Category Archives: History and Memory

UTK historians on the 2016 election

Pundits like to toss around the word “historic” when referring to presidential elections, and the last election in particular stirred up a lot of talk about historical parallels.  But if you’re in the Knoxville area and you’d like to hear some actual historians weigh in, the University of Tennessee is hosting an Inauguration Eve symposium that might be of interest.  On Thursday, Jan. 19 these folks from UT’s Department of History will discuss the significance of the 2016 election, provide some historical perspective, and use the past to shed light on its implications:

  • Joshua Hodge, doctoral student specializing in nineteenth-century land use in the South
  • Bob Hutton, senior lecturer and authority on Appalachia
  • Max Matherne, doctoral student specializing in Jacksonian political thought
  • Brad Nichols, lecturer and specialist in Nazism and genocide
  • Tore Olsson, assistant professor and expert on the history of food, agriculture, the environment, and politics in the U.S. and Latin America
  • Julie Reed, assistant professor and authority on Cherokee social policy and education

This event will be in the Lindsay Young Auditorium of Hodges Library, 5:00-6:30 p.m.  It’s free and open to the public.  (And the panelists are some of my favorite people!)

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Reenacted hanging of Native American draws criticism

A bit of a fracas involving public history and memory developed over the weekend.  From Indian Country Today:

For approximately 10 years, the Westmoreland County Historical Society and local volunteers have created annual reenactments of historical court cases during their annual Frontier Court Reenactment Days celebration in June.

For the first time in the Society’s history, the celebration coordinators chose to reenact a public hanging, this time of Mamachtaga, a Delaware man convicted of murder in 1785.

According to Lisa Hays, Westmoreland County Historical Society Executive Director, the June 25 and 26 Frontier Court reenactments went well and, in the interest of historical accuracy, included the moment when the first attempt to hang Mamachtaga failed because the rope broke and had to be repeated with a new rope.

A video of the public hanging was posted on Youtube on June 26, where it languished with little comment until Friday when several Native Americans began sharing the link on Facebook.…

Many people have also directly contacted both the Westmoreland County Historical Society as well as members of the volunteer group who participated in the public hanging reenactment to let them know of their opposition to such depictions. Both Hays and Scott Henry, local volunteers who help coordinate reenactors for the Frontier Court Reenactment Days, were caught off guard by the strong emotions than many callers expressed.

“There was nothing malicious intended. We simply tried to accurately portray a case that was tried at Hanna’s Town,” said Henry. Clearly upset over the calls he’d received from those opposing the reenactment he said, “One caller accused us of perpetuating a legacy of ethnic cleansing. This has all been blown out of proportion.”

Hays agreed that neither the reenactors nor the Historical Society intended any malice in the performance. She noted that one of the main purposes of the reenactment was to depict the milieu of court sanctioned corporeal punishment of the day. “Cruel punishments such as these led to creation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The reenactment helped give context to the need for the Amendment which prohibits the government’s use of excessive bail, fines or cruel and unusual punishments,” she explained.…

Kerry Holton, President of the federally recognized Delaware tribe of Bartlesville, Oklahoma was skeptical that the Lenape reenactor was actually a member of the Delaware tribe. “Although we speak Lenape, we don’t refer to ourselves as Lenape; we call ourselves Delaware,” he said. “I find it hard to believe.”

“I was quite disturbed by the video and frankly wished I hadn’t watched it,” Holton said. “When I started going through my newsfeed this morning, the video of the Chicago torture popped up and then shortly after I saw this video. I understand this is a reenactment, but there is some parallel there that is disturbing, that people think it is okay for our children to witness such violence.”

The Westmoreland County Historical Society also posted this statement on Facebook:

Hanna’s Town was the site of the first English Courts west of the Allegheny Mountains, and we present and annual reenactment of authentic court cases heard there between 1773 and 1786. The Trial of Mamachtaga in 1785, was one of several cases reenacted that day at Frontier Court. Each case, including the one in question, provided an analysis of the early-American judicial system, which was based on English Common Law, and a comparison to our Constitutional law and the Bill of Rights. We address the historic political climate and social attitudes as well. The video clip excludes the context of the reenactment and only shows the result of the verdict.

The reenactment of the hanging of Mamachtaga was not a depiction of a murder, nor was it a lynching. It was the portrayal of an actual trial and subsequent hanging by the court system that was carried out at Hanna’s Town. The defense attorney for Mamachtaga, Hugh Henry Breckenridge, left a detailed account of the trial and execution and provides the context of the event, which the video does not show. Another man, who was white, was also tried and hung that day, but the historical record does not provide a thorough narrative.

Mamachtaga did not deny killing two men near Pittsburgh, and he stated that he thought his trial was fair. He asked for the opportunity to prepare for his death including painting his face as a warrior, and it was granted. He also said that he did not want his people taking any revenge for him.

The account of the defense attorney, Hugh Breckenridge, can be accessed here: Link: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/…/text4/brackenridge.pdf

We don’t take concerns about the video lightly. We have talked to Native people who assist us with programming, and they continue to support our organization and educational activities. They know our true heart. To discuss this sensitive aspect of American history in a constructive way, please contact us via email at history@westmorelandhistory.org.

Finally, here’s the video itself: EDIT: Looks like the video’s been removed from YouTube.

Reenacting historical court cases is both instructive and a pretty well-established practice when it comes to living history interpretation, but staging an execution is a dicey matter indeed.  That’s especially true when racial or intercultural issues are involved.

Personally, I don’t really see how a mock hanging adds any educational value to a reenacted trial.  Nor do I see the connection between a mock hanging and the historical context of the Eighth Amendment.  If the idea is to demonstrate the range of corporal punishments meted out by eighteenth-century courts, there’s no shortage of “cruel and unusual” options to choose from: branding, ear cropping, flogging, etc.  Execution by hanging was not considered cruel and unusual punishment in the eighteenth century, nor for a long time thereafter.

I should stress that I’m not trying to slam the Westmoreland County Historical Society here.  I don’t doubt that it’s a professional public history organization that does fine work, and I’m sure there was no ill intention.  I just think the mock hanging was a bad idea.

Anyway, if you’re teaching a course on public history or historical memory, you might want to file this story away.  It would make for an interesting and provocative classroom case study.

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Illinois calls “finders, keepers” on Santa Anna’s leg

I guess this story is sort of Halloween-appropriate, since it involves a severed body part.  It’s a fake body part, but still.

A history professor from Texas believes there’s an appropriate place for Mexican general and president Santa Anna’s artificial leg and it isn’t the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

Teresa Van Hoy thinks it should be returned to Mexico, where he headed the Mexican government 11 times.

The state says it is staying right here.

“To us it’s non-negotiable,” said Lt. Col. Brad Leighton, public affairs director for the Illinois Department of Military Affairs. “They say they want to start a conversation. That conversation has been made before. We’re not interested in a conversation. The answer is no. The leg is where it belongs and it’s staying here.”

Van Hoy is a history professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, which also is home to the Alamo, the mission famous for its 13-day stand against Santa Anna’s army in 1836.

She was in Springfield Friday with about two dozen students who constructed a “Day of the Dead” memorial at the statue of Abraham Lincoln on the state Capitol grounds. The memorial is intended to recognize Lincoln’s “career-long solidarity with Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” the university said in an announcement of the trip.

They were accompanied by a crew producing a film called “Santa Anna in the Land of Lincoln,” which is part of a project of the class.

“(Lincoln) was the most outspoken critic of the Mexican War,” Van Hoy said. “It seems to us logical that it does not honor Abraham Lincoln to hold on display a leg captured in that war less than a mile from his tomb.”

The leg is housed at the military museum at 1301 N. MacArthur Blvd. It is currently not on public display as part of the museum’s practice of putting some artifacts in storage periodically.

It is in the Illinois museum because soldiers from Illinois captured the leg during the battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847 during the Mexican-American War, also known simply as the Mexican War.

I just want to note that if I’d known the State Military Museum had Santa Anna’s wooden leg when I was in Springfield, I would’ve skipped the ALPLM and gone there instead.

Santa Anna was eating in his carriage and had removed his artificial leg when the Illinois soldiers surprised him. Santa Anna escaped, but he left the leg behind. The captured leg, which was made in New York out of cork, is probably the most famous artifact in the military museum.

Van Hoy said the history goes beyond just Santa Anna’s leg.

“There is a really rich history here and unfortunately, so far in my view, it has been reduced to a freak show exhibit which doesn’t do full honor to the people of Illinois or the veterans of Illinois,” she said.

Leighton said the leg is a tribute to the 68 Illinois soldiers who died during the battle of Cerro Gordo and the 98 who died during the war.

“We paid for that leg with Illinois blood,” Leighton said. “It honors our soldiers; it honors their service, and it was put in our public trust by our troops to keep in perpetuity. And that’s where it’s going to stay.”…

Van Hoy said she wants people to understand that “hating Santa Anna is toxic.”

“It’s toxic for Mexican-Americans, it’s toxic for the United States where we’re fetishizing a body part,” she said. “It’s toxic for Mexico where their treasures are just held as a freak show exhibit. We can do better than this.”

I think it’s interesting that neither Van Hoy nor Leighton base their arguments on whether or not the leg serves any educational or interpretive function.  Leighton wants to keep it because it “honors our soldiers,” while Van Hoy wants to send it back because it’s “toxic” for Americans and people of Mexican descent.

From a curatorial standpoint, I don’t think there’s anything inherently immoral or “toxic” about putting the leg on display.  Museums are full of items that were captured as war trophies—weapons, flags, bits of uniforms—and remain on exhibit because of their historical significance.  If Van Hoy wants to make a case that Santa Anna’s leg isn’t a proper subject for an exhibition, she has her work cut out for her.

If I was a curator, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to exhibit such a compelling object.  With proper contextualization, you could use it to teach visitors something about why Illinois troops would claim such an object as a trophy, how nineteenth-century Americans understood Mexico and the war, and so on.

At the same time, however, I’m not totally on board with Lt. Col. Leighton’s argument for keeping the leg in the museum, either.  Rather than invoking the object’s interpretive or educational utility, he argues that it was bought with “Illinois blood” and that it honors the service of Illinoisans.  Both of those statements may be true, but they fail to take into account some of the nuances surrounding the repatriation of historical artifacts.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m bringing my own inclinations and biases to bear on this question.  As a museum guy, I see the object in terms of its historical and educational significance.  As a soldier, Leighton sees it as a validation of the military sacrifices of his comrades, past and present.  And as someone concerned with the history of Mexican-U.S. relations, Van Hoy sees it as a symbol of the long, troubled relationship between the two nations.

In other words, people engage the past from many different perspectives, and not all of them are detached and academic.

Anyway, if you want to see the leg for yourself, you’ll have to wait a couple of years.  The museum has temporarily taken it off exhibit for a little TLC.  Sounds like they’re taking better care of it than Santa Anna did.

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Can you see Russia from your American history class?

img_2111

An Iñupiat seal drag made ca. 1900, one of the objects in the exhibit.  After killing a seal, the hunter slit the animal’s jaw and looped the leather thong through the hole, and then attached the loop to a longer line to haul the carcass across the ice.

Right now the McClung Museum has a special exhibit curated by Christine Dano Johnson, a UT grad and former intern.  It showcases items made by Yup’ik and Iñupiat people of Alaska in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and developed out of Johnson’s research into the museum’s collection of Native Alaskan and Pacific Northwest material.  She came back to the museum this week to discuss her research with an anthropology class.

When I sat in on her presentation, it occurred to me that I don’t recall discussing Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, or the inhabitants of these places at any length in any history class I’ve taken or taught, from grade school all the way to graduate seminars.  I’d wager the same is true of most history classes.

Do history courses need Alaska and its Native inhabitants?  My Ph.D. adviser asked my classmates and I a similar question during the first meeting of an early America seminar.  We were discussing the geographic and temporal boundaries historians use to define “colonial America.”  Alaska, after all, was a Russian colony in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  My adviser asked us to consider whether we need to incorporate this into our understanding of colonial America in order to make sense of it and to do the subject justice.  It’s an interesting—and provocative—question.  Most people associate colonial America with the eastern seaboard, while historians with a more expansive geographical vision have been careful to point out that the thirteen seaboard English provinces weren’t the only colonies out there.  The borders of colonial and early America have opened up in recent years.

But Alaska?  I think it’s a rare study indeed that considers its colonial experience to be part of either colonial or early American history.  Alan Taylor’s especially expansive and inclusive overview of colonial America is, of course, a notable exception.

Changes in geographical perspective can lead to interesting chronological reconceptualizations, too.  It’s no coincidence that Taylor’s continental studies of colonial America and the Revolution have later chronological end points than other, more geographically restrictive accounts.  Alaskan history forces us to reconsider when colonial America ends as well as where it ends.  It remained a European possession a century after those British colonies gave their king a pink slip.

A broader geographic perspective also has implications for teaching the second half of the American survey, and can help us correct demographic and cultural oversights that tend to characterize the post-1865 or 1877 history course.  Note that the Iñupiat seal drag in the photo dates from around the turn of the twentieth century.  How largely do indigenous people figure in most survey courses after the lectures move past, say, 1890?  Native Americans didn’t just vanish after Wounded Knee, as if they were figures in Marty McFly’s family photo.  Indeed, members of Native Alaskan communities continue their traditions of whaling and sealing today, mixing older practices with more modern technology.  (In fact, part of Johnson’s work in our collection involved consultation with these communities in an effort to better understand the cultural context of these objects.)

My point is not that every history course “needs” to cover Alaska and its inhabitants, but rather that greater attention to places we dismiss as marginal can prompt us to think and teach about the whole fabric of American history more creatively and intelligently.  If we want to shake up the ways we conceive of geographical, temporal, and demographic boundaries, Alaska could be a good place to get started.  The next time you’re putting together a syllabus, a little subarctic air might just prove invigorating.

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Historians weigh in on ‘The Birth of a Nation’

I’ve had The Birth of a Nation‘s release on my calendar for quite some time now.  I’m always eager to see major motion pictures based on historical events, and given BoaN‘s astounding reception at Sundance, I was looking forward to a landmark movie.  But a few informed reviews convinced me to skip opening night.  In fact, I’m starting to wonder if I should shell out money for a ticket at all.

The overall reviews are generally positive, but some historians of slavery and the black experience really, really dislike this movie.  Dr. Leslie Alexander of Ohio State says filmmaker Nate Parker “failed miserably” in his attempt to put the story of the revolt on the screen (some spoilers below):

Contrary to his promises of “historical fidelity,” Parker created a deeply flawed, historically inaccurate movie that exploits and distorts Nat Turner’s story and the history of slavery in America. Nearly everything in the movie—ranging from Turner’s relationship with his family, to his life as a slave, and even the rebellion itself—is a complete fabrication. Certainly the film contains sprinklings of historical fact, but the bulk of Parker’s story about the rebellion is fictitious: Nat Turner did not murder his owner, nor did he kill a slave patroller. Turner’s rebellion was not betrayed by a young boy, or by anyone else involved in the revolt. To the contrary, the rebels fought until the bitter end. The shootout depicted in Jerusalem, Virginia, never happened, because the rebels were stopped by the militia before they ever reached Jerusalem. The list of inaccuracies, distortions, and fabrications goes on and on.

The movie’s depiction of black women especially troubles Alexander:

A crucial turning point in the movie occurs when Turner’s wife, Cherry, is brutally gang raped by a group of slave patrollers—an attack the film portrays as the spark that ultimately drove Turner to launch his rebellion. But there is not a shred of historical evidence to suggest that Cherry was ever raped by slave patrollers, nor is there any evidence to indicate that an attack on his wife inspired Turner to rebel. By all accounts, Turner took up arms against slavery because he believed slavery was morally wrong and violated the law of God.

As Alexander notes, sexual violence was an important (and salty understudied) component of racial oppression, both before and after slavery.  But she argues that the gang rape plot device “is carefully constructed to redeem black masculinity at black women’s expense.”  The movie “perpetuates destructive lies about black women. Enslaved women fought for their dignity and freedom, and they exercised agency over their lives, in spite of unimaginable horrors.”

Dr. Vanessa Holden of Michigan State also takes Parker to task for the film’s treatment of black women:

The male slave rebels who joined him could not have succeeded without the help of longstanding support networks embedded in community life. Black women, free and enslaved, were not solely the victims of brutality that inspired men to resist, as portrayed in the film. They were also active participants in and witnesses to an event that proved catastrophic for their community just as they participated in the everyday resistance of their communities.

Holden also has a warning for those interested in using the movie as a teaching tool:

The Birth of a Nation is not an excerptable, classroom-ready movie. A screening of Parker’s film is not the place to learn about antebellum Southampton County or the lives of the enslaved and free African Americans who lived and labored there. It is also not the place to learn about the slave rebellion produced by this community in late August 1831.

The film’s setting, she writes, “is not a historically accurate recreation of 1800s Southampton County, Virginia. Instead, it is the imaginary ‘every South’ that often provides a backdrop for narratives set in the ‘slavery times’ of the public imagination.”

All this is disappointing to hear.  Between the plaudits from movie critics and the censures from historians, perhaps The Birth of a Nation is to antebellum slavery what The Patriot was to the American Revolution: a film that is entertaining and well-made, but not grounded in the history behind it.  Since The Birth of a Nation features real people and purports to tell the true story of a neglected event, its historical sins might be more serious than those of The Patriot, where the plot revolved around fictional characters.  Any filmmaker who claims that his motive is to bring a forgotten episode to public attention, I think, has a greater responsibility to the truth.

Regardless of whether The Birth of a Nation is the movie this story deserves, I think we’re living in a sort of golden age of black historical cinema.  In just a few years, we’ve had 12 Years a Slave, Selma (which had its own historical issues, of course), the depiction of a violent and troubled Reconstruction in Free State of Jones, and now a Nat Turner film.  In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted some interesting discussions about the historical context for current racial issues.  Americans might not be talking about the history of race and slavery with accuracy, but one thing’s for sure: we’re taking about it more than we used to.

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When does it count as “American history”?

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Erin Bartram that really hit home for me:

To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow.

Bingo.  I think we all have a tendency to think of “American history” as having a sort of default setting, and that default setting is basically the history of white guys on the northeastern seaboard.  If you’re not white, not a guy, and not a resident of the northeastern seaboard, then we assume that your history is a part of American history, but it’s not really synonymous with “American history.”  Instead, we assume that it’s some particularized subset of history: women’s history, black history, regional history, gender history, Western history, etc.

In terms of race and sex, I’m a member of two dominant groups.  One of the few senses in which I’m historiographically non-dominant is in terms of geography.  I’m from southern Appalachia, so I tend to notice this sort of unconscious “default setting” for American history when it bears on region.  I think even people who are used to thinking about history in a sophisticated fashion tend to assume that Appalachian history is strictly regional history; it doesn’t really count as “American history.”  And yet when you see how extensive Appalachia really is…

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…it’s hard to justify the assumption that the history of this region doesn’t speak to American history as a whole.  It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the country.

Same thing goes for Western history.  Think about the last college survey text you looked at.  Was material on the West more or less limited to chapters on the trans-Mississippi frontier and Populism?  Did the more general chapters on large-scale developments and eras in “American history” take the West into account?  They certainly should have, because once you exclude what we dismissively call “the West”…

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…”America” suddenly looks a whole lot smaller.

The issue isn’t that there are concerns that are rightly specific to or more pronounced in Appalachian history, Western history, women’s history, black history, Catholic history, and so on.  Any discipline will develop specializations, and historians who specialize will inevitably engage in scholarly conversations that will be of particular interest to others in the same sub-field.  The issue, rather, is our tendency to see certain sub-fields as nothing but sub-fields while turning others into stand-ins for the discipline as a whole.  “American history” isn’t synonymous with the history of white Protestant guys in the northeastern U.S.  And the best way to drive that point home, I think, is for everyone who works on the history of non-dominant groups to be as bold and daring as they can when it comes to thinking about how their projects speak to the entire discipline of American history.  Don’t think of yourself as a scholar of a marginalized subject; think of your subject as a vehicle to approach American history from a different perspective.

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A septet of early American links

This hasn’t been America’s finest week.

FWIW, I did run across some interesting items relating to early America over the past few days, some of which I’d planned on posting earlier.  Other than that, I’ve got nothing, other than to commend some wisdom from a long time ago:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Cor. 13:1-3, 13 (ESV)

Here are the links.

  • Archaeologists have identified the site of the 1779 Battle of Beaufort/Port Royal in South Carolina.  There’s some good news.
  • The National Park Service has acquired the site of Werowocomoco, where Powhatan held court in the seventeenth century.
  • Looks like the Continental soldier look is back in.
  • If you were going to pick seven sites every American history buff should visit, which would they be?  Here’s one list.
  • Historians of religion are weighing in on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  Metaxas claims that colonial America was a haven of religious freedom.  As John Fea explains, that was only true for certain colonies.  Proselytizing for the wrong church in Massachusetts or Virginia could’ve gotten you flogged…or worse.
  • Meanwhile, Robert Tracy McKenzie finds Metaxas guilty of misreading John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” remark.  Like a lot of people, Metaxas takes the quote as a statement of proto-Amrerican exceptionalism.  It was actually a warning, reminding the Puritans that if their “errand into the wilderness” failed, the whole world would see their downfall.  “Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission,” McKenzie writes, “Winthrop intended his allusion to ‘a city upon a hill’ to send a chill down their spines.”
  • A Thomas Jefferson letter dating from the end of the War of 1812 turned up in an attic.  It can be yours for $325,000.

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