Sunday, August 7, 2011

Gather the Bones, 10: Unsettling America

I just caught a Vinyl Cafe rerun of an episode on "children's songs that are worth a listen." This was on it.

Good news. (For me.) There's still some CBC Radio listeners who are older than me, who remember wearing coonskin hats. (Cringe.) Some.

And that's today's provocation. Specifically, the apotheosis of Davy Crockett, striding off into the wilderness at the head of the western march, which "had just begun."

Really? Put it another way, with the authority of a real historian, William R. Polk, author of The Birth of America: From Before Columbus to the Revolution. Now, this is a bit unfair. Professor Polk is a Middle Eastern specialist, not an early Americanist. He is giving us a big picture review, perhaps out of some sense, well-merited but kept where it belongs, of having a personal stake in the antebellum and "the western march." In some ways, the worst that can be said of the result is that his treatment of the Indians as a little on the noble savage side.

In some ways. In 1962, the future professor worked in the restoration of a 1692-built Harvard home, an experience that he apparently found formative enough to discuss on pp. 144--45.

I get that: I worked for home restorers one summer as an undergraduate, and was deeply impressed with their faith in, and commitment to, the future, and their family's place in it. It's a very grounding perspective. Now, I don't know if that's the social context of Polk's experience. He's awfully private about some aspects of his life, and he could have been anything from summer labourer up to home owner.

So now I feel like a real heel. I'm bashing a worthy book by a good scholar, and I've chosen an episode that is clearly a happy episode from Polk's youth(ishness).

But he insists that the architectural novelties of this house, built by a shipwright in a shipbuilding town of lumber sawed for shipbuilding are due to its being a "garrison house." He cites Turner's "frontier thesis," and points to evidence from 1645, 1669, and 1675 as proof that in 1692, the "frontier" ran through Harvard Yard.

Professor Polk?

That's Google Maps showing the distance from Boston to Springfield. It's slightly complicated by the decision to put "Harvard" in "Cambridge," but you can see Cambridge, partly obscured by the Google pin for Boston.

Springfield (Agawam of the Pocomtuc or Nipmuk nation), is located on the left bank of the Connecticut river at its confluence with the Westfield, just north of the river's first portage, the 32 foot Enfield falls. Per its accepted early history, largely based on the family histories of the Cable, Pynchon and Burr families (which latter gave the United States a notorious Vice-President), John Cable came to Agawam in 1635, four years after the founding of Boston. Cable found there that the banks of the river had been burnt clear by the Indians, and that the soil was deep and rich. So in 1636 he returned with a small party of would-be settlers, including William Pynchon.

Cable bought a palisade on the east bank from the local Indians, erected a warehouse, and commenced to farm, levy excises on the portage and perhaps the river crossing, and buy beaver pelts. (Family history records that Jehu Burr was appointed Collector of Excise by Massachusetts Bay. I assume that this is based on surviving records.) Pynchon exported the first barrel of salt pork down the river in 1645. In 1655, his son drove the first cattle herd to market down to Boston by land.

What were the Indians doing about all of this? Nothing. Not until 1675, after 39 untroubled years, during King Philip's War, when Springfield suffered its first Indian raid. Forty-five of sixty houses were burnt, as were Pynchon's grist and saw mills. The inhabitants took refuge in Miles Morgan's block house, which is why Morgan has a heroic statue in Springfield's main square. It must have been a frightening experience, and King Philip's War currently stands in American history for the moment of the Fall, when the old, Edenic world of peaceful cohabitation of White and Indian was replaced by a genocide. That being said, a total of 800 White colonists died during the three years of the war. Only two settlements were burnt, and both were rebuilt. Deerfield, not far north, wasn't even fortified until King William's War, and that because it was on the frontier with the French, not the wilderness. (Which makes me very, very suspicious that the "Indian raiders" did such a good job on the tax collector's properties, yet missed a quarter of the houses.) Then, of course, it was famously raided by Franco-Indian forces. Because France and Britain were at war.

Once Fenimore Cooper finally gets around to action in Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, he repeatedly describes his settler/warriors as "borderers." This reminds me, at least, that Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border was the live world of literature to Cooper, as he worked to immortalise the stories of the American frontier. The essential difference, as I understand it is that for the Europeanist, familiar with Armstrongs, Cossacks, and "wild Croats and Pandours,"  great powers don't conspire to run their borders through unsettled wilderness. State borders create wilderness. They actively unsettle. The American frontier,supposedly, is pre-existing, marching slowly westward from Harvard Yard to the Pacific shore. (Never mind the complications)

Except that that's precisely not the story of Springfield and Deerfield. Springfield lies far west of the frontier. The frontier that led to the Deerfield massacre flowed out of great power relations. Strictly speaking, by Professor Polk's chronology, unsettling came before settling. Which, actually, makes perfect sense. So I'm going to run with it.

Late in life, when his writing skills were at their peak, my guru returned to the scenario of his more famous novels with a much more self-assured and fictionalised version of the story of the settlement of the American wilderness: Wyandote: Or, The Hutted Knoll)

If you don't have the patience  for the long version, (starting p. 16) the short version of Cooper's story is that Captain Willoughby, having served well in the Seven Years War, has the connections to get a "patent" for land in New York Province, and a desire to do so. So he turns to his Indian scout, Nick, and is apprised of a likely location on the upper reaches of the North Branch of the Susquehanna. It is a trapped-out beaver pond of 400 acres on a creek, surrounded by a rather larger piece of bench land rising up into the "mountains," 7000 acres in all. Captain Willoughby goes there, builds his settler's hut on a knoll rising from the beaver pond, hence the hutted knoll, then knocks down the dam. One flood later, he has 400 acres of silt-rich, pre-cleared bottom land ready for planting. Various adventures follow.

So this is settlement. I could wax endlessly about how this all ties into Cooper's other books, or point to the similarities between the way that the land of the new settlement is opened up by a flood and the Earth Diver myth, and the way that American pyramids have huts on the top. 

But I'm not. I'm just going to point out that settlement began with getting rid of the beavers.

Here's the problem. In general, our vision of the Indian is of a noble savage, living in harmony with nature. It follows that the "nature" that Europeans found when they entered  the Eastern Woodlands included vast acreages of fertile bottom land locked up under beaver dams. But if beaver ponds are such cheap and excellent farm land, that's a pretty dumb thing for corn-growing Indians to tolerate.

  Here's the hypothesis that accounts for it: settlement began with getting rid of the beavers. Some time, well before the beginning of the state-led European settlement of the northern Eastern Woodlands, America, someone unsettled it. With beavers. Don't talk about "the westward march." Talk about the end of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex and about the price of beaver hats. 


  1. The land was under beaver because this was after the Colombian holocaust epidemics and the population had not recovered.

  2. Well, that's a pretty pithy rejection of my argument that the "Columbian holocaust" is pretty weak sauce. care to address the epidemiological issues?

    Epidemics spread as a function of several variables: latency period, infection rate, contact opportunities, and population immunity. The resulting death rate is determined by lethality amongst those infected. But if lethality is high, contact opportunities are normally low.

    For example, the great epidemic of our age, AIDS, has high lethality, but a relatively low infection rate, balanced by a very long latency period. The result is a relatively high mortality, but one that doesn't rise anywhere close to accounting for the presumptive post-Columbian event.

    On the other hand, Ebola has notoriously a high lethality and high infectious rate. But it has a very short latency, and as a result Ebola has not made the transition to an epidemic. It kills many people, but cannot spread through populations because it kills too quickly.

    Again, the recent bird flu epidemic (which tends to suggest the naivete of the premise that the Western Hemisphere was entirely isolated from global pandemics, but never mind)was deemed dangerous because it wasn't that lethal. You could get it from that minimum wage cashier at the grocery store who couldn't take a day off for fear of missing rent. (Thanks bunches, "Chainsaw" Al Dunlop.)

    So there's many possible models for pandemic transmissions, but the general rule is, the better it spreads, the less lethal it is going to be. Remember, the Nineteenth Century globe was swept by multiple "virgin field" epidemics that struck places like Egypt, Peru, and the working class neighborhoods of London, places with virtually no public health resources at all. The lesson of these epidemics is that death rates in the teens per thousands are expected at worst, that they have an enormous social impact, and, not surprisingly, that they have no demographic impact whatsoever.

    We do not know how an epidemic could possibly have a "holocaust" style effect, killing in excess of, say, 30% of the pre-epidemic population. To get there, we need to go way out on a limb and conjure with a history of the human immune system. The claim is that it is possible, and that there existed, a human population with a generally depressed immune response to all introduced diseases (but see bird flu).

    We also need to see mechanics not associated with outbreaks of that disease in "normal" populations. Thus, for example, smallpox epidemics are generally geographically restricted because smallpox victims are in too much pain to move very far. No smallpox sweeping across the continent from the site of Columbus' landings to the Ohio! Unless smallpox acted very differently pre-contact Western Hemisphere populations for some reason not currently known to science

    But if we assume this biologically-unique population, we're in trouble. Absent the discovery of a genetic susceptibility to disease in Western hemisphere gene pools, this is a factor internal to the immune system. Once the "holocaust" has had its kick at the can, the remaining population is up to speed on disease resistance in general, and subsequent epidemics will have their normal (socially devastating but demographically irrelevant) effect. If the Midwestern prairie habitat was created by an epidemic depopulation event in the peri-contact period, c. 1500, then we're not allowed another one later, no matter how much our narrative demands "drink, disease and degeneracy" to clear the path for the westward march of the pioneers after 1794.

    More generally, if epidemics with demographically-significant death rates are required multiple times in our history of North America, one then has a right to ask whether the hypothesis is doing good work.

    Is there another hypothesis that might fit the data better? Hence this exercise.