What might have been

I was thinking about this blog post on my morning bike ride, and out of nowhere came a remark made by an old professor of mine about 50 years ago—“the United States has never been a melting pot, unless you think of it as all melting towards Anglo-American.” They are certainly not the exact words, but the sentiment is right, and it comes across strong as I read and reread AJ’s work.
For the past few weeks I have been concentrating on The Civil War in the American West in preparation for a talk at the Pacific Northwest History Conference in Tacoma last week. (Thanks, by the way, to good friends who came down from Seattle and over from Roslyn to fill chairs!) 
Again and again the idea that the westering thrust of US history is inevitable, and that Indians have had few choices in dealing with it comes through in the words of generals, politicians, settlers, and historians. Indians were moved or could remove themselves to small enclaves (until the enclave turned out to have gold—or good grass, or water, or something else that the westering white man needed); they could assimilate (and still, as half-breed Sioux farmers in Minnesota learned, risk war and removal); or they could fight and die at the superior power of the Anglo-American juggernaut.  
Although there are well documented stories of black cowboys and runaway slaves moving west, of French-Indian Metis culture, and other ethnic ingredients in the Western “melting pot,” most early white emigrants, like their forefathers who established the Union, were Anglo in origin and/or becoming culturally Anglo-American. And gradually, in the decades before the Civil War, the United States and its Anglo based laws and Anglo language marched west, overcoming French interests and Mexican interests, and denying suggestions—by Indians and even by the English—to incorporate “Indian states” in the growing Union. That possibility was squelched—maybe once and for all—at the Treaty of Ghent at the conclusion of the War of 1812:
“The United States, while intending never to acquire lands from the Indians otherwise than peaceably, and with their free consent, are fully determined, in that manner, progressively, and in proportion as their growing population may require, to reclaim from the state of nature, and to bring into cultivation every portion of the territory contained within their acknowledged boundaries. In thus providing for the support of millions of civilized beings, they will not violate any dictate of justice or of humanity; for they will not only give to the few thousand savages scattered over that territory an ample equivalent for any right they may surrender, but will always leave them the possession of lands more than they can cultivate, and more than adequate to their subsistence, comfort, and enjoyment…”
Alvin suggested in many places that re-inserting Indians into our history might include the might-have-beens.
So what might have been if Anglo-American manifest destiny had not triumphed, if the French would have retained New Orleans and some points west? If Mexico had not ceded so much? If the First World War had not taken the German language out of public schools in Wisconsin? If there would have been an Indian state?
It occurs to me that North America might look a lot more like South America, with states—or countries—with varying shades of democratic and autocratic governments, different agricultures and economies. There might be more and different official dialects of English, French, Spanish and German—and maybe even Cherokee or Sioux.
South America and its several countries—and states—have had their own rocky paths over the past 500 years, but Brazil and Argentina are on a global rise, and indigenous people, often oppressed by church and state, have occupied and continue to occupy their state houses. Where, one wonders, will the “savages” be—and the Anglos—in North and South America in another 100 or 500 years.
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On the way to the academy

Back in April, I got notice that the theme for the Pacific Northwest History Association’s fall meeting in Tacoma, Washington was to be “The Civil War and Civil Rights.” As it happened, I was reading Alvin J’s The Civil War in the American West at the time, and remembered a passage in the Introduction claiming that the Civil War probably saw the decimation of more Indian tribes and the takeover of more Indian lands than any comparable period in American history. The conference’s prospectus didn’t mention Indians, so I wrote them a proposal saying I wanted to talk about Alvin, the War, and Invisible Indians.

And they accepted! All was well. It was on my calendar—six months and a summer-full of activities away. As things got closer, I assumed I would reread the Civil War book and miscellaneous other Josephy and Civil War material and prepare an outline, head to Tacoma next week, and talk for 25 minutes and leave five minutes for discussion. I would see Al Josephy and John Jackson in Olympia, see Eliza Canty-Jones from the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and maybe hear Greg Nokes talk about his research on African Americans in Oregon. Meet old friends of Alvin’s and many real historians.

And then a couple of weeks ago I got notice that they wanted a “paper” ahead of time! A real paper. I quickly calculated that a 25 minute paper would be about 3500 words, and I have not written a 3500 word paper in a very long time!  When I told my brother, who teaches at nearby Washington State, what I had to do, he howled. “Welcome to my world,” he chuckled.

Still and all, I had thought about this back in April and had an outline in mind. It couldn’t be too difficult.

Until I reread the Josephy book and tried to get around it all: Indians, Civil War, Civil Rights. Settlers, armies, generals (there were a lot of them in that war!), Butterfield Road, Oregon Trail, Pony Express, tribes, treaties, mountain men, Mexico, Texas—the Republic of, Sam Houston, the Gadsden Purchase, Northwest Territory, Indian Territory, Lincoln, massacres—Sand Creek and Bear River and Indians massacring Whites in Minnesota, Minnesota—my home state. And pretty soon I was back at Columbus and Squanto, Jacque Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin and trying to get some handle on the history of White and Indian relations—Alvin’s life work and here I am trying to distill it all into an argument about Indians and the Civil War!

Deep breaths. 2000 languages Alvin says in The Indian Heritage of America. 500 Nations in North America, he wrote. I checked the last census—546 recognized tribes, in 2010! Each one of these tribes has a history and culture of its own. And the White guys were not–are not–of one mind. Of course it’s complicated!


October 19, Washington State Historical Museum, 3:45 p.m. Come watch me tremble.