Sunday, December 29, 2013

When did the First People realize what was happening?

I have a lot to learn. Therefore, with due humility, I ask:  When did the First People in North America fully realize what the Europeans were doing to them?

It's a research topic that intrigues me. I'm using the question to guide my reading. I'm careful to remind myself, often, that I don't know the answer.

We know now the outcome of the permanent European intrusion in North America, beginning in 1492. Neither the Native Americans who experienced the first contacts, nor the first travelers who arrived from Europe in the 16th century, knew what their future would be. Before colonists starting arriving in growing numbers in the 17th century, perhaps the First Peoples had no explicit expectation that they would be decimated, displaced and dispersed from their homelands.

At some point, the growing numbers of Europeans and their demand for control of more and more land and resources must have made it plain to growing numbers of Native Americans that their lifestyle could not be sustained on the lands and in the hunting grounds they cherished.

Generally, Native Americans left no substantial written records. The documentary record we have was written principally by Europeans. It will be difficult to establish a verifiable understanding of the evolving awareness and outlook of Native Americans in their interaction with Europeans, and in their response to European aggrandizement. Nevertheless, I think it is important to try to understand the Native Americans' changing state of mind as we assess details and the patterns of European colonial expansion and the resistance of the First Peoples. Doubtless, Native Americans did not want to abandon or lose their way of life. When did they begin to understand what the Europeans were doing to them?

Obviously, the full realization occurred at different times for Native Americans who comprised many different cultural groups throughout North America. I'm not looking for a simple answer. I'm interested, first, in understanding the meaningful frames of reference for considering the question.

Some sources:

Johnson, William. The Papers of Sir William Johnson. Albany, NY: New York State Library, University of the State of New York, 2008.

Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. 2nd ed. New York City: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House Inc., 2011.

Calloway, Colin G. New Worlds For All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Cronon, William. Changes In The Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983.

Dobyns, Henry F. Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1983.

Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Fenton, William. American Indian and White Relations to 1830: Needs & Opportunities for Study. New York: Russell & Russell, A Division of Atheneum Publishers, Inc, 1971. First published in 1957 by University of North Carolina Press.

Haan, Richard L. "Covenant and Consensus: Iroquois and English, 1676-1760." In Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and Their Neighbors in Indian North America, 1600-1800, eds. Daniel K. Richter and James H. Merrell. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.

Hamalainen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Johnson, William. The Papers of Sir William Johnson. Albany, NY: New York State Library, University of the State of New York, 2008.

Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. 2nd ed. New York City: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House Inc., 2011.

Merrell, James H. "Indian History During the English Colonial Era." In A Companion to Colonial America, edited by Daniel Vickers, 118-37. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Trigger, Bruce G., "Early Native North American Responses to European Contact: Romantic versus Rationalistic Interpretations," The Journal of American History 77, no. 4 (1991): 1195-1215.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How hard did the British try to win?

I have a lot to learn. Therefore, with due humility, I ask: how hard did the British try to win the American Revolutionary War?

It's a research topic that intrigues me. I'm using the question to guide my reading. I'm careful to remind myself, often, that I don't know the answer.

I think I know enough to indicate the validity of the question. Britain had substantial economic engagement with the North American colonies in the latter part of the 18th century. The British West Indies—the Caribbean "sugar islands"—also were an important component of the British Atlantic colonial world. Britain had additional commitments in Florida, as well as military outposts, trading posts and other dependencies in Ireland, the Mediterranean, India, Africa, Central America, the Bahamas, the Bermudas, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Hudson's Bay. Britain was intensely engaged in diplomacy and threatening entanglements with France, Spain and other European powers. Britain was an economic power, not a military titan.

King George and the British government did not have unlimited military resources. Army and naval forces were allocated to the rebellious American colonies, just as they were to the West Indies and other areas of vital interest. French and Spanish forces continually threatened the British Caribbean islands, an economic bastion of the British monarchy. There were not enough British ships and troops to establish compelling military superiority in every arena of British interest.

Ultimately, British admirals could not prevent a localized French naval superiority in the Chesapeake Bay that forced Cornwallis to surrender his under-sized army to Washington and Rochambeau at Yorktown in October, 1781.

Did the British government send enough troops and ships to North America to get the job done when the rebellion broke out? Was winning the war a pre-eminent priority for King George and his ministers? Doubtless the British wanted to win. How hard did they try?

I'm not looking for a simple answer. I'm interested, first, in understanding the meaningful frames of reference for considering the question.


Bowler, R. Arthur.  Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in American, 1775-1783. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Corwin, Edward S. French Policy and the American Alliance of 1778. 1916. Reprint, Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1962.

Duffy, Michael. Soldiers, Sugar and Seapower: The British Expeditions to the West Indies and the War Against Revolutionary France. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Gipson, Lawrence Henry. The Triumphant Empire: The Empire Beyond the Storm, 1770-1776, vol. 13 of The British Empire Before The American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1967.

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Seton-Watson, Robert William. Britain In Europe: 1789-1914, A Survey of Foreign Policy. 1937. Reprint, Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1955.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2013 All rights reserved.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Book review: Charles Mann's 1491

Book review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 2011 (2nd edition)
553 pages                   

Everything you never knew about civilized people in the Americas before the Europeans arrived and killed most of them (OK, many died in battle, but it was European diseases, mostly). Maybe close to 100 million "native" people died within 100 years or so of the "discovery" by Columbus…..but hold on, this book is not a Wounded Knee-type critique, nor is it ex post facto self-flagellation.

Mann beautifully describes the marvelous sophistication of cultures, cities, agriculture, arts and science that blossomed in North America, Central America, and South America thousands of years ago, in many cases predating achievements and growth and civilization in Europe. Yes, the Incas never used the wheel except for children's toys. And yes, the Mississippian city of Cahokia was a bustling port and a trading center with population equal to Paris in France---and that was 500 years before Columbus sailed. And yes, there were grand cities in the Americas before there was pyramid-building in Egypt. And yes, the Olmec culture in what is now Mexico invented the zero whole centuries before mathematicians in India did the same.

My recollection of learning about the history of the Americas is that the dates and events were tied to discovery and conquest and colonization by Europeans. The implication was that, before the white men with guns, germs and steel arrived,  nothing much was going on in whole continents characterized more by "virgin land" and "endless wilderness" than by people who had agriculture, city life, art, trade, commerce, religion, science, kings and philosophers.

For me, the joy of reading this book is learning about the multiplicity of cultures that flourished in the Americas, and learning how they tamed and managed and very greenly conserved their environment…and for me, the sad revelation of this book is understanding that the peoples of the Americas were human beings whose achievements were noble and notable, and yet, lamentably, their legacies are largely lost and the losses are barely mourned.

In 1533 Pizarro and his conquistadors at Cuzco precipitated the decline of the 300-year-old Inca empire in Peru. Fifty years later, the Spanish colonial administrators in Peru ordered the burning of all the Incan "khipu" knotted string records because they were "idolatrous objects." Khipu were the Incas' only form of writing. The smoke from the burning of the books gets in your eyes, forever and ever.

Charles Mann's website:

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The life of Joseph Brant

and sign up for daily email alerts so you can
keep getting a daily reminder about my poetry, book reviews
and other blog posts. Thanks!

Book review: Joseph Brant and His World

A Mohawk leader who helped shape the world shared by his people and colonists in the 18th century….

This post has been moved to my new website:

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Trash talk to King George

The Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and started the Revolutionary War, right?

Wrong. The shooting actually started more than a year before it was written. The document was basically high-toned trash talk to King George III. It was a marketing piece, meant to get "the opinions of mankind" on the colonists' side.

And Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, right?

Wrong. Old Tom wrote the first complete draft. In fact, he used an 18th century cut-and-paste approach, he recycled a lot of stuff he had already written for the Virginia colonial assembly and he cherry-picked other sources. The Second Continental Congress made significant, often politically motivated revisions to the first draft.

This detail and much more fascinating history about the Declaration is offered in Dr. Pauline Maier's book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Vintage Books, 1998).

The Second Continental Congress intended the Declaration to explain and help justify the decision to end the regime of King George in the North American colonies. The delegates had no expressed desire to lay down principles to guide and limit the new American government.

A complete reading of the Declaration now is a powerful experience, but it's a very narrow lesson in American politics. The Declaration is mostly a list of complaints. It's a recitation of the circumstances that preceded and caused the revolutionary work of the Second Continental Congress. It's an excuse for the rebellion, done almost after the fact.

The Declaration is not a prescription for government, it's not a philosophy of government, it's not a political theory, it's not a codification of law and it's not a statement of policy. It's regrettable that Americans do not have a deeply ingrained reluctance to cite or interpret the Declaration without first re-reading it to refresh their understanding of its rather limited nature.

The dramatic and iconic power of a few words in the Declaration is undeniable: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal…" Nevertheless, Maier shows that the delegates to the Second Continental Congress never agreed that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights (the dispute about slavery was largely ignored). The delegates used stock phrases ("life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness") from English political theory, with no explicit agreement on how to realize them in the American colonies.

The men who helped usher in the Revolution never troubled themselves to even remotely consider how "the governed" could realistically give their consent to the "just powers" of government (universal suffrage was not even a talking point in the late 18th century in North America). The Declaration is a bona fide icon in American history, but it's not a prescriptive model for government or our political heritage.  As a "workaday document of the Second Continental Congress," it served its purpose—to put King George's transgressions in the limelight—and then was almost forgotten.

A side note:
The Founding Fathers were an 18th century "Band of Brothers," right?

Wrong. They were bitterly divided on many issues, fiercely represented the separate interests of their own colonies, and allowed their personal and business interests to guide some of their actions.

Beginning in the 1820s, almost 50 years after the Declaration was written, Americans began to remember the old revolutionaries as "mighty fathers whose greatness threw into relief the ordinariness of their descendants." 

Thus began the secular beatification of the men we now commonly revere as the "Founding Fathers." Actually, the first person to introduce the words "Founding Fathers" in the American political lexicon—in 1916—was Republican Senator and later President Warren G. Harding.