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Misconceptions and Truth About American History

The saying goes that “history is written by the victors,” but it may be more accurate to say it is constantly rewritten by anyone and everyone. True historians, however, dig for the facts and see history through a more complicated lens – one that has the power to reshape the stories that we, as Americans, tell about ourselves. RSnake spoke with Jack Henneman, a healthcare director and consultant, amateur historian and host of The History of the Americans podcast, about some fascinating and often undiscussed pieces of American history.

How Politicians Use History to Their Advantage

Henneman has a strong dislike for presentism, which is essentially evaluating the past with a current understanding of the world. He especially disapproves of politicians doing it. “If I want to make a political point today, I can mine history to support the point. It’s a cheap trick,” he said. It’s true that politicians (and their speech writers) use history at their convenience – naming certain facts, and conveniently ignoring others. Many world leaders have compared adversaries to Hitler, for example. President George H.W. Bush characterized Saddam Hussein as being worse than Hitler before teaming up with other countries to push Hussein out of Kuwait in 1990. President Vladimir Putin also invoked memories of Hitler in 2022 when he said, “We will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine,” before invading it. However, real history is more complicated than many of the stories we tell about it. While it may have been important for the world to stop Hussein from taking over the Middle East, he wasn’t Hitler and neither is President Volodymyr Zelensky. As it turns out, there are a number of other stories in the history of the United States of America that have been glossed over to support a particular narrative. RSnake and Henneman explored some of them.

Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain?

American lore has long painted Christopher Columbus as a hero, with many states celebrating a holiday named after him. Recently, however, many have been reconsidering his legacy. History shows that Columbus was not the first European to set foot in the Americas. The Vikings actually got here first. While Columbus did pave the way for colonization in the Americas, he also captured Indigenous people and made them slaves. His brothers were such brutal rulers of the new Spanish colony on Hispaniola that the settlers revolted, and Spain replaced them with another governor. Columbus was arrested as a result. He was eventually freed, but stripped of his honors. Lately, the question has arisen whether this complicated man should be celebrated every year. So much so that many states now celebrate the holiday as Indigenous People’s Day. Henneman is circumspect about Columbus’ legacy. “The celebration of Columbus the man is really different from recognizing the historical importance of what Columbus did,” he said. He pointed out that while Columbus did enslave Indigenous people, it was a relatively normal reaction for the time. The Portuguese also had an active slave trade, as did many Arabic nations. Furthermore, Henneman explained that Columbus’ achievements were noteworthy. Although the Vikings may have been the first Europeans to arrive, Henneman called Columbus’ achievement “a navigational miracle.” He also pointed out that Columbus was a visionary and excellent entrepreneur. Henneman explained there were some global benefits to interaction between Europe and the Americas. “The crops of the new world planted in the old drove an astonishing increase in the food supply,” said Henneman. He stated the global population growth rate quadrupled after Columbus landed in the Americas. In Africa, for example, corn and cassava are dietary staples that continue to nourish billions of people today.

The History of Slavery in the U.S.

In the past, the American history of slavery was often minimized or described in almost cartoonish terms. The Northern States were characterized as “the good guys,” and the southern states as “the bad guys,” despite the fact that the northern states also profited greatly from slavery. Even today, discussions on the history of slavery in America are problematic. A recent report found that in schools slavery has been “sentimentalized or sanitized,” and there is little consistency in how it is taught. Recently, there has been a push to closely examine the realities of slavery and how its legacy continues to affect American society today. The New York Times published a special series called the 1619 Project, which according to the paper was “intended to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes.” The year 1619 was chosen as a date some view as the beginning of slavery in the U.S. when 20 Africans were sold on American soil. However, there is debate over the use of this event since there were slaves in modern day America before that time. Also, the 20 people who arrived from Africa in August of 1619 were actually stolen from Portuguese ships by English privateers, then sold as indentured servants for food. This picture doesn’t really fit what many of us think of when we hear “slavery.” It was different from what the institution of slavery came to be in the 1700’s when people were enslaved for life, and even born into slavery. In most of the 1600s, slaves were more commonly sold as indentured servants, which meant they could eventually become free, and their children weren’t automatically enslaved. An African man, Anthony Johnson, even owned land in Virginia during that time. The New York Times 1619 project also had other inaccuracies. The introductory essay, for example, incorrectly claimed that the American Revolution was due in part to the colonists’ desire to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies. In his discussion with RSnake, Henneman pointed out that while the history of slavery in the U.S. gets a lot of attention, Arabic nations actually participated in the slave trade much longer. This began 700 years before the Transatlantic Slave Trade and involved an estimated 18 million Africans. It is estimated that less than half a million African slaves were sent to North America. It’s also important to note that Native Americans were also sold as slaves. Perhaps the most famous being Squanto (Tisquantum), who was known to help the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower and is an integral part of the Thanksgiving story.

The Real Story of Squanto (Tisquantum)

Tisquantum is mythologized as a kindly Native American who helped the pilgrims of the Mayflower survive in their new homeland. But the man behind the story was more complicated. It is believed Tisquantum was born around 1580. He was a member of the Patuxet tribe of the Wampanoag people. Some historians state he was taken to England in 1605 by George Weymouth, then sailed back to the Americas with explorer John Smith around 1614-1615. One of Smith’s men, Thomas Hunt, kidnapped Tisquantum with 25 other Native Americans to be sold into slavery in Spain. Tisquantum eventually escaped and found his way home again. When he arrived in his homeland in 1619, many of his people had died due to plague, and others had scattered to live with other Wampanoag tribes. In his absence, relations between Native Americans and the English had deteriorated, partly because of the kidnapping of Tisquantum and the others, and widespread illness carried by the settlers. He was living with the Pokanoket tribe, also part of the Wampanoag, and headed by Massasoit. Historians believed the Wampanoag distrusted Tisquantum at this point and that he may have been a prisoner of Massasoit when the pilgrims arrived in 1621. Henneman explained that although Tisquantum acted on Massasoit’s orders, he also used his relationship with the pilgrims to gain power. Henneman said that Tisquantum played “a really devious double game.” Tisquantum told his people that he had the authority to protect them from plagues, or ask the English to release plagues on them. According to Henneman, Massasoit was “the true ally of the pilgrims,” and Tisquantum’s actions caused “a really big crisis.” Ultimately, Tisquantum died in 1622. Some believe he may have been poisoned by his own people.

The Takeaway

People have long cherry-picked historical narratives to suit their own agendas. As a result, some aspects of history are elevated into the realm of mythology, while other inconvenient truths are downplayed. The truth is that history is almost always more complicated than we realize. For more on the intricacies of U.S. history, listen to RSnake’s conversation with Jack Henneman now.

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