Saturday, November 14, 2015

Introducing the Turtle Island Examiner

Your Humble Narrator announces with pleasure that he has launched a new weblog at H-AMINDIAN, titled “The Turtle Island Examiner.” The blog will focus on Native American history, generally (though not exclusively) pre-twentieth century, and I intend to update it twice per month. Here are links to, and summaries of, the first four posts:

Introduction: An explanation of the blog's purpose and title

Who Your People Are: An introduction to YHN and his people, going several centuries back

Extinction Event: Dating the Anthropocene, and how post-Columbian depopulation changed the planet

Devourer of Towns: How Washington got his famous alias, for an event that happened 57 years before his own birth.

I still plan to blog here once or twice a month, though I will most likely concentrate on non-Native American history, current events, and the occasional bit of snarkiness. I hope some of my readers will also join me over at TIE, but if not I'll periodically post aggregated updates and links to Examiner posts here at Stranger Things.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Age of Foundlings

On a recent trip to England, Your Humble Narrator managed a visit to the Foundling Museum, recommended to him several years ago by veteran travelers Theda Perdue and Michael Green. The museum stands on the site of London's first home for orphaned and fostered children, which philanthropist Thomas Coram founded in 1739, and which over the next two centuries housed over 25,000 boys and girls. Its exhibits include a history of the Foundling Hospital, with displays of inmates' clothing and beds and photos of foundlings who “graduated” in the twentieth century. One case contained a unique selection of artifacts: “tokens” left by children's parents to identify them if they wanted to redeem their offspring. These consisted of commemorative medals, passes to locales like Vauxhall Gardens, coins (sometimes clipped or punched), padlocks, penknife handles, and scraps of cloth. All silently symbolized the ragged and reduced circumstances that had obliged mothers and fathers to abandon their children.

Other galleries tend toward opulence, rather than pathos. A sitting room, decorated in rococo style, pays tribute to the institution's wealthier patrons. A display room celebrates the life and work of composer George Handel, who helped finance the Foundling Hospital. A selection of paintings and prints by William Hogarth (another patron), including the original version of “March of the Guards to Finchley,” adorns another hall. Taken as a whole, the museum offers a cross-sectional view of London society in the eighteenth century: the refinement available to the wealthy, the satirical worldliness of a professional middle-class artist like Hogarth, and the wretchedness of the impoverished majority, for whom even a spartan life in a charity hospital seemed an improvement.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Voyagers to the East: An Index

From 2006 to 2009 I wrote a series of posts on this blog about Native Americans who, voluntarily or otherwise (usually involuntarily, often as slaves), traveled from the Americas to Europe. The travelers included Greenland Inuit, Miq'maqs, Carolina Algonquians, Tainos, and Tupi-Guarani; their years of travel ranged from 1493 to the mid-seventeenth century; their destinations included at least seven modern western European countries. I have just completed an index to this series, which appears below, and hope to restart my research into these voyagers and their lives in the not-too-distant future.   

Part I: Columbus and the Taino Emissaries

Part II: Columbus the Slaver

Part III: Where Labrador ("Laborer") Gets Its Name

Part IV: The First Indians in England and France

Part V: Francisco de Chicora and Verrazzano's Boy

Part VI: Gomes's Abortive Slave Sale and Cartier's Abductees

Part VII: Brazilian Kings and Elusive Inuit

Part VIII: Une Joyeuse Entree (or, Sometimes a Guarani is Just a Frenchman)

Part IX: Captured from Meta Incognita

A Preliminary Census: The First Six Hundred

Part IX Redux: The First Inuit in Europe

Part X: Luis de Velasco Takes His Revenge

Part XI: Wally Raleigh and His Algonquian Interlocutors

Part XII: Cayowaraco Leaves Guiana Behind

Part XIII: Vespucci's Unpleasantness

Part XIV: Red Gold: the Early Brazilian Slave Trade

Part XV: The Donatories' Slave Trade, or Lack Thereof

Part XVI: Binot de Gonneville and the Queen's Godchildren

An Updated Census: How Many Is a Brazilian? or, Then There Were Two Thousand

Part XVII: Cortes and Pizarro's Companions

Part XVIII: Messamoet's Journey, from Acadia to France and Back Again

Part XIX: Assacomoet and Company in the Land of the Mistigoches

Part XX: Inuit Captives in Denmark

Part XXI: Indians and Unicorns

Part XXII: Native Americans in France, 1505-1613: An Overview

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Junipero Serra, Saint or Colonialist?

Earlier this week Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who, between 1769 and 1784, established the first Catholic missions in California. Serra and his successors baptized over 80,000 California Indians, a colonial North American record, during the half century of Spanish rule. Father Junipero's elevation to sainthood generated some controversy, however, as many modern Native Californians see him as a pioneer of colonialism and cultural imperialism. Louise Ramirez, chair of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, observed that her people primarily associated Franciscans with corporal punishment and servitude, while Deborah Miranda, an American Indian university professor, identified Serra as an“impose[r]” upon, rather than a contributor to, California's indigenes.

The historical account of California's mission Indians, while slightly more complex than the one provided by Serra's latter-day critics, generally confirms their charges. Stephen Hackel, author of Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis (2005), observes that California Indians did indeed come to the missions involuntarily, but what drove them was not the soldier's bayonet but the specter of starvation. When the Spanish came to Alta California they brought with them their livestock and weeds, which so ravaged the indigenous ecology that many Indians had to resort to the missions for food and shelter. Within those missions, the Franciscan priests imposed a strict discipline upon converts: they had to wear Spanish peasants' clothes, spend their days at labor, live in gender-segregated dormitories, and marry only spouses whom the missionaries approved. As in New Mexico a century earlier, the Franciscans flogged Indian converts guilty of sexual misconduct or apostasy, a practice secular Spanish colonists considered barbaric.

Jean Francois de la Perouse, visiting Monterey in 1786 during his attempted circumnavigation of the globe, reported that the missions reminded him of the slave plantations in the West Indies (Life in a California Mission [Santa Clara, 1989], p. 81). Perouse's comparison wasn't entirely fair: mission inmates enjoyed more autonomy than slaves, with more freedom to travel beyond the mission walls and some political power. (Spanish officials appointed Christian Indians' leaders to secular offices like alcalde.) However, one might note a similarity between sugar plantations and California missions that escaped Perouse's attention: both proved deadly places to live. Diphtheria, measles, and venereal diseases scythed through the conversos' ranks, killing or sterilizing them. 75 percent of children born in the missions died before their fifteenth birthdays, and few inmates lived past the age of 60. Caught between a subsistence crisis outside the mission walls and an epidemiological one within, California's Native American population declined sharply, from 300,000 people in 1769 to 200,000 in 1821.

Prof. Robert Senkewicz, in an article by Emma Green, argued that Pope Francis isn't, in fact, trying to justify mass death, torture, and cultural imperialism with the canonization. He values Junipero Serra as a brother Franciscan, and as an advocate of the evangelism that his pontifical predecessor (who sought to conserve the existing Church rather than increase its ranks) did not emphasize. Moreover, Latin American Catholics view missionaries in a different light from North American ones: in South America, missions often served as refuges for Indians trying to escape forced labor.

And, while we shouldn't downplay Francis's obvious concern for the secular needs of the poor, his Church has historically concerned itself more with the salvation of souls than the preservation of bodies, more with unearthly than earthly priorities. Serra probably would have disliked the high death rate in his missions, but he wouldn't necessarily have deplored it – after all, the deceased would spend eternity in heaven. Francis doubtless prefers to think there isn't much cultural distance between himself and Saint Junipero, but that's because he is a prelate, not a historian, less interested in the “past-ness” of the past and its people than in institutional continuity. One must leave it to modern scholars, and modern Indian leaders, to remind the public of the importance of those differences, of the Native cultures that Franciscan missionaries sought to efface, and the tragic impact of the California missions on Indians' physical lives.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Vikings in Greenland: Ivory and Profits at the Edge of the World

 I find the traditional account of the Norse settlement of Greenland, of farmers and herdsmen coming to the island on the advice of Erik the Red, struggling to make a living, and gradually declining over the centuries, strangely appealing. It is a tragic story of deception, fighting against the odds, and the ultimate triumph of nature over man. On reflection, though, the account doesn't match what most historians (and, I think, most people) know about overseas colonization: people rarely undertake something so dangerous, certainly not for hundreds of years at a time, without the promise of profitable returns.

Archaeologists have long known, thanks to Norse artifacts found in Native American sites, that the Greenlanders weren't just isolated farmers. They certainly traded with their Inuit neighbors and had at least one post on Helluland (Baffin Island) in the fourteenth century. Thomas McGovern now argues that the Norse came to Greenland for commercial reasons – specifically, to harvest walrus tusks, one of medieval Europe's primary sources of ivory. Walrus proved hard to come by: it took a month of hard rowing to reach and return from the prime breeding grounds in Disko Bay (latitude 69 degrees N). But significant rewards came to those who made the effort: 520 tusks, extracted from 260 rotting walrus heads, “had the same value as 780 cows or 60 tons of fish.”*

McGovern also believes economic change, not climate change, killed the colony in the fourteenth century. Ivory belonged to Europe's elite, “prestige-good” economy, but around 1250 CE Europe's merchants began shifting from prestige goods to staple goods, like food and wool. Prices for ivory fell, and then plummeted when the Black Death (1346-50) killed off the Greenlanders' customers. Perhaps the Norse colony might have recovered later, but the Little Ice Age made Disko Bay increasingly inaccessible to small craft. Between 1364 and 1409 the surviving Norse abandoned their settlements as unprofitable, and left Greenland to the people who had actually come there to settle permanently: the Inuit.

* I've not been able to find current equivalents for these, but during the second half of the eighteenth century, colonial American merchants charged 15-20 GBP per ton of fish. (James Lydon, "Fish and Flour for Gold," Program in Early American Economy and Society, Library Co. of Philadelphia [2008], p. 79.)

(Above image, of Disko Bay, courtesy of Algkalv and Wikimedia Commons.)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Power Shopping

Anticipating an official inquiry into the mounting expenses of Chickasaw removal, which despite that nation's small size would eventually exceed one million dollars, federal agent A.M. Upshaw sought to deflect blame from himself and his contractors. In an 1838 letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Carey Harris, Upshaw argued that his cost overruns originated with the demands of the Chickasaws, whom the Treaty of Pontotoc (1832) authorized to pay for and supervise their own emigration. Chickasaw leaders wanted to assemble emigrants at Memphis and take them to Indian Territory by water, which obliged Upshaw both to hire steamboats and pay demurrage fees while they awaited their passengers. Then, after a steamboat accident killed 300 Creek emigrants and alarmed their Chickasaw counterparts, many of the latter decided to move by land, a slower and more expensive process.

Overland travel proved costly because, Upshaw noted, the Chickasaws brought a huge quantity of baggage. Many families brought at least one wagonload (half a ton or more), some took three or four fully loaded wagons, and one had eight of them. The first few emigrant parties also brought 7,000 horses and ponies, packed high with luggage, “and [Indians] can pack more on a horse than any other people I ever saw.” Individual heads of household spent up to $1,000 on merchandise before Removal, and “in fact, sir” (Upshaw wrote) “I saw two women purchase seven hundred dollars' worth of goods in the course of two hours.” This was the modern equivalent of somewhere between $4,000 and $8,500 per hour.

This might sound like prudent, if frantic, preparation for an arduous journey, except that little of what the Chickasaws bought was food. They planned to draw government rations during their emigration, or hunt for their meals en route. According to another official, the Chickasaws had instead loaded their horses and wagons with “many heavy articles of comfort as well as convenience.” None of the Removal agents recorded Chickasaw men and women's precise purchases, but based on the goods they bought at their trading factory two decades earlier, and based on the records of an Alabama merchant who traded with Chickasaw customers in the late '30s, Your Humble Narrator suspects their Removal inventory included plaid and calico cloth, finished clothing (like shawls and hats), hardware, ammunition, furniture, and scarce consumables like coffee, sugar, and whiskey.

The money for this spree almost certainly came from the sale of the Chickasaws' land reserves, which federal commissioners and Chickasaw leaders had recently allotted to each adult member of the nation. Under the treaties of Pontotoc and Washington (1834), each man and woman received one square mile of land in the old Chickasaw nation; each head of household received three additional square-mile tracts, or four if he owned slaves; and bonus sections went to a dozen or so national leaders. The treaties authorized the emigrants to sell their reserves on the open market, at a minimum price of $800 per square mile. Despite price-fixing efforts by white land speculators, who formed semi-monopolistic land companies, many sellers cleared more than the minimum price for their land; some, generally biracial Chickasaws with large improvements, sold their reserves for several thousand dollars. The proceeds then went to buy wagons, horses – though the Chickasaws already had large herds of them before Removal – the aforementioned “articles of comfort [and] convenience,” and, more opprobriously, African-American slaves, several hundred of whom accompanied the first emigrants westward.

In one sense, Removal presented the Chickasaws with a terrible loss: their homes and their familiar country, with all the memories and collective history embedded in its features.* In another sense, the Chickasaws did not so much lose their land as transmute it, under duress to be sure, into different forms: slave laborers, transport, a surplus of the manufactured goods on which they had come to rely, and, from the remaining portion of their old homeland that the U.S. government sold, funds to purchase a new homeland in the west and sustain the emigrants for their first few years there.

One final point: the Chickasaws' heavy pre-Removal investment in consumer goods, hardware, livestock, and slaves certainly helps explain their initial decision to settle among the Choctaws in southeastern Oklahoma rather than on their national reserve in the south-central part of that territory. The new Chickasaw national domain fronted the Texas borderlands and Comancheria, and the Indian inhabitants of both regions periodically plundered their neighbors' horses, cattle, and possessions, and captured (or offered refuge to) runaway slaves. Moving to that domain would put the Chickasaws' property, whose cost had been so high, at risk. In 1841, the U.S. Army established a post at Fort Washita to guard the Chickasaw-Texas frontier, and within a couple of years many of the Chickasaws were moving to their new homeland to establish farms and rebuild their old lives.


1 Aug. 1838, Upshaw to Harris, Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, NARA Microfilm M-234, Reel 143: 692-94; J.A. Phillips to Harris, 4 May 1838, ibid, 143: 614; List of Goods Wanted for the Indian Trade for the Years 1816-17, Miscellaneous Accounts of the Chickasaw Bluffs Factory, Records of the Office of Indian Trade (National Archives Records Group 75, Washington, DC), Entry 39, Folder 5; John Allen to Thomas McKenney, 7 Feb. 1830, Letters Received, M-234, 136: 17-18; Account Book of William Otey, Folder 64, Wyche-Otey Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina; Barbara Krauthamer, Black Slaves, Indian Masters (Chapel Hill, NC, 2013), 39-44; Dan G. [last name illegible] to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 12 Dec. 1841, ibid, 144: 193-194; Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1838, 510-511; Arrell Gibson, The Chickasaws (Norman, OK, 1971).

* Not to mention the five hundred men and women who lost their lives to a smallpox outbreak in Arkansas as they moved to Indian Territory in 1838.

Above image of Tishomingo from

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Nagasaki: Day Zero

Seventy years ago today, an American B-29 bomber dropped a 21-kiloton nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. In her new book, Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War, Susan Southard describes what happened next:

“The thermal heat of the bomb ignited a fireball with an internal temperature of over 540,000 degrees Fahrenheit...Within three seconds, the ground below reached an estimated 5,400 to 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Directly beneath the bomb, infrared heat rays instantly carbonized human and animal flesh and vaporized internal organs.

“Where the northern half of Nagasaki had existed only an hour before, a low heavy cloud of smoke and dust hovered over a vast plain of rubble. Nothing remained of the dozens of neighborhoods except tangled electrical wires and an occasional lone chimney. The huge factories that had lined the river near Nagasaki Station were crumpled into masses of steel frames and wooden beams, and the streetcar rails were, in one survivor’s words, 'curled up like strands of taffy.'”

The article, and (I strongly suspect) the book from which it is excerpted, are worth reading in full, courtesy of Tom Dispatch and

(My thanks to Shana Dennis for bringing this piece to my attention.)

(Above image via