[July 17th marks the 200th anniversary of the transfer of Florida from Spain to the U.S. The history of that addition is much more complex than that one date suggests, however—an idea which could be applied much more broadly as well. So this week I’ll highlight a handful of texts that can help us engage more accurately with the fraught, multi-layered histories of U.S. expansion, leading up to a weekend tribute to one of the best scholarly resources for doing so!]
On the horrifying and inspiring effects of reading a vital late 19th century text.
I’ve written about Sarah Winnemucca and her autoethnographic book Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883) many times, including in this column for We’re History. As I do sometimes, I’ll stop this first paragraph and ask you to check out that piece, and then come on back here for more.
Welcome back! There are lots of important 19th century texts that help us engage with Native American histories and communities, but I don’t know any one that more potently traces the horrific effects of US expansion on indigenous Americans than does Winnemucca’s book. Much of that is due to her choice to begin the book with two interconnected subjects: the initial contact between US settlers and Winnemucca’s Paiute (the modern spelling) tribe; and the perspective of her grandfather, a tribal chief who welcomed the settlers and worked tirelessly and yet frustratingly unsuccessfully to create a positive relationship between the communities. Beginning her book as she does with the thorough shattering of this impressive man’s optimism and hope by the hostility and brutality of the US arrivals, Winnemucca immediately and powerfully locates her reader’s empathy with both that specific figure and the tribe as a whole; and the rest of the book, which traces with unrelenting detail the horrors of the removal policy, the “Indian Wars,” and the consistent aggressions of European settlers, builds on that initial empathy quite effectively.
All those histories, and even more so their effects, comprised vital elements of US expansion, and Winnemucca’s book thus is a must-read for all Americans. But as I traced in that We’re History column, Winnemucca also exemplifies Native American resistance to those destructive histories—and, importantly, the successes that resistance achieved, at least as much as the tragedies with which it was met. To extend a bit of my topic from yesterday’s post, another reason why it’s not enough just to think about expansion through the lens of settler colonialism is that that frame too easily locates Native Americans entirely as victims, passively colonized by the arriving settlers. Whereas another layer to the story of expansion is the active response and role of indigenous communities, the countless ways they contributed to the evolving histories of these places and of the expanding nation as a whole. That far more inspiring layer is important to remember as well, and there are no figures nor texts that help us do so any better than do Winnemucca and her book.
Last expanded history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Expansion texts or contexts you’d highlight?