America’s First Father-Celebrity-President-Extraordinar

-“Alright class can someone tell me who the first president was?”

-Martin Luther King!…

-“No, children, Martin Luther King freed the slaves. Our first president was George Washington. Mr. Washington is the president on the one dollar bill and he cut down a cherry tree with his wooden teeth. That’s all for history, lets move on to finishing your paper machete projects of Kim Kardashian.”

This dialogue, albeit a joke, is close to the extent kids are taught about George Washington and history in general. In honor of President’s Day tomorrow, and my insatiable desire to build upon my poor-formal education, I decided to read Washinton: A Life by Ron Chernow. George Washington was raised by his widowed mother who was very strict and spartan-like. His mother was hypercritical and was probably the main source of Washington’s stoic personality that was prone to intermittent displays of anger. By age 20 he had inherited 2,315 acres and countless slaves after the death of his older brother. His quick rise to prosperity on the back of family deaths propelled him into the upper society of Virginian planters. This pseudo-aristocracy allowed him to meet the right people which lead to a recommendation for military-leadership in the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Washington would be commended for his courage and valor in combat; in one battle he had four bullets go through his jacket and two horses shot from beneath him-all while recovering from a severe bout of hemorrhoids brought upon by dysentery. It seemed Washington was never fazed by the possibility of death and was protected by divine providence. Overall, his tour in the French and Indian War was short lived and he began to experience the inequalities laid upon colonists by the British. He was not given an equal rank or pay compared to his “purebred” compatriots across the Atlantic. Following his duty in the war, he married the widow Martha Custis and inherited even more property. This windfall of new wealth is what allowed him the flexibility and social rank needed in part to become the Commander of the Continental Army.

In subsequent years, animosity towards the British began to grow in Washington for many reasons: British restriction of claiming land past the Allegheny mountains, unfair taxes, and lack of political power held by the colonists. The 2nd continental congress made George Washington the Commander of the Army due to his experience in the French and Indian War, aura of leadership, and aforementioned connections with southern society. The Continental Army was a ragtag group of civilians who had limited weapons, food, clothing, and especially military experience. Washington was not a military genius but his strengths lied in planning, communicating, and building an effective leadership team. He would have many blunders in military strategy and had just as many defeats as victories in the war. Actually, during most of the war his army in the northern colonies saw far less action compared to the southern theater. Primarily, during the revolution, he had to endure countless winters of begging a weak congress to provide money for his starving, sick, unclothed, and haggard soldiers-creating his future political desire for a strong central government. Thanks to the French, the Battle of Yorktown was the defining end to the war and would concrete George Washington’s national celebrity.

Washington wanted to retire from the public life but he reluctantly became the first president and subsequently the Father of the United States. While president he …”restored American credit and assumed state debt; introduced the first accounting tax, and budgetary procedures; maintained peace at home and abroad; inaugurated a navy, bolstered the army, and shored up coastal defenses and infrastructures; proved that the country could regulate commerce and negotiate binding treaties; protected frontier settlers, subdued Indian uprisings, and established law and order amid rebellion, scrupulously adhering all the while to the letter of the constitution (pg 770 para 4).”  Holy Crap! George Washington was the only president unanimously voted into office and without his leadership, patience, and desire to always to be a gentlemen (even against his foes) the United States may never have matured past its republican infancy. In the end, I appreciate my country more then ever and how far we have come because of the sacrifices of our forefathers. This President’s Day read a biography of one of our past leaders-the knowledge gleaned will give you beneficial wisdom now and into the future.

“We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.”

-George Washington

The Birth of Chicago-Wilderness and Whiskey

Imagine the now great city of Chicago as just a patch of forest, sand, and swamps that was host to several indian villages. I read about the birth of Chicago in the book Rising Up From Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and The Birth Of Chicago by Ann Durkin Keating. The word “Chicago” is believed to be derived from the Miami-Illinois word “Shikaakwa” which means smelly onion or striped skunk. In 1768, there were 30,000 indians living in the western great lakes area-still a very wild and unsettled terrain only known to a few fur trading Europeans. The French were the most pronounced Europeans during this time and they often married indian women to form better trading bonds with the various tribes. These interracial parings produced cute “métis” babies which would be the first people to settle in Chicago-having an established trade outpost by 1788. With the passing of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 and thus the establishment of the Northwest Territory (today’s Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin), the door slowly creaked open for settlement of the far western reaches of the young empire. These first settlers were entering a world that was unforgiving in terms of nature and natives. European’s desires for land were met with indian’s desire for trading goods-ammunition, steel, and especially whiskey. Treaties began to arise that ceded native land to Americans in exchange for annual annuities payments and offerings of peace. The Fort Wayne Treaty of 1803 led to the construction of Fort Dearborn near the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. This fort legitimized Chicago as a far western trade post but there was still only a few hundred people living in the settlement.

Fast forward to August 15th, 1812. The War of 1812 is underway and for the past two decades anger has been growing among indian tribes because of the relentless pursuit of land by the US. Britain harnessed this anger and used indians to assist in the capture of Mackinaw Island and Detroit early in the war. Fort Dearborn was now under pressure of attack and American military personal were ordered to evacuate. As the party of 148 left the fort they were soon ambushed by 500 Potawatomi indians-killing 86 men, women, and children. This was known as the “Fort Dearborn Massacre” but the word “Massacre” was erroneously used to rally US citizens against indians in general. Interestingly, some of the indian warriors took the hearts of the slain and ate them to gain strength and courage. Fort Dearborn was burned and the whole settlement of Chicago was abandoned by the Americans. The War of 1812 would end in 1815 and this would mark a new era in Americas quest for territory. Between 1816-1833, Potawatomies ceded nearly 18 million acres of land. This cession of land was accomplished through month long negotiations between whites and Indians. Unfortunately, indians did not have centralized leadership and many of the land agreements were signed by those with no authority. In return for their land, indians were given annuities and the promise that they could keep some land to continue living in the area (this would turn out to be a lie). The indians really had no choice but to negotiate with the Americans because the trade of alcohol would cease until an agreement came about; the spread of alcoholism among natives was a serious issue.

With the land secured, a new Fort Dearborn was constructed in 1816. This fort would soon thrive especially with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1826-speeding travel from the east from 6 weeks to 2 weeks. By 1833 the last treaty of land cession was signed by the Potawatomies and Chicago began its rise to the major city we know today. This story is fascinating when you put in the context of a lifetime. Imagine someone who was born in 1812 when Fort Dearborn burned down to 1893 when the population of Chicago surpassed 1 million people and it hosted the World’s Fair! The courage of the early settlers is admirable but the exploitation of indians is quite sad. The negotiations for land were not fair because indians would speak for tribes that were not represented and the concept of land ownership to indians was far different then European ideology. In the end, the story of Chicago is the story of American conquest, ambition, and the relentless desire for resources.

How could the early American’s gained land in a manner more befitting to the indians? What cities history are you interested in learning about?

Racist Smells to Rising Empires

Which type of meat would you like in your Chop Suey…rat, cat, or dog? Is this an odd question that seems completely ridiculous? Unfortunately, the idea that Chinese people ate these dirty or taboo types of meat came about in the mid 1800’s. The first major influx of Chinese immigrants to the US was during the 1849 gold rush in California. These early immigrants were a source of cheap labor in three distinct industries: mining, personal servants, and laundry. The early Chinese immigrants were pigeonholed to these lower class jobs because of racism and a general sense of superiority by white Americans. The history of Chinese food in America begins in this setting of prejudice and is explored in detail in the book Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America by Yong Chen. The early Chinese immigrants were seen as barbaric propagators of disease and hence the myth came about that they ate the animal equivalent of themselves- sewer rats. Early Chinese food in America was also given negative press because the restaurants in the mid 1800’s had distinct unfamiliar smells. These smells were from the Chinese tobacco smoked and the unique spices used in cooking; unfortunately, white Americans associated them with dirtiness and race inferiority. This was the stigma that Chinese food had to battle against and it is truly amazing that today, Chinese food is the most popular ethnic cuisine in America. How the heck did this happen?

The negative stigma towards Chinese immigrants began to shift from dirty rats to great workers throughout the late 1800’s. Whites commonly employed Chinese men as house servants because they were extremely hard workers, attentive, and more than anything clean. As more immigrants moved into the US, “China Towns” were erected to give the isolated Chinese a community and sense of home. These exotic town centers propagated a large amount of Chinese restaurants that served authentic Chinese food. As time went on, the image of Chinese cleanliness along with a shift away from personal servants provided a huge source of ideal restaurant laborers; this created a surge of Chinese restaurants throughout the US in the early 1900’s. The restaurateurs quickly began to shift their menus from traditional delicacies like bird nest soup and shark fin to the more Americanized dishes like Chop Suey and Egg Foo Yong. Along with adjustments to America’s gastronomical tastes, Chinese food filled America’s imperialistic tastes-material abundance, expansion, and democracy.

Chinese food in the twentieth century met the demands of the growing empire of America by providing cheap labor, affordable food, and quick service. The ever expanding middle class flocked to restaurants because it was a symbol of wealth and social status. Chinese food was the perfect democratic fit for all races, classes, and economic demographics. African Americans, Jews, and those in their 20’s especially flocked to Chinese restaurants as a haven where they felt accepted (for the most part). Chinese food was the original McDonald’s that fed a rising nation and created the quick, cheap food culture that is ubiquitous in the 21st century. Today, Chinese restaurants continue to adapt to American tastes and are more popular than ever. The history of Chinese food in America is not just a story of food but rather the relationship between two empires. China’s cheap labor satisfied America’s mass consumer needs in nearly every sector of the economy. The next time you eat some Crab Rangoon or Sesame Chicken think about how much that seemingly unimportant food allowed you to drive an over sized SUV, live in an over sized house, and live the over sized American lifestyle.