Since the founding of the thirteen colonies in America, settlers have pushed west relentlessly, hungry for land of their own, with little regard for the native inhabitants except as obstacles. This land hunger, combined with a gold discovery on Cherokee land in Georgia, prompted the 1830 Indian Removal Act. The US military forced Indian peoples in Georgia and other areas on a 116-day march in the winter of 1838. For more than 800 miles around 100,000 American Indians traveled through heavy rains, ice storms, and rough terrain to Oklahoma territory. Children and the elderly suffered greatly. Overall, more than 15,000 Indians died.
The scale of the forced march of Arizona’s Navajos was much smaller, but it was also tragic. The National Archives covers it in a fascinating blog post published today, titled The Navajo Treaty Travels to the Navajo Nation. Perhaps this incident is covered in Arizona schools these days, but I was born and raised there and this is the first I have heard about it. I hope it is not the last.
I saw on my reading list where one blogger did a “What I’m Reading Wednesday” post. Brilliant idea, thinks I. It’s not always possible for me to work up a book review post, but I am constantly reading one book or another — usually nonfiction — and I can certainly post about them. So here it is.
When I first heard the term Exodusters I thought it was some sort of sci-fi like title: Exo- Dusters. I imagined a Morpheus-like fellow, complete with long black coat and sunglasses, blasti bad guys while flipping through the air.
Yeah, I know. I am taken by fancies quite often.
A little googling told me that the term came from Exodus, as in the book of Bible. Therefore, Exodus-ters. Exodusters were poor black families who left the South after the heartbreaking failure of Reconstruction, following the Civil War. As the South descended into an abyss of white supremacy, violence, fear, and pain, news of hope came from Kansas. It was the land of John Brown, that fiery abolitionist who denounced slavery with violence, and died for his crimes. Families who had emigrated there wrote to those still oppressed in the South and encouraged them to flee, to come to the Promised Land. Many thousands did just that, the Exodusters.
The definitive study of this group of people is by historian Nell Irvin Painter in Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1976, 1986), and it is brilliant and dense. Painter puts into words concepts and ideas that have, in less than three chapters, made her one of my history heroes. For instance, for years I have been taken aback by the term “white trash” because it assumes that everyone else, who is not white, is naturally trash. But I could not articulate this feeling. Painter, speaking about a similar concept, does so succinctlyThis political conflict between masters and slaves, so often identified as a racial conflict, was, at bottom, a conflict between workers and employers, between poor people and wealthy people, in which race functioned as the idiom for discussion of class. Unless the terms of the discussion were modified–“poor” white, “educated” Black–the word black meant poor and white meant rich. (p. viii)
As a historian myself, there’s nothing more thrilling than to connect the thread of some unwinding truth from age to age, as Painter has done here and with many other such revelations. But she also includes heart, as she quotes Louisiana farmer John Solomon Lewis in 1879 as he and his family fled the oppression of the deep South for Kansas.
“When I knew I had all my family in a free land, I said let us hold a little prayer meeting; so we held a little meeting on the river bank. It was raining but the drops fell from heaven on a free family, and the meeting was just as good as sunshine. We was thankful to God for ourselves and we prayed for those who could not come.
“I asked my wife did she know the ground she stands on. She said, ‘No!’
“I said it is free ground; and she cried like a child for joy.” (p. 4)
It will take me quite a while to get through this book, and as I do so I will be underlining and making notes and pondering what Painter says, but as I read the pleasure is all mine.
Behold, gentle reader! Here you witness the start of an intermittent series of blog posts designed to feature those subjects that are dear to my writerly heart. Namely, the quirks of history, which is called, descriptively enough, Hiccups in History.
The very first of such posts is a reblog by TwistedSifter. It’s just too good to pass up. More hiccups to come soon!
Photograph via Library of Congress In this old law enforcement photo from 1924, we see a police officer trying on a ‘cow shoe’ used by moonshiners to disguise their footprints. In the United States alcohol was banned from 1920-1933 in an era known as Prohibition. Moonshine (a type of strong, homemade whiskey) was often…
If I had unlimited time, I would probably spend several hours a day, every day, learning Latin and perusing old newspaper articles. Alas, I do not have unlimited time, but in my research for various fiction and nonfiction projects I do come across some interesting bits now and again. You may recall my rampaging monkey post. This is another post in the same vein.
First we will start with the wild. Bears! I do believe this has the makings of an American nursery tale.
Goodness gracious, great balls of fire! Hyenas can be pretty dangerous, too.
Dogs in danger always pulls at the heartstrings! It seems that Jack London’s Call of the Wild may have inspired some unsavory people:
And last, but not least, apparently dogs have been accompanying folks on car rides for quite some time.
You will notice that these articles are from around the turn of the 20th century. That’s the setting of my latest project, a quirky romance between a dog musher/postman and a bicycle-riding pastor in 1911 Alaska. Check out my newsletter to keep apprised of its progress and to read free flash fiction while you are at it.
Like most fiction writers, I have a day job. Mine happens to be as a writer. Of nonfiction for kids. What can be better than to research, write, and edit nonfiction for kids? Especially when my writing projects are historical. Let me tell you, it beats my past jobs with a stick: project manager, administrative analyst, administrative coordinator, accounts payable clerk, and some others that have faded into the past like a rancid odor.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the ability to support myself and my family at past jobs, but they’ve all been stepping stones to where I am today. Which is in my home office with my dogs all around me, my hair in disarray, dressed in yoga pants and sweatshirts, and wearing away at the paint on my computer keyboard.
It’s glamorous, all right.
I’m a freelancer and happy with the independence it brings me. Sure, there are downsides, too, but I can’t see myself headed back into an office environment any time soon. Or any time at all.
Last year I wrote a fun historical book on Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (2017 publication date). He’s that failure of a 16th century explorer who set off to find the Seven Cities of Gold. That didn’t exist. But at least he had fun along the way, leading a motley crew of soldiers and missionaries across the broiling hot deserts of northern Mexico and southern Arizona. They stumped across rocky defiles and cactus-choked deer paths in their heavy plate metal armor (which they evidently scattered here and there, to the delight of archaeologists), and abused American Indians at every opportunity. You see, if Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro could overtake gold-rich Central and South American civilizations, then certainly Coronado could too. When he heard the “credible” tales of the Seven Cities of Gold that lay north of Mexico from a wily and perhaps demented friar, Marcos de Niza, he seized upon them.
Perhaps Coronado should have fact-checked de Niza’s reports a little closer. Because he and his men traveled hundreds of miles north, then east, then north again, following rumors and pipe dreams. They crossed from Arizona to New Mexico, into Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and finally central Kansas. Poor Indian villages were all they found, no wealth other than the clear air and endless grasslands.
The revelation that de Niza lied about these gold and jewel-bedecked cities deterred the group only temporarily. The hints and lies of another man, an Indian slave nicknamed The Turk, kept them traveling on into Kansas. The Turk hoped that a local tribe would slaughter them. Alas, The Turk ended up being the one slaughtered when his deception was uncovered. At last, Coronado determined to turn back, but he would have gone on if his men and the Spanish government would have given him more support. He and his men slunk back to Mexico in disgrace. He did not receive the riches and fame he sought, but he did penetrate a previously unknown land and pave the way for later explorers and settlers.
The Spanish left behind horses, which the Indians bred and used to legendary utility. Before the coming of the Spanish, Indians only had dogs as pack animals. They also left behind diseases that the biologically separate Americans had no natural immunity to. Such began the Indian’s long decline and eventual near-extinction.
You can still hear echoes of long-ago drumbeats and see the crumbled remains of Indian dwelling places on the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, a stretch of narrow, winding highway in eastern Arizona. This section of US Route 191 is said to have 460 curves, which make it “exciting” or “terrifying” depending on your perspective. Perhaps you, like me, find yourself drawn to remote historical adventures, though, and if so you may enjoy the 120-mile drive.
I just hope that my own life’s adventures do not end in infamy like Coronado’s.