Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Wild, Wild... um, East?

Some book reviews are simple to write as soon as I finish, but such has not been the case for The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America by Scott Weidensaul (which I received from Amazon Vine, and although I've posted my review over there I wasn't very happy with it). I certainly enjoyed the book, but summing it up hasn't been easy.

Mr. Weidensaul's thesis is that while we think of the American Frontier as being in the West, for a few hundred years it was in the East as the earliest European settlers stayed mostly along the coast and it wasn't until much later that they truly began to push across the whole continent. He also makes a point that atrocities were committed by both sides and his goal is not to vilify either group, but while he shares plenty of stories that illustrate that it's plain and clear which side got the raw end of the deal (those that survived the initial diseases that decimated the once-enormous Indian populations, that is). But he also shows that relations weren't always tense and confrontational, and more often than not the two got along rather well and both groups benefited to some degree. Following are some interesting things I learned:

  • War and Indians: I'd heard many times that Indian tribes were constantly at war with one another. Actually, calling it "war" overstates the level of conflict. In fact, it was more like tit-for-tat raids against "enemy" tribes. True, people were killed in these raids but it was nothing like the explosive and scorched-earth kind of wars that periodically devastated European populations. (Also, sexual crimes such as rape were incredibly rare among Indians - even against enemies - which is something to think about when compared to our own sex-obsessed society.)
  • Slavery and Indians: Usually in the above-mentioned raids against other tribes, Indians would take prisoners called slaves. Sometimes the slaves were tortured in ritualistic ways (sometimes to the death) but often they were subsequently adopted into Indian families as replacements for dead relatives (especially women and children). Many 'whites' became adopted Indians this way - and many chose to stay. But also, Indians were pressed into slavery in huge numbers long before the African slave trade developed.
  • Fire and Indians: We hold this romantic idea that the eastern lands were heavily-wooded with deep, dark, old-growth forests. Actually, Indians had been setting fire to the land for so long that most forests were actually quite open and treeless fields were common. One historian a hundred years ago called the Indian an "incendiary" for his use of fire to keep hunting grounds clear (not to mention the fact that fires killed a lot of pests like ticks).
  • Land and Indians: We hear of the Dutch "swindling" the Indians by purchasing Manhattan for beads. Actually, the Indians weren't so foolish but traded for items that had value to them (if you've ever tried to chop down a tree with a stone axe you'll understand the value of a steel one). And ideas on land "ownership" were vastly different between the two sides: whereas Europeans saw it as "buying" the land the Indians saw it more as a "lease" which would be paid yearly (hence the awful term "Indian giver" for someone who takes back ownership). And where Europeans saw Indians as nomadic because they moved around with the seasons, the Indians thought the Europeans were the nomads (after all, which group left their home and moved to a new land?).
  • Columbus and Indians: I think most people know that Columbus wasn’t really the first European explorer to set foot here. You might know the Vikings had made some failed attempts at creating settlements, but it turns out several groups (primarily Basque fishermen from the border area between France and Spain) had long been quietly trading with Indians. The first real settlements found Indians who already knew the Basque trading language and built ships of the same design. In fact, there is speculation (and even some suggestive evidence) that Indians actually travelled to Europe before European settlers came here, and it makes sense given the Atlantic currents.
  • Racism and Indians: We generally think of it as white settlers in conflict with red Indians. Actually, classifications based on race and color aren't even mentioned until the early 1700s and didn't become common until the end of that century. Religion was the dividing line among early colonists and tribal loyalties among the Indians - and quite a few Indians converted to Christianity.
But for me the most fascinating part of the book was the explanation of the current understanding of pre-Columbian America and the earlier interactions with European fishermen and traders. He explains possible routes and migrations of the earliest peoples to settle North America and what is known of their societies. Most of the book, however, deals more with the conflicts that arose between the Indians and Europeans, and to me it felt like the same basic story repeated over and over again (with a lot of interesting info). The brightest points were the more personal stories - especially those about 'whites' who were captured and adopted into Indian tribes. But Mr. Weidensaul has a very colorful and interesting way of writing, and it keeps the reader drawn into the story - and yes, he calls them "Indians" instead of the more politically-correct "Native Americans."

It's unfortunate that both groups couldn't have worked together in a better way, but it's an interesting part of American history that doesn't always get much attention.

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