Why Learn History

As a high school student I was always annoyed by students who would ask: Why do we have to learn this stuff history anyway? We learn history so we don’t repeat our mistakes. This is the common answer that my teachers, my father, and just about any other adult would give. This answer made perfect sense to me then, and I easily accepted it. In high school, students learn about the Nazi-Holocaust, and rightfully so. Information abounds regarding this topic. However, my teachers never taught me that our country has a Holocaust of its own (actually there are two; one killing 40 to 60,000,000 Africans, and one killing 100,000,000 Native Red Peoples).
Hitler himself often expressed his admiration for the expediency in which the American Christians removed the Native Americans and gave them mass graves like the one in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Have you ever heard the words American Holocaust(s) before? As I read about history I was drawn to the Indian Wars. One day I began reading Dee Brown’s book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” I was shocked by what I read. I had never been taught these things, yet this history seemed so important and unparalleled in American history. Recently, I picked up Brown’s book and read it a second time. Finally, the words shook me from the sleep in which we Americans love to overindulge; the sleep of denial, materialism, and hedonism. The thoughts and images evoked in Brown’s book came back and my heart filled with an indescribable feeling of painful anger again. I thought to myself, I’m glad that is all over with, I don’t know what I would have done if I had been alive then.
The words of William McPherson of the Washington Post regarding Brown’s book reassured my emotion: Shattering, appalling, compelling. . . .One wonders, reading this searing, heartbreaking book, who, indeed, were the savages.” If you take from the reading of Brown’s book and others something remotely resembling what I take, the societal and environmental problems of today find their roots: roots which are still being well nourished.
Parts of Browns book remained in my mind, in particular, the Sand Creek Massacre (in present day Colorado). I went to the library to read more about the subject. I was in a hurry, so I quickly grabbed an encyclopedia. I first looked under Sand Creek Massacre, shocked at finding nothing, I searched under Battle of Sand Creek and found nothing. The Sand Creek Massacre did not appear anywhere! I was, to use Mcpherson’s word, appalled. I kept looking, surely the World Book would have it. To my surprise, the book ignored one of the bloodiest and most grotesque massacres in American history. Well, I thought, surely the Encyclopedia Americana will have it. Blank. All encyclopedias had somehow forgotten those Native American men, women, and children. Why was it that the Boston Massacre, wherein 5 men lost their lives, was in every book? The 133 human beings who lost their lives in the most grotesque and mutilated way on Sand Creek were nowhere to be found. If a massacre like Sand Creek did not appear in encyclopedias and textbooks how were young people (and adults) to be taught of the Camp Grant Massacre, the Piegan Massacre, the Massacres of California, the Marias Massacre, the Wa*censored*a Massacre, Guatemala in the 70s and 80s, the Chiapas Massacre of 1997, the present day massacres in South America, Present day East Timor and so many others? What else is missing? What does this say about Americans today in 1998? What I did not realize then, and have come to realize now, is that I have stumbled onto a shameful and continuing history of genocide and holocaust. The reader, I am convinced, would be appalled also if he or she knew how many high school textbook publishers also thought Sand Creek and other historic events were unimportant. I looked through many textbooks until I found one, published in 1994, that gave a blip about Sand Creek.
On October, 13, we celebrated, or at least observed others celebrating, Columbus Day. What did we celebrate/observe? In 1492 Columbus’ ships appeared off the coast of San Salvador.
The Taino Indians greeted Columbus with unimaginable hospitality. Columbus reported to his queen: “So tractable, so peaceable, are these people, that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.” (Brown pp. 1) Columbus soon lost site of the generosity and kindness of the Taino people. During the following conquest Columbus felt himself required at least to inform the natives of the terms by which he would steal their lifestyle and life itself; though they could not understand a word he said:
“I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of Their Highnesses. We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of then as Their Highnesses may command. And we shall take your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord and resist and contradict him.” (Stannard pp.66)
This was known as the Requerimiento, such conquest ushered in the 16th century in South America. Most of the religion-professing conquistadors, Cortes, Pizzaro, de Soto, and others adopted this practice. The Holocaust of Columbus alone killed four million people on San Salvador in 4 years, without automatic weapons or merciful gas chambers (Stannard pp.72). The genocide did not stop after this first four million people; they were only the beginning. The missionary Bartolome de Las Casas recorded what he witnessed and I will later quote him at length. The analogies between the conditions in the death camps of the conquistadors and of Nazi concentration camps are appalling, keeping in mind that we still have a Columbus day.
War, conquest, pestilence, and genocide continued in the 1500s with Fernando de Soto and Hernando Cortes, among others, commanding this page of the Holocaust. Evidence strongly suggests that both Cortes and de Soto were heartless killers. Both men raided islands looking for humans to sell as slaves. The Spaniards found natives often, and under the command of de Soto, Columbus, and others, put them to work in mining camps, starving, beating, raping, and burning them to death. In describing these events, missionary Bartolome de Las Casas wrote: “. . . Whenever the Spaniards found them, they piteously slaughtered everyone like sheep in a corral.” It was a general rule to be cruel; not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings or having a minute to think at all. So they would cut an Indians hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and they would send him on saying Go now, spread the word to your chiefs. They would test their swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow. They burned or hanged captured chiefs. (Stannard pp. 70 & Las Casas, History of the Indies)
The Spaniards found pleasure in inventing all kinds of odd cruelties, the more cruel the better, with which to spill human blood. They built a long gibbet, low enough for the toes to touch the ground and prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen natives at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the twelve Apostles. When the Indians were still alive and hanging, the Spaniards tested their strength and their blades against them, ripping chests open with one blow and exposing entrails, and there were those who did worse. Then straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive. One man caught two children about two years old, pierced their throats with a dagger, then hurled them down a precipice. (Stannard pp. 72)
A group of Dominican friars on the treatment of infants recorded when:
“Some Christians encounter an Indian woman, who was carrying in her arms a child at suck; and since the dog they had with them was hungry, they tore the child from the mothers arms and flung it still living to the dog, who proceeded to devour it before the mothers eyes. . . . When there were among the prisoners some women who had recently given birth, if the newborn babes happened to cry, they seized them by the legs and hurled them against the rocks, or flung them into the jungle so that they would be certain to die there.” (Stannard pp. 72)
To give the reader some background detailing the stereotype many whites had/have for the Native American, I have taken quotations from John Frosts book entitled, “Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities.” Frosts book was published in 1873, nine years after the massacre at Sand Creek, and seventeen years before the Wounded Knee Massacre (both will be discussed later). Inside the front cover the title page bears the word Captivities in gory fashion. Frost’s account of de Soto paints him more as a benevolent hero than a murdering-Hitler. The title also screams pictorially with bloody weapons that are no doubt those of the Native American; the most savage weapons, the white man’s many different rifles and cannon, are conveniently missing. Frost’s book loses its historical credibility by constantly slanting the adjectives in the white man’s favor, and by using the noun “savage” hundreds of times. As a sidenote; the word savage, I am told, was used so commonly to describe the Native American that even authors like Emerson used the term. I acknowledge that Indians were not innocent in all cases involving violence on their part. When one reads, however, in many cases the Indians used violence only as a last resort or in retaliation, one must form his or her own opinion. I acknowledge that such a book cannot speak for all white people; however, when one reads in Dee Brown’s book of severed Indian heads being displayed in the local town square, and of the Sand Creek Massacre atrocities, Frost’s words seem to embody white sentiments regarding Indians. Here are some brief passages from the beginning of Frost’s book:
“The coasts of Florida etc. were carefully explored by de Soto and Cortes etc., and colonies planted, but they were soon given up as expensive, and involving too much hardship and danger.” (Frost pp. 1)
“The Indians on the coast where he Vasquez de Ayllon landed made a feast, and induced the Spaniards to advance into the interior of the country. Two hundred men were killed there, and the others were assailed on the shore, and Vasquez de Ayllon himself fell a victim to the cruelty of the natives.” (Frost pp. 2)
The Indians harassed the Spaniards with an indomitable spirit; but they Spaniards at last returned safely to the coast, and embarked.” (Frost pp. 13)
“Fernando de Soto, originally possessed of nothing but his courage and his sword, had followed the fortures of Pizarro, and returned to Spain from Peru, laden with wealth, and crowned with the laurals of a successful warrior. His reception was brilliant; and having obtained the favor of Charles V., he sued for permission to conquer and rule the territory of Florida.”(Frost pp. 14)
“He de Soto strove, by every means, to mitigate the hatred of the Indians, but in vain.” (Frost pp. 16)
“De Soto continued to advance, and at length reached the fertile district of Acali, where the troops felt the ground beneath their feet. The prince of the country tendered his submission; but soon after, while the Spaniards were crossing a river, they were attacked by the savages with a cloud of arrows. De Soto repulsed the enemy, and in keeping with his policy, refrained from revenging himself.” (Frost pp. 16)
Before his death in 1862, Henry David Thoreau, believing the Indian to be wholly misunderstood by whites, wrote: “It frequently happens that the historian, though he professes more humanity than the trapper, . . . who shoots one as a wild beast, really exhibits and practices a similar inhumanity to him, wielding a pen instead of a rifle.” (Jacobs pp. 29) Thoreau continues saying that history, recorded by one who believes his race superior to others, is no history at all. Thoreau wrote to many different people, but as was and is still common practice, he was ignored. Evidence for this argument is provided by the fact that when an Indian-lover was unknowingly appointed to a command, he was quickly removed. The reader is invited to read of such cases involving Edward Wyncoop, Ely Parker, Lieutenant William B. Pease, Lieutenant James Connor, Captain Silas Soule, and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, among others.
Returning now to our timeline progression, we are approaching the mid-1500s. Under Hernando Cortes, the American Indians suffered greatly. The slave trade of natives was being highly and cruelly exploited. Cortes, arriving on islands “entirely shorn of their inhabitants,”e; continued the Holocaust by importing slaves. Entire peoples were divided, regardless of family ties, and were appropriated to a Spanish lord. The natives were shipped to unfamiliar lands and made to work in mines. As Las Casas puts it: “the mountains looked like anthills.” The natives were given no food and worked to the death, supplying gold and material wealth for the Spanish lords. The natives were treated as non-humans, their masters being described by other Christians as ministers of Hell. When natives would try to escape, the Spaniards hunted them down with mastiffs whereupon they were torn apart. If a native survived recapture, a show-trial was held. Warnings were passed to other natives, then the master: “. . . flogged them until blood ran from their naked bodies, mere skin and bones from starvation.” (Stannard pp. 73)
Slaves were made to work, even when deathly ill, and were kicked and beaten night and day. The death rates on some Islands were so steep that blood of natives flowed in streams as if a great number of cows had perished. Another slaughter at the hands of Cortes claimed forty thousand people in a single day (Stannard pp. 78). Cortes himself recorded that: “so loud was the wailing of the women and children that there was not one man among us whose heart did not bleed at the sound.” (Stannard pp. 79) Regarding this same massacre against Montezumas people Cortes himself recorded that: “The people of the city had to walk upon their dead. . .And in those streets where they were we came across such piles of the dead that we were forced to walk upon them.” (Stannard pp. 79) This did not deter the Spaniards in their conquest, as such events were repeated. It has been noted that Cortes himself held nearly 27, 000 slaves under his own hand, nearly all of whom died.
In an attempt to remain objective in this brief essay, I will not overlook accounts of human sacrifice by the Aztecs. Indeed these atrocities were committed by the Aztecs on some captured male prisoners. The degree to which these operations were carried out is debated by historians. Some estimates suggest that the Aztecs sacrificed up to 20,000 captives a year. Stannard reports that some modern scholars view the number of 20, 000 to be greatly exaggerated as a result of conquering interest. Whatever the case may be, Stannard quotes Pedro de Cieza de Leon, a conquistador in 1553, as saying: “These and other things are the testimony the Spaniards raise against these Indians. . . endeavoring by these things we tell of them to hide our own shortcomings and justify the ill treatment they have suffered at our hands. . . I am not saying that they did not make sacrifices. . . but it was not as it was told.” Stannard also notes that: “. . . in the siege of Tenochtitlan the invading Spaniards killed twice that many people in a single day Including (unlike Aztec sacrifice), enormous numbers of innocent women, children, and the aged.” How does this information on the great explorers contrast what we learned in school? All of the people I have talked to remember celebrating Columbus Day in grade school, and learning of the conquistadors as heroes. I can’t describe the look I saw on one womans face after she had seen and read about some of the pictures in Standard’s book.
Within these brief accounts, we now approach the 17th century. Life in North American would rapidly change, and the face of the Earth Mother would be changed forever. Europeans arrived in 1607 at Jamestown. Gradually, in comparison to Spanish techniques, the new Englishmen began to settle in Powhatan country. This began with the crowning of Wahunsonacook, or, King Powhatan. King Powhatan was torn between his people and supplying the Englishmen with food. After King Powhatans daughter, Pocahontas, married John Rolfe, Powhatan was placed in an unenviable position. The Powhatan Indians became angry as they were made to supply the demands of the bearded men from the big boats. After Wahunsanacook died, the Indians tried to push the English back into the sea, but underestimated English weapons. Of the 8,000 Powhatans, less than a thousand survived. Another source tells of the war beginning as a result of Englishmen desiring the return of some whites who had chosen to live among the Indians. Powhatan gave proud and disdainful remarks. This, having enraged Thomas West De la Warr, may have brought about the war. As the historian Edmund S. Morgan puts it: “The Indians. . . could have done the English in simply by deserting them.”
When the colonists landed at Plymouth in 1620, the Indians did not desert them. A Pemaquid named Somoset and three Wampanoags named Massasoit, Squanto, and Hobomah became self-appointed missionaries to the Pilgrims. (Brown pp. 3) All spoke some broken English, as a result of contact with earlier explorers. The new colonists were viewed as helpless children. The colonists were shown how to fish, and were given corn from the winter store of the Indians. The next Spring, the Indians showed the colonists how to plant corn.
Despite the horrors they had endured in recent decades, the Indians continuing ability to produce enormous amounts of food impressed and even awed many of the earliest British explorers. (Stannard pp. 103) The gardens were tended with such care that they looked like huge gardens rather than farmlands. Early settlers also admired the Indians democratic government which contrasted sharply with the hierarchical ruler, King James I, whom they had left in Europe. And it is especially telling that throughout the seventeenth and on into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while almost no Indians voluntarily lived among the colonists, the number of whites who ran off to live with the Indians was a problem often remarked upon. (Stannard pp. 103)
In an exclamation of his discontent, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.” (Stannard pp. 104)
Stannard quotes J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur as stating “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of these Aborigines having from choice become Europeans!” Whites who lived among the Indians noted that Indian life possessed a strong sense of community, abundant love, and uncommon integrity and. . . social equality, mobility, adventure, the most perfect freedom, ease of living, and absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us. What happened? This Indian behavior was looked down upon by the uncompromising colonists, who viewed their race and religion far superior. Similar accounts occurred in the 19th century also. Peace between the Indians and the settlers was growing fragile with each new shipload of settlers. The settlement became too crowded. In 1625, a request was made for 12,000 acres more of Indian land. Such transactions and ideas of ownership were so strange to the Indians and their religion that the land was given. After a ritual intended for humor, Samoset made his mark on a paper for them. This was the first of many land transactions that would take place on American soil.
Settlers arrived by the thousands, all wanting land to settle. After Metacoms father, Massasoit, died in 1662, Metacom was crowned King Phillip of the Pokanoket by the whites. King Phillip formed an alliance to remove the white settlers from their homeland. In 1675, after a series of arrogant actions by the colonists, King Phillip led his Indian confederacy into a war meant to save the tribes from extinction. (Brown pp. 4) The Indians were defeated, largely in part to the firepower wielded by the colonists. King Phillps head was publicly displayed in Plymouth for 20 years. Settlers sold the captured women and children as slaves in the West Indies.
Elsewhere on the North American continent, the European economic system, devoted to personal wealth and materialism, began to flourish. The fur trade was big business, and the land was raped in search of fur-bearing mammals. Fur traders and companies stole the lifeblood and foodsource of the Iroquois, and other northern tribes. Many Indians could not understand this way of life; this proto-capitalistic ideology. For most Indians, killing animals for anything other than food and shelter was a high crime. (Jacobs 1972)
We move into the 18th century ever mindful of rapidly changing lifestyles, unjust war, ethnocentrism, sickness, greed, proto-capitalism, and a new nation kicking in the womb. Indian territories, the causes of many Indian skirmishes, were now becoming heated warzones. In 1730 the French traders in the north formed alliances with the Indians and began to subdue other tribes, in particular the Fox. The Fox were interfering with French fur-trade profits as middlemen, so the allied French and Indians thoroughly thrashed them (Wrone and Nelson, pp. 39). The French were also plundering in Louisiana. This time the Natchez Indians would fall victim. The Natchez were not hunting people, but rather, they were farmers with their own government. In 1714 the French built Fort Rosalie near the great Natchez settlement known as the Great Sun. The relations were stressed when the French wanted the site of a village, and wanted a secondary ruler in the Natchez government. In 1729, the Natchez retaliated against the French, killing a French official. In 1730, the French (again with Indian allies) attacked the Natchez and removed them.
During the colonial era, the British and the French waged violent wars with the Indians of North America, often taking their lands by force and using the treaty more as an instrument of surrender than as a peaceful diplomatic tool(MSNBC On Air). Treaties were written and Indian chiefs forced to sign; often times the treaties were written with ink and pencil. The pencil parts of the treaty could be erased and rewritten in a different way, or a new key clause could be added. It was common for the European governments, especially those of the English colonies, to offer bounties to rid the community of pests (squirrels, crows, wolves, etc.) (Wrone and Nelson pp. 50) During a time of trouble with the Indians, colonials paid out cash for scalps and, on occasion, for the heads of the Indian enemy (Wrone and Nelson pp. 50). In 1756, the governor of Philadelphia included premiums for Deleware scalps. Whites were encouraged to embrace all opportunities of “pursuing, taking, killing, and destroying the said Delaware Indians. . .” The Delaware receded daily from their original lands farther and farther westward as the Europeans encroached. This foreshadowed Indian Policy to come.
After the Boston Massacre in 1770, victory in the Revolutionary War, and the writing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington renounced the crown, becoming our first President. MSNBC Quoted George Washington in outlining Indian Policy:
“I am clear in my opinion that policy and economy point very strongly to the expediency of being upon good terms with the Indians, and the propriety of purchasing their lands in preference to attempting to drive them by force by arms out of their Country.”
In researching, I have found this speech by George Washington. These words given September 7, 1783, were an outline of Indian Policy to James Duane (then head of the Indian Affairs Committee). What MSNBC leaves out, is that in this same letter Washington states that:
“. . . The gradual extension of our Settlements will as certainly cause the Savage as the Wolf to retire; both being beasts of prey tho they differ in shape.” (Prucha, 1975)
Thus the tone and manner of American Indian Policy (genocide) was born, though government officials in the 1800s probably did not use bribery (money) to drive off the Wolves as much as Washington would have liked.
In the 1800s, without compromise or recollection of those first Indians who saved the Puritans from starvation and were the envy of many a European, the Indians were brutally removed. In 1805, the Nez Perces saved the Lewis and Clark expedition from starvation and scurvy, only to be slain in Yellowstone National Park in 1877 (it was a park then, and one of the most beautiful lands in the world had been set apart for whites to enjoy). The Eastern Tribes were forgotten, the Wampanoag, Chesapeak, Potomac, Powhatan, Chikahominy, Pequot, Mohican, Montauk, Nanticoke, Machapunga, Narangansset, Catawba, Cheraw, Miami, Huron, Erie, Mohawk, Susquehanna, the Seneca and more. Who remembers them? The 1800s followed suit, most tribes leaving only their Anglicized names on the white mans newly claimed land. There is far too much of the 19th century. It is hard to know what to include and what to leave. Dee Brown’s book is a great introduction for those who want to learn more. In my research, it seemed that everywhere I looked I discovered a forgotten Indian massacre. There are too many of them. They are not taught in school. There is no listing anywhere of Indian Massacres, they just appear while you are reading, like something emerging from a dreary fog. It is clear, however, that the American Holocaust continued with few people (other than Indians) speaking out or doing anything to stop it.
To contrast what we do, and do not learn in school, I will first give a short description of the Boston Massacre, which, according to one World Book, was not a massacre at all! If you do not already know how many people died in the Massacre, perhaps you might guess using the impression left you from high school and/or paintings you may have seen in a history book. In March of 1770, tension was high between colonists and British soldiers. The “Massacre,” as it was later dubbed by colonial speechmakers (in an effort to rouse colonial mobs), was initially instigated by 50 to 60 colonists attacking a British official. Colonists were angry about taxation, and other Acts like the Quartering Act. A British Captain, Captain Preston, brought men to the assistance of the attacked official. When colonists attacked these additional men, they reacted by firing at the angry mob, killing five and wounding six. My goal is not to belittle human death or justify British presence, but to make a stunning comparison. The following information is taken from the book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”
“On the morning of November 29, 1864, 600 Cheyenne and Arapahos camped on a bend of Sand Creek were awakened by the sound of charging hooves. Two thirds of these 600 were women and children as the government granted able bodied men to go east and hunt buffalo to feed their hungry families. Only 35 braves were in the camp. This made the ensuing charge all the more frightening for the women, children, elders, and remaining braves.
So great was the fear of the coming charge that men, women, and children ran from their lodges into the biting cold taking no time to fully dress. The partially dressed Indians began to gather under a huge American flag above Black Kettles lodge (Black Kettle was given the huge American flag and peace medals by Abraham Lincoln and Colonel A. B. Greenwood in Washington only a year earlier and was told that as long as the American flag was above them, no one would be harmed). The braves present surrounded the women and children gathered under the flag. At 8:00 am more than 700 cavalry men under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington and Major Scott J. Anthony, rode in and fired on the huddled Indians from two directions. After the initial charge the US soldiers dismounted and continued the indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children. During the killing unspeakable atrocities and mutilations were committed by the soldiers. Accounts from two white men, John S. Smith and Lieutenant James Connor, described the acts of dehumanization.”
According to John S. Smith, Colonel Chivington knew these Indians to be peaceful before the massacre.
Bibliography: