Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Demographic Collapse in the Southeast: An Illustrative Example

In my forthcoming book on early U.S. Indian relations, I observe that in 1793, southern Indian warriors seeking to drive American settlers out of the Tennessee Valley were able, with the use of multitribal meetings and the promise of Spanish supplies, to assemble a large force of gunmen for an assault on Knoxville. This Native American army comprised nearly 2,000 men from the Creek, Cherokee, and Shawnee nations, and was one of the largest Native military forces to operate in a single campaign in the eighteenth-century southeast.

Apparently, though, this was only a large force for its day, and would not have been considered so two centuries earlier. In his detailed and archaeologically-informed history of the De Soto expedition of 1539-43, Charles Hudson gives this description of the Spanish adventurers' first encounter with Indian travelers on the Mississippi River:

"Some Indians in dugout canoes approached and pulled up to the landing. Four principal men got out and approached De Soto...They informed De Soto that they were vassals of a great chief, Aquijo, who was dominant over many towns on the opposite side of the river. They said Chief Aquijo would come the next day to talk with De Soto. The next day the chief arrived with a fleet of two hundred very large dugout canoes, full of Indians armed with bows and arrows. The Spaniards counted as many as seven thousand Indians, painted with red ocher and wearing feathers of many colors. Some of them held shields of cane so tightly and strongly woven that a crossbow bolt could hardly penetrate them." (Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun [University of Georgia Press, 1997], 284-5.)

That was just the warrior population of one chiefdom in Arkansas.

I know of no more vivid way to illustrate the decline of Indian population in the southeast between 1540 and 1790. Moreover, white settlers and the U.S. government had considerable difficulty defeating and expelling the remnant Indian nations they encountered in the southeast in the eighteenth century. If they had instead encountered Indian chiefdoms the size of Aquijo's, I suspect it would have taken Americans the better part of a century to conquer them. (And if those chiefdoms' warriors had been armed with muskets and cannons, I suspect we would never have heard of "Manifest Destiny.")

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Camera Hound of the Future

Courtesy of my friend and Alert Reader Elena O'Malley, a link to an Atlantic Monthly essay by Vannevar Bush, predicting - and suggesting plausible technical paths to - the computer, the digital camera, the Personal Data Assistant*, Internet-based research, and direct brain-computer interfaces. Published in 1945.

* Well, sort of. Bush did predict that it would be the size of a desk. Moore's Law was still 20+ years away.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bad Professor! No Dry Sherry!

Any teacher or professor worrying about how students might react to his or her behavior in the classroom should remember that they would have to work pretty hard to top the eccentricities and unprofessionalism of some of our predecessors. For example, according to a column by "Ms. Mentor" (Emily Toth) in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 5, 2008), Thorsten Veblen, when he was teaching at Stanford University, "graded arbitrarily, switching A's and C's at random...posted whimsical office hours ('Monday 10 a.m. to 10:05 a.m.'), and...urged 'girl students' to spend weekends with him in a converted chicken coop in the woods." According to the longer article cited by Toth, Veblen eventually became so unpopular with students that he was lucky to get three people to sign up for one of his classes. Stanford, which had hired Veblen in 1906, finally threw him out in 1909, whereupon he wrote a new book, The Higher Learning in America, trashing the people he'd previously vexed. It's not an exemplary story, though I'm tempted to use Veblen's line about his grading policy - "My grades are like lightning; they strike anywhere!" - the next time I'm returning exams.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Northwest Passages

Alert reader Chantal Hachem noted that my account of the eccentricities of the nineteenth-century Royal Navy reminded her of a British Arctic explorer whose crewmen went mad eating rations from lead-lined food cans. That explorer, Sir John Franklin, was lost sometime between 1845 and 1848 during his search for the Northwest Passage, the all-water route from Europe to Asia by way of northern Canada which eluded so many European explorers. Franklin's story, recounted in Fergus Fleming's Barrow's Boys (Grove Press, 2001), is a harrowing and tragic one - tragic because the Northwest Passage turned out to be wishful thinking, as the permanent Arctic ice pack blocked the waterways through the northern Canadian islands. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, first European to traverse the Passage (1903-5), took more than two years to do so, as his ship became locked in the ice for two consecutive winters. Until recently the only large vessels capable of "sailing" all the way through the Northwest Passage in one season were nuclear submarines, which could travel under the ice.

But times change. One of the most important consequences of global warming is the shrinking of the permanent Arctic ice pack, which, among other effects, has opened the Northwest Passage to surface ships for at least part of the year. Last fall, a civilian passenger ship arrived in Barrow - the northernmost town in the United States, and previously a synonym for "remote Arctic wasteland" - and discharged 400 German tourists who, I am sure, completely flummoxed the Inupiat inhabitants of the community. In consequence, the US Coast Guard began patrols into the Beaufort Sea, and this summer it opened temporary bases in two Arctic Ocean villages, including Barrow. Meanwhile, the governments of the United States, Canada, and Russia have begun discussions - heated arguments, actually - about ownership of the Northwest Passage (and its Russian equivalent, the Northeast Passage) and of the large oil and gas deposits believed to lie beneath the Arctic Ocean. I don't know whether Franklin would be pleased or astonished.