflict was never so simple, even from its very beginning. Individual Dakota intervened to save the lives of settlers, sometimes because of previous acquaintance and sometimes out of simple humanity. Some whites, too, urged their vengeance-hungry countrymen to differentiate among the Indians, some of whom had converted to Christianity (partly through the efforts of Whipple, who supported Indian missionary efforts) and taken up farming. Whipple was thus the most prominent of a small number of people caught up in a volatile situation who nevertheless refused to engage in the collective demonization of the other that was so prevalent in white-Indian warfare.

The bishop wasn’t unsympathetic to the plight of settlers in the uprising’s path—in fact, he helped organize relief for white refugees displaced by the attacks and tend to the wounded—but he considered the Indians’ poor treatment at the hands of the government the ultimate root of the problem. He had been lobbying authorities to reform Indian relations for some time before the revolt, having tried without success to bring President Buchanan’s attention to the problem. Most men would have considered the outbreak of the Dakota War a most inauspicious occasion to persuade Washington of the need for better treatment of Native Americans, but Whipple was undaunted, heading to Washington, D.C. again in 1862 to plead the Indians’ case with Abraham Lincoln.

The bishop’s first impressions of Lincoln on the latter’s accession to office had not been favorable. And, as Niebuhr shows in a chapter devoted to Lincoln’s personal history of the Indians, the president wasn’t unaware of the misery marauding Native Americans could unleash. After all, an Indian had murdered Lincoln’s grandfather and namesake in Kentucky. As a young man, Lincoln himself had served in the Black Hawk War; while biographers tend to downplay this period in his life, emphasizing that he saw no combat, Niebuhr points out that Lincoln did witness firsthand some of the devastation of that war during his stint in the militia.

But Whipple had a few things working in his favor on his 1862 lobbying trip. The first was Lincoln’s personal tendency toward leniency and mercy. Thirty years before, while a volunteer against Black Hawk, he had intervened to stop vengeful whites from murdering an Indian captive. His tendency toward clemency and compassion remained evident during his presidency, when he routinely spared the lives of condemned soldiers and favored a moderate course in dealing with a conquered South. Like Whipple, Lincoln seemed to have a sort of innate immunity to the urge to dehumanize the other side which is so common in warfare, especially war between different races and cultures.

Second, as Niebuhr argues, there was a sense in which the timing of his visit actually worked in Whipple’s favor. The Dakota uprising coincided with a transformation in Lincoln’s thinking about the Civil War. As the Minnesota frontier erupted in violence, the president had determined that more extreme measures were necessary to preserve the Union and was preparing to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln considered slavery a national shame and a cancer in the body of the nation which had finally led to the rebellion; similarly, Whipple referred to mistreatment of the Indians as a great sin which led to the devastation of the Dakota uprising. Thus, for some months before Whipple’s visit, Lincoln’s concerns had been along some of the same lines as the bishop’s.

The timing of Whipple’s trip was fortunate in another way. Niebuhr argues that by bringing Lincoln’s attention to the poor treatment of the Dakota at the very time when the wounds from their uprising were still fresh, the bishop shaped the president’s thinking about the Minnesota revolt, framing it as a symptom of the government’s mistreatment of the Indians. As Niebuhr explains, “Whipple got access to the president before Lincoln heard any extended discussion about the war from anyone else in Minnesota. What the bishop managed to do was set the war within the context of federal government corruption and ineptitude. He created for Lincoln a lens through which to view the war.”

Lincoln proved more receptive to Whipple than his predecessor, giving him access to government records of Dakota relations to help bolster his case. But there was still the matter of Indians captured in the wake of the uprising. A military tribunal sentenced over 300 of them to hang for participation in the war. Despite warnings that failing to execute them all would inflame white opinion on the frontier, Lincoln spared the lives of nearly nine-tenths of the condemned. The result was still the largest public execution in United States history, as thirty-eight Dakota men went to the gallows on December 26, 1862. And it’s important to remember that Lincoln’s record on Indian affairs was not spotless. Biographer David Donald notes that the president remained largely ignorant about Native Americans; like most other nineteenth-century whites, he considered Indians less civilized and more prone to violence than Euro-Americans.

Still, Lincoln’s receptivity to Whipple’s pleas for reform and his intervention in the executions are notable examples of Lincoln’s leniency, his aptitude for mercy, and his basic humanity—the traits which have made him one of the most beloved figures in American history.

Niebuhr’s book should spark wider interest in this often overlooked aspect of Lincoln’s presidency and bring greater attention to Whipple’s crucial role as a mediator between the government and the Dakota. It’s an enlightening piece of historical research, but also a very inspiring book, a reminder that the forces which Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature” can work their magic even in the most violent and divisive of circumstances.

 

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Fifteen books on the American Revolution: CSM’s picks and mine

The Christian Science Monitor offers a list of fifteen books on the American Revolution for your Fourth of July reading pleasure.  It’s not a bad list, although I think my personal picks would only include a couple of their selections.

Tell you what: I’ll take a page from CSM and list my fifteen favorite Revolution books, too.  It’s always fun to compare notes.

Let me stress that my list isn’t a balanced representation of the historiography, not by any means.  If somebody grabbed me by the shirt collar and asked me for fifteen books that would give them a pretty good overview of the Revolution, that list would look quite different from this one.  I’m not aiming for complete coverage.  These are just my personal faves.

Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.  When Clio goes about sprinkling her magic fairy dust, she bestows a more generous dose on some historians than others.  She poured a tenfold measure on Fischer.
  2. Paul Revere’s Ride also by David Hackett Fischer.  Another examination of a Revolutionary event in which Fischer uses the technique of “braided narrative” to reconstruct an important event, unpack all its implications, and present it in the form of an engrossing story.
  3. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn.  Explains why the colonists reacted to British policy the way they did, and in the process it opens up their entire political mindset.
  4. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood.  Hard to overstate this book’s richly deserved influence.  It’s packed with so many important ideas you want to highlight the whole thing.
  5. The Radicalism of the American Revolution also by Gordon Wood.  The Revolution changed the pre-modern world into the modern one.  Wood explains how and why, and he does it in prose so crystal clear that it’s easy to forget what intellectual heft this book has.
  6. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character by Charles Royster.  This is one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, a profound and elegant meditation on the Continental Army’s relationship to the Revolution and the society that made it.
  7. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas by John Buchanan.  Of all the books written about the Southern Campaign, this one is the most fun.  Buchanan’s enthusiasm for the subject practically somersaults off the page.
  8. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War by Wayne E. Lee.  Provides a framework for understanding the forces that both restrained and escalated the ferocious conflict in the Carolinas.
  9. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia by Woody Holton.  Makes a very persuasive case that in the Old Dominion the Revolution wasn’t just a question of freedom from British oppression; it was also an attempt by the gentry to maintain their authority at home.
  10. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.  The most comprehensive, balanced, and thorough one-volume history of the war.
  11. John Adams by David McCullough.  A book that deserved its stupendous commercial success.  No biographer has ever brought a founding figure so vividly to life.
  12. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard.  A fascinating piece of detective work, and the most precise reconstruction of a single Rev War battle.  (Honorable mention for Babits’s Cowpens book, too.)
  13. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 by Pauline Maier.  Unravels the process by which loyal British subjects became Americans.
  14. His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis.  There are a lot of books on Washington, but I admire the way Ellis captures his essence in this concise portrait.  It’s not a cradle-to-grave treatment, but it’s more effective than just about any book out there if you want to get your head around the man and his significance.  Same goes for Ellis’s Jefferson book.
  15. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence by John Shy.  An essay collection that’s loaded with insights.  Shy asks and answers many of the important questions about the Rev War.

As I said, my list leaves out a lot of important authors and topics, while other subjects are overrepresented.  A comprehensive Revolutionary reading list should also include Alfred Young, T.H. Breen, Gary Nash, Linda Kerber, Rhys Isaac, and Mary Beth Norton.  Likewise, it should have more thorough coverage of the shift from Confederation to Constitution, include biographies of additional key players, and make some space for the important campaigns in the North—to say nothing of the Revolution’s impact on women, slaves, Indians, tenants, and the urban underclass.

But those are the fifteen Am Rev books I’ve read and re-read with the most pleasure and awe.  Feel free to share your own picks in the comments.

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Remembering and forgetting John Sevier

If you’re in the Knoxville area, come out to Marble Springs State Historic Site this Saturday at 1:00 P.M.  Fellow history blogger Gordon Belt will talk about his new book John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Heroan examination of the ways we’ve remembered, misremembered, and failed to remember the man who probably did more than anyone else to create the Volunteer State.  

The cool thing about this book is that it offers an accessible introduction to Sevier’s life as well as a thoroughly researched examination of his place in tradition and memory. It traces the development of the Sevier legend across the three major phases of his life as a pioneer, a soldier, and a statesman, stopping along the way to address some of the more popular stories about him, such as the dramatic rescue of his future wife at Ft. Watauga, his involvement in the Franklin movement, and his public feud with Andrew Jackson.

I eagerly awaited the publication of Gordon’s book, not just because it fits my personal research interests to a T but also because I think it will help address a troubling bit of historical amnesia we have here in Tennessee.

I think I first realized the extent of the problem the day I went to UT’s library to borrow a book about Sevier.  It was Carl Driver’s 1932 biography, and I needed it for my master’s thesis on memory and the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The guy behind the counter looked at the title and said, “Oh, the highway guy.”

The highway guy?  And then it hit me: Gov. John Sevier Highway loops around the southern and eastern sides of Knoxville.

He was the state’s first governor, a member of Congress, a state senator, the only governor of the Lost State of Franklin, an officer in one of the Revolutionary War’s pivotal battles, commander of the state militia, defender of the frontier and the scourge of the Cherokees.  If we don’t remember his stellar résumé, we should at least remember his name, because it’s all over East Tennessee: Sevierville, Sevier County, Gov. John Sevier Animal Clinic, John Sevier Combined Cycle Plant, John Sevier Elementary School.  Along with his nemesis Old Hickory, he’s one of two Tennessee heroes in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.  Even his wife has an elementary school named in her honor.

But to the kid behind the library desk, he was “the highway guy.”

The notion that a Tennessean of any era would be unfamiliar with the exploits of “Nolichucky Jack” would have come as quite a shock to his contemporaries.  From the time of the American Revolution until his death in 1815, Sevier was one of the most popular men in his corner of the world.

But by the late 1800s, there was already a sense among antiquarians, regional authors, and amateur historians that Sevier and the other heroes of the old frontier had not received their historical due.  These men were determined to rectify the problem, but they overcompensated.  In the work of writers like James Gilmore and Francis M. Turner, Sevier became a frontier demigod.  The hero-worshipping writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries obscured the flesh-and-blood man behind a haze of tradition and sentimental prose.

There were other, later attempts to understand and commemorate Sevier and his times in the twentieth century.  Some of the most interesting were on the stage, as the early settlement of Tennessee became the subject of outdoor dramas.  On the printed page, regional historians like Samuel Cole Williams and Pat Alderman picked up where the antiquarians of the 1800s had left off.  But separating the man from the myth remained a problem.  Although Driver’s biography is the most thorough cradle-to-grave treatment of Sevier, it dates back to the Great Depression.

Gordon’s book is just the sort of fresh take we need to kickstart another revival of interest in one of the frontier’s most important figures.  Visit Marble Springs this weekend to hear him discuss it.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Historiography, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Neglected heartland

The Washington Post reviews Jon Lauck’s The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History.  Lauck argues for renewed scholarly engagement with a region that has left an indelible mark on the course of American development and nursed quite a few innovative historians and historical institutions.  Looks like an interesting read.

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In book news…

Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winner best known for his work on WWII, is writing a trilogy on the American Revolution.

The Siege of Vicksburg is the subject of Jeff Shaara’s newest novel.

Finally, a new book on Dunmore’s War is hitting the shelves in July.  I’ve really been looking forward to this one; the publication date apparently got pushed back, so I’m glad it’s coming to the stores soon.

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