Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Invisible Indians

I had been reading David McCullough’s book, John Adams, with great pleasure. My knowledge of colonial times and the birth of the nation is old and limited, so the exploration of the lives and careers of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Jay, Madison, Hamilton, and all of the lesser names and big ideas that led to a Declaration of Independence, the War for Independence, the Constitution and formation of a new nation was carrying me along like a good novel. The man can write!.

And then, on page 396, the first mention of Indians. Their absence in the first 395 pages had barely occurred to me.

Assessing the state of things on Adam’s return from Europe in 1789, McCullough tells us that the nation’s population has grown to four million, that the biggest city is Philadelphia, with 40,000, New York is growing quickly with 18,000, and Pittsburgh, the last western outpost, has but 500. (There are 700,000 slaves!)

As a result of the Paris Peace Treaty, the boundaries of the new nation ran to the Mississippi River, and now we come to Indians. According to McCullough, “Approximately half the territory of the United States in 1789 was still occupied by American Indians, most of whom lived west of the Appalachians, and though no one knew how many there were, they probably numbered 100,000.”

Where did he get the number? His old colleague, Alvin Josephy, had estimated 6-8 million Indians in North America back in 1968, 33 years before McCullough’s book was published. Maybe that stretch of “unknown” (by whites) land from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi held just a sliver of the millions; maybe more. But how did he know?

More importantly, how could he write a book about the foundation of the country with no attention to its original inhabitants? The index lists two references to “Indian wars,” but when you turn to the pages, you find him naming the French and Indian War, with no
discussion of its Indian participants.

And, although there are pages on the relationship between Franklin and Adams, including the Committee of Five charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, there is nothing of Franklin’s time spent among the Iroquois. It is from another book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, that I learn that Franklin had proposed an “Albany Plan of Union” based on ideas from the Iroquois League, in 1754! “It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages” says Franklin, “should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears insoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”

Franklin’s plan was rejected, but, according to Loewen, it was a “forerunner of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention referred openly to Iroquois ideas and imagery.” We don’t know what—or whether—Adams thought about these things.

McCullough is not alone. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Age of Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. failed to mention the removal of Indians from the American Southeast, the horrible and illegal—Jackson defied the Supreme Court—series of events we now know as "The Trail of Tears." Historian Michael Phillips says that Schlesinger “couldn't reconcile the mass murder represented by the Trail of Tears with his big story, the triumph of liberalism, so he pretended it didn't happen.”

That was in 1945; McCullough’s book was published in 2001. In between, Alvin Josephy worked hard to tell us what did happen, to make Indians visible again. There is still work to be done.

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  1. Rich, Most interesting post yet, esp. the Franklin quote. Thanks!

  2. On a similar not, I took my kids to the Whitman Mission the other weekend for the first time and was very surprised at how one sided the history was. I felt a little bit irritated the whole time I was there because of the Disney like caricatures. To be fair, their video/slideshow was better, but I felt the weight of everything else left the scales unbalanced. Perhaps it wouldn't be as pungent if I had not read Josephy's book "The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest" this winter. But even before that, as I have walked through the canyons and along the streams that they used to walk, I often feel a little saddened as though a story was here that should be told, perhaps lost forever.