#3. Everything You Know About Columbus Is a Calculated Lie
Columbus discovered America thanks to a daring journey across the Atlantic. His crew was about to throw him overboard when land was spotted. Even after he landed in America, Columbus didn’t realize he’d discovered an entire continent because maps of America were far less reliable back then. In one of the great tragedies of history, Columbus went to his grave poor, believing he’d merely discovered India. Nobody really “got” America’s potential until the pilgrims showed up and successfully settled the country for the first time. Nearly 150 years might seem like a long time between trips, but boats were really slow back in those days, and they’d just learned that the Atlantic Ocean went that far.
“Pile into a tiny boat with dozens of filthy people for months on end” isn’t the world’s most attractive sales pitch.
First of all, Columbus wasn’t the first to cross the Atlantic. Nor were the vikings. Two Native Americans landed in Holland in 60 B.C. and were promptly not given a national holiday by anyone. Columbus didn’t see the enormous significance of his ability to cross the Atlantic because it wasn’t especially significant. His voyage wasn’t particularly difficult. They enjoyed smooth sailing, and nobody was threatening to throw him overboard. Despite what history books tell kids (and the Internet apparently believes), Columbus died wealthy, and with a pretty good idea of what he’d found — on his third voyage to America, he wrote in his journal, “I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown.”
“Unknown” in this context means “inhabited by tens of millions.”
The myths surrounding him cover up the fact that Columbus was calculating, shrewd and as hungry for gold as the voice over guy in the Cash4Gold ads. When he couldn’t find enough of the yellow stuff to make his voyage profitable, he focused on enslaving Native Americans for profit. That’s how efficient Columbus was — he discovered America and invented American slavery in the same 15-year span.
There were plenty of unsuccessful, mostly horrible attempts to settle America between Columbus’ discovery and the pilgrims’ arrival. We only hear these two “settling of America” stories because history books and movies aren’t huge fans of what white people got up to between 1492 and 1620 in America — mostly digging for gold and eating each other.
When people talk about traditional American values, this is what they mean.
They also show us white Europeans being unable to easily defeat a native population that hadn’t yet been ravaged by plague. It wasn’t coincidence that the pilgrims settled America two years after New England was emptied of 96 percent of the Indians who lived there. According to James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, that’s generally how the settling process went: The plague acted as a lead blocker for white European settlers, clearing the land of all the natives. The Europeans had superior weapons, but they also had superior guns when they tried to colonize China, India, Africa and basically every other region on the planet. When you picture Chinese or Indian or African people today, they’re not white because those lands were already inhabited when the Europeans showed up. And so was America.
American history goes to almost comical lengths to ignore that fact. For instance, if your reading comprehension was strong in middle school, you might remember the lost colony of Roanoke, where the people mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind only one cryptic clue: the word “Croatan” carved into the town post. As we’ve covered before, this is only a mystery if you are the worst detective ever. Croatan was the name of a nearby island populated by friendly Native Americans. In the years after the people of Roanoke “disappeared,” genetically impossible Native Americans with gray eyes and an “astounding” familiarity with distinctly European customs began to pop up in the tribes that moved between Croatan and Roanoke islands.
“It must be written in a cypher of some sort. Let’s just go ahead and call it alien abduction.”
#2. White Settlers Did Not Carve America Out of the Untamed Wilderness
The pilgrims were the first in a parade of brave settlers who pushed civilization westward along the frontier with elbow grease and sheer grizzled-old-man strength.
In written records from early colonial times, you constantly come across “settlers” being shocked at how convenient the American wilderness made things for them. The eastern forests, generally portrayed by great American writers as a “thick, unbroken snarl of trees” no longer existed by the time the white European settlers actually showed up. The pilgrims couldn’t believe their luck when they found that American forests just naturally contained “an ecological kaleidosocope of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory and oak.”
“We have hours of weeding ahead of us, but by the grace of God, we will persevere.”
The puzzlingly obedient wilderness didn’t stop in New England. Frontiersmen who settled what is today Ohio were psyched to find that the forest there naturally grew in a way that “resembled English parks.” You could drive carriages through the untamed frontier without burning a single calorie clearing rocks, trees and shrubbery.
Whether they honestly believed they’d lucked into the 17th century equivalent of Candyland or were being willfully ignorant about how the land got so tamed, the truth about the presettled wilderness didn’t make it into the official account. It’s the same reason every extraordinarily lucky CEO of the past 100 years has written a book about leadership. It’s always a better idea to credit hard work and intelligence than to acknowledge that you just got luckier than any group of people has ever gotten in the history of the world.
“Holy crap, it’s already wired for Wi-Fi!”
Nobody’s role in settling America has been quite as overplayed as the pilgrims’. Despite famous sermons with titles like “Into the Wilderness,” the pilgrims cherry-picked Plymouth specifically because it was a recently abandoned town. After sailing up and down the coast of Cape Cod, they chose Plymouth Rock because of “its beautiful cleared fields, recently planted in corn, and its useful harbor.”
We’re always told that the pilgrims were helped by an Indian named Squanto who spoke English. How the hell did that happen? Had he taken AP English in high school? The answer to that question is the greatest story your history teachers didn’t bother to teach you. Squanto was from the town that would become Plymouth, but between being born there and the pilgrims’ arrival, he’d undergone an epic journey that puts Homer’s Odyssey to shame.
And at the end, instead of bangin’ his hot wife, he had to teach white people how to bury dead fish with corn kernels.
Squanto had been kidnapped from Cape Cod as a child and sold into slavery in Spain. He escaped like the boy Maximus he was, and spent his better years hoofing it west until he hit the Atlantic Ocean. Deciding that swimming back to America would take too much time, he learned enough English to convince someone to let him hitch a ride to “the New World.” When he finally got back home, he found his town deserted. The plague had swept through two years before, taking everyone but him with it.
when the pilgrims showed up, instead of being pissed at the people from the Continent who had stolen his ability to grow up with his family, he decided that since nobody else was using it, he might as well show them how to make his town work.
“And this is the sea. I’d recommend bathing in it, because you people smell like the inside of my asshole.”
This is especially charitable of him when you realize that, while the pilgrims were nicer than past settlers, they weren’t exactly sensitive to Squanto’s plight. According to a pilgrim journal from the days immediately after they arrived, they raided Indian graves for “bowls, trays, dishes and things like that. We took several of the prettiest things to carry away with us, and covered the body up again.” And yet Squanto taught them how to make it through a winter without turning to cannibalism — a landmark accomplishment for the British to that point.
Compare that to Jamestown, the first successful settlement in American history. You don’t know the name of the ship that landed there because the settlers antagonized the natives, just like the vikings who came before them. The Native Americans didn’t have to actively kill them. They just sat back and laughed as the English spent the harvest seasons digging holes for gold. The first Virginians were so desperate without a Squanto that they went from taking Indian slaves to offering themselves up as slaves to the Indians in exchange for food. Enough English managed to survive there to make Jamestown the oldest successful colonial settlement in America. But it’s hard to turn it into a religious allegory in which white people are the good guys, so we get the pilgrims instead.
If this were accurate, the settlers would be shitting in bushes while the Indians told them which leaves were safe to wipe with.
#1. How Indians Influenced Modern America
After the natives helped the pilgrims get through that first winter, all playing nice disappeared until Dances with Wolves. Even the movies that do portray white people going native portray it as a shocking exception to the rule. Otherwise, the only influence the natives seem to have on the New World and the frontiersmen is giving them moving targets to shoot at, and eventually a plot outline for Avatar.
It’s pretty much just this and Kevin Costner until Wounded Knee.
The fake mystery of Roanoke is a pretty good key for understanding the difference between how white settlers actually felt about American Indians and how hard your history books had to ignore that reality. Settlers defecting to join native society was so common that it became a major issue for colonial leaders — think the modern immigration debate, except with all the white people risking their lives to get out of American society. According to Loewen, “Europeans were always trying to stop the outflow. Hernando De Soto had to post guards to keep his men and women from defecting to Native societies.” Pilgrims were so scared of Indian influence that they outlawed the wearing of long hair.
Ben Franklin noted that, “No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.” While “always bet on black” might have been sound financial advice by the time Wesley Snipes offered it, Ben Franklin knew that for much of American history, it was equally advisable to bet on red.
“It’s this, or powdered wigs and sexual repression.”
Franklin wasn’t pointing this out as a critique of the settlers who defected — he believed that Indian societies provided greater opportunities for happiness than European cultures — and he wasn’t the only Founding Father who thought settlers could learn a thing or two from them. They didn’t dress up like Indians at the Boston Tea Party ironically. That was common protesting gear during the American revolutions.
For a hundred years after the American Revolution, none of this was a secret. Political cartoonists used Indians to represent the colonial side. Colonial soldiers dressed up like Indians when fighting the British. Documents from the time indicate that the design of the U.S. government was at least partially inspired by native tribal society. Historians think the Iroquois Confederacy had a direct influence on the U.S. Constitution, and the Senate even passed a resolution acknowledging that “the confederation of the original thirteen colonies into one republic was influenced … by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”
If we’d incorporated their fashion sense, C-SPAN would be more interesting.
That wasn’t just Congress trying to get some Indian casino money. The colonists came from European countries that had spent most of their time as monarchies and much of their resources fighting religious wars with each other. They initially tried to set up the colonies exactly like Western Europe — a series of small, in-fighting nations stacked on top of each other. The idea of an overarching confederacy of different independent states was completely foreign to them. Or it would have been. But as Ben Franklin noted in a letter about the failure to integrate with one another:
“It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears insoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for 10 or a dozen English colonies.”
Join, or die (or plagiarize from the Indians).
In 1987, Cornell University held a conference on the link between the Iroquois’ government and the U.S. Constitution. It was noted that the Iroquois Great Law of Peace “includes ‘freedom of speech, freedom of religion … separation of power in government and checks and balances.”
Wow, checks and balances, freedom of speech and religion. Sounds awfully familiar.
One of the strangest legacies of America’s founding is our national obsession with the apocalypse. There’s a new JJ Abrams show coming this fall called The Revolution about a post-apocalyptic America, and of course The Hunger Games. We go to a gift shop in Arizona and see dug-up Indian arrowheads, and never think “this is the same thing as the stuff laying around in Terminator or The Road or that part in The Road Warrior where the feral kid finds a music box and doesn’t know what it is.”
We love the apocalypse as long as nobody acknowledges the truth: It’s not a mythical event. We live on top of one.
Jack O’Brien is the Editor in Chief of Cracked.com. You can follow him on Twitter.