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In West of the Revolution, Claudio Saunt, a noted scholar of early American and Native American history, spotlights nine places and formative events of 1776 that rarely raise a blip on the radar of even the most well-educated Americans. As Saunt writes in his introduction, “The American Revolution so dominates our understanding of the continent’s early history that only four digits—1776—are enough to evoke images of periwigs, quill pens, and yellowing copies of the Declaration of Independence.”
As for knowledge of what was going on west of the Appalachians in 1776, I can speak for myself, lo, many a decade ago, when I was a recent graduate of the University of Chicago. History out there west of the Appachalians had seemed to me then... like, totally vague. I’d heard of some of the tribes, those ones with interesting headgear, mainly from watching TV. Since I grew up in California, I had seen some of the Spanish missions. These had had struck me as absurdly drab and morbid. I was not Catholic, and the Spanish were well and gone, as were those Indians, I assumed. In elementary school, when we got our dose of state history, I must have been told the name of the local indigenous people—the Ohlone— but by the time I graduated from college, for 64,000 dollars, I could not have come up with it. Had I known the term terra nullius, I might have used it.
In the intervening years I had the opportunity to remedy my ignorance of California’s indigenous and mission history; perhaps the more for that, I found Saunt’s masterful historical narrative so rich and riveting. Writes Saunt in his prologue:
“Between the continent’s far edge and the Appalachians stood thousands of towns and villages, whose millions of residents spoke diverse languages and belonged to a multitude of nations. On the eve of the War of Independence, even the most fervid of American speculators could not imagine the extraordinary events unfolding in the West.”
The events Saunt describes were indeed, extraordinary, and “in surprising ways,” he writes, “as pertinent to the twenty-first century as the better-known history of the American Revolution.”
To begin with, in 1776, the Russians, having pushed across Siberia—their Peru, their Mexico—were several years already in the Aleutian Islands, their main modus operandi, when attempts to trade beads and such failed, to seize Aleut hostages in exchange for payment in furs. The Russians were voracious for furs to sell, above all, to Beijing—fox, seal, and what was so abundant in the Aleutians, otter, what they called “soft gold.” >> [CONTINUE READING]
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