Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Militarism Looks Like

Some years ago, at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Memphis, Wendy St. Jean argued that the Chickasaw Indians of the American southeast became in the 18th century a militarized society - an assertion which prompted Alan Gallay to ask "What is militarism?" It's a question that St. Jean took slightly longer than usual to answer, and one which stumped me. I filed the query away in my memory, until it was recalled to me six years later by an article in the August 2, 2010 issue of Time, on the military junta in Burma.

The article's author, Hannah Beech, notes that during the junta's half-century rule, it has fashioned itself both into Burma's leading political caste and its socioeconomic elite. Burma's Defense Services Academy in Pyin U Lwin (formerly the British outpost of Maymyo) identifies its students as "the triumphant elite of the future," and a rejected applicant told Beech that one attended the Academy not to serve the public but to "become . . . rich and powerful." The country's armed forces have for twenty years systematically enriched themselves from the sale of Burma's "gas, oil, timber, [and] gems" to foreign companies, then spent the proceeds on luxurious mansions, spa visits, Buddhist pagodas, and "vanity projects" like the new national capital at Naypyidaw. It's tempting to say that the junta has squandered their nation's resources, but actually everything they've done with their billions has rational purpose behind it: to display and secure their personal and cultural power. The new capital, which is isolated and heavily guarded, ensures the regime's personal security; the lavish mansions and nightclubbing display officers' social supremacy; the pagodas, inscribed with the names of their patrons, help prevent (if George Orwell their patrons' earthly crimes from following them into the next life. Some of the generals' profits go to consolidating their own power, by enlarging and arming Burma's military forces (currently 470,000 strong). Meanwhile, per capita GDP in Burma is around $400 per year, a third of the country's 50 million people live on "less than $15 per month," tens of thousands of non-Burmese people like the Karens have been driven from their homes, and civil liberties are ruthlessly and thoroughly suppressed by law. (On these subjects see Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma [Penguin, 2004].)

It's difficult to see much similarity between twenty-first-century Burma and the early eighteenth-century Chickasaws. True, the Carolina trader and official Thomas Nairne did note in 1708 that the rise of the Indian slave trade had given considerable economic and political power to the Chickasaws' war captains, to the extent that its civil chiefs' authority had "dwindled away to nothing" and the nation's paramount chief had become a warrior himself. Nairne also observed that the Chickasaws were almost continually raiding their Indian neighbors for captives, making war the nation's dominant economic activity. (See Alexander Moore, ed., Nairne's Muskhogean Journals [University of Mississippi Press, 1988], quote p. 39.) At the risk of seeming pedantic, however, let me argue that there is a difference between a society that is militarized (like the Chickasaws) and one that is militaristic. The latter sets off the military as a separate ruling caste and confines membership in that group to a favored few; in Myanmar, the military is literally "set off" from the rest of the population in a fortified capital complex. Among the Chickasaws, by contrast, entry into the warrior class was fairly easy - one needed to perform some military exploit (like taking a captive or scalp) and to win adoption by a patron from the "ruling families," but Thomas Nairne suggests (p. 43) that men who fulfilled the former criterion generally acquired a patron. Moreover, every young warrior could aspire to material wealth and political status if they were successful in warfare. Only membership in the (declining) chief class was restricted by birth. The only marginalized group among the Chickasaws was women, who, while they continued to raise the Chickasaws' crops and play minor roles in warfare and in the tribe's political succession, were cut off from the tribe's principal source of new wealth (slave-catching). In sum, the early modern Chickasaws, while they were warlike, were not "militaristic" because they didn't have a true warrior elite.

Still, the adjective "militaristic" seems likely to become standard for the early modern Chickasaws, as Robbie Ethridge and Sheri Shuck-Hall use it in their recent books on the early southeast and the early Chickasaws (Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone, 2009, and From Chicaza to Chickasaw, 2010). I'll maintain the semantic distinction as long as I find it useful, though.

[The photo above, of the Water Fountain Garden in Naypyidaw, is by DiverDave and is available under a Creative Commons license.]

Monday, December 27, 2010

Delaware: Still Evil

Delaware may have redeemed its poor reputation slightly on Election Day, when its voters declined to send Buddhist witch Christine O'Donnell to the Senate, but the state is back in many Americans' bad graces thanks to its virtual blockade of Interstate 95. Renovations to Delaware's toll plaza, which already charges one of the highest tolls on the East Coast ($4 each way), have closed most of the crowded highway's lanes during the busy holiday travel season, leading to "10-mile backups" on Thanksgiving weekend and potentially greater jams during the Christmas holiday. The plaza's renovations should, however, justify all these headaches, as they are rumored to include a special negative-toll lane for corporate vehicles and a flogging lane for the poor.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Wednesday Would Appear to be War Day at STHH

A quick round-up of war-history news from various sources:

The American Civil War

Ta-Nehisi Coates explains, in response to the Sons of Confederate Veterans' plans to celebrate the sesquicentennial of secession, the motives that impelled the secessionists to act (hint: it wasn't to protest high tariffs). Coates updates his post here, noting that the state historians of Georgia, at least, are taking pains to explain that secessionism was all about protecting slavery. His closing two paragraphs, though, make it clear that he regards the Lost Cause as pure evil, and I think he's right to do so.

World War Two:

Richard Evans trashes Timothy Snyder's new book, Bloodlands (a preview of which I critiqued on this here website last November). The review is subscription-only, but the letters critiquing the review are worth reading. A summary of Evans' review can be found here. Of Snyder's book, which I recently finished, I can say that it is well written, richly detailed, and almost unbearably grim. Snyder's description of the 1932-34 famine in Ukraine, to take one example, reminded me of nothing so much as Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

World War Three:

Newly-released papers from the National Security Archives at George Washington University reveal the U.S. Air Force's secret strategy for defending the United States from Russian aircraft: blowing them up in the air with small nuclear bombs. If I read the article correctly, the Air Force in the 1950s and '60s deployed 3000-4000 air-to-air missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, to be fired at Soviet bombers by U.S.-based interceptors. The Army and Air Force also deployed 3000 surface-to-air missiles carrying nukes with up to 22 kilotons' yield. Thus, in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack, the United States' own armed forces were authorized to explode more than 6,000 nuclear warheads in the skies over North America. Sweet.

(The photo above, incidentally, is of "Miss BOMARC," a 1958 beauty contest winner, from the National Museum of the American Air Force. She's pictured next to the Air Force's BOMARC surface-to-air missile, of which she appears justly proud.)

World War Whatever:

In Afghanistan, the U.S. Army has just deployed an infantry weapon, the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System, that can hit people hiding behind walls. The phrase "Take cover!" may soon become obsolete.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Your Inner Light Has Already Burned Out

There's been a mild kerfuffle* in the wake of Ed Dante's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on his career as a paper-writer for college and graduate students. Most of us in academe are naturally dismayed at Dante's reminder of the vast extent of plagiarism among our students, and I was also surprised to learn how many divinity, education, and nursing students made it to their graduate degrees with the help of a ghostwriter. (How did they afford those $2,000 thesis chapters, I wonder?**) What particularly struck me, though, was the author's confidence that he had somehow kept his own inner purity and righteousness throughout the experience. It was not his own choice, Dante argues, but a corrupt academy which valued grades over actual competency that drove him into his morally questionable career. He is merely a product of the "desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created." Despite working for ten years as a hired liar for plagiarizing students, he believes that he retains the soul of an honest artist. This is implicit in Dante's statement that he plans to retire from the racket and do something more worthwhile with the rest of his life. Hogwash. Dante obviously gets a charge from the life he leads - the full professional dance card, the tight deadlines, the thrill of deceiving burnt-out professors, the bittersweet satisfaction of helping desperate, subliterate students - and he almost certainly could not obtain equivalent satisfaction from doing something else. Moreover, a decade of doing intentionally rushed and subpar work for others cannot have left Dante well-prepared to do his own writing, something that will require creativity and contemplation. These are two talents he has either crushed or allowed to wither. I suspect he'll be back at his old racket, or one very similar to it, soon enough. As a certain twentieth-century English essayist wrote, "Once a whore, always a whore***."

* The story has, as of this writing, generated over 500 comments on the Chronicle's website.
** Though if you're spending $10,000+ a year to earn a graduate degree, an extra $2,000 to finish that degree probably doesn't seem like a big additional expense, particularly if you'll recoup the "investment" later in a higher salary.
***Apologies to my readers who are actually legitimate sex workers. I mean no offense.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Chaco Choco

I had long assumed that chocolate, while indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, was unknown north of the Rio Grande until European colonists introduced it in the 17th century. Recently, however, University of New Mexico archaeologist Patricia Crown determined that the Anasazi culture of pre-Columbian New Mexico had access to cacao beans, which they obtained in trade - along with silver ornaments and scarlet macaws - from Mesoamerica. Examining a store of cylindrical pottery jars that Neil Judd and others found at the Anasazi city of Pueblo Bonito, in Chaco Canyon, Professor Crown realized they were similar to jars the Mayans had used to store cacao, and sent potsherds from these jars to W. Jeffrey Hurst at the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition. Hurst found that the shards contained traces of theobromine, a caffeine-like alkaloid found in only one Mesoamerican cultivar: cacao. Similar tests had found evidence of cacao throughout Central America, including the site of Pueblo Escondido (western Honduras), where University of Pennsylvania archaeologists found theobromine on a pottery bottle spout dated to 1150 BCE. The Chaco Canyon cacao evidence, dated to sometime after 1000 CE, extends the range for chocolate consumption and trading 1,200 miles north of the bean's cultivation limit. Crown believes cacao was an elite commodity in Pueblo Bonito, given that the jars which held it were concentrated in a few caches, and speculates that access to Mesoamerican "prestige goods" like chocolate and silver might have accounted for Pueblo Bonito's growth into a major social and political center. (Blake Edgar, "The Power of Chocolate," Archaeology, November/December 2010, pp. 20-25.) Life is usually more interesting when one's old assumptions are proven wrong.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

We Have a Werewolf Congress

Of yesterday's Democratic debacle*, I can only repeat what H.L. Mencken wrote of the American way of government many decades ago: "Democracy is the theory that the common man knows what he wants and deserves to get it good and hard."

My views are otherwise similar to those of Lee Papa, whose commentary can be found at his website.

* I believe more U.S. House seats changed parties in this election than any other since 1948.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Nourishment Spiritual and Temporal

While we're on the subject of Mary Rowlandson:

I recently asked my U.S. History survey classes to read most of Rowlandson's captivity narrative, and to check whether any of them had actually done the reading, I asked which book of the Bible Rowlandson most frequently cited in her memoir. (Mrs. Rowlandson wrote that one of her captors gave her a Bible he'd plundered from an English settlement, and that it provided her with much solace during her ordeal.) The correct answer was Psalms - 15 citations in all. In the process of determining the answer, I calculated that there were 42 direct quotes or paraphrases of Judeo-Christian scripture in "The Sovereignty and Goodness of God," as follows:

Psalms: 15
Isaiah: 5
Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Job, Luke, Micah, I Samuel: 2 each
Corinthians, Exodus, Genesis, Hebrews, Hezekiah, Judges, II Kings, Proverbs, II Samuel, II Thessalonians: 1 each

That most of Rowlandson's citations (all but five, by my count) were from the Old Testament need not surprise us. Quite apart from its length relative to the New Testament, the first part of the Bible impressed the Puritans because they saw themselves as the new Children of Israel, to the extent that they described their relationship with God as a covenant, viewed their American settlements as a new Zion, and modeled their first law code after passages from Exodus.

While noting Mary Rowlandson's dependence on the Bible for spiritual sustenance, I suspect my students were more impressed with, or at least moved by, her description of the earthly foodstuffs she and her half-starved Indian captors choked down. These included tree bark broth, horse liver, peas, cornmeal mush, acorns, horse's guts, chestnuts, bear meat, biscuits, and horse's leg broth. "Many times," Rowlandson wrote in her memoir, "they would eat that that a hog or a dog would hardly touch," and she herself recalled that "now that was savory to me that one would think...[would] turn the stomach of a brute creature." Hunger is the best sauce.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cloudy, with a Chance of Essays

The Worldle site has been up for over a year, but not being one of the Internet cognoscenti I only found out about it this weekend. (Hat-tip: a la Rob.) I've been experimenting with custom word-clouds ever since; the one below is of the first substantive entry in this blog, "Undaunted Puppy-Flinging," which I posted nearly five years ago. One could easily tell that the post was about Lewis and Clark, but more about Meriwether than William, viz:
Wordle: Undaunted Puppy Flinging
The other word-cloud posted here is of Mary Rowlandson's Sovereignty and Goodness of God, which recounts her captivity by Narragansett and Wampanoag Indians during King Phillip's War (1675-76). That Rowlandson and her captors were often on the move one can readily infer from three of the most common words in the narrative: "went," "go," and "came."
Wordle: Mary Rowlandson's Captivity Narrative
I expect I'll be posting more of these in future blog entries.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Constitutional Idolatry

Since its inception in the spring of 2009, the conservative Tea Party movement has generated a torrent of online articles and blog entries - possibly a sentence of text for each of its actual members. Until quite recently, though, I've seen little (virtual) ink spilled on the Tea Partiers' interpretation of the historical era that inspired them, or on their somewhat idolatrous - not to say illiterate - attitude toward the culminating document of that era, the U.S. Constitution. Now, however, several authors and essayists have taken up those subjects. Award-winning historian Jill Lepore has a new book out on the Tea Party movement and the American Revolution, The Whites of Their Eyes, which wryly observes that in "the American political tradition, nothing trumps the Revolution" (p. 14), but notes that those who currently make use of it for political ends have no actual interest in history. History may be summarized as "change through time," and the Tea Partiers don't wish to acknowledge any lapse of time between the Revolutionary Golden Age and our descent into the Dark Age of Obaman Socialism.

Meanwhile, Harvard Law professor Michael Klarman and Economist columnist "Lexington" (alias Peter David) have commented on the Tea Partiers' ahistorical worship of the U.S. Constitution, which the TPers alternately deploy as a political talisman and as an imaginary key to the secrets of the Founding Fathers (and thus to the legitimate origins of the republic). Klarman calls this sort of attitude "Constitutional idolatry," and observes that the original U.S. Constitution contains several provisions that made sense to the Framers, but which modern Americans find repugnant (e.g. its support for slavery and the slave trade) or indefensible (e.g. parity in the Senate, the provision that the president must be a "natural-born citizen"). We might also note, as Woody Holton discovered while polling his students at the University of Richmond, that most modern Americans, when they think of the U.S. Constitution, prefer to associate that document more with the protection of legal, civil and voting rights than with the structure of the federal government. In other words, Americans put more emphasis on the amendments than on the main body of the Constitution. (See Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution [New York, 2007], ix-x.)

Finally, journalist and prize-winning biographer Ron Chernow noted, in a somewhat less acidic op-ed piece for the New York Times, that the Founding Fathers were themselves a pretty disputatious lot, and that several of the first leaders of the federal republic, notably Washington and Hamilton, took an "expansive view of the Constitution" at odds with the modern Tea Partiers' strict-constructionism. Just what you'd expect a font of liberal socialist treason like the Times to print, of course.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Apologies to Tonning

Last year, in my scintillating three-part essay on the Embargo of 1807-09, I wrote dismissively of American commerce with the Danish port of Tonning (or "Tonningen," as my source spelled it), asserting that American merchants falsely listed it as their destination in order to secure clearance for voyages to more lucrative ports in Britain or French-occupied Europe. I have since learned that there was actually quite a bit of American trade with Tonning between 1808 and 1810: 100 ships from the United States dropped anchor there in 1809, drawn there by Tonning's proximity to the French-occupied port of Hamburg. Between the end of the Revolutionary War and the start of the Napoleonic Wars, American merchants had developed a strong presence in Hamburg, where they sold American cotton, tobacco, and rice, as well as Caribbean sugar and tobacco. Hamburg was attractive to U.S. merchants partly because of its population of English-speaking traders - Napoleon would derisively call it "cette ville Anglaise" - and partly because of its accessibility, via the Elbe and associated canals, to the rest of Germany. In 1804, however, a British blockade closed the Elbe to unlicensed shipping, and three years later French occupation authorities began harassing American merchants in the city, suspecting they were actually British smugglers violating the Berlin and Milan decrees. Eager to continue trading with Germany, American merchants began looking for holes in Napoleon's Continental System, and in 1808 they found one in Tonning, located about 25 miles north of the Elbe and 60 miles from Hamburg. By the next year Americans were smuggling sugar and tobacco across the Danish border from Tonning to Hamburg, though they had to pay increasingly heavy bribes to French customs officials to do so. In 1810 a French crackdown on American goods and English-speaking traders in northern German ports effectively closed this "loophole." (See Sam Mustafa, Merchants and Migrations: Germans and Americans in Connection, 1776-1835 [Aldershot, UK, 2001], 119, 126, 206-09; J.J. Oddy, European Commerce, Shewing New and Secure Channels of Trade with the Continent of Europe [2 vols., Philadelphia, 1807] 2:139, 142.)

In any event, I won't be running down small nineteenth-century Danish ports again any time soon.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Beware: Bibulous Boas on Board

In the annals of failed military expeditions, the voyage of Imperial Russia's Baltic Fleet to the Pacific during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) has few peers. As Gavin Wrightman recounts in The Industrial Revolutionaries (New York, 2007), the fleet got off to a uniquely bad start when several of the ships therein mistook English fishing boats in the North Sea for Japanese torpedo boats (no, I'm not making that up) and opened fire, killing two people and wounding six. Russian diplomats agreed to pay reparations to the British government, but the Baltic Fleet's fortunes did not subsequently improve. Both Britain and France refused to supply the ships with fuel (which they had to obtain from German collier vessels en route), one of the ships severed a French submarine telegraph cable in Tangier, a number of crewmen died of heatstroke while loading coal off the African coast, and storms battered one squadron as it rounded the Cape of Good Hope. To lighten the gloomy mood, some of the Russians took shore leave during stops in Africa and "acquired a menagerie of exotic animals including a boa constrictor which apparently developed a taste for vodka" (p. 349). Russian sailors' interest in exotic pets was one they shared with naval officers in the contemporary British Navy, whose shipboard companions included baboons and at least one elephant.

Finally, after seven months of struggle, the Russian fleet reached the Straits of Tsushima, a few days' sailing from Vladivostok. There in the Straits, on 27 May 1905, the exhausted officers and crew ran into a Japanese fleet under Admiral Heihachiro Togo, and suffered one of the most decisive defeats in naval history. Togo enjoyed several advantages over his opponents: his men were rested, his ships had a functional wireless telegraph system, and his fleet included several dozen deadly torpedo boats, which he deployed to good effect. In just 24 hours of fighting the Japanese navy virtually annihilated the Baltic Fleet, sinking or disabling 34 of 48 ships and inflicting over 10,000 casualties on the Russians. Alas, Weightman is silent on the fate of the boa constrictor. I fear the worst.

Friday, August 06, 2010


While Scottish and German brewers fight to see who can produce the most potent beer in the world, a microbrewery in Philadelphia is reviving some of the gentler, but still distinctive, potables of the American past. Yards Brewing Company has launched its series of "Ales of the Revolution" with George Washington's Tavern Porter, a 14-proof brew inspired by one of Washington's own recipes. The Washington Post described the beverage as a mixture of "sharper, coffeelike flavors" and "residual sweetness," the latter flavor resulting from the molasses infused into each barrel.

Beer, of course, has been an important drink since the development of agriculture 11,000 years ago, but in late-colonial British North America it usually took a back seat to harder alcoholic beverages. The Anglophone elite preferred imported heavy wines, like port and Madeira, while farmers and laborers enjoyed hard cider and spiritous liquors, particularly rum distilled from West Indies molasses. David McCullough noted in 1776 that the early Continental Army consumed a prodigious amount of ordinary rum, plus cherry rum and flip (a "mixture of liquor, beer, and sugar" [29-30]), while their commander purchased "cider, brandy, and rum by the gallon" (42). I suspect, though, that if they'd had access to 110-proof beer they would have consumed it by preference, whether or not the bottles were stuffed into the carcasses of squirrels and stoats.

Monday, August 02, 2010

What I Saw of the SHEAR Convention (2010)

This year's meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic attracted 400 people, about 40% of the society's membership – a remarkable achievement, given the economic slump and the meeting's isolated location (Rochester, NY). I did some agreeable socializing at the conference, and attended a baker's dozen of papers, of which some of the highlights follow:

Michael Oberg, in "The Many Worlds of Eleazer Williams" (read by Daniel Richter), briefly recounted the life of Reverend Williams, a grandson of Indian captive Eunice Williams who became an Episcopal missionary to the Oneidas. Of particular interest was Williams' "discovery," in the 1840s, that he was the dauphin – the long-lost son of Louis XVI of France, supposedly spirited away to Canada in infancy to protect him from the Jacobins. Of equal interest was the investigation of Williams' claim by two Philadelphia phrenologists, who concluded that Williams was actually an Indian (despite his white ancestry) and couldn't be the Bourbon heir.

The United States' early relations with East Asia received considerable attention this year. Kim Todt, in "'Merchants Have No Country:' The Early Republic and the Importance of its Dutch Trading Partners," observed that the governor of Dutch Batavia (modern Jakarta) actively promoted American trade with the Dutch East Indies, and that the U.S. Navy was sending frigates there by the 1820s. SHEAR President Rosemarie Zagarri, in her presidential address ("The Significance of the 'Global Turn' for the Early American Republic"), pointed out that the British East India Company welcomed U.S. merchants to India in the 1780s, even before Jay's Treaty allowed them to operate there legally. There were forty American ships in the India trade by 1789, and Jacob Crowinshield of Salem brought the first elephant to the United States shortly thereafter. Dale Norwood noted, in "Fear of a British Planet: American Anxiety about British Hegemony and the First U.S. Mission to China," that Americans took an active interest in the First Opium War, a conflict described in American newspaper editorials, church magazines, even children's magazines. One of the latter featured a fictitious child asking her father if the evil British would kill Americans if they didn't buy British opium.

At the last session of the conference, Rob Harper (in "The Powerful Weakness of the Frontier State: Manipulative Mobilization and the 1786 Clark-Logan Expedition") told a great deal about the Logan expedition of 1786 that I didn't know, mentioning the raid's unpopularity among Kentuckians (who were reluctant to contribute supplies and manpower) and noting that its chief purpose was not revenge but the seizure of Indian hostages who could be traded for white captives. In the same session Robert Owens showed his good sense and taste by mentioning recent scholarship by yours truly in his paper "Vigilante for Peace: James Robertson and the Curious Case of Lame Will."

Finally, I enjoyed the privilege of having breakfast with past SHEAR president Alan Taylor, and learned from him of his forthcoming book, The Civil War of 1812, which ought to prove thought-provoking reading on the eve of that conflict's bicentennial.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Noble Ideas and Petty Grievances

For those of us who think the Declaration of Independence is just a tad too long (that includes nearly anyone who's read more than a few of Jefferson's obscure, nit-picky indictments of George III), Slate Magazine is pleased to offer several translations of the founding American document into Twitter form. The winning entry in their contest was "Bye, George, we've got it" (just 25 characters, you'll note), but I will confess I preferred their third runner-up:

We seek independence based on noble and universal ideas combined with petty and one-sided grievances

and their first runner-up:

Our Rights from Creator (h/t @JLocke). Life, Liberty, PoH FTW! Your transgressions = FAIL. GTFO, @GeorgeIII. -HANCOCK et al.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Reflections on the Fourth of July

For those of you who missed it last year, here is a thought-provoking Independence-Day editorial, "Life, Liberty, and Benign Monarchy" (New York Times, 2 July 2009), by Professor Kathleen DuVal of the University of North Carolina, reflecting on Native American political authority and the attractiveness of Spanish paternalism to American settlers and slaves.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

No Mustard with Them Taters

It is rare, in my research, to encounter primary narratives that evoke a visceral reaction, and such occasions are all the more memorable for it. I still recall the discomfort I felt twelve years ago when I read a letter by Northwest Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair, explaining that he could not attend an Indian council because he had fallen hard on the pommel of his saddle and "ruptured [his] private parts most dreadfully." I had a similarly immediate, though more muted, response to an entry I read a few months ago in British fur trader George Nelson's memoirs. While traveling to an Indian hunting camp on the Kettle River, in northern Minnesota, Nelson and his partners joined an Ojibwa party for a meal. One of the Ojibwas was a woman whose young child was suffering from loose bowels. "The little black devil was running about the lodge squettering out yellow stuff like mustard; she [the mother] scolded and laying the brat on her lap opened the cheeks & with the back of her knife scraped off the stuff." She then released the child, washed her hands in the cooking kettle, wiped off the knife, and resumed cutting meat with it. After that Nelson found he didn't have much of an appetite. (My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802-1804, ed. Laura Peers and Theresa Schenck [Saint Paul, 2002], 65-66.)

Nelson later recorded this anecdote to illustrate, I think, the "savage" Indians' tolerance for filth and disease. In reflecting on it, I have come to the conclusion that the Ojibwa mother in Nelson's story was instead expressing a rather common maternal belief - that her child's exudations couldn't really harm anyone, since they hadn't harmed her - coupled with sufficient exhaustion to wear down any scruples she have about her guests' dining experience. The tired and overworked cooks in George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, one might well note, prepared food in even more squalid conditions than Nelson's hosts, and received greater compensation for it.

Also, "squettering" is an awesome word.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Retrospective Review: Pox Americana (Part Two)

(Continued from earlier post:)

The epidemic in the east, for all its gruesome qualities, was mild in comparison to the outbreak that appeared in Mexico City in August 1779 and spread throughout the hemisphere. Fenn doesn't speculate whether there was a connection between the Mexican smallpox epidemic and the British North American one, though New Orleans, where there were a number of American rebels trading throughout the war and where smallpox broke out in late 1778, may have been a junction between the two. What is certain is that "arrival in Mexico City was key to [the virus's subsequent] success" (142). From thence it could be spread by a large transient population of workers, farmers, and other travelers, down to the coasts and up the caminos reals, throughout Spanish America and into the trading networks of its aboriginal neighbors.

Expanding northward from Mexico City, smallpox reached the Spanish borderland colonies of New Mexico and Texas by early 1781. The disease claimed 46,000 lives within the boundaries of modern Mexico, and killed at least 5,000 mission Indians in New Mexico and Texas. Sometime in 1780 or '81, smallpox broke out among the horse-mounted expansionists of the vast Comanche nation, who probably contracted it from the mission-dwelling Lipan Apaches of western Texas. The Comanches then spread the disease throughout the Great Plains, where it had a particularly fatal impact on the agricultural nations of the Upper Missouri River.

The most geographically significant victims of the smallpox were the Shoshones, who carried the variola virus into Canada – and thus into the trading network of the Hudson Bay Company, thereby killing thousands of Cree and Chipewyans – and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Northwest. While exact numbers are impossible to come by, Fenn thinks smallpox killed about 60,000 Native Americans north of Mexico.

Altogether, 130,000 North Americans died of smallpox between 1775 and 1782. Only 10% of them, however, were Anglo-Americans, which helps explain why this episode remains obscure in U.S. historiography, preoccupied as U.S. historians are with the American Revolution. Beyond the limits of the Thirteen Colonies, however, the epidemic was vastly important: it led to a marked decline in marriage ages in New Spain (as Mexicans tried to replace their population losses), compelled the now-diminished Comanche "empire" to make peace with Spain, and allowed the Sioux to supplant the Mandans and the Blackfeet the Shoshones as the premier hunters and traders of their respective homelands. Throughout Indian country, Fenn concludes, smallpox was a "virus of empire" (275).

One point that Fenn does not make as pointedly as she might, and which is particularly useful to students of colonial America, is that the pattern of variola's spread reveals a great deal about transportation and trade in early America. In British North America, smallpox moved by water from seaport to seaport, then spread slowly inland – except in the case of Canada, where the disease moved fairly quickly up the Saint Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. In Spanish America, smallpox spread rapidly north and south from Mexico City, and was carried almost to the Arctic Circle by horse-borne Indian nomads and their trading partners. Fenn's book thus helps confirm and extend April Hatfield's observation (in Atlantic Virginia [2004]) that the British American colonies were more like an archipelago of outposts than a continuous area of settlement, and that the most extensive networks of human contact within the continent were Native American ones. It also reminds us that epidemic disease was - and remains today - one of the most unfortunate side-effects of improvements in trade and communications; the parts of North America that had the best roads or the most mobile populations were also the regions most susceptible to smallpox, while the more isolated settlements of British North America were most effectively able to control the disease.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Retrospective Review: Pox Americana (Part One)

The American smallpox epidemic of 1775-82, one of the most widespread outbreaks of that disease in recorded history, remained an obscure episode for more than two centuries after its subsidence. In 2001, Elizabeth Fenn, then of George Washington University (now at Duke), finally brought this event to a large readership with her deeply-researched, engagingly-written book Pox Americana. Dr. Fenn's book received much publicity when it was published, owing to its appearance in the immediate aftermath of September 11th and the October 2001 anthrax scare. I recently reread Pox Americana, to see how well it holds up now that the initial publicity has faded - and in light of nearly ten years of subsequent scholarship. The short answer is that it's even better than I remembered the first time. Over the next entry or two, I'll be reviewing Pox Americana, analyzing its findings, and suggesting why the plague at the center of Fenn's book, which spread from Hudson Bay to Peru and killed over 100,000 people, remained obscure for so many years.

Smallpox was a relentless and terrifying killer in the early modern period, and one which apparently grew in virulence between 1500 and 1800. It was particularly dangerous to isolated rural populations - like most of the white settlers in North America - and to populations with homogeneous immune systems, like American Indians. In the disease's early stages, those infected with smallpox suffered from aches, fever, and anxiety; as the disease progressed, its victims broke out in hundreds of oozing sores concentrated on the hands, feet, and face. The sores could lead to dehydration (if they appeared in the throat) or blindness; if they flowed together, they doubled the victim's chances of dying; and they almost invariably left disfiguring scars, whose only benefit was that they branded the survivor as permanently immune. There was no way to cure smallpox in the eighteenth century, and only two ways to fight its spread: quarantine and inoculation. Since inoculation actually gave inoculees a mild version of the disease and rendered them temporarily infectious, it was a controversial procedure and usually only available to the wealthy.

When the epidemic of Fenn's subtitle first broke out in the Atlantic seaboard cities of Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia, and Charleston (1775-79), Americans' first impulse was to quarantine the infected areas through controls on public movement, particularly the movement of soldiers. This proved impossible, given the cycling of volunteers in and out of the Continental Army and the movement of refugees to or from areas under rebel control. As a result the disease spread from its coastal enclaves into the hinterland, though it raged with greatest virulence on the coast, on British prison ships and in encampments of black Loyalist refugees - runaway slaves who sought freedom with British but often (in about 5,500 cases, Fenn estimates) found death instead.

As the smallpox death toll slowly grew, some white Americans came to believe that the British Army was using the disease as a weapon of war, dispatching sick Loyalist refugees to infect rebel-controlled areas. Fenn thinks this accusation was true; she presents evidence that at least one British commander, late in the war, sent infected slaves into rebel lines to spread the disease to his enemies. That smallpox posed so great a threat to American military effectiveness that the British tried to use it as a weapon helps explain George Washington's crucial decision of 1777 to inoculate all soldiers in the Continental Army against the disease (92-98). Fenn argued that this was "among [Washington's] most important decisions of the war" (134) and helped secure the rebels' eventual victory.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Living in the Valley of Death

The lurid title of this post refers not to my own status, but rather to the conference presentation I've spent a good part of the past few weeks researching, writing, and delivering. For the benefit of those of my readers who could not attend the Filson Historical Society's public history conference on Native American history earlier this month, and to hear my lecture on "Native American Subsistence and Commerce in the Revolutionary Ohio Valley," I've posted my lecture notes on Google Documents. Comments, criticism, or unadulterated praise are all welcome.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Founders Round-Up

It seems that Thomas Jefferson has catalogued his personal library on LibraryThing, complete with 'reviews' extracted from his correspondence.

There's a hip-hop video on YouTube (actually from, but YouTube is trendier) on the early life of Alexander Hamilton - about a year old now, but still worth watching.

John Quincy Adams has a Twitter feed, derived from his diary entries for 1810.

And there's a new strategy game in the works, Founding Fathers, about the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Once known primarily as political wonks, the Founders are fast becoming Web 2.0 and boardgame geeks.

Friday, April 16, 2010

You Mean They Ate Each Other Up?

Probably not, Danny! An archaeological team investigating the winter camp of the Donner Party subjected the bones that the settlers discarded to intense microscopic scrutiny and determined that none of them were from human beings. Instead, the survivors ate cattle which died of starvation, horses brought by one of the relief parties, deer (which they were able to hunt despite 30 feet of snow), and one family's pet dog. They also tried to preserve "civilized" decorum during the winter; their midden includes pieces of slate, used for children's school lessons, and of chinaware, used for their meager meals of boot-and-bone soup. The survivors themselves denied that they had resorted to cannibalism, and no-one was ever able to prove the charge. The conventional story of the Donner Party, however appealing it may be (even to the extent of inspiring an excellent Western/horror movie), appears, like so much of the West's history, to have been a myth.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Historical Humor: A Small Example

For a change of pace I decided to wear my Declaration of Independence tie - a red silk tie bearing the facsimile signatures of the members of the Continental Congress - to school today. In my upper-level Colonial History class, one of my students, after asking me what was on my tie, said - completely deadpan - "It must have taken you a while to collect all those signatures." I'm not used to my students making good jokes, but it's a pleasant surprise when they do.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Return of Fred the Sheep

A follow-up, courtesy of my friend Carl Anderson, to a story I mentioned last year: working from a proposal by Professor Michael Drout, engineers at Northwestern University have developed a prototype machine capable of extracting sheep DNA from medieval parchment. If researchers then succeed in developing a chemical process that allows them to analyze and classify the extracted genetic material, it will be possible to identify the date and perhaps also the geographical provenance of undated medieval manuscripts.

Northwestern engineering students are also working on a super-hard "dragonslayer" sword, which should make it easier for the school to deal with Chicago's persistent dragon problem.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Statecraft as Mortal Combat

On December 30, 1800, Emperor Paul of Russia made the following announcement in his court's official newspaper: "His Majesty . . . perceiving that the European powers cannot come to an accommodation, and wishing to put an end to the war which has raged fourteen years*, has conceived the idea of appointing a place to which he will invite the other potentates to engage together with himself in single combat on lists which shall be marked at; for which purpose they shall bring with them, to act as their esquires, umpires, and heralds, their most enlightened ministers and able generals, as Thugut, Pitt, and Bernstorff."

Quoted in Edward Emerson's History of the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1902), p. 79. Emerson views this invitation as evidence that Paul's mind had come unhinged, a conclusion also reached by the emperor's inner circle, whose members assassinated him early the following year. From our perspective in the early twenty-first century, though, the idea of resolving international disputes through "single combat" between state leaders, rather than through bloody wars with millions of casualties, seems rather more sane. I suspect it would have been amusing, at least, to view a joust or duel between Tallyrand and Pitt the Younger.

* Paul was doubtless mashing together the Wars of the First and Second Coalitions (1792-1802) with the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-89.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chickasaw Archery

I'm in the early stages of researching a book on the economic history of the Chickasaws, a small but strategically-important southeastern Indian nation that in the nineteenth century would become one of the Five Civilized Tribes. In the course of re-reading Charles Hudson's description of the sixteenth -century Chicazas (the principal ancestors of the Chickasaws) in his book Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun (U. of Georgia Press, 1997), I came across this account of Chickasaw archers' military prowess: when the Chicazas attacked De Soto's men in the winter of 1541, they succeeded in killing nearly 60 horses, twelve of which they shot through the heart. The horse of hidalgo Juan Diaz was supposedly killed by an arrow that entered its shoulder, went through the entire body, and "protrud[ed] on the opposite side the length of four fingers" (p. 269). Another died after two arrows entered its heart from two different directions.

Hudson bases this chapter on contemporary accounts of the Soto expedition, chiefly the narrative of the Gentleman of Elvas. I must say I find this account of Chickasaw archers' virtuosity somewhat difficult to believe - their arrows would have had to have been of the same strength as medieval longbowmen's arrows in order to have that degree of penetrating power. It doesn't surprise me, though, that they would consider the Spaniards' animals important targets, since horses gave Europeans a military advantage nearly as important as that provided by their firearms and steel weapons.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Enemies Foreign and Domestic

I didn't mean to turn February into Adam Zamoyski month here at Stranger Things Have Happened, but I wanted to share one last anecdote from his very entertaining (and thought-provoking) book on the Congress of Vienna, Rites of Peace (NY, 2007):

When Napoleon Bonaparte died on St. Helena, in May 1821, the nation which had fought hardest to defeat and exile him, Great Britain, was preoccupied with the coronation of King George IV and his struggle to exclude his estranged wife Caroline from the ceremony. Supposedly, when a messenger brought George the news that "Your greatest enemy [i.e., Napoleon] is dead," he replied "No! By God! Is she?" (p. 561)

I guess that's funnier if you've watched A Royal Scandal.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Hard World for Little Republics

It's not easy being a small nation in a world of aggressive Great Powers. Consider the experience of diplomats from the short-lived Italian republic of Lucca, who in the spring of 1814 petitioned Emperor Francis of Austria for "the restoration of their independence." Francis replied - in Italian, graciously enough - "Tutti hanno fame, anch'io voglio mangiare, emmeglio che io vi mangi che se fosse un altro," which translates as "Everyone is hungry, and I need to eat too, and it is better I should eat you than another." (Adam Zamoyski, The Rites of Peace [New York, 2007], 234.)

I'll have to remember that line the next time I play Diplomacy.

Friday, February 05, 2010

If I Were the Emperor Napoleon

"In his place, I would take ship, and I would go to seek fortune in America and I would live there very peacefully in the forests and the deserts. The fruit of the coconut tree would nourish me, and water clearer than crystal would refresh my burning blood and my burnt-out brain. I would hunt monkeys in the woods, I would reflect on my past greatness and would try to console myself for my present misfortune as best I could. That is what I would do if I were the Emperor Napoleon." Marie Metternich, in a letter to her father, 27 January 1814, quoted in Adam Zamoyski, The Rites of Peace (HarperCollins, 2007), p. 151.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Town versus Gown

Thanks to riotous students, expansionist campus developers, and professors mowing their lawns at 11:30 on Tuesday mornings, relations between modern American universities and their host communities are rarely tranquil. Things have been worse in earlier days and other lands, of course. At the Historiann weblog, commenter Indyanna recalls an "early modern town-gown ruckus" in Oxford, England, in 1717, caused by George I's decision to garrison a regiment of soldiers in that town. "When the probably-mainly-Jacobite students refused to illuminate their windows to celebrate the King’s birthday, some tipsy soldiers smashed the windows in question. Next thing, the whole town was in arms and on fire. The House of Lords had to intervene to sort things out, the regiment got sent to Minorca, and its aging Colonel was packed off back to Dublin in retirement." Bad news for the colonel and the town, but perhaps not such bad consequences for the window-smashing soldiers - Minorca doesn't sound like a hardship post.

(ETA, 28 June 2018: The Oxford riot apparently took place in 1716, according to OU sources.)