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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

The Myth of the Empty Land: Creating a National Narrative

American Progress by John Gast (1872) (commons.wikimedia.org)

As I write these words during the second impeachment hearings for the insurrection on January 6, 2021, never has the need for a national narrative seem more urgent and less likely. Instead of unity, the talk is of civil wars both within the Republican Party and between it and the Democratic Party. Who would have thought after the 2016 election that Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Party Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would be joint targets of a domestic terrorist attack at the Capital instigated by the President of the United States?

Myths and the national narrative cannot be separated. Certainly one can make the effort as an historian to determine what actually happened. But the next question is what do people think happened? What becomes part of the cultural heritage if not for all Americans than at least a significant portion of them? My self-imposed task stated in an earlier blog (Ending the Uncivil War: Creating a Shared National Narrative for the 21st Century, January 28, 2020) was to explore the challenge of creating a national narrative by examining the national myths, a book by Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States (2018) as the defining effort in the 21st century to do, the reviews of it by the American Historical Association, and the dueling views of the New York Times 1619 and the Donald Trump 1776. In this blog I begin with the first myth, the myth of the empty land.

That myth may be said to have its origin in the values brought here by the colonists as expressed in a book of importance to them.

And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

Here are a non-scientific sample of some expressions of that perception that easily could be expanded by scholars in American history.

In 1621, Robert Bushman addressed the issue in “Reasons and Considerations Touching the Lawfulness of Removing Out of England into the Parts of America” as the title clearly suggests. In reference to the lands of the Indians and the people, Bushman wrote:

Their land is spacious and void, and there are few, and do but run over the grass, as do also the foxes and the wild beasts. They are not industrious, neither have art, science, skill or faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it; but all spoils, rots, and is marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, &c. As the ancient patriarchs, therefore, removed from straiter places into more roomy, where the land lay idle and waste, and none used it, though there dwelt inhabitants by them, as Gen. xiii,6, 11, 12, and xxxiv, 21, and xli, 20, so it is lawful now to take a land which none useth and make use of it (quoted in Roy Harvey Pearce, “The ‘Ruines of Mankind’: The Indian and the Puritan Mind,” Journal of the History of Ideas 13:200-217, page 202).

In 1703, Solomon Stoddard added these words to the perception of the Indians by the Puritans:

If the Indians were as other people are and did manage their war fairly after the manner of other nations, it might be looked upon as inhuman to pursue them in such a manner [with dogs]. But … they do acts of hostility without proclaiming war. They don’t appear openly in the field to bid us battle, [and] they use those cruelly that fall into their hands. They act like wolves and are to be dealt withal as wolves (reprinted in John Demos Remarkable Providences: Readings on Early American History).

When the Indians did not convert to Christianity the English were astonished. In 1721, almost 100 years after the Pilgrims arrived, Puritan Cotton Mather wrote:

Tho’ they saw a People Arrive among them, who were Clothed in Habits of much more Comfort and Splendour, than what there was to be seen in the Rough Skins with which they hardly covered themselves; and who had Houses full of Good Things, vastly out-shining their squalid and dark Wigwams; And they saw this People Replenishing their Fields with Trees and with Grains, and useful Animals, which until now they had been wholly Strangers to; yet they did not seem touch’d in the least with any Ambition to come to such Desirable Circumstances, or with any Curiousity to enquire after the Religion that was attended with them (Indiana Christiana, Boston, 1721, 28-29, quoted in James Axtell “The White Indians of Colonial America,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 32 1975:55-88, pages 55-56; see also Solomon Stoddard, Question, “Whether God is not Angry with the Country for doing so little towards the Conversion of the Indians?” (Boston, 1723)).

In 1722, Solomon Stoddard repeated Winthrop’s claim of nearly a century earlier:

it was vacuum domicilium; and so might be possessed by vertue of God’s grant to Mankind, Gen. I, 28…. The Indians made no use of it, but for Hunting. By God’s first Grant Men were to subdue the earth. When Abraham came into the Land of Canaan, he made use of vacant Land as he pleased: so did Isaac and Jacob (quoted in Chester E. Eisinger “The Puritans’ Justification for Taking the Land,” Essex Institute Historical Collection, 1948:131-143, page 140).

Such sentiments are not confined to New England and the Puritans. Moving westward to the land of what became the place of Music Man, Field of Dreams, and Circuit Chautauquas, the most American thing in America according to Teddy Roosevelt, there already were people there.

In his “Historical Sketch of Upper Iowa Methodism” at the annual Upper Iowa Conference in 1894, R.W. Keeler waxed poetic:

The prairie that had for centuries constituted the home of the buffalo and the deer and the hunting grounds of the red men that roamed over them, had become immense fields of corn and wheat, and the abode of civilization.

The second sentence of the Conference history reads as follows:

For centuries these beautiful prairies had lain in virgin loveliness untouched by the hand of civilized man.

One sees here the image of America as a garden awaiting man to be placed there by the Lord as had been done in the biblical account…as soon as the one impediment was removed:

Thousands of people were waiting impatiently for the removal of the red man from such a fair land.
Once that obstacle had been cleared, the “valley resounded to the woodman’s axe.”

By 1906, the Upper Iowa Conference could exclaim:

The vast unsettled prairies have become covered with immense fields of grain and are the abode of civilization.

In the History of Iowa from the earliest times to the founding of the twentieth century by Benjamin Gue (1903), these attitudes are expanded upon but often with some unexpected twists.

More than four hundred years have passed since Europeans began the invasion of America, and the savages whose ancestors exterminated the Mound Builders are rapidly meeting a similar fate. “When the Twentieth Century shall have passed away, the American Indians will have almost, if not quite, disappeared from the face of the earth. They seem to be incapable of civilization and consequently their complete extinction is probably near at hand. Whatever of the history of the Indian nations and tribes of Iowa can be found must be of interest to the civilized millions who now occupy the State (63).

Gue is beginning his history of Iowa with Columbus ten years after the quadricentennial had been celebrated in an exposition in nearby Chicago. Notice how he differentiates the Mound Builders, people who left a physical expression of their culture, with the current savages who had exterminated them in the time before the arrival of the white people. Now in the 21st century we have the opportunity to gauge the accuracy of his prophecy.

The wresting of Iowa from its Indian inhabitants was attended with little of the cruelty of war which followed the advent of the Spanish, English and Portuguese invaders in other portions of America (63).

Here Gue seeks to differentiate the actions of the Americans from those of the European nations. Then he turns to the people themselves. Although he uses the word “savages” but when he describes them, they don’t necessarily seem to be savages. In fact, one detects a form of admiration for these people had endured.

Three hundred years of sturdy but unavailing resistance to the advance of the European races had exhausted the original fierce and unyielding courage of the Indians and impressed them with the gloomy conviction that resistance was unavailing. Nation after nation of their ancestors had been vanquished in the unequal contest. Slowly but surely they had been dispossessed of their homes and hunting grounds (63).

Gue does not disparage the Indians because resistance was futile. Despite the unequal contest, they resisted with fierce unyielding courage as a people fighting for their very lands and way of life.

The most powerful Indian tribes of America had disappeared in the warfare. Their lands had long been peopled by the white men who had forced the savages warriors, hospitable, devoted and loyal friends. They were as ready to risk life in defense of their benefactors and allies as they were to tomahawk, scalp and burn their enemies and prisoners. Their torture of captives was no more merciless than that exhibited by the so-called civilized people and governments of England, France, Spain and Italy in crushing out religious freedom during the same centuries. The Indians used the tomahawk, scalping knife and fire no more fiendishly than did the white bigots the rack, the thumbscrew and the blazing fagot.

The Indians resisted the invaders of their country with a stern and relentless ferocity born of ages of barbarism; torturing and exterminating their white enemies, the despoilers of their homes. Their conquerors, many of whom had fled from persecution and oppression in the civilized countries of Europe, turned upon the natives, robbing them of their lands, killing men, women and children. It was an age of disregard of human rights and human life, in which Christians vied with barbarians in the infliction of merciless cruelties (63-64).

Gue has touched upon a critical issue for which there still is no answer. How can two peoples share a land? It isn’t only our national narrative that needs to answer that question, it is our nation as well. Can Woke and Trumpican inhabit a single country in peace?

Gue continues as he does in the entire book writing about Indian history as one would write about European history. He is just as capable of recognizing the different Indian peoples as he is the different European peoples.

When Iowa was first explored by the whites the Dakota Indians were found in possession of Minnesota and northern Iowa. This family consisted of the following tribes: Iowas, Omahas, Winnebagoes, Osages, Sissetons, Missouris and Otoes. The Algonquin family, consisting of the Illinois, Sauks, Foxes, Chippewas, Attouays and Pottawattamies, occupied northern Missouri and southern Iowa.

THE ILLINOIS INDIANS

The Indians seen by Marquette and Joliet in the valley of the Des Moines Kiver were of the Illini or Illinois tribe. Illinois seems to have been the name of a confederacy embracing the five sub-tribes— Peorias, CahoMas, Kaskaskias, Michigamies and Tamaroas. These being of the Algonquin race were hereditary enemies of the war like Iroquois, or Six Nations, whose seat of government was in the Mohawk V alley of New York. During the generations through which their wars had extended the Illinois had been gradually driven into the region between Lake Michigan and the Wabash River and extending thence west across the Mississippi River. More than two hundred years ago, when visited by Marquette, they had become greatly reduced in numbers and strength from wars with the Iroquois on the east and the Chickasaws on the south. When Iowa was next visited by white men the once powerful Illinois Indians had been nearly exterminated by the Sacs and Foxes (64-65).

Speaking (or writing) as a New Yorker, I can say one normally would not expect to see Algonquin and Iroquois history as part of Iowa history. It shows how geographically intertwined the people and lands of the country are.

Gue wrote about an individual who is part of the current culture wars not that he knew it. He wrote about how Indian names continued on as part of Iowa, which is not surprising given the name of the state.

The memory of these chiefs has been perpetuated in our State by three counties and two cities, which bear their names, while a county in northern Iowa bears the name of the famous old war chief, Black Hawk (88).

Chief Black Hawk has been in the news lately because of a sports team named after him.

The Chicago Blackhawks won’t change nickname because it honors the life of an actual Native American (By Allen Kim, CNN, July 8, 2020)

The Chicago Blackhawks contend its nickname actually honors a real life Native American, and the team has no plans to make any changes to its name and logo. “The Chicago Blackhawks’ name and logo symbolizes an important and historic person, Black Hawk of Illinois’ Sac & Fox Nation, whose leadership and life has inspired generations of Native Americans, veterans and the public,” the team said in a statement.

“We celebrate Black Hawk’s legacy by offering ongoing reverent examples of Native American culture, traditions and contributions, providing a platform for genuine dialogue with local and national Native American groups. As the team’s popularity grew over the past decade, so did that platform and our work with these important organizations.”

Personally, I think this argument is too nuanced for our take-no-prisoner judgemental two-dimensional world.

I conclude with Gue on a painter’s perspective.

George Catlin, who became a famous Indian painter and historian, spent several months in Iowa during his tours among the Indians. He made a trip up the Des Moines Valley about this time and thus describes it:

“The whole country that we passed over was like a garden, wanting only cultivation, being mostly prairie….found hundreds of graves of the red men on the island. Sleep on in peace, ye brave fellows, until the white man comes and with sacrilegious plow share turns up your bones from their quiet and beautiful resting place! I returned to Camp Des Moines, musing over the loveliness and solitude of this beautiful prairie land of the West. Who can contemplate without amazement this mighty river eternally rolling its surging, boiling waters ever onward through the great prairie land for more than four thousand miles! I have contemplated the never ending transit of steamers plowing along its mighty current in the future, carrying the commerce of a mighty civilization which shall spring up like magic along its banks and tributaries.

” The steady march of our growing population to this vast garden spot will surely come in surging columns and spread farms, houses, orchards, towns and cities over all these remote wild prairies. Half a century hence the sun is sure to shine upon countless villages, silvered spires and domes, denoting the march of intellect, and wealth’s refinements, in this beautiful and far off solitude of the West, and we may perhaps hear the tinkling of the bells from our graves” (166).

The views presented in this blog of those of white males. What the different Indian nations often mentioned in these quotations thought of these events deserves to be part of the story as well. How do you go about doing that? It is a challenge that needs to be met if we are to live together in peace as part of a single country. In the next blog, I will examine how Jill Lepore handles such questions according to some Indian historians.

4 thoughts on “The Myth of the Empty Land: Creating a National Narrative

  1. I believe that it is more accurate to say that the “seat of the Six nation Confederacy (Iroquois)” was the present day Syracuse NY region….then under the dominion of the Onondaga …the “fire keepers”.

    Thank you for your focus on the myth of the “empty” l;and.

  2. My ancestors were those who came to this so-called “empty land.” It’s been hard to understand with my 21st Century mind how they could declare it empty and available to them, but as you note, they had scripture and other writings to confirm their beliefs whether or not they were true. Nevertheless, we need to understand the “empty land” is a myth, but also understand those who claimed the land were convinced that being uncultivated meant “empty” to them and felt justified in settlement.

    However, I wonder what encouragement to go to America by those in power was promoted as England and other countries were out of space. And also wonder how empire building might fit in.

    FYI: If you live in, near or visit Brooklyn, NY, you can pay respects to George Caitlin in Green-wood Cemetery. He was married to Clara Gregory who he left to spend years painting the Indians. Clara died of pneumonia in Paris; her parents bringing her remains back to New York. When George died in 1872, his remains stayed in a receiving vault at Green-wood for a year until the family could decide if he should be in the family plot. He finally was placed in a far corner of their lot, but a stone was not erected until 1961.

    1. Thanks for your comments. At times there were advertising campaigns designed to bring people to this empty land where they could build a new life. This empty land syndrome is quite common. Imagine being able to see the earth as God created it. It is not unusual for paintings in the Hudson Valley and New York to minimize and obscure the Indian presence. Think of how often as tourists we want to take a shot that is not spoiled by “human beings” but just is nature in its purity.

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