Monday, April 30, 2007

America is Not 400 Years Old

Americans tend to view history relative to us, us, us. Just as the earth revolves around the sun, Americans tend to think the world revolves around the 300 million souls fortunate enough to live in this great country.

I thought of this while glancing at the cover of the most recent issue of Time magazine, which is a report on the Jamestown settlement 400 years ago. The big headline on the cover is AMERICA AT 400.

Such coverage has been a bit of a trend lately. Earlier this year the historians over at U.S. News declared on the cover that the Jamestown settlers were The First Americans, which should come as a surprise to all the people ... who were already here.

These headlines are grade school history at its worst.

The English who immigrated here, free to enter because the Native peoples had not erected a large Lou Dobbs-inspired barbwire fence, were NOT the first Americans.

This "country" had a civilization and a culture well before the English arrived. We had cities on the level of Paris and London right here in 'Merica well before the Jamestown settlement, and predating Leif Eriksson, the man credited as the European "discoverer" of North America about 1,000 years ago.

I think we do ourselves a disservice when we measure the history of this land starting in 1607.

America likes to think of itself as the center of the world. That the 3,000 dead on 9/11 are somehow more important than the 655,000 Iraqis* that a team of epidemiologists estimates have died in Iraq because of the war.

We are all equal in God’s eyes.

If Americans think they’ll enjoy the same insular standard of living come heaven-time, they’re wrong, because inside those Pearly Gates they’re going to be sharing that Jacuzzi-tub not only with St. Peter, but with someone who probably doesn’t speak English.

Oh, and St. Peter didn't speak English either. Just like Jesus, his native tongue was Aramaic, and his skin was dark.


This entry is largely a cut-and-paste from a January entry, when U.S. News ran its Jamestown cover. I wonder if I'll get another opportunity to test my cutting and pasting skills again if the historians at Newsweek ever take a crack at America's 400th "birthday"?

* Here's the sourcing (Washington Post account) for the 655,000 number.

And here are some other 'Mericans whom Time and U.S. News didn't think were worth remembering: here and here.



Anonymous said...

"America" refers to a nation, not a continent. It's a political rather than geographic designation.
There is no continent named America.

North and South America are two separate continents referred to collectively as "the Americas."
Canadians, Americans and Mexicans are "North Americans, but only citizens of the United States of America are Americans. Citizens of Argentina and Brazil are not Americans but South Americans.

Citizens of the United States of America call themselves "Americans" in the same way citizens of the United States of Mexico call tehmselves "Mexicans." It doesn't imply Americans think of themselves or America as the center of the world.

The Native Americans who occupied North America prior to the arrival of the Europeans were not "Americans" because America did not exist until 1776. The descendants of the Mayas and Aztecs never became Americans; they became Mexicans.

Joeyp said...

Thanks for your comments.

My larger point is that we tend to ignore our pre-English history, which I think is a shame.

You won't see U.S. News or Time Covers celebrating the Wounded Knee massacre.

Michael said...

Excellent post. I hope you wrote a sharply worded letter to the editor of TIME!

Anonymous said...

Massacres such as Wounded Knee and Sand Creek receive so much publicity that they obscure what really happened in the conflict between Europeans and Native Americans. The public perception is that Europeans kill hundred of thousands, if not millions, of Native Americans. However, casualties were low on both sides. Native Americans killed more Europeans than Europeans killed Native Americans. About 7,193 Native Americans died in conflicts with European and their allied Native American forces. Native Americans killed about 9,156 whites. These figures cover nearly 400 years and include all the famous massacres such as Sand Creek and Wounded Knee. The combined death toll is about the same as the three days of fighting between Union and Confederate forces at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, where more than 16,000 Americans died. Assuming that the Native American population north of Mexico was about 5 million—a mid-range estimate—the number of Native Americans killed in combat against Europeans in what is today the United States would have amounted to less than one half of one percent of the Native American population.

Activists pick their massacres to support political agendas. Wounded Knee is an oddity because neither side intended it to happen. Sand Creek was a retaliatory raid that struck the wrong encampment; the Cheyenne and Arapaho “Dog Soldiers” who had been butchering families living on ranches on the outskirts of Denver were camped nearby. Probably the worst massacre was the Mystic Massacre, which took place in 1637 when the Narragansett and Mohegan asked English settlers to help them attack a Pequot fort near the Mystic River in Connecticut. When their attack was repulsed, they set fire to the fort, killing between 400 and 700 Pequot men, women and children. This massacre is ignored because the bulk of the attacking force were Native Americans, and because the Pequot had been waging an aggressive war against their neighboring tribes. As the Lakota Sioux migrated from the Great Lakes to the Black Hills around 1775, they attacked Mandan, Hidatsa and Arika villages that lay in their path. At one village near the Missouri, they murdered 400 men, women and children; at another site, they left 75 dead. These massacres are ignored because mentioning it is no considered politically correct. In 1813, Creek “Red Sticks” killed 500 white settlers during the Fort Mims Massacre in Alabama. This massacre is ignored because the victims were white.

Still, massacres and military engagements played only a small role in the European conquest. The Colombian Exchange of diseases between the Old World and the New World, which killed 60 to 90 percent of Native Americans, robbed Native Americans of any chance they may have had of mounting an effective defense. These were not “European diseases” but global contagions that killed untold millions around the world before reaching the Americas. The worst killer was smallpox, which originated in Africa. The most devastating smallpox pandemic started around 1750 in the Valley of Mexico and spread north along trade routes to Pueblo Indian villages along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Plains Indians trading with the Pueblos took the virus home with them. From the plains, the virus spread west over the Rockies and East across the Mississippi.

Smallpox also devastated the European settlements, but some European immigrants to the Americas had already had the disease and were immune. The Europeans also quarantined smallpox victims, something the Native Americans never did; they did not realize infected people were contagious and treated them as if they had been wounded. Still, smallpox killed up to 40 percent in European villages until they begin practicing inoculation, which involved purposely infecting patients with the live smallpox virus in hopes they would develop a light case of the disease. A much smaller percentage of those who were inoculated died than those who became infected through normal transmission. In the late 1700s, the British discovered that vaccinating people with cowpox, a much milder disease, gave them immunity to smallpox. The United States funded a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans in 1801, but by then, most of the damage had been done.