Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.
by C.M. Mayo
In West of the Revolution,
Claudio Saunt, a noted scholar of early American and Native American
history, spotlights nine places and formative events of 1776
that rarely raise a blip on the radar of even the most well-educated
Americans. As Saunt writes in his introduction, "The American
Revolution so dominates our understanding of the continent's
early history that only four digits1776are enough
to evoke images of periwigs, quill pens, and yellowing copies
of the Declaration of Independence."
"Between the continent's far edge and the Appalachians stood thousands of towns and villages, whose millions of residents spoke diverse languages and belonged to a multitude of nations. On the eve of the War of Independence, even the most fervid of American speculators could not imagine the extraordinary events unfolding in the West."
The events Saunt describes were
indeed, extraordinary, and "in surprising ways," he
writes, "as pertinent to the twenty-first century as the
better-known history of the American Revolution."
To begin with, in 1776, the Russians, having pushed across Siberiatheir Peru, their Mexicowere several years already in the Aleutian Islands, their main modus operandi, when attempts to trade beads and such failed, to seize Aleut hostages in exchange for payment in furs. The Russians were voracious for furs to sell, above all, to Beijingfox, seal, and what was so abundant in the Aleutians, otter, what they called "soft gold." Saunt tells us of seven Aleuts who, the better to comprehend this catastrophe that befallen them by the arrival of these strange men from the west, and having been promised the chance to see "the great Russian cities" and an audience with the Empress Catherine II, set out, along with a hold packed with pelts, on a fur trader's ship across the Bering Sea. None of the seven Aleuts ever set eyes on a great Russian city, never mind that empress: four survived as far as grubby Irkutsk. We do not learn what they saw in Irkutsk, but Saunt tells us:
"Each year, thousands of pelts from the Aleutian Islands and millions from Siberia funneled into Irkutsk. The scale of the vast warehousing operation was out of proportion to anything the Aleuts could have imagined. In Irkutsk, the furs were sorted by quality and the best sent on to European Russia. The others [for the Chinese market] were floated across Lake Baikal to the mouth of the Selenga and then upriver to Kyakhta."
|Kyakhta, a tiny settlement on the Mongolian border, was the red-hot nexus of the global fur trade. Kyahkta not only received the furs from the west coast of North America, but, via London-St Petersburg-Arkhangelsk, from the Canadian Artic, from the Hudson Bay Company. Explains Saunt:|
"Sea otter and beaver pelts, orginating in North America, had traveled in opposite directions around the world-nine thousand miles east or forty-five hundred west-only to converge at a remote outpost ... From there, they were carried away on the backs of camels or in two-wheeled carts drawn by oxen, destined for Chinese royality in Beijing."
Did those Aleuts see Kyahkta?
Did they see a camel? Could they picture a Chinese princess in
her fur-trimmed silk robe? Given the limits of their language's
vocabulary, not to mention what must have been the bizarrerie
of crude translation from the Russian, could the Aleuts have
begun to fathom the scale, the scope, the money, the powercould
they have but begun to grok but an inkling of the tremendous
systemic implications in all of this? (Can we?) We only know
that the Aleuts were not far from Kyahkta, presumably on their
way there, when they died in Irkutsk, presumably in 1776, of
The Spanish, in 1776, were worried. Already the Russians were calling the northwest coast of North America "New Russia." How far south would they venture? From previous exploratory expeditions the Spanish knew of the three excellent natural habors that lay north of Baja California: San Diego, Monterey, and San Francisco. If the Russians took those, they could dominate the Pacific, and so imperil the Spanish lifeline of trade with China (the famed Manila Galleons out of Acapulco, trading Mexican silver for silks, spices, and more). Meanwhile, the Franciscans, zealous to save souls for Paradise, lobbied to push north from the deserts of Baja California, to establish missions in more populated and better-watered lands along the Pacific coast. And so as the King in Madrid and his Viceroy in Mexico City commanded, in 1769, Franciscan missionaries under Father Junípero Serra, with soldiers, started moving into what they called Alta California (today the state of California).
In San Diego, the winter of 1776 was the aftermath of a bloody rebellion of the Kumeyaays. They had burned the mission, shot several soldiers full of arrows, and disemboweled one of the friars. As Saunt details, before the rebellion, and to punish and to staunch further rebellion, the Spanish beat, flogged and whipped many of their neophytes, including a Kumeyaay named Sajuil, whom they baptized as Diego, and who would die at the age of twenty-five, imprisoned and too sick to walk, two years later.
Further north, in the San Francisco Bay Area, in March of 1776, what is now Silicon Valley was the scene of first contact, in all its shock and confusion. It was also the year that Mission Dolores, now nestled in the shadows of San Francisco's skyscrapers, was founded.
As archaeologists have discovered, in the pre-contact San Francisco Bay Area the indigenous peoples were already pushing hard against their resource limits. Saunt cites evidence of overhunted game and fish, increasing dependence on the labor-intensive acorn as a nutritional staple, widespread childhood malnutrition, and violence. After the arrival of the Spanish, with their disruptive mission system, animals and diseases, writes Saunt, "the demographic collapse that followed was swift and terrible."
In California the missionaries' modus operandi was to bring the Indians into the mission and punish any who tried to leave. Yet producing enough food was a challenge greater than the missionaries could manage. Bringing provisions by ship proved too expensive and risky. To support the California missions, therefore, the Spanish determined to establish an overland supply route from Santa Fe, New Mexico (which in turn, was already linked to the cities of the Mexican heartland by the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro). On July 4, 1776, a scouting expedition known as the Domínguez-Escalante, after the two Franciscans who led itset out from Santa Fe.
Madrid and Mexico City may have had their cathedrals and palaces, but in 1776, Santa Fe was little more than a huddle of abobes. It was also fragile, still, nearly a century later, recovering from the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and beleaguered by the Apache and the Comanche. From Santa Fe, the Domínguez-Escalante Expedition zigzagged northwest over the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, a terra incognita that we know today as the Four Corners region, where the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona meet. The men crossed the Great Basin. They encountered Paiutes and Utes. It was a brutal march, beset with confusions, arguments, starvation and thirst. Their last guide had abandoned them when, on the edge of the snow-blanketed Great Basin, out of food, and with only the murkiest (and mistaken) notion of what still lay between them and the California coast, they turned around. They arrived back in Santa Fe on January 2, 1777the day General George Washington withdrew, after his breakthrough victory, from Trenton, New Jersey.
The fruit of this otherwise failed Domínguez-Escalante Expedition was the map completed two years later by one of its members, the artist and cartographer Bernardo de Miera y Pachecoa name that tinkles few bells outside the precincts of Southwestern history aficionados. But Miera's map of wonders was a wonder in itself. If much of it was wishful guesswork and interpretations, many of them faulty, of what indigenous guides had told him, the man himself, as expert a mapmaker as might have been found in the Americas of his day, had trekked through hundreds of miles of these lands, he had seen strange peoples, strange animals and birds, and he had seen mountains, canyons, rivers, lakes, basins, and fantastic geological formations, all previously unknown to anyone other than the indigenous people.
Of the Miera map Saunt writes:
"Nearly three feet wide and more than two feet high, it charts over 175,000 square miles... Like other cartographers of the time, Miera inherited the medieval tradition of creating 'visual encyclopedias of the world,' and his map is bursting with illustrations, symbols, and narrative legends."
Illustrations, for instance,
of bare-breasted Paiute women, and the Pope of Rome in a carriage
pulled by black lions...
Having introduced the English
colonists' hunger to press past the Appalachians, Russia, Spain,
the newborn United States, Aleuts, indigenous Californians, the
roaring engine of the international fur trade, and a map, Saunt's
tour of 1776 then whirls us back to 1763 and across the Atlantic
to the Continental Dividethe opening for the second half
of his book.
"Before the arrival of Europeans, it is estimated that there were between sixty million and four hundred million beaver industriously damming rivers and constructing lodges in North America. By 1900, the animals were nearly extinct."
|This near-extermination of the beaver may have had ecological consequences so huge and systemic that they may prove impossible for us, for all our modern science, to fully grasp. In building dams, Saunt explains, this large rodent becomes a "geomorphic agent."|
"The dams, made of alder, aspen, thicket, leaves, mud, stones, and other debris, can be enormous, regularly stretching 225 feet across with a thickness of six feet. One dam in Montana measured an astounding 2,300 feet. Another rose 16 feet high. In favorable environments, there may be as many as thirty dams per mile of stream, and up to 40 percent of all streams may be modified by the obstructions."
One of many effects that "cascaded through Canada's boreal forests in the eighteenth century" was the plaguing blackfliesfor, as beaver dams collapsed, wetlands drained and water began to run swiftly. Blackflies prefer that.
Secondly: Some 800 miles south,
in what is now western South Dakota, in 1776, Standing Bull arrived
in the Black Hillsa sacred place and a founding event in
the history of the people known as the Lakota Sioux. Standing
Bull had led his people west from their homelands in what is
now Minnesota. One reason they had pushed over the Missouri River
and the plains was to hunt the bison; another, less understood,
was that Pontiac's War had cut off vital trade goods from the
"Looking east from the Minnesota River, Pontiac's War appeared a lot different than it did looking west from Manhattan Island. Where Amherst saw an unjustifiable challenge to British power launched by treacherous savages, Standing Bull's people identified a grave threat to their access to Atlantic trade."
Specifically, for the Lakota
Sioux, what was imperiled was their annual trade fair, a fair
attracting thousands of people, on occasion more than ten thousand,
on the banks of the Minnesota River. With the war, who would
trade with them? Without cloth, kettles, guns, powder, and shot,
how would they eat, and continue to hunt? And defend themselves?
A third consquence: In Spanish
territory west of the Mississippi, in what is now central and
western Missouri, "the heart of the continent," 1776
found an empire expandingthat of the Osages, who had arrived
"perhaps migrating from the Ohio River," and with guns.
By this time the Osages dominated the fur trade with St. Louis,
and they were "stealing Indian women, kidnapping children,
and rustling horses and mules." European law held little
sway in this frontier zone, the wild west of its day, filled
with, writes Saunt, "deserters, robbers, rapists, and murderers.
By trading with any and everyone, they freed native residents
from Spanish dependence and underwrote Osage expansion toward
the Red River." The French, then the Spanish, could not
control smuggling up, down, or across the Mississippi River any
more than could the English. And the Osages, suddenly by that
Treaty of Paris surrounded by new trading partners, played the
one against the others, to their own advantage. At the time of
the signing of the Declaration of Independence in distant Philadelphia,
the Osages were about to "double the size of their empire,
adding one hundred thousand square miles to their domaina
rate of expansion equal to that of the thirteen colonies and
United States over the same period."
"What if the Creeks had become purveyors to the fastest-growing slave colony in the New World? Would they have had the economic clout to avoid removal in the 1830s and retain their homelands? Would their nation have become a part of the Confederacy in some form, perhaps as a member state that shared the Old South's deep investment in slavery? How might the South and American history have been transformed?"
In the United States, for the
most part, our pre-Revolutionary history west of the Appalachians
has been a matter left to academic specialists and local and
Indian history enthusiasts. Saunt's West of the Revolution
is an at-once engaging and compelling corrective, and more: these
nine places and formative events suggest fresh ways of looking
at our own times, and at the power by which trade, migration,
technological change, ecological change, epidemics, and the gusts
of fashion and sheer, crazy luck may impel us, or, beneath our
full awareness, subtly nudge us, in strange directions. Above
all, West of Revolution allows us to begin to perceive
how these peoples of our own past were, to quote Saunt, "entangled
in a web of environmental, political, and economic relationships
that they could neither fully control nor completely understand"as
are we. Writes Saunt, "we are unavoidably and always interdependent."