Thursday, December 13, 2012

The History Urge

Our class at the Josephy Center read the Introduction and the “Manifest Destiny” chapter from Alvin’s Civil War in the American West this week. I was struck again by the paucity of information in general circulation—i.e., textbooks, movies, TV shows, and popular books—about Indians, Civil War, and the West. But Alvin said many times that there was and is a mother lode of historical information on places, people, and events that have shaped the American West: stories from Idaho, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oregon, California, stories of battles, of generals resigning to go home to the South, of emigrant trains, Pony Express (yes, that too during Civil War years), and Indian massacres. With a little digging, one could find the vote count in Oregon—the Republicans carried by 221 votes!, or the fact, turned up by one of our participants, that George Pendleton, namesake of our Pendleton, Oregon, was a staunch slavery advocate and the town once boasted streets named after Confederates.  

Most often, according to Alvin, amateur historians, good citizens with a history urge, have gathered these stories and kept them alive. His work was to gather and sift the material and relate it to what was happening in the East and to Eastern leadership of the Union and the Confederacy. I can bet that he came to the story himself through his work in Indian history. He would have turned up the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, and followed that to its sorry but important conclusion, then the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado and the Bear River Massacre in Idaho.

His genius was in gathering, standing back and taking a long historical look, and then weaving the pieces into a quilt that shows us more than the small pieces—or the dramatic events that dominate our idea of the Civil War—ever can. So we learn that the Civil War period saw a greater decimation of Indian tribes and takeover of Indian lands than any comparable time in our history. We follow the patterns—from Minnesota to Idaho—of encroachment, starvation, reprisal, loss of life and land, treaty, then more encroachment, starvation, etc.

I was struck, on rereading Chapter 8, on the number of times the word “starvation” was used. Settlers or miners came to an area, destroyed grasslands or used up other resources, starved, shot a settler’s cow, were hounded back and “treatied,” were promised secure (but much smaller) pieces of land, sometimes money and commodities, and then relived the cycle again or stewed and drowned in their diminished circumstances.

Alvin was a long-time editor at American Heritage. The Civil War book first appeared as a Time-Life western history volume in 1986. His passion was in making history readable, connected to the present, and true to historical facts. He wanted a general historical awareness, and praised the history buffs who carried local torches. I think he stayed at American Heritage after his own career as an historian had taken off in part because of his urge to keep the history urge alive in America.

And I remember him saying that he had gathered so much material on the Civil War in the West, and the general knowledge of the same was so scarce, that he had to do a full sized book on the subject. The big book was published in 1991. Something for the real history buff—and something the academic historians might have to take into account.

I was googling around to see what had happened to the big book—which is still in print, with four-star reviews. And I stumbled onto Gordon Chappell, who has published an on-line bibliography of the Civil War in the American West (with a nod to Alvin in the introductory paragraph). Pages and pages of books on events and people related to the War in the West. Books from university presses and books privately published. (I was struck by the number of titles from Nebraska and Oklahoma university presses, who make their living scratching the history itch.)

I wonder if Alvin ever met Chappell, but am sure that he met and encouraged hundreds of folks who had that same urge. If you are one of them, take a look at this bibliography of the Civil War—and scratch your own head about textbook and Civil War re-enactors fixations on Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Beaver hats

Sometimes you read something or hear something or something happens that changes how you look at the world. For me, reading Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, and thinking about world history in terms of the “Columbian Exchange” did that. For the first time, I connected the fact that potatoes originated in the Andes—that I had picked up somewhere along the line, with the potato famine in Ireland and the potato lefse that my grandmother made every holiday. That the Americas were vibrant places full of humanity and human influenced landscapes before the Pilgrims settled Plymouth suddenly became obvious—how did the corn, beans, and pumpkins get to the far north anyway?

How I wish I could have talked with Alvin about Charles Mann. Better yet, how good it would have been to put them together. That is kind of what we did in our class this Wednesday (“Introduction to Indian Studies and the Nez Perce Story” on Wednesday mornings at the new Josephy Center). We were reading Alvin’s “The Hudson Bay Company and the American Indians,” which first appeared in three parts in the Westerner, and then again as “By Fayre and Gentle Meanes” in American West Magazine in 1972.

We discussed beaver hats. The fur trade, after all, supplied furs—at a dizzying pace—to England and Europe for the purpose of making felt hats, beginning in the early 1600s and continuing for at least 200 years. Why the hubbub about beaver furs and hats? It turns out beaver fur is extraordinarily good for felting—something about the small hooks on hairs meshing together in the felting process—and that hats were already, in the sixteenth century, signs of status and socio-political points of view in the old world. And that the beaver on that continent (I think they are not exactly the same as the new world beaver, but we’ll leave that side road to other investigators) were all but trapped out. 

In the new world, early white settlers were finding it tough to make a living with farming. And there are records of Dutch settlers sending furs across the Atlantic in the early 1600s; the Plymouth colony soon followed suit. And fishermen plied the Atlantic Coast, and occasionally put in to pick up Indians to sell as slaves across the sea, and occasionally added furs to their trade goods (it is thought by many that white fishermen were responsible for bringing smallpox to the coastal Indian peoples, and thus reducing the indigenous population—and their potential resistance—by 90 or 95% just a few years before the more famous Pilgrims arrived).

Soon French and English trappers and traders were vying for trapping ports and Indian tribes to provide them with furs. Eventually, the Hudson Bay Company, chartered in 1670, became the dominant trader with Indians and supplier of beaver pelts to the old world. There were differences in how French and English traders worked—the French were more likely to intermarry with Indians and adopt more of Indian culture. Traders brought guns and diseases along as they pressed north and west. There were issues of control of tribal lands—the Crown gave Hudson Bay a “charter” for a huge hunk of what is now Canada; the Louisiana Purchase transferred “claims” to Indian lands from the French to a young United States, etc., and wars among French, English, American, and Indian forces grew alongside the fur trade.

Alvin chronicles the movements of traders and of tribes, the diseases, the growing dependencies of tribes on white men’s goods, the place of alcohol, the peace making and the confrontations, and the “softening” of tribal lands for the waves of settlers who would soon follow. He doesn’t tell us much about the beaver and beaver hats. I think Mann would have talked with him about that. For your edification and fun, here is a web site that has a lot of information on the topic: The site will also tell you about issues of class and gender in Europe, and show you pictures of some of the finest hats.

Alas, the fur trade and the place of beaver hats in national life and international diplomacy is a fascinating one that gets sleight treatment in standard history texts. Imagine felt hats getting all the way back to the Andes!

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