Thursday, April 14, 2011

Who the Hell Cares About George Croghan?

Vineyards on the Naramata bench, facing Highway 97 across Okanagan Lake. 
It looks like the profession is pretty much agreed that General Abner Doubleday didn't invent baseball in Cooperstown one day in 1839. The scene in Cooper's Home As Found where  boys play ball in the street isn't proof of anything. It is, in fact, much like using Elizabeth Temple's homecoming as evidence that Americans didn't make much of Christmas in the 1790s. It's a bad reading, and one that misses multiple levels of subtext. Cooper is not happy about the ballgame, which intrudes on the protagonist's family seat. At one level, he is unhappy because he is making political commentary, and he is feeling a bit desperate about Van Buren's re-election prospects by this point. (Hence the tone, so easily mistaken for a temper tantrum.) At another... well, let's say that the game could as easily be lacrosse as baseball.

So why is there a baseball museum in Cooperstown? In the end it comes down to Cooperstown being  Norman Rockwell's America. It is a place to be from, packaged and stored in the past along with first loves and school days and perfect summers. And it would bring tears to George Croghan's eyes to see it so reduced. James Fenimore Cooper, who perhaps did more than anyone else to create this idea of the American, had a more nuanced view of things. Sure, he set his third, and most heartfelt novel, in a fictionalised version of Cooperstown called Templeton, preparing the way for everyone from Faulkner to Donald Sobol, but he called that novel The Pioneers, A Descriptive Tale: Or, The Sources of the Susquehanna. Pioneers does, indeed, describe; but what it describes is left up to the deductions of the careful reader. The part after the semi-colon is, almost in the style of a modern academic title, the truly descriptive title. It's a union of genealogy and hydrography. I should probably start with the latter.

James Fenimore Cooper, nuanced? It's true, believe it or not. Americans can do nuance. Probably better than most, in fact, because they do it in plain sight.

Rockwell's comment is that he got a lot of mail about starting the family tree with such a swarthy, dispreputable pair.  No mention of Gramps on Ma's side, though. Credit.

Here's the thing: the eastern seaboard of America is a level glacial till backed by an ancient orogeny. The complex of mountains that run from Quebec to Alabama are so old and worn that they have no rain shadow, but they are a difficult terrain. So the coastal plain is wet, flat, and fertile, but lacks a hinterland. The first really substantial elevation is called "the fall line" because it is so well-marked as to be virtually a tumble off a shelf, and it comes well short of the mountains. There are few river divides in the mountains, and they have significant portages at the fall line, the Saint Lawrence at Lachine, and the Mohawk just before Albany. Old-time inland communications either portaged around the rapids, or went on pack train directly over the mountains.In classical American economic history, the key connection between the Atlantic seaboard and the Mississippi-Ohio Valley was via the Cumberland Gap, a single water parting at 1600 feet. There's a little humbug here. Human labour was the dominant cost for straight overland transport in the grass-fed era, so the economist has to account mainly for break of bulk, cost of forage, and time of transit. Good pasture on the seaward side formed the base of operations, and of the candidate states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virgina, it was the Virginians who dominated the Federal government so that early entrepeneurs got a "National Road" into the Ohio rather than US Route 30.

Not that it mattered.

The Mohawk cuts right through the Appalachians. The one thing it doesn't do is run a long enough course to make a smooth fall of 600 feet. So in an age of navigations, Governor DeWitt Clinton built a canal. It was a big piece of infrastructure for the day, and of course if was controversial. The Hudson is navigable all the way up to Albany not because of its mighty water flow, but because it runs through an old fault. And so the Mohawk's descent into the Hudson Valley at Albany is heroic, formerly making much work for porters. Cutting a canal up Cohoes Fall and then along the lower Mohawk was pretty impressive engineering.

George Croghan would have asked whether it was necessary at all.

The Hudson doesn't exactly come close to the Glimmerglass Arm of Lake Otsego at Canajoharie, New York, the town where George Croghan's daughter, Catherine Adonwentishon Croghan Brant was raised as the first woman of the Mohawks (James Fenimore Cooper would say, of the Iroquois, but others would debate this). But the distance isn't great. The 900 feet of elevation difference would have made canal-building a challenge in the 1820s, but before Governor Clinton proved the practicability of the Erie Canal, that wasn't necessarily an issue. When Henry Fleet first set up his fur trade post at Georgetown in what was then the Northern Neck of Virginia in 1632, he promptly received an Iroquois fur brigade carrying "800 weight" of fur. What were they doing in Virginia? It's a secret.

Well, no, not really. You would think that it would be a secret. They sing no songs of the Susquehanna. (Or almost none.) But it's the largest North American river flowing into the Atlantic that the French didn't get to first. It has the largest watershed, the largest water volume flow, and its sources rise tantalisingly close to other major rivers, creating a convenient chain of portages extending all the way from Montreal to North Carolina. From the Saint Lawrence to Lake Champlain, from Canajoharie to Glimmerglass at the head of the North Branch of the Susquehanna, to the Potomac via the Juniata, and up the Shenandoah to create the complete Back Country Road that Andrew Jackson's parents supposedly travelled after smuggling themselves into America via an unregistered ship docked in the Susquehanna.

I bring up this bit of shady business, required because the Jacksons turn out not to have emigrated into the United States through any port that kept records, including Charleston, as was believed in Jackson's lifetime and still reported by his first, party, biographer in an otherwise canny performance, because it's of a piece with the whole history of this river. Given its size and its importance to the fur trade, we surely ought to have heard more of it. (Unless the name is on the reader's lip and you think I'm making much ado of nothing.) It might almost be one of those rivers that flow under the streets of modern conurbations --a mystery of forgotten histories.

Of course it is nothing of the kind. The river just runs narrow and wide through a flat and muddy country. There's no place for a riverport city on its lower course, no way for a ship to reach one on the upper course. People hardly ignored it; they ran fur brigades on it. There were by all accounts plenty of speculators and dreamers wandering the lower Susquehanna looking for the site of the next New York in the early mid-1600s before William Penn gave up and plumped for the Delaware instead, with an overland connection to tap the Susquehanna's trade.

This is the first surprise of Cooperstown. It was hardly a place far off in the wilderness, empty of even Indians when William Cooper made his way out of the wilderness and first beheld it. It was the nucleus of an inland empire of waterways. I've already expressed my view that pre-literate language family groups are more likely to be very recent creations of ongoing social links than the legacies of ancient migrations in an early posting that is still, inexplicably, my most widely viewed. So by that standard, the fact that Algonquin is distributed along the coast, while Iroquian languages are found from one end of the Back Country Trail to the other is evidence. These were the paths that distributed trade and political power in this country. The Trail was the Iroquian rival to the seacoast route, a main artery of communication at the 1500s/1600s. Perhaps it was the path taken by David Ingram. It was an alternate backbone for the organisation of the United States, linking different regions, and it would have created a very different political geography. Had it been hydrographically possible to turn a canoe route into a barge route, of course.

And, to my mind, this trail says all that we need to know here about George Croghan. He had big plans to develop land across the whole expanse of the early United States. Given the lacuna in his story, he may well have done so. His nephew did not become the scion of one of the richest families of old Pittsburgh just by accident. The 40,000 acres of the "Croghan Patent" around Cooperstown does not stand out compared with Pittsburgh, Vandalia, or Kaskaskia, but it is the source of the Susquehanna. Cooper even opens Pioneers with one of several incidents that suggest the will to believe that it was hydrographically possible for Cooperstown to replace Albany. But I need to talk about Earth Diver before I get there.

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