Anti-Catholicism and American History

I’m not a Catholic, and not an anti-Catholic. And I won’t whitewash the many heinous crimes of boarding schools and deviant priests. But, given that, I see a strong bent of anti-Catholicism in our history. The result of a strong current of Anglo-American Protestant triumphalism.

When students—formal high school and college students, and avocational students of history—come into our library, I ask them if they remember what they’ve read about the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, and westward expansion. Most can step up with historical anecdotes, sometimes with dates.

I then ask about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. There is usually a kind of stunned silence. Maybe a vague recollection that it had something to do with Arizona—or California, or New Mexico or Mexico. That the 1848 Treaty had to do with the US acquisition of Arizona, New Mexico, California, and pieces of Colorado and Utah is new news rather than reminder.

I then go on a spiel about historical movement and the role of anti-Catholicism. The treaty with Mexico was over lands that were Spanish conquered and largely Catholic. To the north, I point out, the fur trade moved across the continent, often led by French-Canadian and Metis who were largely Catholic. (The Metis are the culturally mixed offspring of French Voyageurs and Northern tribes, the Cree, Ojibwe, and Assiniboine.)

Meanwhile, the “standard” version of American historical development from Jefferson to David McCullough and Jill Lepore, is that of an Anglo-Protestant movement across the center of the continent. It is made up of yeomen farmers working small plots of ground acquired through government donation acts and homestead laws (in truth, stolen Indian lands).

It is, in the minds of modern historians, also a fulfilling of the promises in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Our history is the gradual extension of the assertion that “all men are created equal” and are free to pursue their happiness. “Men” grows to include non-property owners, African-American men, then women, and, finally, American Indians.

In one of his last books, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, David McCullough lauds the people who brought public education and anti-slavery to middle America. The subtitle tells the story: bringing “The American Ideal West.” In this case it was implicit but evident that the carriers of the ideal, and the ideal itself, were Anglo and Protestant. Tecumseh and the Indian resistance, a last valiant attempt to stop the Euro-American advance across the continent, get little mention.

The title of Jill Lepore’s massive rewrite of American History, These Truths, carries the same message. The advancement of the nation was on the backs of brilliant white men who wrote the founding documents, and then on those, who, over time, found ways to make the meaning of “men” a more inclusive term.

Jefferson himself was a deist, so his embrace of Anglo-Christianity was cultural, going back to the Enlightenment’s English thinkers who had inspired the Declaration and Constitution. It is interesting that Benjamin Franklin, also a deist, is taken with the French, and is the one founder to acknowledge the political brilliance of the Iroquois. Franklin extolls the peacemaking of the Iroquois League, and wonders why British colonies cannot manage their ways of resolving conflict. In other words, there is in Franklin an appreciation for other notions of civilization, and their potential contributions to an “American” civilization. But it is Jefferson who is elected President, who concludes the Louisiana Purchase and dispatches Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, and thus sets us on the Middle American historical path.

Academics have left the northern fur trade, which marched across the country in rough step with the Jeffersonian settlers, to those Alvin Josephy called the “history buffs.” The people who have written accounts of the fur trade were traders themselves, Catholic missionaries, and the county and state historians in the Canadian border states. They publish in small journals and sometimes find homes in books at university presses in Nebraska and Oklahoma. Not Harvard.

Expansion along the Northern borderlands with Canada, driven in great part by the Hudson Bay Company and its offspring—the Northwest Company; the American Fur Company—was Anglo in its management, but oftentimes Roman Catholic on the ground. As Alvin Josephy pointed out, Hudson Bay was not interested in settlement. The few settlements it fostered were small and incidental to the enterprise of turning furs into profits. It did not bring Euro-American families into the fur trade, but single men, often French-Canadian voyageurs.

And Hudson Bay brought Catholic priests and missions along who could marry the Frenchmen to their Nartive women. Protestant churches were divided in specifics, but largely against the marriage of Europeans and Indians; the Catholics embraced intermarriage.

Recent books have chronicled the anti-Catholicism of missionary Henry Spalding, who proclaimed that Catholics had put the Cayuse up to killing the Whitmans, and that Marcus Whitman was a martyr to the cause of a Protestant Manifest Destiny.

And minutes of KKK meetings in La Grande, Oregon recently discovered and published in Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, speak to a virulent anti-Catholicism in Oregon. Predominantly white Oregon was a leading state in the Klan’s 1920s revival, and anti-Catholicism was its primary message.

These stories are minor chords—or a different song—than that of “American Progress” heralded by Jefferson, McCullough, and Lepore. And different history than that promulgated by Spalding and the many spokesmen—yes, men, who have oftentimes openly promoted anti-Catholicism as they imagined a Protestant Manifest Destiny, an inevitable settling of the continent by White Anglo-Protestants.

Just maybe the rise of “Christian Nationalism” is the echo of these Protestant promoters in response to the recent and popular wave of Black, Indian, and Latino histories of the country. Ironically, it’s a response that would dismay Jefferson and McCullough, and likely bothers Lepore today.

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Note: the Image is of a Protestant “teaching ladder” concocted by Henry and Eliza Spalding for their ministry. The ladder displays the essentials of human history in biblical terms, and in this one the Pope is seen dropping into the fires of hell. It’s at the Oregon State Historical Society

Beaver hats

Sometimes you read something or hear something or something happens that changes how you look at the world. For me, reading Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, and thinking about world history in terms of the “Columbian Exchange” did that. For the first time, I connected the fact that potatoes originated in the Andes—that I had picked up somewhere along the line, with the potato famine in Ireland and the potato lefse that my grandmother made every holiday. That the Americas were vibrant places full of humanity and human influenced landscapes before the Pilgrims settled Plymouth suddenly became obvious—how did the corn, beans, and pumpkins get to the far north anyway?
How I wish I could have talked with Alvin about Charles Mann. Better yet, how good it would have been to put them together. That is kind of what we did in our class this Wednesday (“Introduction to Indian Studies and the Nez Perce Story” on Wednesday mornings at the new Josephy Center). We were reading Alvin’s “The Hudson Bay Company and the American Indians,” which first appeared in three parts in the Westerner, and then again as “By Fayre and Gentle Meanes” in American West Magazine in 1972.
We discussed beaver hats. The fur trade, after all, supplied furs—at a dizzying pace—to England and Europe for the purpose of making felt hats, beginning in the early 1600s and continuing for at least 200 years. Why the hubbub about beaver furs and hats? It turns out beaver fur is extraordinarily good for felting—something about the small hooks on hairs meshing together in the felting process—and that hats were already, in the sixteenth century, signs of status and socio-political points of view in the old world. And that the beaver on that continent (I think they are not exactly the same as the new world beaver, but we’ll leave that side road to other investigators) were all but trapped out. 
In the new world, early white settlers were finding it tough to make a living with farming. And there are records of Dutch settlers sending furs across the Atlantic in the early 1600s; the Plymouth colony soon followed suit. And fishermen plied the Atlantic Coast, and occasionally put in to pick up Indians to sell as slaves across the sea, and occasionally added furs to their trade goods (it is thought by many that white fishermen were responsible for bringing smallpox to the coastal Indian peoples, and thus reducing the indigenous population—and their potential resistance—by 90 or 95% just a few years before the more famous Pilgrims arrived).
Soon French and English trappers and traders were vying for trapping ports and Indian tribes to provide them with furs. Eventually, the Hudson Bay Company, chartered in 1670, became the dominant trader with Indians and supplier of beaver pelts to the old world. There were differences in how French and English traders worked—the French were more likely to intermarry with Indians and adopt more of Indian culture. Traders brought guns and diseases along as they pressed north and west. There were issues of control of tribal lands—the Crown gave Hudson Bay a “charter” for a huge hunk of what is now Canada; the Louisiana Purchase transferred “claims” to Indian lands from the French to a young United States, etc., and wars among French, English, American, and Indian forces grew alongside the fur trade.
Alvin chronicles the movements of traders and of tribes, the diseases, the growing dependencies of tribes on white men’s goods, the place of alcohol, the peace making and the confrontations, and the “softening” of tribal lands for the waves of settlers who would soon follow. He doesn’t tell us much about the beaver and beaver hats. I think Mann would have talked with him about that. For your edification and fun, here is a web site that has a lot of information on the topic: The site will also tell you about issues of class and gender in Europe, and show you pictures of some of the finest hats.
Alas, the fur trade and the place of beaver hats in national life and international diplomacy is a fascinating one that gets sleight treatment in standard history texts. Imagine felt hats getting all the way back to the Andes!
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