Tag Archives: history

“1491” by Charles C. Mann



An interesting look at what the Americas were like before European contact, somewhat revised from traditional views by recent archaeological theories.

The main “new revelation” is that Europeans hardly got to know America before it was almost unrecognizably changed. Some of the very early explorers (such as Orellana) mention countless numbers of American settlements and cities, but only a few short decades later there was almost nothing left. When the bulk of European colonists arrived, the Americas seemed like a virgin land of plenty – sparsely populated by only a few “miserable” bands of “savages.” They assumed that it had always been that way. Mann calls this “Holmberg’s Mistake” after Allan Holmberg, who described primitive populations in the Amazon in the 1940’s. Because the natives (in the Amazon and in the Americas as a whole) seemed entrenched in the Stone Age when Europeans really began studying them, Holmberg and other researchers assumed that they probably had never left it in the first place. But, evidence seems to suggest that American populations were as large and sophisticated (or more so) than European ones, but then were devastated by a calamity which wiped out 95%+ of the population in a short time and destroyed most American “civilization.”

The reason was a massive die-off from so-called zoonotic diseases (influenza, smallpox, etc) for which Americans had no immunity. The epidemics started right away; if some poor Spanish sailor wasn’t suffering from some virulent disease on Columbus’s first voyage (pop. about 90) then surely there was someone on his second (pop. about 1500). And they kept on coming. The American civilizations were more connected than one may think; even without direct European involvement, disease spread and wiped the land clean before Europeans even got there, in some cases. For example, one reason why the mighty Inca empire were such pushovers to Pizarro’s handful of soldiers was that they had been suffering through a smallpox epidemic followed by resultant political instability and civil war.

A question arises as to why wasn’t the disease transmittal a two-way path? There may be a handful of examples where it was (maybe syphillis) but generally it was European->American. The reason could be due to the availability of large stock animals and customs — Europeans and Asians living in close contact with cows, pigs, and sheep sometimes got their diseases; Americans didn’t really have any large animal analogues, except maybe llamas.

The second “revelation” was how extensively the Americans had modified their environment. Mann cites evidence of the Amazon as a giant garden, and North America being shaped by deliberate and extensive use of fire to clear old forest and encourage new growth and animal activity (for good hunting). When the Americans were killed off by disease, the stewards were gone and ecological release ensued – millions-strong herd of bison and flocks of passenger pigeons were but a few results.

Although one can hardly fault Europeans for transmitting disease to Americans (though maybe you can fault them for follow-on “hit ’em while they’re down” subjugation…), Mann still highlights the great tragedy to humankind when it lost so much knowledge and culture. One reason why we don’t know much about pre-Columbian America in the first place is because so few survivors were left to tell the tale. There was lots of just different stuff which surely would have inspired new thinking and inventions. How about the Inca knot “language”? Or, just how did Mesoamericans domesticate maize?  Mann brings up the great advances brought about by European-Asian connections; imagine what it would have been like to add a vibrant, healthy America into the mix as well.

A final thought regarding the Book of Mormon . . . a preponderance of archaeological and genetic evidence  does seems to refute a “recent” Israelite origin of Americans in favor of a trans-Bering Asian origin 20,000+ years ago.  But I think that both views can co-exist, if you think of the Lehites as a small group alongside a larger pre-existing population (which were all eventually lumped into “Lamanites”).  Fairmormon has some good info.


“A History of the World in 100 Objects” by Neil MacGregor


The concept sounds way cool, but actually the book is kind of boring to read all the way through.  The author tries hard, but the groupings of different objects do not yield a free-flowing narrative at all.  It also suffers from being (I suppose) basically a transcription of an audio broadcast.  If you have interest, I would recommend surfing through the British Museum website about the series rather than slogging through the book.

I read through to the end though, because several of the objects were kind of interesting and off the beaten path of a typical Western history of the world.

But then again, my short list of cool objects (below) is solely from that Western history… West is Best, I guess?  (don’t hate me)

  • Rhind Mathematical Papyrus – I just like the idea of Egyptian math.
  • Rosetta Stone – pretty much the crown jewel of the British Museum.  (Wait, unless the have the actual Crown Jewels?  Nah, I think that’s the Tower of London…)
  • Sutton Hoo Helmet – just looks cool!
  • Pieces of Eight – the first global currency, beloved by pirates and parrots alike.  Never heard of the Potosi silver mines before … guess they were pretty important!

Main takeaway: The world has always been surprisingly connected.  Lots of objects could only have been made with materials found far away from where the object was created/used/found.

“California Saints” by Richard O. Cowan and William E. Homer

I thought I should learn some more about my newly adopted state.

Mormons were key players in the early history of California (the history of U.S. California, that is), primarily via the Mormon Battalion and the immigrants from the ship Brooklyn.  During the 1850’s however, official activities all but ceased until the twentieth century.  The lack of emphasis on California settlement was partly due to the Gold Rush.  There was a lot of interest in California and thousands were flocking to the state; the Mormons could never be a majority and control their own destiny like they could in Utah.  Another reason was the fallout due to polygamy, announced in 1852, and the subsequent Utah War – the Church had more pressing concerns at the time than trying to encourage California growth.  Indeed, the official policy everywhere, up until around the turn of the century, was that of gathering – missionaries went out into the world, but always encouraged their converts to emigrate to Utah.

With all that in mind, it is no wonder that Brigham Young didn’t think too highly of California.  (Although, interestingly, he did call several on “gold missions” early in the Gold Rush to get money for the struggling Church.)  When Sam Brannan excitedly told Brigham Young about the wonders of California in 1847, Brigham said, “Let us go to California, and we cannot stay there over five years; but let us stay in the mountains, and we can raise our potatoes and eat them; and I calculate to stay here.”  Even though the climate and terrain was tougher, there wasn’t competition in Utah from other immigrants.  The Church had found its place of refuge.  I get the impression that Brannan probably never understood why Brigham wanted to stay in Utah.  But then again Brannan seems to have had other motives at heart than furthering the success of the Church.  He’s an interesting character.

Some more from Brigham: “Our feelings are in favor of that Policy <encouraging settlement in “Western California” (vs “Eastern California” = Utah) >unless, all the offscouring of Hell has been let loose upon that dejected land, in which case we would advise you to gather up all that is worth saving and come hither with all speed.” (after beginning of Gold Rush and the unsavory characters it drew to California)

“…hell reigns there, and that it is just as much as any ‘Mormon’ can do to live there, and that it is about time for him and every true Saint to leave that land.” (1857)

I haven’t written much yet about the twentieth century history that this book covers…  “The church in California grew and grew.”  There we go.  Really, there is just too much going on to coherently follow anything in the ~100 pages of this book devoted to the time period.  Some interesting snippets, but I didn’t get any impressions beyond growth.

“Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz

I initially thought the photo on the cover was a Civil War soldier, but actually he’s Robert Lee Hodge, a particularly “super hardcore” (vs “farb-y”) reenactor — or “living historian,” if you will. These guys spend lots of time and money getting period-specific gear, down to the correct stitching on shirts and semi-edible rations of slightly rancid pork-belly. They camp out in open fields in freezing weather and revel in tick bites and going hungry, all to achieve the “period high,” a sort of communion with what their forebears (usually, but not always) endured during the Civil War. (They don’t usually participate in actual battle reenactments though; it’s kind of hard to be authentic in that regard without real bullets.)

Why the Civil War fosters such devotion, and how the War is remembered today, are the focus of this book.  Tony travels throughout much of the South looking for answers.  As one individual he meets states, “The North has forgotten the War but the South is still fighting it.”  The book is a good 15 years old or so now; but I think a lot of the reporting is still true.

The controversy over displaying the Confederate battle flag seems to embody a lot of the attitudes surrounding the remembrance of the war. Some white southerners rightly regard it as a symbol of their heritage. Even more often, though, it seems to have become a symbol of continued rebellion against the system: “The banner seemed instead to have floated free from its moorings in time and place and become a generalized ‘F You,’ a middle finger raised with ulceric fury in the face of blacks, school officials, authority in general – anyone or anything that could shoulder some blame for [their] difficult lives.”

In 1995, 19-year-old Michael Westerman was shot by a group of black teenagers after displaying the flag on his truck. Flag supporters and white supremacist groups hailed him as “the last Civil War martyr,” dying for honoring the Cause of his great-grandfathers.  But really, as Tony found out from his girlfriend, he just thought the flag looked good on his red truck.  The shooter didn’t know anything about the War either; just that for some reason whites knew that blacks hated the “Dukes of Hazzard” flag and like to rub it in their faces. Funny, but sad.

White and black Southern history has yet to be integrated.  “You Wear Your X, I’ll Wear Mine” — meaning the Confederate battle flag “X” and the “X” symbolizing Malcolm X.  However, ironically enough, each group honors more or less the same ideals of sacrifice, courage, and honor.  At a Civil Rights memorial, the speaker “urged the audience to remember the martyrs and the ’cause for which they fought.’ I realized I’d heard all this before…Almost every sentence began to carry familiar echoes…marching all day and sleeping in the fields between Selma and Montgomery – just as rebel soldiers had done in Virginia. She recalled other hallowed fields of battle – Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Little Rock – which resonated with her audience as powerfully as Sharpsburg and Shiloh did for many white Southerners.”

The passages on Civil War reenactors are a bit more lighthearted:

“Casualties are a problem. Nobody wants to drive three hours to get here, then go down in the first five minutes and spend the day lying on cowpies.”

“Suddenly, drums began banging to our rear. I turned and saw about a hundred tourists marching behind us, evidently inspired by our example….’Sir, the Tourists of Northern Virginia are close on our rear.'”