Published: July 1, 2020

The Promise of Historical Thinking on the Fourth of July

The laws of the Early Republic “made explicit provision to protect the lands reserved for the Indians from white encroachment, and from 1796 on the laws provided that the President of the United States could employ such military force as he saw necessary to remove illegal squatters on Indian lands . . . “

Francis Paul Prucha, The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army and the Frontier, 1783-1846 (1969)

“A significant number” of Army officers in the nineteenth-century West “struggled with the morality of fighting Indians to serve the purposes of greedy Americans. Some of them revealed hearts in conflict with their actions. . . . When it came to matters of Indians, Indian policy, and the morality of the Indian wars, they demonstrated an irrepressible individuality.”

Sherry L. Smith, The View from Officers’ Row: Army Perceptions of Western Indians (1990)


A Holiday Looms, in Troubled Times

How should we observe the Fourth of July in 2020, when the coronavirus is behaving like an inconceivably malevolent event planner, and when our chances of uniting to observe this anniversary seem several levels below dismal?

I have three ideas.

First, let’s take possession of a great national heritage hidden in plain sight:  a lineage of independent-minded military officials notable for their forthright self-examination and unflinching appraisal of their nation’s conduct.

Second, let’s draw on the stories of these historic figures to get moving on a long-needed project:  transporting a spirit-draining phrase, as vacuous as it is popular, to the graveyard where outmoded phrases are put to rest.

Third, let’s conjure up ways that we can build on these first two action items to replace dead-ended thinking about historical monuments and memorials with a vision filled with life.


Holiday Activity #1

Regaining Possession of a National Heritage

If you wanted to make the claim that people of the United States had been united in the cause of westward expansion, you would have to go very aerial. By the time you reached an elevation that would mislead you into seeing a nation that was of one mind in support of Manifest Destiny, you would realize that you had arrived in a zone where oxygen was getting scarce.

Brevet Major General John Wool is the historical figure who has made sure that I would never be able to take that flight to abstraction and over-generalization. He has never let me forget the wide range of opinions—and principles—that lived in the minds of the people of the nation’s past.

photo of U.S. Army General John Ellis Wool
U.S. Army General. John Ellis Wool. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

My guess is that most readers—probably all readers—will need a little help in identifying this Wool fellow.

Despite my best efforts over nearly forty years, General Wool has failed to gain the status of a widely recognized historical figure. Even when I used to feature him in my Western American history classes, he never took hold in the students’ memories, even when he was paired with the magic phrase, “This could be on the exam.” When this warning proved prophetic and the request to identify him appeared on the text, the results were discouraging. “Wool played a major role in the struggles between sheep and cattle raisers,” or “Wool helped to launch the fur trade”: that was about the best I could hope for.

The actual John Wool was a lot more important than that. Having first made his mark in Western American history as an officer in the Mexican-American War, Wool was appointed as the commanding officer for the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1850s.

When he took this position, relationships between Indian people and white settlers were a mess, with the conflicts escalating into the Yakima War.

General Wool believed that he was compelled to deploy Army troops against the Indians. But he did not feel compelled to conceal his judgment of the cause of the troubles that required this deployment.

Before Wool could take action, Oregon settlers had organized companies of “Volunteers” who had taken it upon themselves to attack Indians with little in the way of deliberation and a lot in the way of brutality. As the accomplished military historian Robert Utley wrote, “Wool did not hesitate to express his conviction that the Oregon troops had pushed the tribes . . . into hostility.” Since the Volunteers had stirred up the trouble, constraining the power of white settlers was the essential step toward peace. Once “the volunteers ceased their depredations and savage barbarities on the Indians,” Wool wrote, “justice and the ordinary feelings of humanity” could come into play.

Throughout the West, local settlers often saw profit in conflict, anticipating a flow of federal money for volunteer troops and also for Army expenditures for food and supplies. Thus, the Yakima War, Wool asserted, “has been, from the commencement, one of plunder of Indians and of the treasury of the United States, prompted by political and pecuniary considerations.”

Writing in 1967, Robert Utley offered this shaky and uncomfortable appraisal of the general:

In the larger sense, of course, Wool was right, but in the context of the times, his inability to understand the other point of view as well cost him needed civilian support and deepened the bitterness already engendered by field commanders who now and then sided with the Indians.

What it would have meant for Wool to court “civilian support,” with the Oregon Volunteers on a rampage, is not easy to imagine. And, in retrospect, I am surprised that, when I first read this passage thirty years ago, my curiosity was not aroused by Utley’s reference to “field commanders who now and then sided with the Indians.” Still, even if holding back his admiration, Utley did acknowledge that Wool had made an impact: “Intemperate public utterances ensured wide circulation of the general’s views.”

And then, in 1990, historian Sherry L. Smith published The View from Officers’ Row: Army Perceptions of Western Indians.  I learned from this book that General Wool had a sizable cohort of counterparts who shared his recognition of white settlers as provocateurs of conflict. As Smith observed, “The majority of officers, in fact, simply could not neglect the role the white presence played on the turbulent frontier.” In her research, she found an abundance of passages in which Army officers condemned the injuries inflicted on Indians by frontiersmen. One captain wrote that “natives could not be blamed” for violence because “’rascally whites’ frequently killed” Indian people “out of sport.” Another officer referred to one group of white settlers as “the most unmitigated, mean, rascally race I ever met with.” Lamenting the role of “wholly unscrupulous” white men in the onset of the Ute War of 1879, Major Alfred Lacey Hough unleashed a full round of fury:  “It is an outrage that we of the Army who have all the hardships to encounter should be made such catspaws or mere tools of ambitious men who care only for their own interests and cater to the public for sympathy.”

Only one of the officers in Sherry Smith’s book called into question the superiority of “civilization.” None resigned their commissions. But a significant sampling of officers “deplored the abuses heaped upon native people by unsavory and unscrupulous frontiersmen and corrupt or inept government officials.” Thus, the national heritage we now hold:  a tradition of nineteenth-century Army officers recording the crucial recognition of the complex and unforeseen consequences of the nation’s ambitions and of their own roles in producing those consequences.

Holiday Activity #2

Supporting the Blessed Disappearance of “Men of Their Times”

And now for a leading question: should we think of these officers as “men of their times”?

Given the dates of their births and of their deaths, the only answer would seem to be “Yes.”

But not so fast.

If we were to compete to identify the least helpful statement that we could make about the people of the past, we couldn’t do much better than “they were men of their times.” Those words have had the misfortune of turning into the go-to phrase of preference when an individual wants to assert that people today have no right to appraise the conduct of historic figures. He was just a “man of his times” serves as a shield to protect a historic figure from our curiosity and from our desire to take him seriously.

Intended to defend the people of the past from our critical examination, the phrase “men of their times” has had the unintended effect of dehumanizing them, denying their individuality and homogenizing them into one, unitary, likeminded clump.

(I cannot keep from noting that the one great virtue of the phrase is its distinctive twist on gender exclusivity. It is wonderful to be left out of this ridiculous phrase, and no imaginable reason to ask to be included in it!)

And now to knit together our first two Fourth of July holiday activities.

In the nineteenth-century American West, quite a number of officers with restless consciences served in the U.S. Army. In their writings, these officers knock the pins out from under the homogenizing, dehumanizing, standardizing, and ruthlessly stereotyping custom of categorizing historic figures as “just men of their times.”

Whatever your plans for the Fourth of July in 2020, consider making this the day that you join the movement to send this benighted phrase off to its long deserved disappearance, clearing the way for a full recognition of the vitality and diversity of the people who preceded us on the planet.


Holiday Activity #3

Designing a Monument for a Failed Ideal

As ceremonial objects designed to acquaint citizens with their shared heritage, monuments, memorials, and statues are performing very poorly these days. Among all the cultural customs that have begged and pleaded for a fresh start, this doubtful method for paying tribute to history is leading the pack.

Of all the indignities imposed on people after their death, the strategy of casting them in bronze and placing them on pedestals has been a particularly questionable “honor.” Since bronze corrodes easily, the historical figure so memorialized will soon come down with pits and streaks, unless provided intrusively constant maintenance. The pedestal furthers the dehumanizing, putting the figure far beyond the comfortable reach of the gaze of the living. And the statements on the plaques stand out as major achievements in tedious and formulaic prose.

We could do better than this.

So, on the Fourth of July in 2020, let’s come up with a vision of a fresh and innovative kind of memorial and monument.

Here’s what I have in mind:  a test run at creating a tribute to a forgotten ideal that figured in the nation’s origins.

And yes, I have an ideal to suggest as our first candidate.

I propose a monument to an ideal that figured in the earliest days of the Republic:  The recognition that the honor of the United States required the nation to be scrupulous and persistent in protecting Indian people from intrusions into the lands that had been designated as theirs.

This ideal figured in the high-minded rhetoric of political figures, and it also produced action. In 1796, Congress passed a law that, in the words of the noted historian Francis Paul Prucha, “specifically withdrew all support of any claims made [by white squatters] to lands” located within the boundaries of Indian Country, and “authorized the use of military force to remove the offending settlers.”

Repeatedly, in the years of the Early Republic, the Army sent troops in to remove white intruders into Indian land, burning their illegal homes and destroying their illegal improvements.

White settlers who ignored the restrictions and intruded into Indian land were, of course, intensely resentful of their removal. But every unit of that resentment was its own affirmation that federal officials tried to give the ideal—of requiring white settlers to respect the integrity of Indian territory—a claim on reality.

As Secretary of War Henry Knox wrote in 1793, in a commentary on the “violent and lawless inroads of several parties of whites” into Indian territory,

Unless such crimes shall be punished in an exemplary manner, it will be in vain for the government to make further attempts to establish any plan or system for the administration of Indian Affairs founded on the principles of moderation and justice—Treaties will be at an end and violence and injustice will be the Arbiters of all future disputes between the whites and neighbouring tribes of Indians; and of consequence,  much innocent blood will be shed . . .

And then, as every reader realizes, the ideal disappeared, from memory and from enforcement.

Now the tough question:  How do you build a memorial to an ideal, especially to an ideal that failed?

For this one, we need an array of quotations from the leaders of the Early Republic, asserting that national honor would be shaken if the nation did not respect the boundaries of Indian land. We need a series of quotations from tribal leaders, affirming that they had heard this promise and expected the United States to honor it. We need the cartographers (Indian and white) on our team, producing (as they already have) compelling maps of the prior claims of Indian people on the lands now crisscrossed by lines of private property and public agencies. And we need to note and applaud the good work already underway in the widespread custom of “Indigenous Land Acknowledgments.”

And, to display or embody this ideal, we will need something that is radically different from a stone or bronze memorial. We will need something closer to an animation, in which an ideal takes shape and moves boldly out into the world, but then collapses and vanishes from memory, until it is brought back to life.

And now to link all three Holiday Activities together: why not think of the nineteenth-century Army officers, who recorded their conflicts of conscience, as figures in a long series of people who tried to bring that ideal back to life? When they condemned the aggression perpetrated by white settlers who asserted their personal profit over the constraints of boundaries and laws and who scorned the claims of Indian tribes, these officers were not speaking as defectors or dissidents, renegades or mavericks.

On the contrary, they were patriots restating the ideal recorded in the laws of the early Republic.

With a fresh start, the purpose of memorials and monuments would be unmistakable:  to invite us to get reacquainted with ideals that have failed, but still remain within our reach for revival and renewal.

Have a good Fourth of July.


A Surgical Gift for Self-Examination

Bernard James Byrne, Army Surgeon in Santa Fe, 1880

“As I walked along the street, I stopped several citizens to ask the way. No one could speak English; the answer to each question was ‘Quien sabe?’ I finally got indignant to think of walking a street in my own country and not being able to find a citizen who spoke the language, but I cooled off when I reflected that Indians and Mexicans had been here ages before I was; I was the interloper.”

 Patty Limerick's signature

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