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Four Takes: Four books that find us heading West, The Boston Sunday Globe

May 23, 2021

In the 1830s, curious Americans paid 25 cents apiece to see Joice Heth, an elderly Black woman reputed to have been George Washington’s nanny. P.T. Barnum, who had purchased her from a slaveholder, insisted the preposterous tale was true, thereby launching a long career of deceiving willing Americans.

Heth’s subtly instructive story is one of many that enliven Alan Taylor’s masterful new volume, “American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.” A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Taylor has insightfully mined the country’s early years in numerous previous books. With “American Republics,” his focus turns to westward expansion.

While revisionist histories of the West have been accumulating for decades, self-deceiving myths die hard. Taylor rejects the idea that a white-makes-right notion of Manifest Destiny was the main force driving settlement. Instead, he depicts a highly unstable union whose leaders considered expansion the key to survival.

After the Revolutionary War, white American settlers were eager to claim cheap land. Britain, France, and Spain were among the empires still vying to determine the future of North America, and often formed opportunistic alliances with native tribes. Leaders of the infant republic feared that a clash of regions could lead to the founding of one or more rival republics, and used land to blunt the threat.

Taking a topics-based approach, Taylor skillfully manages to bestride these tectonic collisions. Andrew Jackson is memorably portrayed as a brutal white supremacist who pledged loyalty to the Spanish empire before joining the Americans in the War of 1812. As his political star rose, he became determined to rid all union territory of indigenous peoples. (Most of the writers discussed here offered a note on what tribal members and historians consider acceptable language to describe the continent’s early inhabitants. I have followed their lead.)

However familiar, the multiple ways in which Natives were swindled, betrayed, and abused during this period lend mounting horror to Taylor’s account. Established tribes were routinely forced off their lands by white settlers, only to be surrounded and dispossessed again. On occasion, the settlers dug up Indian graves for trinkets. Dentists extracted the teeth that were found and inserted them into the mouths of whites.

Yet European newcomers had been ignoring treaties with Native tribes well before the republic was formed. Among the scofflaws was the legendary pathfinder Daniel Boone, whose story is nimbly retold by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. In “Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s Frontier,” we are reminded that the West was once farther east. Clashes in colonial territories were a gory preview of what was to come.

Boone was born into a Quaker family that migrated from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. There he became a skilled backwoodsman whose long hunts eventually took him to present-day Kentucky, where he was determined to settle.

Drawing on earlier sources, Drury and Clavin re-create some of the more dramatic episodes in Boone’s story. Two of his sons were horrifically slain by the Shawnees. Boone rescued his 13-year-old daughter from Cherokee kidnappers, and twice freed himself from capture. Yet despite years of violent encounters with tribesmen, he lived to the age of 85.

“Blood and Treasure” helpfully (if somewhat regretfully) places these events in the larger context of what many now see as a 300-year conflict with indigenous peoples. Unsurprisingly, given the high stakes, skulls split by tomahawks became a commonplace of western lore. Perhaps none was more famously sundered than that of Marcus Whitman, a Presbyterian missionary to the Pacific Northwest, who was dispatched by members of the Cayuse tribe.

In “Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West,” Blaine Harden methodically dismantles the falsehoods that turned Whitman into a pioneer hero. In 1836, Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, set out to carry Christianity to Native peoples, establishing themselves near the Walla Wall River, in present-day Washington state.

Within a few years, however, they became discouraged in their efforts to convert the Cayuse. Increasingly they turned to aiding the settlers now streaming into the territory.

The Cayuse grew resentful, and were probably driven over the edge by a measles outbreak that seemed to spare whites but not their own. In 1847, a handful of warriors attacked the mission, killing both Whitmans and 11 others.

A fellow missionary, Henry Harmon Spalding, helped foment outrage, for years pushing a story of white Protestants courageously resisting Native inhabitants. Calls for vengeance mingled with paranoia about British ambitions in the Northwest, and hastened conquest.

The measles outbreak may have traveled north from California, where Native peoples were enduring their own destruction. As Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr. report in “We Are the Land: A History of Native California,” conditions grew particularly grim after gold was discovered, in 1848. Both state and federal governments actively supported extermination campaigns, and the Indian population dropped precipitously. In what seems an overdue departure from standard histories, Akins and Bauer’s comprehensive account places indigenous people at the heart of California’s story.

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