Tuesday, January 30, 2007

History ain't what it used to be

In my methodology class this morning, as part of a discussion on changing historiographical schools of thought, I showed my students a textbook by Lawton B. Evans, originally titled The Student’s History of Georgia: From the Earliest Discoveries and Settlements. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Evans’s work, first published in 1884, was the first real Georgia history textbook. With its later editions, it “came to be regarded as the standard school text on Georgia history for many years.”

True to its subtitle, the book has little on Georgia’s Native Americans prior to the coming of the Europeans--to be precise, about half a paragraph. “As late as two hundred years ago the state was almost unbroken forest, and the people who inhabited it were savages, who built no cities, had no written language, knew nothing of their own past history, and who led a wandering life in the solitude of the great forests which covered this land.” An illustration accompanying those few words shows a woman cooking fish and several others performing various tasks outside of a tipi. The caption: “Home life of the savages.”

Except for “no written language” and the fish, none of this is accurate.

“Savages”? The word was used a little more freely a century ago, and if Evans meant “living in a state of nature,” its use might be excused. But I strongly suspect he meant the more modern sense of “uncivilized,” which is quite wrong.

“Unbroken forest”? When Hernando DeSoto traveled through what is now Northwest Georgia in 1540, he reported that, for miles at a time, his expedition was never out of sight of cultivated fields or villages.

“Built no cities”? “A wandering life”? The Indians that DeSoto encountered had settled down centuries earlier, in large permanent settlements that rivaled, in terms of population, many Europeans cities.

“Knew nothing of their own past history”? There is an element of truth here. With the arrival of the Europeans, Native Americans began to die quickly and in large numbers. Anthropologists and historians have estimated that, within a year, some areas suffered a 50 percent population decline, due mainly to the disease that the Europeans unwittingly carried with them and against which the Indians had no natural resistance. Within a few generations, the population of Southeastern Indians overall declined by 80-90 percent (some put the figure as high as 95 percent). With that tremendous and rapid decline, no doubt some history was lost.

But at the same time that Evans was writing his history of Georgia, an anthropologist named James Mooney, working for the federal government’s Bureau of American Ethnology, was compiling a record of Cherokee myths, handed down through the centuries, about everything from the creation of the earth to the origin of fire, disease, evergreens, and the lowly crawfish--enough to fill over 300 book pages. When my students read some of these myths for class, they conclude that these “savages” weren’t quite as uncivilized a people as Evans suggests.

Oh, and about that picture: Plains Indians, out West, lived in tipis; Southeastern Indians did not.

Evans’s view of Georgia history emphasizes politics, which means it’s dominated by wealthy white men. As far as I can tell, only two women are mentioned by name in the text: Mary Musgrove, who helped James Oglethorpe deal with the natives, and Revolutionary War hero Nancy Hart. Of the 155 captioned portraits in the book, one is of a woman: “Mrs. Governor Early.” (She’s not mentioned in the text.)

Evans’s book contains six sentences on slave life. Here are four of them: “Being well treated, they were free from care, and were, therefore, happy, and devoted to their masters. After the day’s labor they had their simple sports, such as dancing, playing the banjo, and ’possum hunting. They were fond of singing, even at their work. And at night, around the fire in ‘the quarters,’ they would sing their melodies in rich, musical voices.”

Actually this book is similar to others of the time. They reflect the thinking of society a century ago, and of course they also helped shape it: remember, this was the textbook that taught a generation of Georgia schoolchildren about their state.

After looking at the book, my students decided that history ain’t what it used to be. And that’s a good thing.