Old World vs. New World

One of my wife’s favorite Disney movies is Pocahontas. She likes it for its fun music, its dark-skinned-female-protagonist, and its historical accuracy. We all grew up with some vague idea of what it was like for Native Americans before the advent of the “white man.” There were happy tribes scattered throughout the country which cherished the Image result for native american stereotypesearth and went about their lives in natural simplicity. These Paleolithic people lacked technology, advanced government, and large-scale societies like their European counterparts. Unfortunately all of those beliefs are flat out wrong. What did the Americas look like before 1492 – the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean? Thankfully, I came across a fascinating book which answers this very question: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. With the advent of new technologies in archaeology there has been an explosion of discoveries that were never known about the early inhabitants of the New World; suffice it to say, the Western Hemisphere was comprised of sophisticated societies which rivaled any European, Asian, or African empire at the time.

Most people know about the Incan and Aztec Empires. There are still many remnants from these cultures and many sites are visited by overweight tourists. What most people don’t realize is that each of these nations was home to millions of people during their peak. The Incan Empire, in the year 1491, was the Image result for incan empirelargest empire on earth, surpassing the Ming Dynasty in China, Ivan the Great in Russia, the Songhay in the Sahel, the Great Zimbabwe in West Africa, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and any European state at the time. Their dominion spread over 32 degrees of latitude which is the equivalent distance between Cairo and St. Petersburg. The Aztecs, located in modern day Central Mexico, numbered over 25 million which at the time was the most densely populated place in the world; twice the number of inhabitants per square mile than China or India; for reference, Spain and Portugal had a combined population of fewer than 10 million.

Concurrently, Tenochtitlan – the Aztec Capital – was the biggest metropolis on earth far exceeding the second largest at the time-Paris. When the Spaniards first walked into Image result for Tenochtitlan sketchTenochtitlan, they marveled at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, bustling markets, long aqueducts, immense banners, colorful promenades, and immaculate public spaces.
What was more astonishing than the structures were the people themselves: taller, healthier, stronger, and cleaner than their European counterparts. This pattern of civilization was common throughout the Americas from the Amazon Rain forest to the Appalachian Mountains: there was advanced technology, sophisticated government, and efficient agriculture. So what the frick happened?

One word – DISEASE. From the time that Columbus landed in 1492, various diseases like Hepatitis and Smallpox spread throughout the Americas with rapid force. When Pizzaro and Cortez conquered the Incans and Aztecs, disease had already destabilized the populace and the political foundation. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the epidemics killed 100 million Native Americans which would be 1 out of every 5 people on earth at the time – the greatest destruction of life in history. Image result for native american disease and epidemics
Overtime, disease would kill almost 95% of all peoples in the Americas. A great example of this death toll is the east coast of the United States. Before the Pilgrims landed, there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans inhabiting that area. A smallpox epidemic swept through during the late 16th century and cleared all resistance – the English zealots settling on a mass-grave site.

What remained of the Native Americans were small bands of people which were restarting their personal lives, their families, and their societies; this is how Europeans viewed their perpetual state – subsequently writing the history books. The Inca and Image result for native american mound builders sketchAztecs were not exceptions but rather the rule in respects to American civilization; advanced civilization rose and fell for over five millennia. Even more fascinating was the manipulation of the landscape by these cultures. We imagine the virgin forest as a staple of the pre-Columbian landscape – wrong again.
Not only were structures built, but the forest was regularly manipulated for agriculture, harvesting, and wildlife management. All of these facts are extremely important for today because it gives us a greater understanding of human and ecological development. We can gain knowledge from past cultures to improve our environment and Disney movie plot lines. The more we know the less we think one group of people is “better” than the other – maybe the term “savage” was applied to the wrong hemisphere.

The World is Flat

When I was a 9 year old kid my Mom bought me a Y2K clock that counted down the days, hours, minutes and seconds before the calendar read 1/1/00. In the months prior to the impending Y2K apocalypse, my Mom and Dad stocked up on bulk spices and bags of water in preparation for society’s collapse (oddly enough they didn’t stock any food for the spices to go on). The Y2K disaster was, as we all know, adverted, but how did we prevent all those computers from malfunctioning? I read the answer to that question in The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Friedman who is a New York Times writer and author of several books on globalization. We were saved from Y2K because of a sequence of technological advances which promoted connectivity around the globe. Firstly, the advancement in the usage and monetary value of the internet in the 1990’s led to huge investments in fiber optic cables. This laying of cable spread all over the world and opened up lines of communication that were never before available. This new communication was tested with the Y2K conundrum because the US did not have enough engineers to fix all the computers because the cost and time investments would have been astronomical. Enter India. India, after 50 years of investing in technical education, had a untapped labor force ready to get their teeth on any technology work available. Since connectivity had increased so much in the 90’s, India was ready to take on all the Y2K work remotely. This was the first time many US companies worked with engineers in India and was the proverbial handshake of friendship for a healthy future of business relations. Shortly after the Y2K scare, the dot.com bubble burst and tech companies that survived the implosion now sought to cut cost as much as possible. Where could they go for reduced labor costs? You guessed right….India. The country of over 1 billion people began receiving contracts for work and the era of tech outsourcing was given running shoes.

Today, the world is flatter then ever with outsourcing occurring not only in India but in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and a whole host of third-world countries. Before I read this book, I thought outsourcing was a bad thing…now I have a different opinion on the matter. Outsourcing is the natural result of a hyper-connected world in which companies are trying to reduce waste and optimize every step of their supply chain. The United States has lost many manufacturing jobs because of these optimizations but in the end it has meant a decrease cost for goods by consumers and a shift in career outlooks. Students are now pushed to get technical or college degrees because they can’t get a manufacturing job right out of high school. A more highly educated society will push invention, creativity, and innovation more than a society based on workers that perform menial tasks. Complex thoughts and ideas cannot be outsourced and a country that is made up of engineers instead of line operators will compete much better with other advanced nations. The flattening of the world has showed how the US has gotten lazy and fallen from its once great educational supremacy-best highlighted during the cold-war space race. We need to push the next generation to excel in math, science, engineering, and my personal favorite…history. Globalization is here to stay and the more interconnected we become the more we will have opportunities to triumphantly succeed or catastrophically be left behind. Let’s stop complaining about jobs getting outsourced and start educating ourselves so our skills can never be cheaply replicated.

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?

True History of Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is spared the awful commercialization of Christmas and the need to buy stupid hallmark cards which for some reason is a norm for most celebrations. Thanksgiving is a holiday in its purest form-being grateful, socializing, and eating a crap ton of food. This year I was curious about the true history of Thanksgiving so I did a quick search of adult-historical books on the subject. To my surprise I didn’t find any and this is kinda of scary. Doesn’t this glorious holiday deserve a book written in the intricate detail of John Adams by David McCullough? What really was going on with the pilgrims? I want some library of congress research into these topics. Maybe my search was too surface level and there exists a book of this magnitude. Please tell me if there is. Ironically I was just thinking yesterday that I could never think of a topic in history to write about. This Thanksgiving, let us all think of where we have come from, where we will be going, and where we will fit that extra slice of pie. For now, lets maintain the historically accurate picture of pilgrims wearing buckles on their hats, “Indians” wearing no shirts in November, and a feast using one of the rarest spices at the time-nutmeg. Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.