Monday, November 21, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, XIII, 1:Preparing The Ground

So, the thesis, which I owe to a better historian than I, is that the story told by the many failed European colonies established on the Eastern Seaboard before 1607, when they suddenly began succeeding (St. Augustine apart), is that by 1607, the time was right. A quasi-historical period had passed between 1492 and 1607 in which the world prepared itself to receive European-style settlements.

I wish I could remember the person who suggested this, but I should also note that according to vagrant memory, he or she placed the crucial changes on the left bank of the Atlantic. It is the rise of the early modern state there, most plausibly in terms of its role in promoting larger ships, that prepares the way. Whatever: this is surely to the point. But what about the left bank? The presumption seems to be that the Eastern Seaboard rests unchanging, a fertile shore awaiting the planting of European seed.

Yet we know that that is not the case. Change does occur in pre-, and peri-Columbian America. On Saturday I had a chance to pop into the local Chapters books (I'm beginning to feel some hope for a good Christmas retail season), where I discovered Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts (2011).Professor Richter teaches at the (unfortunately not this member of Clan McNeil) Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

 Professor Richter begins his converging story of the two sides of the Atlantic and "early" America at Chaco Canyon, just a little further afield than I would, and on the large common fields of the "new" European three-field system before moving on to the more familiar terrain of Cahokia. He then closes out Cahokia's story with its abrupt fall, gives us a brief, timeless account of Eastern Woodland political and social practice, brings some Vikings onto the stage for a brief interlude, and then moves east looking for "the Crusades of the Christ-bearers" (67).

How, though, do you synchronise the two coasts and the depths of the Southwestern interior? Here I'm left scratching my head. Of all the mechanisms of exogenous historical determism, how can someone committed to writing this project, and in this way, possibly turn to the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age?

Per the IPCC:  "Thus current evidence does not support globally synchronous periods of anomalous cold or warmth over this timeframe, and the conventional terms of "Little Ice Age" and "Medieval Warm Period" appear to have limited utility in describing trends in hemispheric or global mean temperature changes in past centuries."


The reason that this has to be said by the IPCC? Because the LIA and the MWP have become the last, desperate lifebuoys to which climate denial clings. It's getting so that I can't even find Deep Climate's little blurbs on the LIA and MWP with Google, because there are so many denialists specificallly bringing up the two alleged episodes in specific reference to Deep Climate. That's a lot of clutter. 


But wait! There's more! My long, slow burn against the Little Ice Age in general started with this book, where Geoffrey Parker and his co-authors proposed to find a pattern of "general crisis" in the European Seventeenth Century, and traced it back to the weather. And, sure, the Seventeenth Century was chock full of crisis. There was the Russian "Time of Troubles" (1598-1613); the Thirty Years War (1618--1648); the English Civil War (1639--49); and the Fronde (1648--1660). Just to widen the net a bit, we can throw in the fall of the Ming Dynasty (1625--1644), and, I'm sure, other events as well. See the problem here? If we're going to find a historical explanation for a series of political crises, we need the crises to happen at the same time. "The Seventeenth Century" is not good enough. One hundred years is a long time in politics. 


Without rehearsing the arguments and counterarguments any further, it suffices to note that for Richter's purposes, the Little Ice Age has to account for events as early as the 1300s. The Little Ice Age; it comes, and it goes, as required by the historian, called upon the stage and dismissed as readily. And the same may be said of the Medieval Warm Period.


Having said all of this in a spirit of crabby hostility to a book that looks like a must-read of the season, I'll end with one more complaint. Richter ends the story of Cahokia on another false note, albeit one well-supported by his reading, so that I should rather call out the anthropologists: Cahokia, he tells us, seems to have been "forgotten" by the Indians, as though there were some taboo on the crucial facts. Something terrible happened there.


Which is actually pretty awesome history. Terrible things happened in old time cities. Say it to the class, in the dreams where your education gets you a chance to teach a class, slowly and dramatically. Let it hang. You can come back later to Jesuits and Anglicans being torn apart or burned; to the London hanged being dissected at banquets, to gladiators killing each other for the crowds; to the nobility of Ur III being slowly killed by nails driven through their heads; to twenty thousand buried around Anyang at the behest of the oracle bones by King Wu Ding of Shang.


But come on! The examples are enough to show that terrible things are always happening. That's not the reason that history gets forgotten and misremembered. That happens when we don't need it any more. Or need it for another, telling purpose. James Belich, in the first chapter of his history of New Zealand, where he mischievously pairs the early history of Britain and New Zealand, quotes a series of lineage singers: Aperahama Taonui was careful to note where "the real men" began in his accounts. Everything before that was told as "taboo removal." A half century later Apirana Ngata approved. Before the real men begin, it was perfectly appropriate to sing a random list of distinguished ancestors. 


This is history of families rather than of people, but the point remains that we should not expect an account of centuries past to be a straight, dry account of things that happened. It must serve its role as "taboo remover." And if we want to get at  what happened, we have to work through the stories that we're given whether as told or as interred. 


And, as it happens, the stories that Father Pinet of the Societe de Missions Etrangere du Quebec heard when he began preaching from the pulpit of the Church of the Holy Family at Cahokia, Illinois, in (apparently approximately) 1690 are actually full of mounds of earth being erected for great and solemn purposes. They're not history, to be sure ...but, wait. Strike that. Of course they're history. They're the history we've got. 


So the story I'm pointing to, of course, is the story of Fallen Woman. When Fallen Woman falls from the arch of heaven onto the primordial flood, she is pregnant with twins. Perhaps they are the Hero Twins, or perhaps one of them is disposable and the other is a great culture hero. Whatever; the point is that the animals of the primordial flood gather to help Fallen Woman. Turtle carries her on her back, while three amphibious animals in turn attempt to dive to the bottom of the flood. The last of the three, succeeding, brings up earth with which to build a lodge for Fallen Woman on the back of Turtle's shell. Hence, the world: Turtle Island.


I know, I know, I've told this story before on this blog. I've pointed out that it's at the core of James Fenimore Cooper's last Leatherstocking novel, argued that Cooper can't be bothered to hit us quite so many times with the clue-by-four of Incredibly Obvious Symbolism without a reason. (Honestly! Deerslayer's got a boat named "the Ark" captained by a man nicknamed "the Muskrat"  who lives in a "Muskrat Lodge," built on a reef in the middle of  "Glimmerglass." How the hell can you not read this allegorically?)


But that's not the point right now. The point, rather, is what "taboos are being removed" with this story. Floods and drownings, Arks and divers aren't local themes, but the importance of this story, and its details, might have specifically North American, post-Mississippian relevance. If it does turn out to be universal, or we recover evidence of the "Earth Diver" story in the Southern Cult cosmogenic complex, forget I said anything. In the mean time, this about floods and floating origins. (Because I've already linked to this, which I personally like better.)











For the moment, though, we'll assume that the turn away from places like Cahokia signifies a turn towards a new organisation of the landscape.


So it is important to note that Cahokia was not forgotten. Not in the sense that there was not a town there when Father Pinet arrived there, or that the good father pulled the name he gave it out of his head, Oh, sure, we don't know what it was called in 1150AD, and "Cahokia" enjoys at best a weak preference over any other linguistically possible collection of syllables. (My bet: it'll turn out to be a local equivalent to Tollan if we ever discover a methodology that will yield it.) It was just given a new purpose.


It's worth meditating on that status of claimed ignorance for a moment longer, because I honestly think that American historians might be a little ...diffident about telling many elements of the earliest phase of America's history. How did Chilicothe go from being the Shawnee capital in 1794 to being platted by Nathaniel Massie? Here's a history of Ohio, appointed to be read in colleges by a publisher eager to help spend student loans. Walter Havighurst knows far more about Ohio history than I do, so it's odd that he nods to the 1794 Treaty of Greenville as extinguishing Indian title on the land around Chilicothe without mentioning Article 5:


"To prevent any misunderstanding about the Indian lands relinquished by the United States in the fourth article, it is now explicitly declared, that the meaning of that relinquishment is this: the Indian tribes who have a right to those lands, are quietly to enjoy them, hunting, planting, and dwelling thereon, so long as they please, without any molestation from the United States; but when those tribes, or any of them, shall be disposed to sell their lands, or any part of them, they are to be sold only to the United States; and until such sale, the United States will protect all the said Indian tribes in the quiet enjoyment of their lands against all citizens of the United States, and against all other white persons who intrude upon the same. And the said Indian tribes again acknowledge themselves to be under the protection of the said United States, and no other power whatever." 


Indians sold Chilicothe to Nathaniel Massie at some point between 1794 and 1804. Which Indians? Why? What happened to them? Oh, come on. You know the answer. The same Indians that were living on the land when it was platted, and who precisely couldn't sell it to whom they pleased as Indians. So they handed their land over to Massie so that he could establish their Americanness in Washington, after which he gave some of it back. Why? Because, again, the land was to be reorganised for a new productive economy.


Or, anyway, it's a theory. (It's also a fact of record for many towns in the Illinois country: Not established in the prior link, that Franco-Americans are allowed to be Metis.)


The platting of Chilicothe signifies the settling of America, the moving out of the beaver industry. The abandoment of Cahokia implies, loosely, its unsettling. What does that mean? William S. Dunn gives, two pages on from here, the Board of Trade figures for pelt and hide exports from North America in 1770 at  £149,000, while Anne M. Carlos and Frank D. Lewis report that


 "A weighted average of parchment and coat prices in London reveals three episodes. From 1713 to 1722 prices were quite stable, fluctuating within the narrow band of 5.0 and 5.5 shillings per pelt. During the period, 1723 to 1745, prices moved sharply higher and remained in the range of 7 to 9 shillings. The years 1746 to 1763 saw another big increase to over 12 shillings per pelt. There are far fewer prices available for Paris, but we do know that in the period 1739 to 1753 the trend was also sharply higher with prices more than doubling."

Their price series ends in 1763. Pelt prices were a little soft in the years afterwards, but something in the range of two pelts per £ is in range. The fur trade being a bigger deal than the hide trade, an annual take in the range  of 200,000 pelts is not out of line. I wish that I could be as clear about beaver populations, but some random Googling about suggests a peak North American beaver population of between 40 million and 400 million. Annual harvest against total population is unimpressive at first glance, but trapping is a fairly wasteful way of taking animals, and the pelts aren't being extracted from anything like the full continent. 


So we are looking at something close to full resource utilisation in the areas into which trade goods were distributed. That means the reorganisation of land use. In his recent environmental history, Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson, James D. Rice notes that archaeology shows vast changes in the peri-Contact period in part of his area of study. The upper valley of the Potomac, above the falls of the river, show evidence of near complete depopulation between 1500 and 1600. Rice points the finger at the Little Ice Age, positing that the cold made the Iroquois grumpy and sent them down the valley to raid the region into depopulation. Besides the invocation of the Little Ice Age (this time a phenomena of 1500--1600), I'd like to see some evidence that Neolithic war accomplished this sort of thing, and an explanation for why the Iroquois would do such a thing. It is certainly true that the Iroquois made war in this country, but they did not look to it for sustenance, as we'll see below. 


Conversely, we have the Fort Ancient culture, a development of the Mississippian, which flourished in 1450--1700 period, and its Monogahela Culture neighbour. Both are noticeable for moving their settlements up from the bottoms onto the heights. For example, there is "Lower Shawneetown," situated within the ambit of the Portsmouth Earthworks on the second flood terrace of the Ohio opposite the mouth of the Scioto in the far north of Kentucky, and, of course, the town of Portsmouth, Ohio, itself, platted by Henry Massie, also in 1804, on slightly drier ground than the original "White" settlement in the area. Nearby is the Hardin Village site, a little closer to flood level in the midst of a wide prairie, and abandoned in about 1625. The Feurt Mounds are on a natural hill above a bottom. And so on. True to their typename, if only coincidentally, the Fort Ancient culture preferred the high ground. So did the Monogahela Culture, although this horizon's occupational shift to the high ground is dated to as early as 1250AD.


This movement isn't always securely datable to the beginning of demand for furs along the coast, but the archaeological dating might be wrong. Or we might want to make up crazy stories about Viking fur traders. People have been playing with that idea ever since someone thought of connecting the legendary "Kingdom of Saguenay" with an already-existing European trade network leading out of the Saint Lawrence Valley to the Labrador coast, but I just don't think that it is very plausible. Even if the Greenland Norse were stimulating fur production in the interior, it is hard to see them generating enough demand to produce   changes in land use patterns at the head of the Ohio. Unless... well, see below. So this movement to higher ground might be unrelated to beaver production


In short, corn farming is coming up out of the bottoms onto less productive land. Or maybe it is more complicated. perhaps peri-Contact Indian communities are accommodating aquatic animals in more sophisticated ways. In his account of making war in New England in the late 1600s, Colonel Benjamin Church refers without comment to "breaking corn dams" as a standard tactic of the little war in the American interior. We know that corn was usually planted in a flood-retreat irrigation regimen, producing a characteristic staggered planting and harvest season; but Church's comment implies a much more systematic use of impounded water to improve productivity, but bloody hell if I can find an equivalent historic practice. I did, however, quickly discover that if, perchance, you were to dam up a reservoir of water to irrigate corn fields, you would not only be able to establish a colony of muskrats there, muskrats having a much faster breeding cycle than beavers,  you'd be hard pressed to avoid it. Perhaps there is a deeper reason that Eastern Woodland Indians think so highly of Muskrat.


Beyond straight subsistence, though, we have the problem of keeping the industry going. Irenic accounts of Indians living in harmony with nature and eating predominantly vegetable diets of beans and hominy here run head on into the historic accounts of the fur trade. Voyageurs headed out of Canada for the pays d'en haut actually did eat hominy, mixed with plenty of tallow, but only until they reached upcountry posts where there was pemmican ready for them. 


Ohio boatmen in colonial times shipped downstream with kegs of salt beef and pork aboard their canoes. This would be in lieu of pemmican in pre-colonial times. Unlike the pays d'en haut route, this would have been widely available in the Ohio Valley because buffalo hunts were so successful. The "Illinois prairie" habitat seen around towns such as Chilicothe supports beaver in the bottoms, but also provides plenty of browse for buffalo. One Philadelphia trading company even seriously proposed to sustain the British army in the Northwest with at 12d the pound in 1762. That's a great deal of buffalo, with wastage.


Anthropologically speaking, big game hunting is hardly irrelevant. It is the least effort for return way of sustaining human populations. This might have been the  main reason that the Iroquois used to come down to the Ohio country to hunt buffalo in the 1600s; but the particular need for pemmican to support the voyageur fleets needs attention. Without it, the beaver could not move, so the buffalo hunt was more than simple sustenance. This is why, I'm thinking, that the ritually-altered landscapes of towns such as Chilicothe, Portsmouth, and Marietta are so important. Because, at some level, whether a purely ideological one in which the rituality practised there was imagined to give better hunting, or because these massive earthworks actually had a function in the buffalo hunt, they were seen to yield more meat.


This suggests a role for the Ohio Valley in the fur trade even before demand for fur reached the deep interior in the "Beaver Wars"  of the mid-1600s. It is producing pemmican to move the pelts further east. Could the situation have destabilised between pemmican producers and beaver trappers as the beaver industry moved west? Or was it all one big, happy family? Why are "European" towns popping up in the midst of the hunting grounds?


Which is as good an introduction as any to the reason for that movement, the collapse in the coastal area's ability to produce pelts, to which I now turn.







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