Friday, April 4, 2014

The Civil War and Nez Perce Treaties



Yesterday in line at the grocery store, a new young clerk was telling someone how interested he was in the Civil War, and how he really wanted to go east and visit Antietam.  I piped up to suggest that he think about the civil war in the west. Had he ever wondered how Union County got its name, and why there is a Sumter close by? And did he know about the impact of the Civil War on Indian tribes, and specifically on the Nez Perce treaties?

I’m teaching a short, non-credit class on the Nez Perce and the Wallowas, and plan to devote one of five sessions to the treaties. Thinking about the grocery store clerk and about the upcoming class, it occurred to me that Alvin Josephy’s treatment of the treaties—in his books and in a long article for American Heritage on the 1855 Treaty—might have been different had he done the Civil War in the West book first. 

Briefly, here’s the chronology: 1855 is the Stevens treaty talks in Walla Walla. As a lawyer friend points out, the Nez Perce negotiated a pretty good treaty. They were the only ones to get their own reservation—the initial Stevens goal was to put them together with others on a confederated reservation. And they ceded very small amounts of their traditional village and migratory grounds.

Then, in 1861, gold was discovered on the Nez Perce Reservation. In 1862, directly contravening the provisions of the treaty, 18,000 white miners flooded the reservation. Remember, the Civil War is underway. There is no way that the federal government can remove 18,000 miners from the reservation. And the Union wants the gold!

I remember as a child that Civil War currency—like Weimar marks—was available for cereal box tops (well, I don’t remember any specific box top offers, but it seemed that there were; kids had Confederate dollars). Lincoln and the Union wanted the trails West open for many reasons, but one of them was to retrieve the gold which made Union currency hard currency. Currency that could buy arms and goods from other countries. What would have happened had the Confederacy controlled roads west? Why was the first road West the trail in the Southwest? Prior to the Civil War, none of the central or northern routes for rails or trails was agreeable to Southern Senators (including the Northern rail route surveyed by Stevens).

So the series of Indian treaties and broken treaties, the Minnesota uprising and the Mankato hangings, the Sand Creek and Bear River massacres, all owed to keeping Western trails open and retrieving Western gold. Yes, there were other factors, including fights over votes leading up to the War, recruitment of volunteers, etc. But, as Alvin points out in Civil War in the American West, the decimation of Indian tribes that goes on during the War and that continues after the War is all intricately tied to the great War that most Americans associate with Antietam and Gettysburg.
At War’s end, with the Nez Perce situation still unsettled and President Grant trying to deal with the “Indian problem” with his 1868 Peace Policy—giving reservation administration to the churches, with military commanders having their own solutions to the Indian problem, with Custer and Black Hills gold strikes and a War-time legacy of making and breaking treaties, everything that happens to the Nez Perce is in the shadow of that War.

Which all makes me wonder whether Alvin would have written those treaty chapters differently had he pulled all of the Civil War in the West material together first. It is one of many questions I failed to ask him when he was with us.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

From Nasty, Brutish, and Short to the Pope



I’ve not yet seen the Academy Award winning “12 Years a Slave,” but the clips and conversation about slavery and brutality are visceral. Writer John Ridley said in a radio interview that he hoped the film would promote continuing conversations about these difficult subjects. So here are some semi-random thoughts from my end:

By most of the historical markers that we have—journals, histories, memoirs, records chiseled on stone—slavery and brutality have been part of the human condition forever. Wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, human sacrifice, human trafficking, purges, and genocide are all over the historical record—and in today’s news bulletins. 

One hardly knows where to start! I just finished reading Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. He begins with the expansion of agriculture in Europe and the travels of the Norse into North America in the warming years—roughly 800-1200 A.D. And finds that even where milder weather made for an expansion of population and agriculture, the folks doing the work—peasants, farmers—lived and worked at the mercy of weather and crop failures every year.

Nobles and the Church fared better—owning and overseeing and accumulating the surpluses from good years. Where warming was not so benign—in most of the world, all suffered: warming brought drought brought California hunter gatherers to their knees, destroyed Mayan cities and their sophisticated irrigation systems, collapsed the complex pre-Inca trade and food systems, and emptied Chaco Canyon. So, even without man-on-man violence, it’s been a hard road for most human inhabitants much of the time. (Life expectancy in Winchester in British Isles in 11th century 24 years!)

When Europeans came to the New World, chased, I think, in part by the Little Ice Age that followed the Great Warming, most came as indentured servants. Fathers brought teenage children to the docks and gave them to ships’ captains to take somewhere else, where they could work and eat. First meetings with indigenous people were most often pleasant, dominated by curiosity, need, and even sexual companionship. But disease, theft, wars, and slavery fueled by greed and misunderstanding soon prevailed. Estimates on devastation of indigenous population on European contact in the years following 1492 run as high as 90 percent! We know that present-day New England was depopulated at the Puritans’ arrival. And we have Las Casas’ reports on the populations of Hispaniola and the Indies. He says that the population of that Island went from millions to about 200.
 
“From that time onward the Indians began to seek ways to throw the Christians out of their lands. They took up arms, but their weapons were very weak and of little service in offense and still less in defense. (Because of this, the wars of the Indians against each other are little more than games played by children.) And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!" … They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.”

And where does one go from there? Cambodia? Rwanda? Syria? Slavery might be less prominent today, though reports of trafficking and children impressed into battle are rampant.

So life, as Hobbes told us, is, for most, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

The thread that runs through all of it has to do with power and difference. The difference is established by wealth, health, religion, race, class, tribe, and gender, and the brutality is fueled by hunger, fear, greed, and by seeing “others” as less than human. We can account for today’s brutality by chronicling divisions—increasing divisions of wealth, health, religion, etc. Ironically, the person on the world stage who is speaking this truth is the new Pope, heir to the throne from which Indians’ humanity was debated and yesterday’s horrors were justified.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Living inside "the warming"




In my last blog I wrote about an interview I came across with Alfred Crosby, historian and author of “The Columbian Exchange.” Crosby said that he had tired of teaching the standard American history of Washington and Jefferson, and, looking for deeper stories of early America, kept running into smallpox. Smallpox led him to an examination of the immense amount of biology that had been left out of the standard historical narrative.

“Why,” the interviewer asked, and Crosby opined that it was probably a matter of habit, that “history” had traditionally been a matter of wars and politics, presidents and kings—and sometimes queens—and the social and political machinations that transfer power from one group, one generation, to the next. Biology—and all that stuff about diseases, plants, animals, bugs and birds going from one half of the world to the other was/is dealt with in another building, another discipline.

Which ties back to our friend Alvin Josephy in a couple of ways. First, in his research on the Nez Perce, Alvin Josephy “ran into” the fur trade; in researching other Patriot Chiefs, he discovered a different American history than he had been taught; and in preparation for The Indian Heritage of America, he found that linguists had much to say about migration patterns and populations.

In my own catching up with Alvin’s ideas on American history and Euro-Indian relations, Europe’s “Little Ice Age” pops up like the fur trade and Crosby’s smallpox. Many of the indentured servants who came to Jamestown and the early colonies were running from (or being sent by worried parents away from ) European droughts and famines. The Norse presence in Greenland and Baffin Bay reversed with the Little Ice Age. The earliest European painters of American Indians seemed so impressed with the size and grandeur of the Indians that Rousseau’s noble savage seems a natural next step. Etc. etc.

So Al Josephy suggested I look up a book by a guy named Brian Fagan that his dad had do some work at American Heritage in the 70s, and that he took a class from at UC Santa Barbara about the same time. I checked it out, and it must have been Mysteries of the Past, a book Fagan co-authored for American Heritage in 1977, that Al was referring to. But I wanted The Little Ice Age, and, as I was in Portland last weekend, ran to Powell’s to find it. It wasn’t on the shelf, but a later Fagan title, The Great Warming, was, and so here I am, inside climate change, following the earth’s warming BEFORE the Little Ice Age.

Norse in Greenland
“Roughly,” between 800 and 1200 A.D., the earth warmed and we got the moldboard plow and agricultural and population expansion in Europe; the Norse sailed to Iceland and Greenland (and sent back huge quantities of walrus ivory); and there were killing droughts on the California coast and in Chaco Canyon. And much more! The striking thing about it all is that the people living “inside” the warming were adapting—and thriving and perishing—decade by decade and year by year. The name—The Medieval Warm Period—was coined less than a century ago.

Within the "warming," there were wet and dry periods and places. There were enough California acorns stored for two or three years of drought, but a decade or more and oak trees died, and people died or moved inland. Elaborate Mayan reservoirs could handle a few years of drought, but with prolonged warming and drying they failed, and the population dispersed to smaller villages and farms as the great cities died. In Europe warm was accompanied by moisture—often but not always—and grain was grown at ever higher elevations and north latitudes. But not every year!!

 (As a side note, the explorations of ancient climate are incredible and incredibly complex: tree rings, ice cores, vineyard and church records, cemeteries, and on and on.)

The key elements, it seems to me, are how many local populations adapted—by relying on old kinship ties, by moving, by learning new tricks of agriculture and husbandry, and how wildly populations fluctuated during these turbulent times. And, finally, how living inside a long 400 year “trend” provided little opportunity for looking at the whole, and incredible, immediate, demands to find water, food, and shelter “now.”

Do tsunamis and hurricanes and eroding ocean beaches have us—or at least the people immediately involved—doing the same things?  And how difficult is it to be a prophet or forecaster from inside “the warming”?

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A meditation on historiography—Alfred Crosby and Alvin Josephy




Commenting on my last blog, in which I played that major Josephy song about Indians being omitted from the standard American historical narrative, retired history prof Steve Evans said that he would ask students what American history would look like without considering the progressive movement—or George Washington.

Fiction writer and social commentator John Rember (Cheerleaders from Gomorrah: Stories from the Lycra Archipeligo),wrote from his perch in Standley, Idaho that he is “realizing that true history may be an oxymoron, due to the distorting lenses through which we all view the past.”

I apologized for using the word “true,” excusing myself somewhat lamely with the fact that I used “truer” rather than the absolute. And brought out another old song—I don’t remember when or where I first heard it—about history telling us more about the time it is written in than it does the time it is written about.

On the other hand, our persistent attempts to explore the past and to chronicle events of the present for presentation in the future keep many working away at retrieving, chronicling, and explaining. As even casual readers of this blog must realize, my touchstones on this over the last couple of years have been Charles Mann and Alfred Crosby. Here, in an October 2011 interview in the Smithsonian Magazine, Crosby explains how he came on the idea of the "Columbian Exchange," and how historians too are creatures of habit.

The interviewer asks “What made you want to write this book?” And Crosby replies:

I was a young American historian teaching undergraduates. I tell you, after about ten years of muttering about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, you really need some invigoration from other sources. Then, I fell upon it, starting with smallpox.
Smallpox was enormously important until quite modern times, until the middle of the 20th century at the latest. So I was chasing it down, and I found myself reading the original accounts of the European settlements in Mexico, Peru or Cuba in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I kept coming across smallpox just blowing people away. So I thought there must be something else going on here, and there was—and I suppose still is.

History from an ecological perspective was a new idea, the interviewer  says, and asks why.

Sometimes the more obvious a thing is the more difficult it is to see it. I am 80 years old, and for the first 40 or 50 years of my life, the Columbian Exchange simply didn’t figure into history courses even at the finest universities. We were thinking politically and ideologically, but very rarely were historians thinking ecologically, biologically.

And how did Crosby go about his research?

It was really quite easy. You just have to be prepared somehow or other to notice the obvious. You don’t have to read the original accounts in Spanish or Portuguese. There are excellent English translations dating back for generations. Practically all of them will get into a page or two or ten about the decimation of American Indians, or a page about how important maize is when all European crops fail, and things like that. I really didn’t realize that I was starting a revolution in historiography when I got into this subject.

I( recall Alvin saying that writing a history of the Civil War in the American West was a matter of sifting and putting together the numerous well documented  accounts of what was happening across the West in the run-up to and during the War. A recent US Park Service bibliography of Civil War in the West material runs 24 pages, and lists Josephy’s 1991 book as the best and most complete general treatment of the subject. I’d wager few college Civil War classes use it.

And, although Crosby’s work and Charles Mann’s popularization of it in 1491 and 1493 have certainly opened eyes to a different way of looking at history and the Europeanization of the New World, Indians IN American history are still crawling up from Indian studies departments into the mainstream.

I like Steve Evans approach: Imagine American History without George Washington, or Cortez or Pizarro—and then imagine it without Tecumseh, the Inca emperors, the Iriquois Confederacy, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. It is a different history.

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