Category Archives: History and Historians

The Case for Civic Engagement

I published an opinion piece in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle today, “The Case for Civic Education.”  I argued that one possible explanation as to why so many of Donald Trump’s supporters have accepted his trampling upon the Constitution is because too many Americans are unfamiliar with the country’s basic institutions, its history, and what the Constitution says.

I believe strongly that historians, and other academics, should engage the public.  We should write in defense of our disciplines.  We should advocate for our disciplines.  We should preach from the highest hills that history education, and education in the liberal arts and humanities generally, is vital to the functioning of a democratic republic because it equips citizens to participate in a mature, reasoned, and constructive manner.

The essay has drawn a bit of fire, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. I want to argue about these issues, and I want to have a debate.  So I will write.  It is the best way I know to engage with a broader public, to at least provoke some thought.

Alas, the D&C wants its opinion pieces short, 450 words, so there is not a lot of room to elaborate.  And for inexplicable reasons, the editorial staff decided to cut out the opening paragraph to the essay, despite the fact that I submitted a piece that came in below their word limit.  Maybe that opening was a bit inflammatory, but I do not think so.  The actual essay reads as follows:


A large minority of the voters who cast ballots last November chose Donald Trump to be their president, a choice endorsed and approved by the Electoral College, that antidemocratic anachronism designed to ensure that slaveholders controlled the national government.

            You have read in these pages many explanations for Trump’s unexpected victory. I would like to add another.  A significant number of voters cast their ballots for a bullying narcissist with little knowledge and less respect for American constitutionalism because they simply do not know enough about the Constitution, America’s political institutions, and the nation’s long struggle, in the Founders’ words, to “form a more perfect union.”  They can excuse Trump trampling over the Constitution because they do not know what the Constitution says.

            Let’s face it: despite a nationwide commitment to standardized testing, the social sciences, humanities, and liberal arts have been under attack.  We need “more plumbers and less philosophers,” said Marco Rubio during his brief quixotic run for the presidency.  The Lieutenant-Governor of Kentucky urged students not to study history but, instead, to focus upon something useful. Even Governor Cuomo, in his otherwise laudable proposal to provide tuition-free access to SUNY schools, promoted the program as a way for the state to produce more skilled workers, not informed citizens equipped to participate in American democracy in a meaningful and constructive manner.

            Education in history and the liberal arts, however, produces citizens capable of asking the tough questions and looking for answers in all their complexity.  They do not settle for simple solutions and pat answers. They know how to question assumptions, and demand evidence.  Civic education leads to responsible and mature civic engagement. Little wonder, then, that these fields of study are devalued and dismissed.

            Less than a third of Americans last year could identify all three branches of the federal government.  Another third could not name a single branch.  Many times more Americans can identify all five members of the Simpsons family than the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment. 

            The Founding Fathers argued that a flourishing republic needs citizens capable of displaying the virtue to set aside their narrow self-interest and petty fears and jealousies in order to pursue the common good.  They argued that citizens must be independent, informed, and active. An ignorant and quiescent populace, they feared, made fit tools for a tyrant.

            I cannot predict what will happen over the next several months and years. But I have watched the protests. We must do more, I believe, to engage the public, explain how our institutions are supposed to work, and protect them from a presidential administration that threatens the country’s fundamental aspiration of liberty and justice for all.


The evidence to support my assertions is not hard to find, and we should consider this evidence closely.  We have our work cut out for us.  Rick Shenkman, for one example, summarized some of the findings of his Just How Stupid Are We at Alternet.  The Annenberg Center for Public Policy in 2014 released a study in 2014 warning about Americans’ lack of basic civic knowledge.  Jason Brennan’s analysis from 2016 in Foreign Policy raises some points worth considering.  And the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that American college graduates are “alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage.”

This should disturb us all, regardless of the political party which claims our allegiance, regardless of who we voted for in the primaries or the general elections.  These results are a call to action. The challenge will be mustering the courage to answer that call.

I like to write opinion pieces. It is important for us all to bring our expertise to bear on public debates, and to make our voices heard.  Doing so requires a willingness to take some heat, some criticism that can be really, really vicious at times.  In my view, it comes with the territory. I could fume to my friends on Facebook.  I could bitch and whine or yell at the television set.  Better it seems to me is the effort to engage with as large a public as possible, to challenge assumptions, to offer explanations, and to provoke discussions.



Whither History and the Liberal Arts: A Note to Students

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently stated that “the future” involves “making the marriage between academics and economics.”  Of course there is some truth to this.  Cuomo has been promoting his new plan to make SUNY tuition-free to New Yorkers from families with an income less than $125,000 per year.  The plan is to be applauded, but it has been promoted largely as a way to create jobs and to spur on economic growth in New York State.  The value of an education, the governor has stated baldly, lies in the financial return it brings.

All of this I find a bit troubling as a professor in a history department of a small-ish public college that has long been celebrated for its rigorous academic standards and its commitment to a liberal arts education.  Our students do well after they graduate.  They find gainful employment in their fields.  Many of you are familiar with the arguments that a degree in the liberal arts, one that trains students in the discipline of critical reading, writing, thinking and research, is more versatile than our critics realize.  And I am happy for any proposal that makes access to college easier, and it seems to me to be a no-brainer in terms of public policy.  People with college degrees earn more than those without.  They will thus pay more taxes over the course of their careers than those without, and over decades the program could pay for itself.  A wise long-term investment.  But higher education is not only valuable for the skills it imparts, but for the critincal thinking it encourages, something that I would argue is essential for the survival of the republic.  Now perhaps more than ever.

And in my field? The most recent edition of the American Historical Association Perspectives has highlighted a continued decline in the number of students studying history in American colleges and universities. There are a number of reasons for this. History is sometimes thought of as a difficult major with lots of reading and writing, and there is some evidence of a decline in professions often entered with a Bachelor’s degree in history.  But in the midst of a presidential election in which the electoral college chose a man who has offered one unconstitutional proposal after another, and received the applause of millions of Americans as he did so, it just may be that the decades-long assault on history and liberal arts is having a significant effect.

You students who study history or other fields in the liberal arts will likely be asked, if you have not been asked already, “What are you going to do with that degree?”  Sometimes those questions can come from innocent curiosity, like, really, what are you going to do with that degree. But these questions can also come with a  barbed tip, too, in the sense that the liberal arts are thought by some people out there to have limited value because, unlike the STEM fields and business and things like that, the liberal arts are too often thought of as adding little of value.

The governor of Florida, for instance, a few years ago, argued that we do not need more anthropologists.  Another Floridian, a United States Senator, during his brief, quixotic run for the presidency said that we need “more plumbers and less philosophers.”   The Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky told students at Eastern Kentucky University that they should not bother studying history, and that since they were attending a public college, funded by taxpayers—people who work—that they should do something useful to the Commonwealth.   And why should the state subsidize the study of French literature, the governor of that state asked.  What value does it add for Kentuckians?

I would argue that history and the liberal arts add a lot, and not just for Kentuckians, because they give us the cultural capital to participate in a democratic society in a meaningful and significant way.  But thinking in terms of nuances, complexities, ambiguities, shades of grey; embracing the big questions, pursuing the answers over the long haul, appreciating the value of open debate and discussion, endeavoring to find truth, and digging like badgers for answers, we can find these times we live in rough sledding.

I struggle sometimes to control my own pessimism.  You students, I fear, live in a world where too many people confuse their feelings and their fears for facts, where being smart and engaged and critical and willing to ask questions can make one an object of scorn.  You live in a world as well where complexity is so often dismissed, where big and difficult answers to the big questions are avoided, that asking these sorts of questions can take a certain amount of courage. You may have seen something of this in yesterday’s “press conference” offered by the President-Elect.

Many Americans live in a world where they simply do not invest their time and energy to ask questions, stay informed.  Americans, according to a recent survey, are more likely to be able to identify any two members of the Simpson family (and, just to be clear, we’re talking about cartoon characters) than any one of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, rights that now, as they have been at many points in the past, are under assault.  22% of Americans can name all five members of the Simpson family, while only one in a thousand can name all five first amendment freedoms. Many Americans live in fear: of immigrants and Islamist extremists–but a plastic surgeon botching your operation is more likely to kill you in the United States than a terrorist.  Yet we are told to be fearful.  And many of us do as we are told.  Enough to tip the election to a candidate who failed to win the popular vote. People around the globe and in this country—some of them, anyways—seem to have more confidence in fear and anger and hate than in their opposites. With malice towards many, and charity for few, with little interest in seeking out injustice, and correcting oppression.

We are living in this moment where a lot of really old issues—race and inequality and class and gender and violence, are resurfacing in complicated and anguishing ways.  The problems are out there.  But to name them and to ask, “What can we do?” and to gather the information to solve them, that can be tough.  And so many of these problems we face are rooted, in part, in a rejection of critical thought, in an embrace of the irrational, and a society with these problems can fall prey to demagogues with their simplistic answers, and will find it difficult to display emotional maturity, and will be prone to violence.  You have seen that in recent months.  We all have seen it.

Yet If we are stronger together, and if we are to make America great again, or as great as it might be, it might be those of us with a solid training in the liberal arts, whatever our majors, who will best see that “injustice anywhere” just may be a threat to justice everywhere.  And that if it is “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, that binds us, one to another,” as Martin Luther King once wrote, that you may be among those best suited to do something about it.  History majors, you who think and reason; we, the people who read the footnotes–we can deploy that wisdom that not only makes our lives richer but makes the world a better place—–only if you have the courage to act, and to use it.

We now live in a world where—when we stand up on the face of the problems before us and ask, “Why?” and when we insist on a reasoned and relevant response to that simple question—it’s like an act of subversion, and subversive acts, even the smallest ones, require a degree of courage, of fearlessness.

It can beat your down, if you let it. Looking at the spectacle of public life that my generation is in the process of bequeathing to your generation, it might be easy to slide into a deep cynicism, especially after the last election, but cynicism is an intellectually lazy position, a sort of cop out.  It can take courage to trust and to respect and to appreciate, as well as to care and to love, and to accept the validity of ideas presented by those with whom we would be predisposed to think we might disagree.  To never underestimate others, to take people seriously, whoever that person happens to be, to accept the possibility that those with whom we disagree might have a point and, indeed, to admit that we might be wrong.  To appear vulnerable in the face of those who despise us.  That is not an easy thing to do. That takes courage, and a willingness—a commitment—to approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised.  We historians–there is so much that we do that is inherently subversive–we can stand in the face of these forces and demand reasoned answers.

It is easy to feel like the challenges we face are too big and it is possible, I think, that we all feel at times like we are not enough to make a difference—that we need to be wealthier or have more expertise or access or whatever.  But what if we used our skills and our thoughts and our reason and acted as if we were exactly what was needed? If we knew we could close the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be, even a little bit, would we have the courage to act?

A long time ago I had a great history professor.  His name was Albie Burke.  He died about five years ago. And even though I left Cal State Long Beach where he taught in the late 1980s, I still got back to campus every other year or so to have lunch with him and to catch up, to talk about the Supreme Court, constitutionalism, politics, and all sorts of other things. I can remember feeling nervous and unprepared before having to present some of my work in seminar, my thesis project on two really big Supreme Court cases in the field of American Indian law.  We would meet in his very Spartan office, and he always made really incisive eye contact when you were speaking to him.  Bright, bright, blue eyes. He would listen very quietly, never interrupting.  Very comfortable with silences.  And then when you finished, spilling out your guts, telling him how you were not ready, he would pause for a few beats and then say:  “You will never be prepared. Still got to do it.”  He’d smile just a little bit as he said that. It was a tough lesson for some of his students, I think, but his point was that you can spend all your time worrying and fretting and fearing and preparing and not doing.  Fear can keep you from doing what needs to be done, in public life, and in terms of what you want for your own lives.  His daughter told a similar story at his memorial service about many conversations she had had with him just like that.  It is so easy to talk yourself out of pursuing your dreams, of tackling the challenges that may lie in front of you, and of speaking truth to power.

History is not a science.  But it is a discipline.  We historians are interested in the past, and its connections to the present.  How things came to be.  Continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions, and cultures. But all of that is just a fancy way of saying that we historians make our living by asking questions.   If you are like me, you love the questions–the search for evidence, the complexity and the lack sometimes of definitive answers, and the stories—the stories are at the heart of all that we historians do as teachers and writers. And if we are fearless, we can do important work.  We must be honest, curious, inquisitive, and relentless to be sure, but most of all, in terms of the questions we ask, the evidence we consider, the ideas we engage with, and the theses we advance, but we must also be fearless.  Now, on our campuses, in our country, in this global community, more than ever.  Ask questions.  Demand evidence.  Do not accept easy answers.  Use your skills as critical thinkers, researchers, and writers, to ask and answer the important questions that appear before us.




Finals Week

I teach a range of courses at Geneseo, and just completed reading thirty-one essays for my section of Western Humanities. I teach the first half of the two-semester sequence, a great-books course on the University of Chicago model.  The students begin the semester reading Antigone, and finish with another tragedy, Hamlet.  In between they struggle through Thucydides, Plato, Cicero, the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, and More.

I teach the course in an explicitly ahistorical manner:  the authors of these works raise questions that we still are struggling to answer.  Teaching during the final months of a presidential campaign that left some of my students frightened for the future, others angry, and still others deeply cynical; while we watched the Assad regime backed by Russian bombers shatter the lives of many hundreds of thousands of people; it was easy to see that we might learn some things from the past.  Jeez. A little humility.

All students at Geneseo are required to take Humanities.  For the past several decades, students take both halves of the course, reading a broad range of important works.  Resource issues lamentably have forced us to consider changing that requirement, and allow students to take only one half of the course to fulfill their requirement.  I am not sure if that proposal will go through, but I understand the practical realities.

I love teaching this course.  In many ways, when I began teaching it several years ago, it revitalized my career, and renewed my enthusiasm for teaching.  Because Humanities is a required course, I get a mix of students from across the campus, and no more than a small handful of history majors.  I like that. I like the mix, the different styles of thinking, and the different perspectives the students can bring to our discussions.  This past semester, the most beautiful essays were written by a student who was a bit older than the rest–at Geneseo, non-traditional students tend to stand out.  He was a veteran who had seen combat in Afghanistan.  In all of his essays, he used the readings to wrestle not only with the big issues we discuss in class, but with his own experiences in a war zone as a soldier.  Thucydides, of course, spoke directly to his experiences, but the other works raised questions about human nature, about power, and about justice that spoke to him deeply.  And this student, more than any other, struggled with the question of how we find beauty and good in a world that at times can appear so vile.

On the last day of class, I hand out this beautiful poem by Jack Gilbert,

“A Brief for the Defense.”

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.


This student, who had seen first hand so much of the brutality of the world, could find that beauty.  I have had students like him in this class: a refugee who had seen his family killed in front of him, students coming out of abusive relationships, and soldiers.  I learn this from reading their essays.  And I find my faith restored in the goodness of humanity by reading their work, even during very dark times. So I wrote to this student yesterday.  I sent him an email, thanking him for his work this semester, telling him how much I had learned from reading his essays and how they had given me so much to think about.  I told him that I did not know what he was majoring in, but that if he needed a letter of recommendation, and thought that one from me might do him some good, that I would be happy to write in his behalf.   I was stunned by his response.  He thanked me for my note, told me how much he had enjoyed the class, and how the assignments allowed him to work out some of the things he had been carrying around with him. But he was not going to return to Geneseo for the spring semester.  He had decided to work full time, and had withdrawn from the college.  Student essays can be difficult to read sometimes–if you teach, you know how bad grammar, poor punctuation, and sloppy organization can be exhausting.  But the best student work, man, it can make your day, change your life, and alter your thinking.   It is a loss to my college when students like this feel the need to leave, and we–all of us–need to do more to make sure that all students who want to and who have the academic ability can attend the college of their choice. There are big questions out there that we have not answered, questions that great thinkers have been wrestling with for thousands of years.   I do not have all the answers.  Someone out there just might.

Of Tribes, Towns, and Tattoos: Some Thoughts on Hakluyt@400

I remember many years ago at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting that the historian James Muldoon described Richard Hakluyt the Younger, who died four hundred years ago this past November, as the “Gene Roddenberry” of the Elizabethan age.  It is an image I have used many times in my classes, even though few of my students know who I am talking about.  Roddenberry wrote his teleplays for the “Star Trek” television series at the beginning of America’s space age.  What would happen, so many of those scripts seemed to ask, when human beings began to encounter others?  For Roddenberry, humans always prevailed despite their many idiosyncrasies, and demonstrated time and again their superiority over Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons, and a host of others the crew of the Enterprise encountered as it boldly ventured where no man had gone before.  But the contact changed them.  A little bit.  Sometimes.  But not always.

Hakluyt, too, seemed to wonder what would happen when English people left the confines of their island to go boldly in search of new worlds.  For his Principall Navigations, a collection of English travel accounts totaling more than 1.7 million words in all, Hakluyt selected many stories of English adventurers encountering native peoples in South and North America, in Africa, Muscovy, Persia, and elsewhere.  Oxford University Press will begin publishing next year a 14-volume edition of Hakluyt’s epic work.  I am co-editing one of those volumes, with my particular focus being those documents that tell the story of Sir Walter Ralegh’s efforts to plant a settlement on American shores between 1584 and 1590.  I have a small piece of the larger work, but the list of documents I an editing includes so real big-ticket items.

I am just back from a conference in Oxford commemorating Hakluyt’s life and casting a critical eye on his life’s work.hakluyt400-1  Many of the presenters at this “Hakluyt@400” conference are editors of one or another of the projected fourteen volumes.  From the papers presented, it was stunningly clear how much there is yet to learn from the Principall Navigations, and the enormous range of topics Hakluyt’s work illuminates.  I have been thinking a great deal about the papers I listened to in Oxford, and I wish I had spent more time there.  I learned a lot.

I was one of the few presenters who chose to talk less about Hakluyt than about some of the works included within the Principall Navigations, and some of the work Hakluyt helped publish elsewhere.  I was most hung up by an engraving I have looked at so many times over the years.  In the 1590 edition of Harriot’s Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, at the end of De Bry’s engravings depicting “the true pictures and fashions of the people of that part of America now called Virginia,” there appears this image, showing the “Markes of sundrye of the Chief mene of Virginia.”  debry-2 From it, we learn that “the inhabitants of all that cuntrie for the most parte have marks rased on ther backs wherby yt may be knowen what Princes subjects they bee.” The mark of Wingina, “the cheefe lorde of Roanoke,” consisted of four vertical arrows, larger to smaller, left to right. Wingina’s sister’s husband’s followers, we are told, carried on their bodies a different mark.  Two different marks belonged “unto diverse chefe lords in Secotam.” And Harriot associated three more marks with “certaine cheefe men of Pomeiooc, and Aquascogoc.”  Clearly there were a lot of chief men on the Carolina Coast.

You can see these tattoos, these raised marks, as well in John White’s painting of the dancing Indians.  white_38_bigIt is hard to see in the version I inserted here, but go to the British Museum website, and you will see them.  They are there, wearing the four arrows of Wingina.  These tattoos, I would argue, as depicted by Harriot and White and DeBry, reflect an Algonquian political world, for lack of better terms, or social organization, at odds with what many historians of the region have described.

Another point: If you read much about early American history, you likely have stumbled across this map, also engraved by De Bry. debry1590bw You are likely familiar with this image, too, one of the many hand-colored versions of the De Bry map.800px-map_of_virginia_theodorus_de_bry_1591  We know little about the provenance of these maps, when they were colored, and by whom, but they are revealing to me nonetheless.

Maps like these, quite simply, served purposes larger than the transmittal of geographic knowledge.  Claims were made, arguments asserted, about possession and control of the new world.  Maps like these expressed sovereignty, and English aspirations toward dominion and civility.  Cartographic knowledge, in this sense, was subordinated to larger strategic and geopolitical concerns: control, incorporation, and the assimilation of lands, peoples, and resources into an Anglo-American, new world empire.

But more than that, DeBry inscribed a political geography that would have made sense to his audience.  He acted upon European assumptions about how native peoples ordered their lives, how their communities functioned, and how they governed themselves.  If Algonquian weroances, or town leaders, could be likened to European kings, then the lands upon which their communities stood could be understood as kingdoms, political entities with boundaries that could be measured, allegiance that could be acquired, and territory that could be controlled.  DeBry, and of course the colorists who took his effort a giant step further, depicted the territories of Indian kingdoms because that is what they expected to see.

But the De Bry map, despite its considerable value, it seems to me has distorted the view of historians and anthropologists who have attempted to make sense of how the Algonquian communities of “Virginia” lived their lives and the nature of their relationships with the first English settlers on North American shores. David Beers Quinn, perhaps the greatest historian of early English maritime expansion and a scholar to whom anyone interested in Roanoke owes an enormous debt, and whose work in so many ways was ahead of its time, described the towns standing along the waterways of this region as belonging to one of several tribes, like the “Roanoke Tribe” or the “Secotan Tribe.” Lee Miller, in a quirky volume addressed to a popular audience, saw the weroance Wingina, so central to the story of Roanoke, as “the king of the entire Secotan country,” and a close ally with both “the Weapemeoc and Choanoac” tribes that together controlled the coastal plain.  James Horn, who helpfully pointed out that these native communities were made up of “loose groupings of semi-autonomous peoples rather than centralized political entities controlled by powerful rulers,” nonetheless argued that Wingina was “Chief” of the Secotans, whose territory stretched from the Albemarle Sound to the Pamlico River, a tract that included many towns and villages. Wingina spent his time at his capital town, Secotan, but according to Horn also at the fortified town of Pomeiooc, and at the unfortified town of Dasemunkepeuc. Karen Kupperman and Seth Mallios, on the other hand, more plausibly saw Roanoke and Secotan as separate polities with a history of enmity between them. These are all very good scholars. But there is little consensus, and not all them can be right. So when we talk about these entities—Secotan, Choanoac, Weapemeoc—what, really, are we saying?

Here is what I think.  We have been too careless in applying foreign, anachronistic, and inappropriate concepts to the study of indigenous peoples whose lived experience might be gleaned from the pages of Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations.  The word “tribe,” after all, never appears in the Roanoke documents curated for us by Hakluyt, the word “chief” only as an adjective.  The word “tribe,” indeed, was seldom used to describe native communities until the second quarter of the eighteenth century. The tribes etched by De Bry, in other words, seldom appear as meaningful entities in the surviving documentary record. By tracing the imagined course of these polities, by adding to and elaborating upon a map that reflected the biases and preconceptions of European observers, we risk imposing upon the region’s native peoples frameworks of social organization that I believe would have struck them as utterly foreign and wrong.

I am not alone, nor am I the first by any means to wrestle with these concepts.  Anthropologists and archaeologists have long studied “tribes” and “tribalism,” and the formation and functions of “chiefdoms” of different levels of complexity and consolidation. Some have asked if the concept of a chiefdom is, indeed, a “sophisticated delusion” that keeps us from understanding what happened in early Native America.

Perhaps. Clearly some hierarchy and control and consolidation existed among Carolina Algonquians who greeted the colonists sent by Sir Walter Ralegh in the 1580s. Carolina Algonquian weroances may have occupied special houses.   When Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe arrived at Roanoke Island in the summer of 1584 as the leaders of a reconnaissance voyage charged with scouting out the location for a future settlement, the women of the village carried the English voyagers into a house consisting of five rooms for bathing and a sumptuous feast. Weroances wore special attire, and signaled their status not only through body ornamentation and clothing, but also with posture and mannerisms.  “In token of their authoritye, and honor,” Thomas Harriot wrote in one of the captions that accompanied De Bry’s engravings, weroances white_45_big“wear a chain of great pearles, or copper beades, or smoothe bones abowt their necks, and a plate of copper hinge upon a string.” Weroances married multiple wives, we know, because John White completed a portrait of “one of the wyves of Wyngyno.” And if English accounts are correct, the preferred treatment they received extended into the afterlife.  Harriot described in detail the treatment of the bodies of dead weroances and the elaborate ceremonialism accompanying their storage in “the Tombe of their Werowans or Cheiff Lordes.”

Carolina Algonquian weroances conducted diplomacy.  It was the weroance Granganimeo who traveled from Roanoke Island to greet the small reconnaissance party Ralegh sent to “Virginia” in the summer of 1584.  Weroances oversaw the conduct of trade in their communities as well, activities that could cover an extensive geographic range. And within their communities, weroances oversaw the distribution of goods acquired through trade.  When Arthur Barlowe, one of the two leaders of that reconnaissance voyage, attempted to trade directly with Granganimeo’s followers, he received a sharp rebuke from the weroance, who explained “that all things ought to be delivered unto him, and the rest were but his servants and followers.”

Weroances, as well, on occasion asserted their authority over neighboring villages. Archaeologist David Sutton Phelps asserted that eight chiefdoms (he called them “localities”) existed in the coastal Carolina region.  Each locality he defined as “a geographic space within which there is a single political system . . . with a capital site and other sites ruled by sub-chiefs, in which material and other culture is closely shared.”  What did this mean on the ground? It was a bit nebulous still, but Phelps’ formulation led the archaeologist Clay Swindell, for instance, to conjecture that “within the Secotan polity,” there “existed the small sub-chief towns of Pomeiooc, Aquascogoc, and Roanoke, each possessing small farmstead sites, temporary or seasonal sites in their catchment domain.”  While Swindell is undoubtedly correct that advisers and religious specialists—priests and shamans—upheld a leader’s authority in each locality, much of what he writes is supposition, and we are not by these means any closer to understanding how Algonquian peoples organized their lives.

So, a first example:  Carolina Algonquians first encountered English colonists in the summer of 1584, when the English reconnaissance voyage under the command of Amadas and Barlowe arrived at the Wococon Inlet.  After several days spent exploring lands along the Outer Banks, Barlowe wrote, “there came unto us divers boats, and in one of them the kings brother, Granganimeo, accompanied with fortie or fiftie men.” picture1

Granganimeo served as a surrogate for his brother, he claimed, because Wingina, the king to whom Barlowe had referred, had been “sore wounded, in a Fight which he had with the King of the next Countrey.” Barlowe famously described the New World in Edenic terms, with native peoples living in the manner of a “golden age,” and much has been made of this quote, but what most caught his eye was a world that had been ravaged by “very cruell, and bloodie” wars and “civill dessentions, which have happened of late yeeres amongst them,” conflicts that left the people he encountered “marvelously wasted” and in places “the Countrey left desolate,” and Granganimeo’s people clamoring to trade for English swords and steel.

Barlowe learned of a “King” called Piemacum, who ruled “a country called Ponuike.” Piemacum had allied with two other kings, one whose lands lay to his west, the other to his south, “uppon the side of a goodly River, called Neus.”  Two years before the English arrived, Barlowe learned, “there was a peace made between the King Piemacum and the Lorde of Sequotan.”  Despite this peace, “there remaineth a mortall malice in the Sequotanes, for many injuries done uppon them by this Piemacum.” Piemacum, for instance, invited “divers men, and thirtie women, . . .to their towne to a feaste, and when they were altogether merrie, and praying before their idol . . . the captaine or Lorde of the Town came suddenly upon them and slewe them every one, reserving the women, and children: and these two have often times since perswaded us to surprise Piemacum his Towne.”

They, Their, Them. The unclear references in this passage are maddening.  The “Captaine or Lorde of the Towne” is not clearly identified, and who, precisely, were the “these two” who attempted to persuade the English to attack Piemacum?  Granganimeo and Wingina? It is not completely clear.  Were “Wingina, King of Wingandacoa” and the “Lorde of Sequotan” the same person? Some people think so.  What does seem clear is that the world into which the English intruded in the summer of 1584 was fragmented and rife with tensions. We cannot be certain who we are talking about when we use accounts like this, but what we do see is that “tribal” names, like Secotan, do little to bring any clarity to a convoluted situation where towns engage in conflict with one another, and alliance with the well-armed and equipped newcomers seemed to offer an antidote to the ills they experienced.

A Second Example: The English returned to Roanoke in the summer of 1585, led at sea by Richard Grenville.  They arrived at Wococon, and sent word “to Wingina at Roanocke”. That’s where he was.  Grenville, however, almost immediately decided to explore the coast of the Carolina mainland in search of a more suitable site for settlement. The expedition’s flagship, after all, had run aground trying to enter the sound.  His forty men, traveling in two boats, arrived at “the Town of Pomeioke” on the 12th of July. The weroance (perhaps Piemacum) welcomed the English.  But why Pomeiooc? Was it part of a larger polity that included Wingina? Was it a “Secotan” town? An autonomous village?  Grenville clearly sought a site for settlement superior to Roanoke Island.  That the Algonquians at Pomeiooc welcomed his party suggests that they believed a close relationship with the newcomers could benefit them.

We know nothing more than that they visited the town, that John White had the means to do the work necessary to prepare for his paintings of the town and some of its people. The next day, the English party moved on.  They arrived at a village called “Aquascococke” on the 13th. Two days later they arrived at Secotan, where they “were well intertayned there of the Savages.”  They stayed one night.  Most of the party then began the return trip to Wococon where they arrived on 18 July.  One boat, however, returned “to Aquascococke to demaund of a silver cup which one of the Savages had stolen from us.” The English made their demand, and not receiving the cup, “we burnt, and spoyled their corne, and Towne, all the people being fledde.”

Think about this.  The English had sailed through “Secotan” territory, according to this map, and attacked and burned an Algonquian town. No one from Dasemunkepeuc or Roanoac, the two towns we can unambiguously connect to Wingina, lifted a finger to help the people of Aquascogoc or avenge this act of violence.  Nor did anyone from Secotan, or Pomeiooc, so far as we can tell.  No retaliation. No complaint.  Whatever ties of kinship or subordination or alliance, if they existed at all (and there is no evidence that they did) were not sufficient to precipitate a response to the English attack.  We cannot be certain whether, or to what extent, Aquascogoc was part of a larger whole. Once again, autonomous towns.  After this act of violence the English, with few other options, settled on Roanoke Island because that is where Wingina and Granganimeo wanted them to settle.


A Third Example.  Weapemeoc.picture2 The 1585 colony was placed under the command of Ralph Lane after the departure of Grenville, and a good part of his confused and confusing account of his year at Roanoke, published in Hakluyt, was devoted to “the conspiracie of Pemisapan,” the former Wingina, “with the Savages of the mayne to have cut us off.”  Harriot, of course, spoke of the “natural inhabitants” of the region in his account, but for the most part he spoke in generalities. “Their townes are but small,” he wrote. Some had a dozen houses, some a score, and “the greatest that we have seene have been but of 30 houses.” Some of these towns had palisades; others did not.  In places, Harriot continued, “one onely towne belongeth to the government of a Wiroans or chiefe Lorde; in other some two or three, in some sixe, eight, & more.”  The greatest weroance the English encountered—most likely the Choanoac weroance Menatonon—“had but eighteen townes in his government, and able to make not above seven or eight hundred fighting men at most.”  Harriot said nothing more about how they organized their lives, nor about the relationships between these towns.  So we are stuck with Lane, who went into such great detail at least in part to justify his decision to abandon Roanoke Island, his post, in June of 1586.

I’ve told this story in great detail in my book about the Roanoke colonies.  Here I want to focus on one small part of the story.  In the spring of 1586, Lane and his men began a journey into the interior, ascending the Albemarle Sound in search of an Algonquian conspiracy against the colonists. Only later, according to Lane, would the English learn that it was Pemisapan—Wingina—who was plotting against them, and not Menatonon, the weroance at Choanoac. Lane mentioned that the six towns he saw on the north shore of the sound—Pyshokonnok, “the womens Towne,” Chipanum, Weopomiok, Mucamunge, and Mattaque, all were “under the jurisdiction of the king of Weopomiok, called Okisco.” Six towns, one king. (White, too, depicted a cluster of towns on the northern shore of the sound which together he identified as Weapemeoc—four towns, one king).

Later, after tensions between Algonquians and colonists, natives and newcomers, had reached a critical point, and as Lane became convinced that Wingina was conspiring with Indians throughout the region to attack and kill all the English, this very same Okisco traveled to Roanoke and submitted himself to the English crown. So said Lane.  But Okisco at this point apparently represented only his town.  “Weopomiok,” Lane reported, “was divided into two parts”– at least–which raises significant questions about what we mean when we say “Weapemeoc.”  The Weapemeocs, ruled by “King” Okisco, appear in the records as little more than an assortment of villages over which the weroance may have wielded some amount practical authority at some point in time.  Indeed, Okisco entered into Lane’s story only at the urging of Menatonon, the leader of Choanoac, to whom he apparently owed some sort of allegiance.  Towns may have come together in assemblages, collections of villages which may to our eyes have resembled tribes, but these alignments were so fluid, contingent and episodic, that it is difficult to use them as meaningful units of historical analysis.

The “Secotan,” meanwhile, as a group factored in Lane’s story hardly at all. He mentioned the name “Secotan” only once, Pomeiooc and Aquascogoc appear not at all. Autonomous towns.  When John White, the artist and governor, returned to Roanoke in 1587, the year after Lane’s men attacked Dasemunkepeuc and murdered Wingina, and after Wingina’s remaining followers avenged their leader by wiping out a small holding party left on the island by Grenville in 1586 shortly after Lane’s departure, he sent messengers to “the weroances of Pomeioke, Aquascogoc, Secota, and Dasamunguepunke,” all separate polities in his view, to accept the friendship of the English.

It did not work out for White, and it worked out even less well for the colonists he left behind.  He left Roanoke Island later in the summer of 1587, sent home by the colonists he ostensibly led to obtain additional supplies.  By the time he returned three years later, the colonists had vanished.   Whether they relocated to Croatoan, or moved fifty miles into the interior; whether they settled in the vicinity of Choanoac, Weapemeoc, or Chesepioc, their fate was almost certainly decided by one or more of the region’s many native communities.

So what? Well, we can look at these maps, and we can talk about “kingdoms” or “nations,”  or tribes, but in doing so, we are speaking of constructs that are difficult to find in the documents selected for us and published by Richard Hakluyt the Younger.principal-navigations

The point I am trying to make—and, again, other historians have made this point looking at other locations where native peoples and newcomers encountered one another, is that we can best understand early America if we look past the tribes and nations inscribed on American shores by De Bry and look instead to the towns, to the most immediate local level: not at Secotan, Weapemeoc, and Choanoac as polities that asserted control over territories and peoples, as nations, tribes, and kingdoms, but as towns. White’s map, in this sense, might be more appropriate, a map that defined towns but not kingdoms, which emphasized the built environment of Carolina Algonquians more than the imagined chiefdoms of De Bry.

If we cast aside the concept of “tribes,” we certainly can arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the Algonquian world into which the English intruded beginning in 1584. But are there other implications? Have we too readily seen tribes, or imposed other European constructs, upon indigenous communities for whom they might not be appropriate or applicable?

Whether the fiercely autonomous communities of the Southwest upon whom Spanish authorities sought to impose new identities and definitions by congregating and collapsing them into more easily comprehensible “tribes”; or the Great Lakes Anishinaabe communities that French observers described as “nations” but that were, “in fact, extended family groups,” as Heidi Bohaker has argued, collections of kin, sharing “nindoodem” identity that transcended specific geographic spaces; or the towns of the Southeast that “might move or reconfigure themselves,” as Joseph Hall has pointed out, but that remained as the most meaningful center of Southeastern Indian life, historians have shown an increasing willingness to look to the local level to understand how native peoples organized their lives. Or think of the coast of southern New England, about which I have written. There we see towns that at one point are identified as belonging to the Pequot tribe, later to the Mohegans, or the Narragansetts, and later still the Niantics.

There is  a large literature that examines the treatment of native peoples in Hakluyt and the pitfalls that come with an uncritical acceptance of his work as source material. Of course.  But these remain texts of immense value, and by freeing ourselves from anachronistic concepts, we can come closer to a vision of England’s very early New World Empire that is not far from how Hakluyt himself saw it, one in which if English enterprises were to succeed, they would require the assistance of native peoples: to find wealth, to distill into the purged minds of the people the “swete and lively liquor of the Gospell,” and to “cut the combe” of the Spanish Antichrist, and in which these varied and autonomous towns possessed the power to determine the fate of these early colonizing ventures.

If we follow, then, the logic that informs the caption Harriot provided to De Bry’s engraving of the “Marckes of sundry of the Chief mene of Virginia,” then “Wingino, the cheefe lord of Roanoac,” and “Wingina his sisters husbande” and the “diverse chefe lords in Secotam,” and the “certaine chiefe men of Pomeiooc and Aquascogoc” were all distinct, all autonomous.  The “tribes” are hard to find; towns remain at the center of things.  Algonquian warriors, according to Harriot, and White, etched their loyalty to these village leaders into their bodies.

At the Hakluyt@400 Conference in Oxford, Mary Fuller of MIT noted with appreciation that a well-organized conference with well-selected presentations is a thing of beauty.  The Principall Navigations is an immensely rich text, and as the papers presented at this conference showed, there is so much more that we can learn from the encounter between Europeans and others during this age of global encounters through a careful reading of Hakluyt’s gorgeous collection.  I am still wrestling with these issues. If you are interested in what I have written here, and would like citations to back up what I have said, feel free to drop me a line.



Grief and History

When I teach Native American history, I frequently find myself describing the consequences of the policies and events we cover for children.  Boarding schools, for instance, but also the many times when children die—when children were killed.  I include these harrowing stories not to shock complacent students, but to try to get the kids in the class to understand more deeply the consequences of the policies, decisions, and events they have read about upon the most vulnerable people in a community, people with whom they are perhaps well-equipped to identify.

So I tell the students about George Percy. That weak and cowardly aristocrat who settled at Jamestown led a raid by an English party against the Paspahegh Indians, whose town stood a short distance upriver from that sickly fortified settlement.  Percy’s soldiers took the “Queen of Paspahegh” and her children hostage but his men began to grumble.  He gave in to them, threw the children overboard, and allowed his men to entertain themselves by “shooting out their brains in the water.”  I tell them of the Paxton Boys’ massacre of peaceful Conestoga Indians in December 1763.  The Paxton men killed fourteen of them: men, women, and a couple of children, no more than three years old.  The Paxton Boys split their skulls with tomahawks, and took their scalps as trophies.  This was intimate violence, acts committed at close range. To children.  To babies.  In order to help my students make sense of the Ghost Dance, I tell the students about the movement that occurred on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation.  Among the Kiowa ghost dancers were a lot of parents, and they danced on the snowy ground hoping to see, once again, the children who had died, innocents slaughtered by measles, whooping cough, and pneumonia.  Grief lay at the broken heart of the Ghost Dance movement.  And of course that grief continues.  Harold Napoleon, in Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being described Alaska Native communities immersed still in a grief caused by what he called “the Great Death.”

A short time ago I published a biography of Eleazer Williams, a Mohawk missionary to the Oneidas.  I spent a lot of time with Williams.  He struck me as a man with few principles, or as a liar, a hustler, or a confidence man. But Williams was also a man profoundly damaged by the death of his second child.  9999004543-l

He wrote a letter to his wife in 1838.  She was a Metís woman, living still along the Fox River in Wisconsin.  At this point, Williams had been living apart from her for the better part of a decade.  He was always traveling—Buffalo, Oneida, Albany, New York, Washington, and only occasionally back to Green Bay.  This was the only letter of any length that he wrote to his wife that has survived, and in this one he began with small matters—of how the water and ice on the Fox River had done damage to the crops, he had heard.  He chastised her for not having planted the potatoes on higher ground. But he also urged her to think about matters religious.  Beware the shallow things.  Please, he wrote to his “Dear Mary,” “Nothing in this life would make me more happy than to find that you are serving God, and living in humility, as one who is devoted to Christ and preparing for Heaven.”  Focus on the important things. “Let no longer the world and its vanities be upon the upper most in your mind or thoughts—forsake them and give yourself to God and Jesus Christ who had redeemed you by his most precious blood.”

What, I wondered, was going on here?  He was writing, it seemed, to a woman who had lost her faith—in religion, in him, and, I suspect, a lot of things.  As I read the letter, it became clear to me why that might have been.  Williams had never lacked for words, but in this letter his desperation is palpable.  He would pray for her, he said. We must be a good example, he said, for the “only child we have.”  I knew that Williams and his wife had a son, who would have been a teenager. “How happy it would be, should we as a family, finally by the mercy of God, to meet all, with our departed beloved Anne, in Heaven, where, we shall all be happy without end and sing praises to God for all eternity.”

Who was Anne?  He had never mentioned her before.  This is the only time she appeared in Williams’s papers.  A dead child, presumably. It took a lot of digging. After some time in the archives, I found her.  She had died in 1830, eight years before this letter.  Hers was the first baptism recorded at Holy Apostles, the church Williams founded for relocated New York Indians in Wisconsin, and the first burial in the churchyard.  It was in 1830 that Williams largely left home.  Mary buried the child, who died when she was not quite eighteen months old, without his help.

This death haunted Williams. In the late 1840s he began to tell a story about an encounter he had with the French Prince de Joinville aboard a great lakes steamboat in 1841.  In this story, Williams told Joinville as they approached Green Bay that he and his wife had an infant daughter. Joinville offered to serve as godparent.  When they arrived at Green Bay, Williams learned that the baby had died several days earlier.  Joinville was sympathetic, but Williams never went home. He hung out with the French prince for a couple of days.  And here’s the thing:  This story—Joinville, the baby—it was all a lie.  It did not happen.  Williams was a liar.  That was easy to prove.  But why this lie, about this baby?

If you study early American history, you learn how frequent the death of children actually was.  Many families buried children, and I can imagine that the consequences were as emotionally devastating for many of them as it was for Eleazer Williams and his wife.  New England children studying their catechisms in the early nineteenth century were warned to consider that

I, in the burial place may see

Graves shorter far than I;

From Death’s arrest no age is free,

Young children too may die . . .

My God, may such an awful sight

Awakening be to me!

O that by early grace I might

For death prepared be.”


The death of children was common.

As a historian, I find these stories sometimes difficult. I have never shared these thoughts with my friends and colleagues who teach history, but I imagine that they, too, can be overwhelmed by this history of grief, of people gone too soon. It’s heavy. My own children are all healthy.  Despite my own flaws, they are fine people, better than me in so many ways. I am fortunate.  But not everyone is.  In a chilling article that appeared in the October issue of The Atlantic, Roger Rosenblatt reflected upon the viciousness and inhumanity he had witnessed or learned about over his long career as a war reporter.  Rosenblatt told the story of Khu, a 15-year old boy who fled the war in Vietnam for Hong Kong.  His parents had died, and he had nothing.  They ran out of food on the ship he boarded.  The captain assigned one man to knock Khu out, and then slit his throat, so that the others on board could eat him.  Tears welled in the boy’s eyes, and they let him go, but they did kill another man and they ate him.  Khu, Roseblatt, and his translator looked out at the lights in Hong Kong Harbor.  Khu said that the lights and the boats were beautiful.  That is what he was thinking.  Rosenblatt asked him what else was beautiful. Khu said everything is beautiful. Sometimes even when it’s not.

I have thought of these stories today.  I read Jayson Greene’s searing essay in The New York Times, entitled “Children Don’t Always Live.”  Greene told the story of his daughter’s sudden, tragic death, his struggle with grief, and his continuing sadness even as he and his wife welcomed a new child, a boy who always will have a dead sister.   Speaking to his young son, Greene mustered “up every drop of bravery I can: ‘It is a beautiful world,’ I tell him, willing myself to believe it.  We are here to share it.”

I get that.  I try to persuade my students to be hopeful and, because they are young and bright and have not seen much yet, it is not a difficult sell.  Still, we cannot teach about the past without considering the pain, the grief, and the sadness that people—native and non-native alike—felt.  If we want to reach our students, we need to help them feel the weight of the past, to experience those moments of brutality, violence and sadness, and those occasional moments of courage, humanity and grace. Connection, right?  Reaching across the span of time, across the vast distances, in an attempt to come close to understanding the world as others experienced it.