Archive | August, 2014

Review of The Magic and Mystery of Westville, by William W. Winn

26 Aug

I recently again read through The Magic and Mystery of Westville, a slim photo-based book about a living history museum in southwest Georgia whose board I currently chair. Originally published back in 1999, I have browsed through it many times before. As we are currently planning to move the entire complex and overhaul programming and therefore are heavily involved in interpretive planning for the new Westville, I felt it was appropriate for me to take another look at Winn’s book to see how its purpose had been explained by previous leaders. Naturally, I am probably a little biased in my evaluation of The Magic and Mystery, but I believe even those not as intimately associated with the institution will find it compelling. 


The short book is a powerful statement of purpose and an intriguing commentary on a sense of place. It is convincingly written and evocatively documented with photographs that communicate both a reason for the existence of this cultural institution and, simultaneously but perhaps unexpectedly, a statement on the value of cultural heritage institutions of its type in general and the history they interpret. Photographer Mike Haskey captures the essence of what Westville strives to be in a series of artful photographs calling to mind the toil, skills, and way of life of western Georgia’s antebellum pioneers. Winn’s sweeping introductory essay attempts to condense into about 10 pages the integral importance of the region’s forebears in its cultural heritage, inviting readers to learn and purposefully inviting them to ponder. The book is a great introduction to a unique institution, and a great example of how to briefly communicate a mission and experience while encouraging readers to want to learn more.


Review of Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, by Timothy Pauketat

21 Aug

At one point in my career I had a chance to oversee a Mississippian Period mound site that was relatively little studied by professional archaeologists. Much of what we thought we knew about the site really came from studies of other similar sites, the best of which were summaries of numerous small archaeological investigations which all together offered a glimpse of life among the great moundbuilding societies of the region. Naturally, then, I was intrigued when I came across what purported to be a summary of investigations at the great mound center of Cahokia—believed to be the very origin of the Mississippi Period culture which swept over much of the North American continent—in the form of Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, by Timothy Pauketat. According to the publisher, the book vividly brings to life the forgotten city of Cahokia “in a lively and astonishing narrative of prehistoric America.” Well, not exactly.


By summarizing numerous archaeological investigations and casting investigators as major characters in the Cahokia story, shedding light on the predominant theories about Cahokia’s rise and fall, as well as chronicling the site of the great city over the centuries, Pauketat attempts to bring this fascinating place to life. That the story is so rich makes it all the more frustrating that he doesn’t.

The sudden reorganization of native societies which disseminated from Cahokia around 1050 is one of the most important developments in the cultural history of the North American continent. At its height the largest urban metropolis north of Mexico, today only a fraction of the enormous Cahokia complex remains as part of a state park just outside of St. Louis. Its numerous mounds contain the story of a civilization that rose and fell long before European explorers began to record written information about native life in North America. Yet its influence was felt for centuries afterword by the cultural and physical descendants of the original Cahokians who populated much of the American Midwest and South as many of the historic tribes we know from early American history.

Cahokia is not bad by any means, and it certainly is not the dry scientific account of archaeological investigations that many will fear. But the book is not an engrossing narrative and actually spends little time trying to help readers visualize day to day life at perhaps America’s most impressive prehistoric mound center. There are well-written chapters that move quickly and translate scientific exploration into interesting parts of the Cahokia story, but there are others filled with more detail on the life and careers of individual archaeologists who explored Cahokia than most readers would expect to find. Some of this is necessary, perhaps, as individuals who have driven the efforts to understand and save Cahokia demand attention in the book, but Pauketat never seems to quite decide if the book is a recounting of people who studied Cahokia, a summary of investigation of the site, an attempt to help people understand life at the site, or an explanation of its larger importance in Native American history. Certainly all of these are related, but the book’s chapters read as a somewhat disjointed assemblage rather than a continuous narrative that leaves one with any certain understanding of much about Cahokia other than a sense of awe at its astonishing size, complexity, and influence.

In a way if Pauketat accomplishes this much, perhaps he’s done all he intended and more. I will now make it a priority to visit the site of Cahokia when I next find myself in the area, after all. Reading the book reminds me somewhat of the exploits of early twentieth-century adventurers in ancient Egyptian ruins, making me aware anew of the depth of the history we actually have in the United States and how much we still have to be discovered. In final analysis, Cahokia definitely falls short being the “astonishing narrative” I was promised but nevertheless proved inspiring. It is just a shame it could not be both.



19 Aug

Our nation is currently commemorating the 50th anniversary of the modern Civil Rights Movement. New books are being published and various events and programs are being held that examine some of the most iconic events in our nation’s history such as the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer. Race is surely the dominant factor in the history Mississippi, where I live, as well as the history of the rest of the South and these events deserve proper recognition and interpretation. However, it appears that for the past five years or so, other events and anniversaries are also occurring that are not getting any recognition at all. In fact, it appears that for many, to even suggest that there should be recognition or programming that reflects other important national anniversaries such as the 200th anniversary of War of 1812 or the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is considered racist.  

This is in ironic contrast to the 1960s which witnessed a host of centennial celebrations of the Civil War. These mainly pro-Southern biased reenactments occurred while the South and nation were experiencing the struggle for equal rights. Our current time period provides the perfect opportunity to link the two integrally related events of the Civil War and Civil Rights. Unfortunately, this appears to be impossibility. Those driving the Civil Rights historical push will often not allow any other discussion to take place since, in their minds, we have studied other topics enough. Conversely, I must add, many Civil War diehards do not want the messy subject of race to interfere with “their” history as well. As a nation, we have striven to end segregation but in this instance, we seem to prefer it. It is a shame that we can’t do a better job discussing interrelated milestone historical events in the context of the total history of the nation. Nothing happens in a vacuum and events build upon and affect other events.


Why Do We Do History?

14 Aug

It seems like a simple enough question, but the thought does come to mind as we read various historical works. We should “do history” to uncover the past and determine how events unfolded. Perhaps we attempt to learn and understand motivations. We also should “do history” to acquire good stories. No need for fiction when our past has all the fascinating stories we could ask for. However, more and more it seems like some historians use history in an attempt to support their personal opinions or promote an agenda.

We are convinced some historians conduct research and write not to explain past events, but to explain the past as they see it or wish it to be. They have a pre-determined opinion and theory, and find evidence to support it, sometimes ignoring information that does not fit their model. A good example of this is the works of many writers of Native American history and the tumultuous Removal era. Some of these historians are so fixated on the flawed idea of Native American society as some sort of utopia that all their research and writings serve only to celebrate their positive aspects and discuss how white Europeans knowingly and single-handedly ruined the world’s finest civilizations. Many works on the counterparts to many of these stories, especially frequent villains such as Andrew Jackson, also seem to follow this pattern; writers either love or hate him and rarely do you get a balanced view. Writers either provide all the evidence they can find to prove he was a racist, war-mongering land grabber or others write about what an unqualified great American leader he was. We wonder if many authors have their minds made up on events and issues and then conduct research to find evidence that proves their point.

While America’s past provides one of the most inspiring sagas in all of world history, we’ll admit it hasn’t always been pretty. A lot of American history was created, experienced, and commemorated by what we would regard today as overtly racist, chauvinistic, and mostly Christian white men. Much of this country was built on the backs of people either forced to labor against their will, or paid inadequately. Regardless of where you live (if you live in the United States), a native group probably claimed the land you call home and formally ceded or informally was pushed off of it. Simply put, if we look for heroes from our past who measure up to modern standards of egalitarian enlightenment, we look in vain.

At one point in time, history was used to tell engaging stories of Americana, positive stories of American heroes who overcame great obstacles to win victories and secure independence and the growth of this country. Admittedly this was often overdone and certainly not inclusive as it should have been, but the form has merit. We have a lot to be proud of in this country, and what we are is the result of a series defining eras, each of which illuminated a combination of glorious successes and tragic failures. Sadly, this focus on the bigger picture is now-considered passé and irrelevant as many historians are now determined to emphasize only the inadequacies and faults of our past American leaders.

In recent years we have been treated to an avalanche of studies that have probed the private lives and thoughts of those who hold a place in the traditional pantheon of American heroes and discovered that they were, well, definitely men of their times with a wide variety of moral shortcomings. Some of our heroes don’t look so good up close when compared to the way we think today. All of this thoughtful reflection is well enough, and to a degree collectively improves our understanding of our shared past and how we came to be the country we are today. But much modern scholarship seems to be telling us we should almost be ashamed of many of the people who shaped this nation when in almost every instance they are simply representative of the times in which they lived. It is as if they are judging them not only by an impossible standard, but one that does very little to improve our understanding of their role in our past.

Regardless of what subject we are interpreting, objective historians should remember that being overlooked in the historical narrative and being on the short end of the stick in historical events does not automatically confer virtuosity any more than being recognized as an American hero in the past inherently makes one worthy of continuing veneration. Failing to meet modern standards of political correctness is not in itself a reason to dismiss someone’s actual influence on American history. Perhaps instead of questioning the motivations of past historical figures, we need to begin questioning the motivations of current historical writers.

The study of history is at heart an evaluation of how human actions have influenced the course of history; it is a quest to discover the series of events that led us to our present state and help us understand our future trajectory. When we seek to glorify or demonize historical figures based on current, ever-changing notions of morality and enlightenment, we do our audience and our profession a grave disservice. Our mission as American historians should not be to seek out those people from the past most like us or that we like most and declare them worthy of our respect. Rather, it is the historian’s task to identify those individuals and actions that influenced our nation’s development and to understand the context in which their actions took place. After all, history happened and impacts us today, whether we like it or not.


A Note on The War of 1812 in American Memory

12 Aug

At long last, I recently got around to reading the Official National Park Service Handbook for The War of 1812, reviewed earlier in this blog by Clay Williams. As Clay observed, all the essays were great and the richly illustrated book as a whole was informative and entertaining. One essay particularly intrigued me though, as it made me contemplate the war and its legacy in a new way. In “Legacies: The War of 1812 in American Memory,” Matthew Dennis addresses some of the many reasons the war “looms small” in our historical memory and explores its relatively minor place in our past in everything from parades to marches to ice cream (Dolly Madison Brand!) The war is, as he observes, the only major conflict in our nation’s history that is known rather uninspiringly by simply the year it started, perhaps communicating in itself a lingering ambiguity about its importance—and this despite the fact the contest gave rise to our national anthem. The story behind why the War of 1812 is so overlooked in our past in a complicated one indeed.

Battle of New Orleans

In my mind, perhaps the foremost reasons for the war’s relative obscurity are its complicated outcomes. Historians have argued that among the many effects of the war, for example, that the War of 1812 essentially served as our “Second War of Independence,” making official what the Revolutionary War accomplished a generation earlier. Some have noted that it established America’s rise as a naval power, though this was hardly anticipated. They have demonstrated it eliminated British interference in much of America’s frontier, even though this was not an explicit goal and actually occurred almost by accident. Others have shown that despite all the rhetoric about violation of American rights by the haughty British leading up to war perhaps the most tangible result of the fighting had very little to do with the British at all. The shattering of Tecumseh’s Indian alliance in the Old Northwest and breaking of the power of the Creeks in the Old Southwest in separate but closely related fighting in the end paved the way for a defining era of westward expansion. The importance of that development to the shaping of America outweighs the consequences of the great majority of the rest of the campaigning from 1812 to 1815 many times over. In other words, some of the most long-lasting and profound impacts of the War of 1812 on American history were barely discussed, mentioned, or anticipated officially and only realized decades following its aftermath. If those fighting the war dimly perceived its larger significance at the time, is it any wonder we still wrestle with what it all meant today?


Review of Milly Francis: The Life and Times of the Creek Pocahontas, by Dale Cox

5 Aug

Milly Francis is one of the most remarkable historical figures in Southern history. Winner of the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the life of an American soldier, daughter of internationally famous Red Stick leader Josiah Francis (Hillis Hadjo), and first hand witness to some of the most dramatic events in American history, Francis is an almost mythical presence in our frontier past whose life remains shrouded in legend. In Dale Cox’s recent book, Milly Francis: The Life and Times of the Creek Pocahontas, the unique story of this woman who “caused a ripple in the conscious of a nation” is brought to life as never before.

Cox-Milly Francis

Cox chronicles Francis’s story by placing her life in context, enabling readers to understand the tumultuous world in which she lived. Born in Alabama and raised in the Creek Nation during a period of mounting tensions, she witnessed the horrors of the Creek War of 1813-14, experienced the trauma and hardship of a life on the run, and endured the loss of close friends and family; her father was hung before her eyes by order of Andrew Jackson in Florida and her husband lost his life to disease en route to Indian Territory following service in the Second Seminole War. Having survived some of the most anguishing times in the history of the Creek people, she eventually set up a home in Oklahoma where she was attempting to raise her children when she was discovered by an army officer named Ethan Allen Hitchcock.

Hitchcock was captivated by her amazing life, especially a forgotten episode from her youth that is the basis for much of her enduring fame today. While still a teenager in Florida during the First Seminole War, she saved an American soldier named Duncan McCrimmon from certain death. Having been captured by Indian warriors, he was taken back to her father’s village and tied up to prior to being ceremonially put to death in recrimination for earlier Creek deaths. Milly, recognizing the young man’s plight, argued passionately with the warriors that McCrimmon’s death would do nothing to bring back their lost loved ones and pleaded that they spare his life. Successful in her effort, the warriors did so. The story became celebrated instantly and Milly achieved a small measure of fame, perhaps made all the more intense by her spurning a marriage proposal by McCrimmon a short time later by saying that she had not saved his life just to marry him. When Hitchcock found this “Creek Pocahontas” in desperate poverty in Oklahoma decades later, he lobbied for a pension to be given to her in recognition of her celebrated act of compassion and in so doing brought her deeds to the attention of a new generation. Ultimately she was awarded both a pension and a Medal of Honor just prior to her death. Today there are memorials to her in Florida and Oklahoma.

In Milly Francis, Cox, as he has done in a series of previous books, unearths an amazing story from Southeastern history and makes it both accessible and compelling. Richly illustrated, expertly researched, and persuasively written, the brief book makes a solid contribution to a formative and understudied era in American history. It is entertaining and encourages the reader to visit the sites where history happened.