NPF: OH. OK.

It's not hard to think of a list of historical events that would be interesting to see if we could time travel. I suppose most of us would gravitate toward a relatively short and predictable list of events we would choose to see. My first choice would be a dark horse, though. I'd go to Plymouth Colony in 1621 to see the looks on the faces of the colonists as they encountered a Native American who spoke at them in flawless English.

First they're walking through the woods talking about Olde Tyme things when someone says, I don't know, maybe "Hark! The Red Man approacheth!" Then they did that thing that English speaking white people still do today – assuming that the lack of a mutually intelligible language can be overcome with volume. "GREETINGS, NOBLE SAVAGE! ME, JOHN. WE BRING GIFT, TRADE FOR FOOD." And the Indian fellows look at each other, then one turns and says "We have some corn, John, but why are you yelling?"

Since the English had the damndest time trying to pronounce the local Indian words, the young man's name, Tisquantum, became "Squanto." Close enough I guess. I mean, the guy saved your lives. Don't bother to learn his name or anything. His life story is so ridiculous that if they made a movie about it, nobody would believe it is true.

In 1605, a little remembered explorer named George Weymouth, who was exploring the New England coastline for potential locations for a future colony, picked up Squanto and some other local Indians. Sources disagree on whether they were taken as slaves or enticed with money. Either way, they returned to England and Squanto, a teenager at the time, learned English to serve as an interpreter. After almost a decade in England he joined the voyage of John Smith to Plymouth as a hired hand. He returned to his homeland in 1614…and then was kidnapped immediately by one of Smith's men, taken to Spain, and sold into slavery (for certain this time). Spanish friars rescued the enslaved Native Americans (on the condition that they convert to Catholicism, of course) and Squanto eventually persuaded them to let him return to London. He did in 1617 and worked for two years as a shipbuilder and interpreter, returning to North America with John Smith in 1620.

He promptly made his way back to Plymouth, finding almost his entire tribe dead from European diseases.

Offering to help the struggling English colonists, Squanto visited a neighboring tribe as an emissary. As he attempted to negotiate on the behalf of Plymouth, the tribe took him hostage and threatened to kill him. The armed raid led by a small group of colonists to rescue him may have been the first formal conflict of arms between white Europeans and Native Americans in New England. In any case he was freed and rejoined the colony, only to die of a fever shortly after in 1622. While his birth date is obviously not known, it is speculated that he was around 30.

I find it unacceptable that for all the nonsense we teach kids about American history, we omit the parts that are actually interesting.

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42 Responses to “NPF: OH. OK.”

  1. HoosierPoli Says:

    Apparently the first thing they heard was "Can I have some beer?" Not to play on stereotypes or anything.

  2. A Different Nate Says:

    When I was sixteen I had an exceptional history teacher who, probably for the first time, really made me interested in history. Because the class and his particular interests were about European history, this was the area where I initially devoured everything I could read. the next year, I had another teacher of similar passion, except her focus was in east Asian history, especially China. Again, I had a whole fascinating world opened to me. That was the year I graduated high school.

    As a result, I was steeped in the incredible kinds of events, the blood and sweat and sex and everything, that made these areas so amazing to learn about. Even today my bookshelves and phone are crammed with books about them. I feel connected to these places even thouhg I've never been to most of the countries I know about, because I know where they were and how they got to where they are.

    But American history? No such transformative event really struck me until years later, by happenstance, my dad gave me his old phone that had a copy of the audio book Don't Know Much About History. It was a great series, perfect since I was driving a lot, and it highlighted for me just how bland and boring and frankly useless typical American history courses are. I honestly don't know how people logic themselves into thinking that offering a milquetoast, white-washed version of history that bores kids to tears and fails to prepare them to actually enagage with facts or the world is somehow a useful venture.

  3. Xynzee Says:

    "In 1605, a little remembered explorer named George Weymouth…"

    Wait?!??!! Wot!!! Did you say *1605*?

    But… but… that pre-dates 1621!!!
    By… by… uhm… years! (can't be asked to take my shoes off to count that high.)

    EVERYONE KNOWS that nothing happened in 'Murka—F### Yeah! Between 1492 and until God in his Holy Wisdom sent the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock to save the Injuns from their heathen ways, in 1621! Upon which the Greatest Country EVAH! came to be founded.

    Ed, that's just crazy talk!

    I agree, with Different Nate, why do we make history so freaking anodyne?

  4. Halcyon Says:

    If we're going for dark horse historical moments, I wanna go watch this unfold live: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24280831

    That time Russian instruments malfunctioned and told the guy on duty that America had launched nukes at Russia, and he ignored clear orders to alert his superiors because it didn't feel right to him and they'd probably blow up the world in retaliation? You know you'd wanna watch that.

  5. Anonymouse Says:

    @Halcyon; I had read that story, and heard that it was part of the inspiration for the 1980s movie War Games.

  6. Dave Dell Says:

    I'd sit in on the Fifth International. Presuming I could read, speak and understand all the languages.

    The Hague Congress was the fifth congress of the International Workingmen's Association (IWA), held from 2–7 September 1872 in The Hague, Holland.

    The Hague Congress is famous for the expulsion of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin for clashing with Marx and his followers over the role of politics in the IWMA.[1] It marked the end of this organization as a unitarian alliance of all socialist factions (anarchists and Marxists).

  7. jeneria Says:

    The most I've learned about American history has been what I've taught myself while teaching an American culture course. I center the course on the World's Fairs 1856 to 1984 and I've learned some of the most fascinating, dark, and inspiring things about America that I never learned in history class.

    Of course my students refer to it as "the class that will win you bar trivia" and I'm okay with that.

  8. sluggo Says:

    @Halcyon
    We probably should just give all the Nobel Peace Prizes ever to him.

  9. dan Says:

    Very interesting. Please cite sources. Thank you.

  10. Captain Blicero Says:

    @jeneria If you don't mind, could you share some of the syllabus for that course? Good books?

  11. neuse river sailor Says:

    What amazes me is the amount of travel and life experience that this exceptional man packed into a 30 year life. Twice enslaved, speaker of three languages (no doubt he learned Spanish as well as English and his native tongue), crosser of the Atlantic 4 times. He lived a very hard life, but I'll bet he was rarely bored.

  12. Robert Says:

    Reminds me of reading about Magellan's slave 'Enrique', a Malay man he acquired in the East Indies. Since he was taken to Europe, then accompanied the famous voyage at least as far as the Philippines, he was probably the first human being ever to go around the world. I like to think that after Magellan's death he escaped and found his way home, and enthralled his grandkids with stories of his perilous adventures.

  13. robert e Says:

    Thanks for that amazing story and the reminder that history is a lot more interesting than most of us were told. But why keep using "Squanto" if you know his real name?

    In defense of at least some "boring" history teachers, most of the really fascinating stuff is human-scale detail, which is difficult to balance with the requirement to transmit X number of salient, testable facts from 500 years of events in Y weeks. Only the brilliant can pull off making that interesting.

    To those who disagree: Try it. Please. We need you!

    In books, on the other hand, the author can tell what needs to be told on a more reasonable scale, and readers can absorb at their chosen pace. I'll search this blog's archives to see if it's been done, as it likely has, but even an off-the-cuff short list of great history books would be welcome, for those of us seeking remedial education.

  14. Robert B Says:

    Two of the most interesting adventures were Francisco de Orellano's exploration of the Amazon in 1541 and Cabeza de Vaca's crossing of the continent from Florida to Mexico City from 1527 to 1537. Both explorations were the result of misadventure and are tales of survival.

  15. c u n d gulag Says:

    If I could go back and CHANGE history, just for shits and giggles, I'd like for H.M. Stanley who was sent to Africa to find the explorer David Livingstone, come up on someone who looks white, and says to him his famous words:
    "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"
    And the guy turns around and says:
    "Vhat? Who, bubbala, is dis Livinshtone? A Dctah My mother always wanted me to be a doctor. So, no, bubbala, I ain't him. My name is Moisha Abramowitz. Pleased to meetchya!
    Oy!
    Vait! Now I think I know who you're talking 'bout! He's back there somewhere, lost in the jungle. That boy could get lost in a sarcophagus. I beat that Goy here and discovered this place by a Yddisha mile! I beat that Goy wherever he wants to go to find places. When he gets there, I've already been there! I leave a little Star of David so he knows Moisha got there foist!!!
    Sometimes I wait around, just to see how upset that boy gets! And, HOO-BOY, let me tell you, that Goy, he out-steams this steamy jungle.
    But, good luck finding that schmendrick.
    Mazel tov!!!"

    Image now much different history would be if a Jewish guy from the Lower East Side explored much of Africa, and not some wealthy English guy!

    Ok, maybe not so much.
    But history would sure be a hell of a lot funnier!!!
    History needs to be funnier.

    I'm sure there's a hell of a lot of funny stuff but all they teach is wars, violence, and religions.

    I wonder if King Tutankhamen was a hoot!
    Did he have a sense of humor?

    People had to have some yucks throughout history.
    Why doesn't anyone ever teach that?

  16. Chicagojon Says:

    Second day in a row that G&T is discussing/thinking of the same things I have been.

    I'm reading The Cold War – A new History by John Lewis Gaddis and it started a discussion in the lunch room yesterday that continued into the afternoon about history, who writes it, what they write, etc. If a general consensus came from the many discussions it would have been that History is fascinating, history texts cannot be trusted, & the way American History is taught is terrible. Boring chronological whitewashing and people/dates to memorize that was the norm.

    The mind boggling thing to me is despite the US' terrible education system and the ability to gain insight from countless other options in the world in many ways we're on the downslope. It must be 1984 in Orson Wells years when Oklahoma (with a large population and percentage of Native peoples and a racist fraternity scandal) wants to rewrite history exams to only highlight what it thinks is good like America's exceptionalism in ending slavery.

    It truly boggles my mind that a discussion of education or the environment (See yesterday) doesn't begin with "It's fucking 2015 — so the first thing we're going to do is recognize that environmental disaster is real, racism, sexism, & classism is real, and historical whitewashing is real — and we don't want to fall into the same traps as when these issues were addressed in 1600, 1800, or 2000."

    Instead we live in a country where I cannot begin to imagine how bad the 'put a woman on the $20' is going to get…

  17. mwing Says:

    I'm from Massachusetts, went to a decent public school, went to Plimouth Plantation (and the rock) on field trips, etc, but I do not recall ever hearing about Europeans in New England before 1621. I don't recall if we were actually told that the Mayflower was the first, or if we were just never told about any other ships and assumed the Mayflower was it. Or, since the larger subject was colonization, we just never heard about English explorers who weren't trying to set up a colony.

    The thing is, this all gets taught at such a young age, that if it were presented in a more complicated and/or accurate way, I don't think we'd have retained those parts anyway. I think the reason a lot of us have just a childish understanding of US history is because we learned it only as children.

  18. Khaled Says:

    I'm a history major so this concept gave me great pause. Would I like to go back to Pre-Columbia American, so I could see what smallpox destroyed? Would I like to see Ivan the Terrible? The Mongol conquest?
    American history-wise, I'd like to see the 1863 draft riots in NYC, or the Civil War.
    The terrible teaching of history is because of the obsession with covering EVERYTHING in a year. That and a lot of "history" teachers aren't historians, or people who studied history in college. They are coaches, the people who can't teach anything else, etc. Just assign a terrible textbook and test them to make sure they actually read it.
    One of the recent stories I heard that was pretty interesting was about a man who was born a slave, taught by his master to shoot a gun – but not to read – and when his master was in the Confederate army, the slave shot the master and escaped to Indian Country. He learned the languages, and later came back to fight on the side of the Union. As the commentator put it, this alone would be a great story. However, after the Civil War, a lot of outlaws escaped into the West, and the Natives wouldn't trust the white men, go figure, and so this man, along with other ex-slaves, were deputized and became federal marshals. Since the man still couldn't read, he would memorize the warrants and set off into the West to hunt down outlaws. He was a master of disguise, going so far as to dress up as women, etc, to hunt down the outlaws. His "partner" was a Native who also served as his guide. Sound familiar? Yup, he was the basis for the "Lone Ranger" stories. Now if that story, or the story of the Squanto, were told more often, kids would pay attention. What got me interested in history was not the boring dates, it was when my professor in my intro to European History class took a little bit of time to talk about Russian History. Ivan The Terrible was fascinating. After his wife died, he became paranoid, and selected a number of people to be the Oprichnia (I'm almost 100% positive that I screwed up the transliteration. Arslan, can you help a brother out?) They were deemed above the law, and they rode through the countryside with brooms (to sweep out corruption) and had served dog heads on their saddles. Beat that, Irish monks.

  19. SeaTea Says:

    I know the Jamestown Colony pre-dates the Mayflower because one of my Ancestors was in Virginia before he was on the Mayflower. Thanks, genealogy!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Hopkins_%28Mayflower_passenger%29

  20. Death Panel Truck Says:

    What's wrong with "Squanto"? Sounds like one of the Marx Brothers.

  21. sophronia Says:

    I was an elementary schooler during the Bicentennial year, and my family moved all the way across the country, from New Jersey to California. In NJ, we had spent months learning about Plymouth, and Squanto's story was prominently featured and discussed in class (though also whitewashed — they never mentioned that he was a slave, for example). So when my social studies class in CA studied the topic, I mentioned Squanto as someone important that everyone would naturally know about.

    None of them had ever heard of him. Not even one of the teachers. There was not one book in the entire school that had a word about Squanto in it. They seemed to think I was making it up because I was a new kid and wanted attention. I felt like my parents had packed me up and moved me into the Twilight Zone.

    In retrospect, this was a pretty good lesson that I should always keep in mind who is telling the story, what they are leaving out, and that history books and teachers are not inviolable sources of truth. A good thing to learn early, and not something that we normally allow kids to learn in our school systems.

  22. jeneria Says:

    Given my geographic proximity to Chicago, we spend a lot of time on the 1893 Exposition so we read Devil in the White City. Additional texts include Fair World (a global perspective), Rydell's Fair America, Rydell's All the World's a Fair (covers up to 1916), a general Encyclopedia of World's Fairs published by MacMillan. In the past few years World's Fairs have become really popular and a slew of websites have popped up for both specific fairs and just fairs in general.

    One of the assignments is to pick a US World's Fair (not 1893) and put into a historical context both for the US and for the world. For example, if you were allowed to write about 1893 you could look at the financial crisis of that year and the resulting repercussions, the Sea Islands hurricane which hit Charleston and Savannah, the opening of the American Temperance University, or Colorado giving women the right to vote. From an international perspective you could include the Ivory Coast becoming a French colony (and all the strife that would bring), Ghandi’s first act of civil disobedience, women’s suffrage gains ground in New Zealand, or the building of the first electric car in Toronto (could go 15 miles between charges).

  23. Skepticalist Says:

    My 1950s and 60s upstate New York public school history education was pretty thin. It took my exposure to ancient and European history college night courses to realize just how little I knew. My public school education exposed me to world history only if it had serious bearing on North America less than 250 years ago. The level of bullshit was stunning.

    We don't have an excuse for this. If one lived in the middle ages, it's understandable. Communication wasn't bad, it was rare. However, unlike the 99% of that time, all I have to do is turn on my TV to learn what life is like in American corporate prisons or how to win at poker. How lucky can I be?

  24. Schmitt trigger Says:

    For me? The Maya's decline.
    There are many theories on how one of the ancient world's most advanced civilizations simply vanished.
    Not the people, their descendants are still around, but the actual civilization.

  25. el mago Says:

    Wouldn't want to hang out in Spain during civil war times, but wouldn't mind sharing a glass with Federico Garcia Lorca. Hemingway, not.

    History, we know who writes it. Although Bernal Diaz seemed to do a decent job with the conquest of Mexico. And then there's the conquest of Peru. Ah, it's all blood and guts, greed and betrayal.

  26. Ed Says:

    He actually spoke 8 languages.

  27. Mo Says:

    [Sometime in The Future]

    "I want to go back to 2020 and party with the 1% on their yachts!
    Before I kill them. Kill them all."

    [Parks dugout canoe and begins days's work mining a landfill]

    Yes, We Are Fucking Doomed

  28. human Says:

    @jeneria, that course sounds like so much fun. I went to the 1984 World's Fair with my family. I was only little, so I couldn't tell you much about it except that the kid wash was fun (you ran through and it dumped water on you, which was nice because it was really hot) and the Chinese pavilion held my attention for maybe 5 minutes and I got a cool fan. And, best of all was the gondola across the river. It kept breaking and stranding people in these tiny cars a few hundred feet over the river for hours at a time, but people kept going on it anyway. They tried to keep it running after the fair was over but it went bankrupt after a year or two, much to my disappointment.

    Do you have any readings about the 1984 World's Fair for this course?

  29. Skipper Says:

    A little more history. The Pilgrims did not make land in Plymouth. They first landed in Provincetown, now a gay mecca, on the tip of Cape Cod. The Mayflower Compact was signed in Provincetown Harbor. There were natives residing there. The Pilgrims never met them, but they did find their supply of winter corn — and stole it. The Pilgrims couldn't find a reliable source of water — and all the T-shirt stores were closed for the winter. So they went on to Plymouth. Also, the Pilgrims had a warrant to settle in Virginia, not in what now is Massachusetts. So three historical corrections. Plymouth's claim to be the original landing place is a fraud. The Pilgrims were the first illegal immigrants. And they were thieves. Happy Thanksgiving.

  30. Skipper Says:

    Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, the first person executed in Plymouth colony was a guy who fucked a turkey. Not sure whether it was before, after, or during Thanksgiving dinner.

  31. Kaleberg Says:

    The first European settlement in what is now the lower 48 was in Florida. I gather it was founded by Hugenots in 1564, but the Spaniards came in shortly afterwards, dealt with the heretics and renamed it St. Augustine. There were probably earlier short term settlements. Every major European power started exploring the area in the late 15th century, but the money was in the Caribbean.

    My favorite US history course was in junior high school and dealt with major themes in history so we learned about industrialization and the labor movement, the Civil War and the civil rights struggle, and the movement from isolationism to internationalism. It was nice because it explained what they were talking about on the evening news. I don't mind color stories, like that of Squanto or Arago, but I prefer getting a sense of the bigger picture, like what it all means to me.

    World fairs are a surprisingly good way to get a sense of history. Wasn't it the 1850s fair in England that was sort of America's industrial "coming out" to the world? The big one was the 1876 fair with steam engines, the telephone and the bungalow. If you've ever seen a relatively modern living room with a fireplace, that was the 1876 fair in Philadelphia with its new, less formal model of authentic country living. Forty years later everyone was riding in cars, talking on the phone, using electric lights and fighting with the flue in their newfangled fireplace.

  32. el mago Says:

    @Ed "He actually spoke 8 languages."

    Who? Lorca, Hemingway or Diaz?

  33. el mago Says:

    It's a joke, sort of. Know who you meant. Time for bed.

  34. J. Dryden Says:

    His life story is so ridiculous that if they made a movie about it, nobody would believe it is true:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111271/?ref_=nv_sr_1

  35. Arslan Says:

    @Khaled You were pretty close, it was oprichnina(опричнина).

    On topic- It often seems to me that American school history courses are designed to make you hate history. I had great teachers in general, but much of what I "learned" in history courses was either irrelevant, wrong, or in some cases urban legends which I would find out about long after graduation.

    In Britain they have this wonderful brand called Horrible Histories. They publish books and had a TV series on the BBC. It's absolutely brilliant and in the US educators and publishers are too cowardly to attempt making an American version. Horrible Histories is exactly what it sounds like. They don't shield children from the violence and horror of past eras. They remind kids that Tudor-era streets were filled with human and animal waste. They detail the horrible forms of torture that were used in the past. They show how religious conflicts often had economic motives. They lampoon and attack authorities and "heroes," including such figures as Martin Luther.

    Could we ever have that in America? Not now. Now we have to keep telling our children bullshit stories about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and copping to it. Even if that story were true, it would only mean Washington was a dipshit when he was a kid. We have to tell kids about all the settlers who planted corn. Oh by the way, the Indians called the corn MAIZE! THAT'S GOING TO BE ON THE TEST! And of course, we have to pretend the cause of the Civil War was "complicated," so we don't hurt the feelings of the poor sensitive people who LOST.

  36. jeneria Says:

    @human The 1984 World's Fair is considered an embarrassment because while it delivered the River Walk in NOLA, it was so poorly planned and rife with corruption that it essentially killed World's Fairs in the US. It also doesn't help that the 1884 Cotton Expo in NOLA was also a disaster. The expo museum http://www.expomuseum.com/1984/ is a good place to start.

  37. Skepticalist Says:

    Although with exceptions, reading about the British Empire, compared to our horrid approved teachings, can be a decent link to a lot of more detailed world history. They were, you know, all over the place.

  38. anotherbozo Says:

    It was political history shorn of any detail that bored the crap out of me in high school and college (required at Berkeley). Then I discovered Rebecca Solnit, Bill Bryson, William Everdell, Sarah Vowell, most recently Carl Schorske, ironically a Cal prof. at one time.

    Great post. Like sitting in on one of Ed's classes, maybe, but without having to fake the exam.

  39. human Says:

    @jeneria Thanks for the link! I'm going to have some fun digging around on that site.

    I remember people complaining about the 1984 Worlds Fair being screwed up, losing money, etc. I guess I just never took it that seriously because growing up in Louisiana, everyone around was always full of neoliberal-tinged complaints about how awful it is when governments spend money on things. (Though, who pays for a Worlds Fair, anyway?) Even as a little kid I had figured out to take that kind of thing with a grain of salt. And the Riverwalk was one of my favorite places to go in New Orleans for many years.

    I hadn't realized the fair actually went bankrupt during its run, though. I'll have to ask my dad what he remembers about it.

  40. democommie Says:

    "EVERYONE KNOWS that nothing happened in 'Murka—F### Yeah! Between 1492 and until God…"

    Read some of Farley Mowatt's "Sea of Slaughter" and find out what they were up to in the Atlantic Ocean area on Canada and
    the Northern U.S. Atlantic coast–from about 1500 or so.

  41. jeneria Says:

    @human World's Fairs historically were paid by the host city, host county, host state and sometimes they would have money allotted from the federal government. Funds were raised through the sales of stocks or subscriptions. By the 20th century, the federal government stepped out of funding and private corporations stepped in (hence GM's huge Futurama exhibit at New York 1939). Like the Olympics, World's Fairs rarely recoup their initial investment.

    The 1984 World's Fair had a 350$ million price tag and ended up 121$ million in debt. There were 750 creditors clamoring for 81$ million of invested money. The city of NOLA lost 2.8$ million on endeavor. (this is better than 1884 when one of the guys who spearheaded it stole 2 million dollars and fled to Argentina) HOWEVER the fair did spur the redevelopment of the Warehouse District and allowed NOLA to build several new hotels. It also helped to put NOLA on the map as one of the premier conference/convention sites in the country.

    I'm actually headed to NOLA this week for a conference. It's one of my absolute favorite cities in the country (despite all the poverty and violence, the history is too fascinating). I always make sure to go to the River Walk in honor of 1984.