Thomas Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty

This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

John F. Kennedy, during a 1962 Nobel Prize dinner

The title above is a biography by John B. Boles that I just finished. Normally I’d do a book review, but the subject himself is so fascinating I’d rather just riff on Jefferson than critique the book. Buckle your seat belts.

Suffice to say, Boles’s book is a good one-volume treatment of Jefferson.  It’s easy to read and well-sourced.  Fairly comprehensive. Maybe a bit too adulatory, but at least honest.

Before discussing Jefferson, I have to say I was somewhat surprised by what I learned about several other “Founders,” or sub-Founders.  Although popular today because of that Broadway play, I had no idea that Federalist and Jefferson nemesis Alexander Hamilton was such an outright bastard.  His poisonous lies and relentless invective make Trump look like a Cub Scout.  (Okay, maybe not.)

I also had no idea that the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, Aaron Burr (Jefferson’s first-term vice-president), was such a self-centered, scheming treasonist.

And I especially didn’t know that Jefferson hated fellow Virginian Patrick Henry.  Although a great orator (“Give me Liberty or give me Death!”), Henry evidently didn’t read books and wasn’t very smart.  He actually proposed imposing a dictatorship when the American Revolution began going badly.  For years, Jefferson ridiculed him mercilessly at the dinner table.

Aaron Burr (left) and Alexander Hamilton (right)

But back to the dinner topic at hand…there are some things most of us know, or should know, about Thomas Jefferson.  He was the third American president and a Founding Father chosen to author the United States Declaration of Independence, the iconic written diatribe against King George III detailing why American colonists chose to break from England to form their own country, and which was signed by 55 other congressional delegates from the 13 colonies.

More than any other Founder, Jefferson exalted the ideas of democracy and individual conscience. Along with fellow Democrat-Republican and protégé James Madison, he conceived the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and which separates religion from all levels of government. (Government-imposed religion was an absolute given in the Old Country.) He modeled it after the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he’d also authored three years earlier as Governor of that colony.

As for his own religion, although considering himself a Christian, Jefferson was a deist who felt the Christian faith had become corrupted by disciples after Jesus’s death. Jefferson was a leading light of the Age of Enlightenment, an admirer of philosophers John Locke and Thomas Paine (Common Sense, The Age of Reason).  Throughout his life he was fascinated by science and adhered to reason and rationality over superstition.  He considered Jesus the most moral philosopher the world has known, but did not believe in his divinity.  He created his own Jefferson Bible by excising everything supernatural from the New Testament.  (Printings of his bible are available at a bookstore near you.)

Jefferson lived at a plantation he called Monticello, which he carved out of a mountain outside Charlottesville, Virginia using slave labor. He developed it over a period of 40 years.  (Monticello is pictured on the U.S. nickel, the flip side of Jefferson’s profile.)  Here, he established a 1,000-foot-long terraced vegetable garden that grew 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruits.  As a politician he championed the small farmer, was a pioneer of sustainable agriculture, and was one of the country’s great epicures.

As president, Jefferson doubled the size of America by overseeing the purchase of the western Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte of France.  It cost the U.S. all of four cents an acre.  He then organized a successful exploration of the unknown lands by his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, exponentially increasing America’s knowledge of Western geography, archaeology, flora, fauna, and Indian tribes.

Meriwether Lewis

After the Library of Congress was burnt by invading British during the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his personal collection of 6,487 volumes to restart the library.  They replaced the collection that Jefferson had earlier recommended the library acquire.

Just before his death in 1826, Jefferson conceived, founded, was principal architect for, and chose the curriculum and faculty for one of America’s most respected public universities, the University of Virginia.  He was “convinced that the people (white males) are the sole depositories of their own liberty, & that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree.” (I tried to gain entrance to UVA in 1977 but was rejected.  In 2005 I visited Monticello, and revisited the campus while our daughter was touring colleges.  Everyone at both places politely referred to him as “Mister Jefferson,” as if he was still alive.)

Along with designing the university, Jefferson also oversaw the layout for the nation’s new capitol grounds at Washington D.C., and his neoclassical architectural designs set the precedent for future U.S. federal structures.

Jefferson was probably the most intelligent and worldly of all the Founding Fathers. (Benjamin Franklin is up there, too.)  Although ambitious, his patience, even-temperedness, humility, and knowledge were renowned amongst his political peers, including George Washington, who made him Secretary of State and often consulted him.  Like so many in the 18th and 19th centuries, he experienced profound death and tragedy, losing his wife Martha at a young age, along with children and grandchildren.

Jefferson lived 83 years, dying the same day as his onetime rival but beloved friend, second President John Adams. It was 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote his own epitaph.  It was simple and reflected his humble public persona, stipulating what he was most proud of: Author of the Declaration of Independence (and) of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.  Of his being president for two terms and his presidential accomplishments…nothing.

Monticello

As exceptional a human being as Jefferson was, his enlightenment was tempered by his place and time.  Even during his lifetime rumors swirled of a slave concubine (in today’s parlance, “sex toy”) known as “Black Sal” or “Dusky Sally.”

For 200 years historians have grappled with whether slaveholder Jefferson fathered children with a quadroon “servant” named Sally Hemings.  A DNA study in 1998 concluded there was a high probability he was the father of at least one of Hemings’s six children.  However, that study also said Jefferson “can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated…”

Presently, most Jefferson scholars and historians, including the Thomas Jefferson Foundation—through combining the DNA findings with written evidence—conclude he did father children by her (not surprisingly, Hemings descendants do as well). Biographer Boles goes further to suggest their “relationship” was “founded on shared tenderness and love” and that “the sexual attraction between Jefferson and Hemings was likely mutual…” 

I find Boles’s suggestion of romantic love between master and slave plausible, but unnerving, and it’s one of the few criticisms I have of his book [in addition to some qualified language such as “Jefferson rarely (sold slaves),” “he made an effort (not to separate mothers from their children),” he “(only sold his slaves) out of economic necessity,” and “Jefferson’s theoretical opposition to (whipping)”].

It was in Paris between 1787 and 1789 while Jefferson was American minister to France that their (probable) intimacies probably began.  Hemings was a teenager who was acting as companion to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Maria.  By several contemporary accounts, Hemings was extremely beautiful, with “very light skin; long, straight black hair.”

Slavery had been illegal in France since Louis X in 1315. Was Hemings technically free while on French soil despite being owned by an American? If so, did Jefferson think this mitigated a middle-aged widower like himself having sex with a young, uneducated, recent ex-slave? Did love blossom either before or after she agreed to return to the states with him? Can love even exist between a master and servant/slave, or is it always rape?

Soap opera aside, bottom line is Jefferson owned people. Any additional moral crimes stem from that original sin.

Sally Hemings was born in 1773. Her white father, John Wayles, was Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She died in 1835 and there are no photos or drawings of her. This is a detail from a Monticello “Farm Book,” displaying her four children: Harriet, Madison, Eston, and Beverley. Notably, all were named after friends or relatives of Jefferson (Madison after James Madison).

In his meager defense, Jefferson successfully banned American importation of Africans. And despite unenlightened views on racial equality/inequality, he opposed slavery throughout his life and, at least at the start of his political career, tried to abolish it through state and federal legislation.  Of course, his efforts were fruitless, primarily due to violently intransigent southern politicians who, two generations later, would finally have their apocalypse. Of the roughly 200 slaves owned by Jefferson during his life, he freed only two.  He freed five more in his will.  Three more left Monticello with Jefferson’s consent.  All except two were domestic help and part of the Hemings family.

As I expected, while Boles justifiably devotes extensive print to slavery and Jefferson’s immersion in it, his coverage of Jefferson’s American Indian policies and affairs, including their removal, is woefully inadequate. So I’ll offer a few paragraphs on that subject.

Jefferson the amateur anthropologist admired Indians and believed they were superior to blacks physically, intellectually, and culturally, and also that they might eventually become ingratiated into white agrarian society as equals.  But even here there was a great hypocrisy.  He stipulated to Meriwether Lewis that the Corps of Discovery restrain from any acts of hostility toward Indians they might encounter…but he also hungered for the land they inhabited. 

In an 1803 letter to William Henry Harrison, who was then the territorial governor of Indiana, President Jefferson outlined a devious policy of using government trading posts to drive Indians into debt so they would more easily “lop (the debts) off by a cession of lands.”

And when a patronizing Jefferson addressed a delegation of Shawnee and other Indian tribes in 1809, hoping to win them over from the British, he threatened that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate (exterminate) from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.”

Then, as now, enlightenment only goes so far.

Indian Head nickel and Jefferson nickel: opposing views of Liberty

Originally, I ended my post with the pithy statement above. Then I thought, who am I? Thomas Jefferson deserves better. After rereading the Introduction in Boles’s book, I landed on this excellent paragraph, which perfectly summarizes how I feel. Anyway…thanks for taking time to read all of this. Peace.

We should not expect (Jefferson) to have embraced the values of a cosmopolitan, progressive person of the twenty-first century. How could he have possibly done so? Instead, we should try to understand the constraints—legal, financial, personal, intellectual—under which he lived. To understand certainly does not mean to approve or even forgive; rather, it means to comprehend why Jefferson made the kinds of decisions he made and saw the world as he did. He was a gentle, well-educated, idealistic man who sought—by his lights—to do right. Yet at times he acted in ways we now find abhorrent. Appreciating how this can be so is the task of the Jefferson scholar, the student of history, and perhaps every American citizen.

The First Thanksgiving (Re-Post)

(Note: I first published this back in 2012 not long after I began longitudes. Since I’m now feeling lethargic after too many piña coladas while visiting the Caribbean, and therefore don’t feel like writing, and it’s Thanksgiving once again, I’m re-posting this golden oldie with a few light dustings. I hope you enjoy and, as always, feel free to comment.)

This Thursday, Americans will get together with family and friends to celebrate a national holiday: Thanksgiving.  (Certain other countries celebrate their own Thanksgiving at different times.) It’s a day associated with a feast of roast turkey, breaded stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and assorted other culinary delights.  Some Americans indulge in televised football games.  And American schoolchildren will learn about the Pilgrims: peace-loving religious dissenters from England who landed at “Plymouth Rock” in 1620 and who ate turkey with friendly, benevolent Indians.

Thanksgiving is many Americans’ favorite holiday, because it’s mainly about family, food, and football (not necessarily in that order).  But there are not surprisingly a lot of myths about the Plymouth colonists and the original day of thanks, in 1621.

Unless it’s Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, longitudes strives for truth. So below is my feeble attempt to demolish a few long-held myths.  My sources are the book “The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony” by James and Patricia Deetz; a smattering of well-sourced Wikipedia info; and a 1621 letter written by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow to a friend in England, known as Mourt’s Relation.  His letter is the only contemporary eyewitness description of what took place that first Thanksgiving. (Plymouth Governor William Bradford reflected on the colony many years later in Of Plymouth Plantation}:

  • Although the colonists originally came from England, most had been living in religiously tolerant Leiden, Holland for twelve years before arriving in the New World on the Mayflower.
  • The Mayflower first landed on the sandy northern tip of what is now Cape Cod in November 1620.  The passengers didn’t transfer to the mainland (Plymouth) until a month later.
  • There is no mention of a “Plymouth Rock” in Of Plymouth Plantation or Mourt’s Relation.
  • The original feast took place over three days, probably during harvest time, which would have been September or early October at the latest.
  • Over ninety Wampanoag Indians and about fifty English attended the feast, including Chief Massasoit, Winslow, and Bradford. (Most depictions of the feast show roughly a dozen colonists and half that many Indians.)
  • Turkey was undoubtedly not the main course.  It was more likely ducks or geese killed by the Pilgrims, and later on venison shared by the natives.
  • There is no evidence in Winslow’s account that the Pilgrims offered a formal thanks.  He merely mentions that “by the goodness of God” they were “far from want.”  The feast was more likely continuation of an English custom of celebrating harvest time.
  • The descriptor “pilgrim” for the colonists was first used in a sermon delivered in Plymouth in the 1790s.  And until the early 20th century, the term was used in a generic sense and spelled with a lowercase “p.”  The Plymouth settlers called themselves “Separatists” or “Saints” (religious dissenters), “Strangers” (those unmotivated by religion but seeking a new life), “Old Comers,” “Old Planters,” and “Planters.”
  • Modern Thanksgiving as a holiday for all American states wasn’t established until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln designated the final Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.  In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress changed this to the fourth Thursday of the month.
  • The Plymouth colonists, although they established the first English colony in what is now known as New England, were not the first English to permanently settle in the New World.  That would be the Jamestown, Virginia settlers of 1607, who were driven here by mercantilism rather than religion.
  • The Christians of Plymouth Colony were not immune to those vices quite familiar to modern-day Americans. Rape, incest, buggery, bigamy, domestic abuse, adultery, and murder are described in detail in original colonial records.
  • Violence between English and Indian had occurred even before the feast. On August 14, 1621 military leader Myles Standish preemptively attacked the village (Nemasket) of a rival sachem of Massasoit’s. His brashness was a harbinger of King Philip’s War of 1675-1678, a conflict between English colonists and their Indian allies and Chief Massasoit’s son, Metacom. It remains the bloodiest per-capita conflict on American soil.

And speaking of violence, it’s important to note that the colonists did not watch American football on television during that first Thanksgiving.  If they had, however, they would have certainly cheered for Detroit to win and Dallas to lose.

Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

Tribal and Environmental Justice at Standing Rock

water-is-life

Once again, it’s happening. The United States military – in this case, the National Guard, in concert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the oil industry – is waging war against the American Indians.

And once again, it’s a war involving land and minerals. The land is the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota, which partly pushes against the mighty Missouri River. Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, murdered by Indian agency police on this very reservation in 1890, is buried close by.

This time, however, the mineral isn’t gold or silver.

It’s oil.

Last week, 141 people were arrested after clashes with the Guard and police. The protesters had occupied private land to oppose construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, a pipe which will tunnel under the Missouri. There were reports of Molotov cocktails being thrown by protesters, pepper spraying and brutality by police, and gunshots by unknown individuals.

Big Oil and its supporters say the pipeline offers a more cost-effective and safer way of transporting shale oil from North Dakota to refineries on the Gulf Coast than it does by road or rail. They also claim it will create 8,000 to 12,000 local jobs.

They shifted the original route further away from Bismarck, and closer to the reservation, because they said its construction would be “easier.” (See map)

standingrockreservation_map

Map of Standing Rock Reservation and DAPL (courtesy Paul Horn/Inside Climate News)

But many in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who have been camping out near the proposed pipeline for months (and have been joined by other tribes and some non-natives sympathetic to their plight), argue that an oil spill in the Missouri will prove disastrous, since the people rely on the river for much of their water. Also, that the pipeline will desecrate ancestral land, basing their claim on a 19th-century treaty.

And environmentalists are dead-set against the pipeline for obvious reasons: the potential of a catastrophic oil spill, and the reality of a monstrous carbon footprint.

“The Native Americans are the only people who have inhabited this continent in harmony with nature for centuries,” conservationist, author, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben says. “Their traditional wisdom now chimes perfectly with the latest climate science.”

The Army Corps of Engineers fast-tracked construction of the pipeline last July, but it still needs to grant final permits. Due to the glaring spotlight on this most recent clash, the White House has granted a temporary postponement of the project.

Over 300 tribal nations have come out against the pipeline. The total number of protesters at the site has grown to over 800.

Some Questions

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple (R) criticized the protesters for staging their protest on private land. A valid criticism for most of us. But… here are some questions:

When and how did the land become “private?” Who occupied the land before it became “private?”

Other entities, notably Big Oil and its backers, have charged that a number of protesters are “outsiders” who are unaffiliated with the tribe. Here are some more questions:

Why is this a negative? Aren’t we “our brothers’ keepers?” How noble are the motives of a corporate giant next to those of poor people struggling, not for monetary profits, but for clean water and tribal rights? If there’s an oil spill, will the Standing Rock Reservation be the only thing impacted? And when 800,000 gallons of oil per day are pounding through this pipeline to eventually be burned as fuel, ballooning the atmosphere’s carbon concentration even more, are there truly any “outsiders” in this scenario?

___________

After Sitting Bull’s murder, 350 Lakota Sioux under Chief Spotted Elk walked away from reservations at Standing Rock and Cheyenne River (land which they’d been exiled to). They were upset at being denied their Ghost Dance, prohibited by U.S. officials, who referred to it as a “Messiah craze.” As at Standing Rock recently, the U.S. military was sent in. The troops, armed with rapid-fire Hotchkiss mountain guns, surrounded the Lakota near Wounded Knee Creek. Nobody knows who fired the first shots. But when the bullets stopped flying, 150-300 Indian men, women, and children lay dead in snow that was dyed red.

Wounded Knee was the last major confrontation of the Plains Indian wars. After this, the Sioux and most other tribes were a defeated people, their leaders killed, their land fenced off and privatized, their traditional food sources depleted, their cultural and spiritual practices ridiculed, their children forced to attend distant schools, dress like whites, and abandon their language. Most reservation Indians today live in abject poverty.

Nobody has yet died at Standing Rock, fortunately. But here’s one final question:

When money, land rights, and race are intertwined… has all that much changed in America in 126 years?

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2016/10/28/us/28reuters-usa-pipeline-regulations.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/29/opinion/why-dakota-is-the-new-keystone.html

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-standing-rock-numbers-20161101-story.html

no-dapl

 

The Craziest Meal I Never Had

dinner party

Not long ago, I was goofing around on YouTube, and I landed on an interview with a particular musician.  One of the interview questions was: “If you could have dinner with any three people, who would you invite?”

I think the interviewer was a high school student (probably on assignment for the school paper).  My first reaction was This is cute, but silly.”  Then I thought about it. Second thought, that’s a pretty good question.  It’s a fun way to identify a person’s root influences, especially if the interview subject decides to elaborate.  But I was a little shocked at one of the musician’s choices for dinner guest.

His first choice was John Lennon.  OK, I can agree.  Songwriting genius, witty, well-informed, candid, gift of gab.  If Lennon was my guest, I could easily see us (once I stopped trembling) enjoying our marshmallow pie while trading views on Brexit and sarcastic jibes about Sir Paul.

His second choice was someone I know nothing about.  But the third choice had me scratching my head: Miles Davis.

For those unfamiliar, Miles Davis was a legendary jazz trumpeter.  He was a gifted composer and improviser who broke musical barriers and influenced a generation of jazz musicians.  But despite being the king of “cool jazz,” he was reputedly as unpredictable as a white cop with a hemorrhoid.

Why would you invite a ticking time bomb to a dinner party, an occasion that’s supposed to be about relaxation and light repartee?  I can envision the exchange:

“Mr. Davis, I’m a big fan of yours.  In fact, Kind of Blue is my all-time favorite album.”

Then the sound of soup being slurped, with a few droplets splattered onto Davis’s oversized sunglasses. Followed by a string of raspy, mumbled curse words.

melville

Herman Melville

I mean, come on.  He’s a superb musician, yes, but isn’t this a waste of a dinner choice?  Then, of course, I thought about whom yours truly would invite.  And I have to admit: one of my choices would make Miles Davis look like Martha Stewart.

I wouldn’t hesitate to invite Herman Melville (author of Moby-Dick and other heavy shit).  He’s my favorite writer.  I’d love to probe Melville’s oceanic mind about the whiteness of the whale and Captain Ahab’s maniacal obsessions.  Maybe I could conveniently work into the conversation Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

I’d also invite Billy the Kid.  Even though he was a cold-blooded killer, the Kid was also a party animal with a great sense of humor.  He loved a good game of faro, and had an eye for the ladies.  And there’s only one authenticated photograph of him, so I’d like to see if he’s as buck-toothed and scatterbrained as he looks in the photo.

billy-the-kid-western-wanted

Billy the Kid

But my third choice might send Herman and the Kid scurrying toward the door long before dessert is served: Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse (aka Tasunke Witko) was a war leader of the Oglala Lakota Sioux.  He was at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and helped fertilize the Montana hills with the bodies of Custer and the 7th Cavalry.  He was one of the last Plains Indians to surrender to the U.S. Army, and only did so because his people were starving.  Very spiritual, he experienced visions, and refused to allow his photograph to be taken.  He died in 1877, bayoneted in the back while being led to an army jail on a trumped-up charge.

Crazy Horse, for me, was a person of great integrity.  After all, he died for his people’s survival.  And since no one knows what he looked like, our dinner together would give me the opportunity to stare at him a lot.  Does he look like Rafael Nadal?  Or more like Ed Ames?  I can almost guarantee whom he doesn’t look like: smiling Chief Wahoo, the controversial cartoon mascot for the Cleveland Indians.

But how would our conversation go?  Assuming he understands and speaks English – and Herman and the Kid approve of his presence at the table – it would probably be very stilted.

So while my ever-tolerant wife serves the cocktails… whiskey for the Kid, rum for Herman, cold spring water for Crazy Horse, and Dogfish Head Midas Touch Golden Elixir ale for me… I begin to live out a longtime fantasy:

“Mr. Horse… I mean Mr. Witko… uh, sir… it’s truly an honor to sit with you.”

Silence.

“I don’t have any Indian pipe tobacco, but maybe after dinner we could dip into my humidor.  I think I still have a couple Cohibas from my excursion to Nogales a few years ago.”

More silence, as he gulps his water from a bison-hide flask.

“Ya know, I’ve heard that you have visions.  That’s really cool.  I don’t have any pharmaceuticals on hand, but my son lives in Colorado, and he might be able to parcel post a special package – ha-ha, if you know what I mean – for our next get-together.”

He glares at me, expressionless, without responding.  I feel a drop of perspiration roll from my armpit.

“Sir, I know you don’t like having your picture taken.  But my squaw has this gadget called an I-phone, and if I take your photo and you don’t like it, I can immediately delete it.”

He turns his head and gazes out the window at our autumn blaze maple.

Maple Tree

Autumn blaze maple tree (Acer rubrum)

Desperate for some assistance, I glance toward the Kid.  But his face is bright red, and his shoulders are shaking, as if he’s stifling laughter – and doing a poor job of stifling.

Then I pivot in my chair and glance toward Herman.  But Herman’s sitting erect, stroking his massive beard, and he appears buried in deep thought.

So before Herman has a chance to excuse himself to return to his kerosene lamp and his notes for “Billy Budd,” and before the Kid embarrasses me by doubling up with laughter and accidentally firing his Colt single-action revolver, I decide to divert attention from Crazy Horse.

“Hey, guys,” I carefully and surreptitiously maneuver.  “Whaddaya say we head into the den to check out my baseball card collection?”

But I quickly decide that this, too, is a bad idea.  I never imagined that entertaining my heroes for dinner could be so stressful.

“Honey, could you bring us another round of drinks… please??”

black hills

The Black Hills, South Dakota, where Crazy Horse lived and is (supposedly) buried

Book Review: “Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre”

book

(I just read the new book “Blood on the Marias: The Baker Massacre” and reviewed it on Amazon. It’s a tragic story, but I’m sharing my review here because, even at this late date, I think it’s important people know what happened on January 23, 1870)

***

It’s hard to fathom. But there was a time when the U.S. government actively engaged in ethnic cleansing.

And U.S. military and political leaders actually pondered the idea of genocide… on American soil.

American Indian history isn’t taught much in schools today. And it’s easy to understand why. Our treatment of the aboriginals of this country is a dark stain which may never be erased. And one of the most appalling chapters in this sad saga is the story of the Piegan Blackfeet of northwestern Montana. “Blood on the Marias” deals with that chapter.

Most Americans have heard of Little Bighorn, even if they don’t know the details. Colorful cavalryman George A. Custer had his last stand here. But few Americans know about Sand Creek, Washita, Ash Hollow, Bear River, and Wounded Knee, where innocent Cheyenne, Sioux, and Shoshone women and children were slaughtered in the name of Manifest Destiny. And only a precious few historians know of the Marias Massacre, also known as the Baker Massacre. There’s a reason why this abomination has been kept secret: as shocking as the above episodes are, the bloody encounter on the Marias River in 1870 is perhaps the most shocking of all.

Author Paul Wylie came upon this story by accident, while researching for a previous book. But he’s produced the first comprehensive analysis of the Baker Massacre, and his scholarly treatment is long overdue. It evidently took him years to pry details of this massacre from the iron vaults of the National Archives, and from army correspondence papers, personal letters, and obscure newspaper accounts. He frames his examination of the massacre – in truth, a “mass murder” – with a solid history of the Piegan Blackfeet, including their fascinating and fortuitous 1806 encounter with explorer Meriwether Lewis.

We also get the all-too-familiar perfect storm scenario that led to the attack: the inevitable broken treaties, murders (on both sides), settler and newspaper hysterics, and heinous practice of whiskey trading by unscrupulous frontier lowlifes. This all dovetailed with a U.S. Army run by commanders who were hardened by the Civil War, who had a penchant for glory-seeking, and whose brutality was informed by racism at best, and sociopathic tendencies at worst (Sheridan and Sherman receive full treatment here).

Without giving away too much, the Baker Massacre had several things which separated it from similar atrocities against Native Americans: first, the Piegan village that was attacked was, at the time, being ravaged by smallpox; second, most of the Piegan braves had gone hunting, leaving primarily women, children, and elderly; third, the attack occurred at dawn, in sub-zero temperatures, with minimal resistance from the villagers (only one soldier was killed, with a minimum 173 Indians killed, although probably many more); fourth, the commander and many of the troops were drunk; and fifth… it was the wrong village.

Wylie, a retired attorney, must have really struggled to restrain his emotions while writing this book. He slips into subjectivity only once, in his Preface, when he describes what happened to those villagers as being one of the saddest things he’s ever encountered. The rest of the book is entirely objective and buttressed by credible footnotes.

The Baker Massacre is, indeed, incredibly sad. It’s also one of the most shameful incidents in this nation’s history. It’s been kept under wraps because the army wanted it kept under wraps. If you’re a history teacher, please devote class time to the history of Plains Indians and the Baker Massacre. If you’re not a history teacher, but enjoy reading about history… strike a blow for truth and get a copy of this book.

Blackfoot_tipis

Blackfeet tipis, circa 1910.  Photograph by Arthur Rafton-Canning

When You Have to Shoot, SHOOT (Don’t Talk): The Revisionist Western

fonda

A man lies in a wooden bathtub filled with soap suds. His face is dotted with beard stubble and beads of sweat. There are pockmarks punched into his left cheek and a bloody gash above his right eyebrow. A leather, string necklace dangles from his neck. He licks his dirty finger then digs inside his ear.

Suddenly, the wooden, saloon-style doors swing open and a one-armed man brandishing a six-shooter bursts into the room.

“I been lookin’ for you for eight months,” he croaks. “Whenever I SHOULDA had a gun in my RIGHT hand, I thought of you. Now I find you exactly in the position that suits me. I had lotsa time to learn how to shoot with my LEFT.”

There’s the sound of a click, then four bursts of gunfire, as suds spray from the tub. The one-armed man spins back through the door, topples over a table, and lands on a broken bed. He groans and struggles to get upright. The bathtub guy rests his gun barrel on the swinging door, and fires one final shot.

In a gruff Mexican accent, he says “When you have to shoot, SHOOT. Don’t talk.”

The entire scene lasts almost two minutes. But only twenty seconds is dialog.

If you are a fan of Clint Eastwood, you probably know this scene. It is one of many memorable moments from the Sergio Leone-directed “Spaghetti Western” entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Although Eastwood is the star, Eli Wallach (the Mexican in the bathtub, named “Tuco”) and bad guy Lee Van Cleef help make this film one of the great “revisionist” Westerns. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’re surely familiar with the title and the music, which are now embedded in popular culture.

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Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach set the standard for “buddy” movies

It is Oscar time again, and, surprisingly, two movies nominated this year for awards are Westerns (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight). This gives me an opportunity to talk about some of my favorite Westerns, with “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” at the top of the list.

One hears the term “revisionist” much these days, and it is usually in negative way. Revisionist history often implies embellishing or altering historical fact to suit a particular agenda. But Revisionist Westerns were intended to bring more realism to a film genre, and, in my opinion, they improved the genre. Nothing against John Ford, John Wayne, or Gary Cooper, who made some of the most noteworthy Westerns in Tinseltown. But I prefer cowboys who have a little tobacco juice on their whiskers – if you know what I mean.

Before the 1960s and dating back to the silent film era of the 1920s, movie Westerns and later television Westerns were extraordinarily popular, but very formulaic. With only a few exceptions, there were good guys and bad guys, and little in-between. The actors looked like they had just stepped from the fitting room at JCPenney. The dialog was clean and predictable. Even the violence was clean, with maybe a spot of grey, at most, to reveal blood. If a good guy was shot, he always managed to take a few moments to gasp some poignant last words.

Women were limited to secondary roles as wives or sweethearts. American Indians were always portrayed by white actors, and always the evil aggressor. If Mexicans were depicted at all, they were generally lazy and subservient (a notable exception being in the Marlon Brando vehicle, Viva Zapata).

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William Holden in “The Wild Bunch”

But in the 1960s and early ‘70s, America went through many changes, and these changes affected how movies were made, including Westerns. Realism began to displace romanticism, and Westerns became more cynical and critical of the motives and actions of frontier lawmen, settlers, Christian missionaries, government agents, and the U.S. Army. Westerns reflected the times in which they were made.

In addition to theme and tone, style changed as well. European directors like Leone had much to do with this. I already devoted a whole blog post to Spaghetti Westerns (Spaghetti Western Feast), so I won’t reiterate here. But these foreign-made Revisionist Westerns greatly influenced Hollywood. They emphasized realistic cinematography, action and atmosphere over dialog, authentic costuming and makeup, and, for good or bad (or ugly)… a much harder edge to the violence.

And – finally – Hollywood began employing Native Americans, instead of Caucasians who wore wigs and brown skin cream.

I’ve once again blathered on far too long. Let’s get to the good stuff. As promised, here are my top ten favorite Westerns. All of them can be considered Revisionist Westerns. (One favorite NOT in this list is HUD, starring Paul Newman, and based on the book Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry. Although revisionist in nature, the setting is the contemporary West.  I feel this brilliant flick deserves a separate category.)

Here they are:

10. THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970): An unusual Spaghetti Western that spoofs the genre, it is the first in a series of “Trinity” movies starring blond, blue-eyed Terence Hill. trinityHe plays a lazy, happy-go-lucky cowboy who teams with his brooding brother to protect a town of pacifist Mormons from a ruthless land baron. Lighthearted fare with lots of funny moments (including hilarious overdubs).

9. THE APPALOOSA (1966): Marlon Brando portrays a Mexican-American buffalo hunter trying to recapture a beloved, stolen horse. scorpionsI haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it as a minor gem with lots of atmosphere. A highlight is a great arm wrestling scene with live scorpions on the table. Unrelated to Appaloosa (2008) with Ed Harris.

8. WILL PENNY (1968): Charlton Heston called this his favorite film. He plays a loner cowboy whose mountain cabin has been “borrowed” by a young widow and her son. Beautiful scenery, with excellent supporting cast, especially bad guys Donald Pleasance and Bruce Dern. A little old-fashioned, but revisionist due to an unusual ending.

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7. THE WILD BUNCH (1969): This might be director Sam Peckinpah’s greatest film. wildbunchposeIt stars William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and other great actors too numerous to list. The Old West is changing, and a team of aging outlaws go south of the border after one last heist. Raw, bawdy, THE WILD BUNCH makes John Ford Westerns look like chick flicks. “Let’s go!”

6. ONE-EYED JACKS (1961): one eyed jacksAnother Brando flick, this was his only directorial attempt and is maybe the first Revisionist Western. He plays Rio, a robber who is double-crossed by his older partner, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and who years later tracks him down. His plans to kill Dad are complicated when he falls in love with Dad’s virginal daughter. Rio is nasty, but the audience sympathizes with his plight. Malden, who had appeared with Brando in both On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, called him “a genius in our time” after this film.

5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968): This is an epic Spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone and stars Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson. Like THE WILD BUNCH, it concerns the encroachment of civilization (the railroad) on the Old West. bronsonFonda is chilling as the villain, Bronson is moody and mysterious, and Robards adds class. Claudia Cardinale plays a struggling widow, but she’s also sexy and independent. Her “rape” by Fonda is very unsettling.

4. HOMBRE (1967): Based on an early Elmore Leonard novel about a white man raised by Apaches, Paul Newman portrays the stoic and taciturn John Russell, who, reluctantly, has to protect a group of bigoted whites from a band of outlaws. One of the bigots is a corrupt Apache Indian agent (excellently played by the great Fredric March). After 40 years of vanilla Westerns, here’s one that honestly depicts racism against Indians.

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3. JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972): Beautifully shot in the mountains of Utah, with some of the most breathtaking cinematography of any Western. Robert Redford plays an alienated Mexican War veteran who disappears into the Rocky Mountains to become a trapper. crow indianHe meets an eccentric grizzly hunter, is forced into leading a group of pioneers through hostile Crow country, and soon has to defend himself from isolated attacks by Crow warriors. Atmospheric, with sparse dialog, it is (literally) great escapism.

2. LITTLE BIG MAN (1970): little big manThis movie is perfect on every level. It is tragic, funny, dramatic, has great acting (Chief Dan George was nominated for an Oscar), and it depicts Plains Indian cultural and spiritual life with sensitivity, humor, and truth. Richard Mulligan makes a more enjoyable Gen. George A. Custer than Custer himself. See this movie at least once before you die!

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966): Six reasons to watch this film: clintSergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, and the stark Andalusia landscape. What this movie lacks in substance it makes up in style. What else can I say?  Only that I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times and I keep going back for more.

Whew! I apologize for not heeding Tuco’s advice, and talking too long. I guess my only excuse is that I love movies, particularly Westerns, and I also love lists. And I’d love to see your own lists, so please tell me your own favorites (revisionist or otherwise).

Until then, I wish you happy trails and beautiful sunsets!

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Kon-Tiki Sails into the Movies

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Thor Heyerdahl had a theory.  He believed that the Polynesians of the South Pacific did not originally come from Asia, as most experts believed.  He speculated they actually migrated 1,500 years ago from South America.  He based his theory in part on resemblance between the cryptic monuments on Easter Island and pre-Columbian designs in Peru.  But in order to reach the distant South Pacific islands, Peruvians would be forced to cross the mighty Pacific in nothing sturdier than small rafts made of balsa wood.  Impossible, Heyerdahl’s critics argued.  So the Norwegian set out to prove it possible by sailing from Peru to the islands on a raft, which he called Kon-Tiki after the name of the Incan sun god.

His epic 3,770-mile (6,067 km) voyage, accompanied by five other courageous Scandinavians, is the subject of the recent movie KON-TIKI.  The movie is based on Heyerdahl’s 1947 sailing excursion, which was detailed in his subsequent book and award-winning documentary.  So far the film has received a lot of praise (despite taking a few creative liberties for excitement purposes).  It was produced by Brit Jeremy Thomas (THE LAST EMPEROR) and directed by two young Norwegians, Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg.  They grew up in a small village outside Oslo and idolized Heyerdahl. 

“’He was ambitious and not afraid to admit it, which is not very Norwegian,’” says Roenning in the April 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. “’We wanted to be a part of Heyerdahl’s adventure.’”

That adventure included not only Heyerdahl’s crossing the Pacific, but raising money for the expedition, hiring a crew idealistic and brave enough to join him, chopping down balsa trees in Peru to assemble the raft, and publicizing the adventure.  Heyerdahl succeeded magnificently.  Post-war America, Europe, and Australia were hungry for an inspirational diversion, and the world was riveted by tall, handsome Heyerdahl and his crazy scheme.  To make things even more interesting, Heyerdahl was afraid of water and never learned how to swim.

“’Heyerdahl was a great storyteller, but his true genius was PR,’” says Roenning, who refers to the voyage as the world’s “first reality show.”

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The critics who groused that Heyerdahl was on a suicide mission ended up eating their words.  Rather than splitting the Manila rope lashings, or being ripped apart by 25-foot ocean waves, the balsa logs became “spongy” and comfortably melded with the rope.  Water flowed through the logs “as if passing through the prongs of a fork.”  Although there were perils (the usual storms and sharks, and even a phenomenal water spout), the crew made it to the islands unscathed.

But Heyerdahl never was able to convert those who mocked his anthropological theories.  Most scientists and historians today believe that, based on “linguistic and cultural” evidence, the Pacific islanders did originate in Asia (though recent genetic evidence does reveal a tenuous link to Native Americans).

Apparently, getting the movie made was more of a problem than the Kon-Tiki’s actual voyage.  Backers for the film were difficult to procure “because no one had died.”  So the filmmakers decided to sacrifice the raft’s mascot, a parrot named Lorita!  Finding acceptable scriptwriters was also troublesome.  One of the early candidates had helped write the script for ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, but she made the mistake of inviting the aging Heyerdahl to see the movie RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which she hoped to use as a model for her script.  Heyerdahl was disdainful of Indiana Jones’s “approach to archaeology.”  She wasn’t hired.

The First Thanksgiving

This Thursday, November 22, Americans will get together with family and friends to celebrate a national holiday, Thanksgiving.  It’s a day associated with a feast of roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.  Oh yes, and televised football games.  American schoolchildren will learn about the Pilgrims: religious dissenters from England who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and who shared a table with friendly, benevolent Native Americans.

Thanksgiving is many Americans’ favorite holiday, because it’s all about family, food, and football (not necessarily in that order).  But there are, not surprisingly, a lot of myths about the Plymouth colonists and the original day of thanks in 1621.

Below is my feeble attempt to “set the record straight.”  My sources are the book “The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony” by James and Patricia Deetz; and a 1621 letter written by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow to a friend in England.  His letter is the only contemporary eyewitness description of what took place that first Thanksgiving:

  • Although the colonists originally came from England, most had been living in religiously tolerant Leiden, Holland for 12 years before arriving in eventual Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower.
  • The Mayflower landed first on the northern tip of Cape Cod, in November 1620.  The passengers didn’t transfer to the mainland (Plymouth) until a month later.
  • The original feast took place over three days, and probably occurred during harvest time, which would have been September or early October at the latest.
  • Over 90 Wampanoag Indians and about 50 Pilgrims attended the feast, including Chief Massasoit and Governor William Bradford.
  • Turkey was undoubtedly not the main course.  It was, more likely, ducks or geese killed by the Pilgrims, and later on, venison shared by the Indians.
  • There is no evidence in Winslow’s account that the Pilgrims offered a formal “thanks.”  He merely mentions that “by the goodness of God” they were “far from want.”  The feast was more likely continuation of an English custom of celebrating harvest time.
  • The descriptor “pilgrim” for the colonists was first used in a sermon delivered in Plymouth in the 1790s.  And until the early 20th century, the term was used in a generic sense and spelled with a lowercase “p.”  The Plymouth settlers called themselves “Separatists” or “Saints” (religious dissenters), “Strangers” (those unmotivated by religion but seeking a new life), “Old Comers,” “Old Planters,” and “Planters.”
  • Thanksgiving as a holiday wasn’t established until 1863, when President Lincoln designated the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.  In 1941 Congress changed this to the last Thursday of the month.
  • The Plymouth colonists were not the first English to settle in the New World.  That would be the Jamestown settlers of 1607, who were driven by mercantilism rather than religion.
  • The Plymouth colonists were not immune to those vices quite familiar to modern-day Americans: rape, incest, buggery, bigamy, domestic abuse, adultery, and murder are described in detail in original colonial records.

Oh, and one other thing: the colonists did not watch American football on television on the first Thanksgiving.  If they had, however, they would have certainly cheered for Detroit to win and Dallas to lose.

Have a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving!