Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gather the Bones, Part Two

So, I'm a science fiction geek, and I had the same escapist, impossibly romantic fantasies of a total revolutionary transformation of my world as any other teenager. But I grew up on the margins, in a pulp mill town on northern Vancouver Island, a town only too aware that if the mill closed, there was nothing else. So I might be one of the few teens you know whose attention was focussed on small-town boosterism. How did you get a local, self-sustaining economy to grow?

Because of my background, it was natural for me to daydream about how an extrasolar colony might be built, and expand; one that might take me tomorrow. (A secret colony, like some undergound city that was only for alienated, impossibly pretentious and self-regarding teens.) How many generator plants, car mechanics, and sawmills would it need?

It was a thought experiment. If my life goes on long enough, maybe I'll even find some way of making it interesting to others. But it also provoked me to think historically about the one case of otherwordly colonisation that we have in history, the spreading of European civilisation to the virgin shores of the Americas.

Oh, they weren't virgin, of course. There were Indians there, too. Briefly: they all died off in a blizzard of plagues, fading away before an advancing tide of White. (Except there was a problem: did diseases cause massive population declines? It seemed that there was a strong argument that the Black Plague did not cause this to happen in Europe, a claim that I find historiographically convincing, but one that depends on arguments to the nature of epidemic disease in itself. Epidemics cannot cause death rates at this level, for reasons I'd better discuss elsewhere if this post is to have any structure at all.)

Only, and again, why did this only happen in North America and the other settler colonies? Disease was blamed for the lacking. The tropics were places where White folk couldn't live. I grew less convinced. People have been shipped in large numbers to lots of places that are not the tropics, and they didn't stick there, either. Most importantly, that pulp mill town is surrounded by the legacy of a half-forgotten wave of population increase. In the first decades of the Twentieth Century, people settled all around it, began to clear the forest, and farmed. And then, after the First World War, they pulled up stake, and retreated to the cities, and never came back. The contrast between this and the story of the American colonies, or for that matter Australia, was amazing. Why did people stick, back then, as they have not, more recently?

It's a question that occupied me for many years. I was still worrying it when I began reading James Fenimore Cooper's novels as a way of understanding the way that fictional narratives shape our understanding of the historical terrain. I thought I was going to find evidence of a homoerotic influence stretching from Cooper's Deerslayer to Howard's Conan, and get from there to... well, never you mind. That's for later. It has to do with Anglo-Saxons, Romans, Warren G. Harding, and Sarah Palin.

What I found was something else. Maybe I'm crazy to read Cooper like this, but I began to see, in _Deerslayer_ and _Pioneers_ and _Prairie_ and _Home as Found_ and _Wyandote_ , a claim that the Fenimore Coopers were the biological and rightful heirs, not of their recorded, "European" genealogy, but of the Mohawk lordly "race" of old Otsego, via, if I'm not mistaken, George Croghan. (Later, I encountered _Wept of Wish-ton-Wish_, which makes this the explicit plot of a story in a more deniably fictional setting.)

This led me, eventually, to Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620—1633 3 vols. (Boston: New England Genealogical Society, 1995). Whereas it has been said that New England society was founded by a "great migration" of perhaps 40 to 80,000 English Puritans, Anderson's comprehensive prosopographic investigation has found that there were no more than 14,000 migrants. So how do 14,000 migrants turn into the approximately 200,000 Yankees of 1715?

They don't. There's something missing in this story.

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