Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/A New Field of American History

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


WE have hitherto been accustomed to treat the history of the United States as consisting primarily of the history of the Atlantic portion. When it has become necessary in the progress of the review to advert to the history of other parts of the continent, the subject has been considered as related to the history of the Eastern States, and subordinated to it. This may have been proper so long as the historical nation lay east of the Mississippi River, but when Louisiana was bought we took in a region with an independent history of its own; when the question of the title to Oregon was agitated, an historical inquiry in a new direction became of great importance to us; and when California was acquired we came into possession of still another history, antedating that of our original States by a hundred years, and unexcelled in its fullness of romance and adventure. Still, the making of our text-books and new histories has been going on with the Atlantic States marking the beginnings and the Pacific domain introduced as a product of the present century, with a mere reference to its three hundred years of romantic past. For any notices of that we must go to books about Mexico, to find very little of it there. Some of the earliest and most interesting developments of the history of the country as we now know it were worked out on the Pacific coast; but their story was hidden in masses of documents and loose records that were inaccessible to ordinary historians till Mr. Hubert II. Bancroft unearthed them for presentation in solid form in his "History of the Pacific States of North America.

This history, when completed, will fill thirty-nine volumes, of which eighteen have now been published. It consists of two series, of which the first series, published ten years ago in five volumes, gives all that was known at that time of the native races. As there has been some discussion, and it is growing more lively, about the theories of these races, and the author's position in the matter has been brought into question, it is proper to say here that he disavows having anything to do with theories or the solution of disputed questions. His purpose has simply been to collect all the material that is worthy of notice, and put it where it will be accessible, making only such critical observations as suggest themselves in course, leaving closer special investigations to future students. The richness of the material he has provided and put here, in the hands of such investigators, can not fail to be of great help to them. Without it they might have to work for years to secure a position of knowledge available for comparative research, where they now find themselves at the start.

The first two of the volumes on the native races are devoted to the ethnographical description of the tribes; the third to their myths and language; the fourth to their antiquities; and the fifth to their primitive history. The tribes are classified, for convenience of treatment rather than to conform to a scientifically accurate standard, into geographical groups, as Hyperboreans, those natives whose territory lies north of the fifty-fifth parallel; Columbians, between the fifty-fifth and forty-second parallels, and mainly in the valley of the Columbia and its tributaries; Californians and the inhabitants of the Great Basin, New Mexicans, Wild Tribes of Mexico, Wild Tribes of Central America, and Civilized Natives of Mexico and Central America, the last having a volume to themselves. In these descriptions the author aims to portray such customs and characteristics as were peculiar to each people at the time of its first intercourse with European strangers, leaving scientific inquirers to make their own deductions. Much of the ground covered by the accounts has been gone over in later years by the new school of American ethnologists, whose observations have been fully published by the Government bureaus and various archæological societies, and have added considerably to what Mr. Bancroft was able to tell when he wrote, or have modified its bearing. In cases where they seem to contradict his authorities, the question is in place whether it is a rule that observations on Indians, after they have been for two or three hundred years in contact with white men, are more accurate as to what they were primarily than the accounts of those who saw them uncontaminated, even though their methods may not have been so closely trimmed to the scientific rule. In reading the rapid sketches of the characteristics of these people, we are struck by many suggestive points. Some force the thought that there is in the lowest of them something that tends to lift them above their usual level; some remind us how much alike are men, even in the most diverse conditions and places and ages; and some that the doctrine of evolution is not wholly a conception of civilized philosophy or the product of the thought of ages. How different from their usual life is that feeling that prompts the Central Californian Indians, who appear to be the old "diggers," and who live in bestial laziness, to such a regard for the woodpecker that they will not touch its property of stored acorns till they are driven to it by the extreme of hunger!

A remarkable contrast is afforded by two tribes living close to one another in New Mexico: the Apaches, who have a regular system of numeration, with a name for every number up to ten thousand; and the Comanches, who can not count further than their fingers or some other visible objects will carry them, and can not calculate at all.

The Indians of Zacatecas have a ceremony corresponding with that of the "blood-covenant," which is characteristic of the south Slavic nations in Europe, and is found among many Eastern and African peoples.

In the legend of the Indians of Mount Shasta, which describes the descent of man from a family of grizzly bears, who were somewhat different then from what they are at present, walking on their hind legs like men, talking, and carrying clubs in their fore-limbs; in the Aht myth, which traces man's descent from the essences or embryos residing in them which the animals left behind when they fled from the sight of two beings in the shape of men; and in other stories of origins, we have glimpses of a kind of primitive doctrine of evolution. There are also stories teaching an inverse evolution, or the doctrine of degeneracy, in the descent of beasts, fishes, and even edible roots from human originals. Most curious is the Mexican doctrine of the future state and the wanderings of the spirit, which, except that the journey is briefer and the perils are correspondingly less numerous, might have been extracted from the Egyptian "Book of the Dead."

On this subject, and respecting the languages of these people, after having presented and compared them, the author says: "He who carefully examines the myths and languages of the aboriginal nations of the Pacific States can not fail to be impressed with the similarity between them and the beliefs and tongues of mankind elsewhere. Here is the same insatiate thirst to know the unknowable, here are the same audacious attempts to tear asunder the veil, the same fashioning and peopling of worlds, laying out and circumscribing of celestial regions, and manufacturing, and setting up, spiritually and materially, of creators, man, and animal-makers and rulers, everywhere manifest. Here is apparent what would seem to be the same inherent necessity for worship, for propitiation, for purification, or a cleansing from sin, for atonement and sacrifice, with all the symbols and paraphernalia of natural and artificial religion. In their speech the same grammatical constructions are seen with the usual variations in form and scope, in poverty and richness, which are found in nations, rude or cultivated, everywhere. Little as we know of the beginning and end of things, we can but feel, as fresh facts are brought to light and new comparisons made between the races and ages of the earth, that humanity, of whatsoever origin it may be or howsoever circumstanced, is formed on one model, and unfolds under the influence of an inspiration."

The second series, beginning with Volume VI, counting the whole work, will comprise the history of the several States under white dominion. Three volumes, when completed, will be devoted to Central America; six to Mexico; two to the North Mexican States and Texas; one to Arizona and New Mexico; seven to California; one to Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado; one to Utah; two each to the Northwest Coast and Oregon; one to Washington, Idaho, and Montana; one each to British Columbia and Alaska; one to "California Pastoral," or its life and society before the discovery of gold; and one to "California Interpocula," or during the gold-mining epoch; two to "Popular Tribunals," or lynch-law and vigilance committees; and two will be of a miscellaneous character. The latest published volume, the twentieth in the order of numbering, which follows the geographical arrangement, or the eighteenth in the order of publication, which is according to the chronology, is the third of the history of California, and relates the story of that region as a "Territory under the Mexican Republic," from 1825 to 1840. The facts, mostly political, military, and financial in their bearing, are presented in a clear and satisfactory manner, so as to give those who are interested in those lines of development a connected view of their course, both in the territory as a whole, and in its several districts. The secularization of the church missions, which was largely accomplished during this period, and its immediate results, present interesting phases of social development worthy of the attention of the student of that subject. The incursions of foreigners, which have eventually revolutionized the aspect and the fate of the whole region, are traced back to their beginnings in individual visits from abroad which were often accidental, generally transient, and nearly always precarious; for the powers that ruled in those days were disposed to regard strangers much as they would wild beasts. For forty years, California had been visited with increasing frequency by foreigners, or persons whose blood was neither Indian nor Spanish. England, the United States, Russia, and France were the nations chiefly represented. "All had come from the South, or West, or North, by the broad highway of the Pacific Ocean, bounding the territory on the west, and leading to within a few miles of the most inland Spanish settlements." The inland boundary—an arc for the most part of sierras nevadas so far as could be seen, with a zone of desert beyond still unknown—had never yet been crossed by man of foreign race, nor trod, if we except the southern segment cut by a line from San Gabriel to Mojave, by other than aboriginal feet. The "grand advance movement" of fur-hunting pioneers began in 1826, "when the inland barrier of mountain and desert was first passed, and from that date the influx of foreigners by overland routes becomes a topic of ever-growing importance." But no record of even tolerable completeness exists or could be expected to exist concerning it. The movement was generally directed farther north, but some of the trappers found their way into California. Those foreigners who came to stay seemed to enjoy an appreciation of their worth, and to have been liked by the people, with less prejudice against them, perhaps, than was felt against Mexicans. Citizenship, wives, and lands were easily obtained by those whose conduct was regular. "New-comers had to comply with certain formalities, and they were occassionally reminded that they were under surveillance, but no cases of oppression were recorded." The first recorded trip overland was made in 1826, by Jedediah S. Smith, who went from the Great Salt Lake by the Virgin and Colorado Rivers. Returning, he was the first to cross the Sierra Nevada, in May and June, 1827. Science is interested in two of the transient visitors of whom record is made in this period. The first was David Douglas, the famous Scotch botanist, who, after having spent five or six years in botanical researches in the North, came down from the Columbia to investigate the flora of California, arriving at Monterey in December, 1830. He had letters and influence, by the aid of which he obtained permission to prosecute his researches for six months, and, in fact, remained for twenty months. To return to British Columbia, he had to take a roundabout voyage by way of Honolulu. There was a current rumor in later years that he had found on the roots of his California plants gold enough to make a watch-seal! He perished in 1834 by falling into a pit, where he was trampled to death by a wild bull that had fallen in before him. The botanical results of his trip were published by Sir William Hooker in 1841. The other scientific visitor was Dr. Thomas Coulter, who in 1832 communicated to the London Geographical Society the results of a trip from Monterey via San Gabriel to the Rio Colorado and back, made in 1832. He published a map, which included the country as far north as the Bay of San Francisco and as far east as the Tule Lakes. We have reason to anticipate a fullness of information, wholly new to the Gentile world, when the volume devoted to Utah is reached. For not only has Mr. Bancroft all the documents and all the material for the history of the Mormons which is accessible to any one else, but he is the exclusive possessor of that which is more valuable than all this, and which has never seen the light. The ruling men of the Mormon Church have given him the privilege of examining their archives, containing documents going back to the beginning of their movement. We have the Gentile story in superfluity and in unpleasant satiety; Mr. Bancroft purposes to give us the Mormon side in addition uncolored, and told as a part of the res gesta, and that is what the world wants to know.

The task which Mr. Bancroft undertook in the preparation of so comprehensive a work as this was one of unusual magnitude, and might well have discouraged a less earnest man. It certainly required unusual powers of application and painstaking labor to give unity and harmony to so large a plan; to reduce such a chaos of material as the history has to be built up out of to manageable shape, and to organize the work so that all should be done intelligently, consistently, and discriminatingly. But the plan is substantially executed, and one half of the work it demanded is done and in the possession of the public, while the rest of it is, we are told, in so advanced a stage of forwardness that its completion no longer depends on the prolongation of the life of the author.

The scheme contemplated the presentation in a systematized, readable, and plainly intelligible form, both in general view and in all its details and with all its changes of scene, of the history, so far as it is known or has been reported, of the tribes and states of the Pacific slope of the North American Continent from the Isthmus of Darien to Behring Strait. When we consider what these states are; what elements have entered into their composition; what vicissitudes and revolutions they have gone through during the four hundred years they have been known to white men; and how all the material is colored in all discordant hues by ignorance, partisan prejudice, or political malice prepense—it would seem almost a hopeless task to obtain comprehension even of a small part of the confused whole. Add to this, that hundreds of native tribes, having a vast geographical range and living in the most various conditions of pursuit, wealth, and civilization, had to be dealt with, and that what was to be learned about them had to be gathered and sifted from a great accumulation of printed and manuscript accounts, true and false, guessed, imaginary, and real, and from myths and traditions going back to an unknown antiquity, here obscure, and there inextricably entangled in and modifying one another—and we conceive a task calling for no slight powers of mental organization. Forty-two thousand is the number of books and manuscripts Mr. Bancroft has levied upon for his great undertaking! It took six men ten years suitably to catalogue and index thirty-five thousand of them so that they could be available for use, while the others have been gradually added. Mr. Bancroft has spent twenty-live of his best years in his work, and is spending and expects to spend other years upon it; while the pecuniary cost to him is underestimated at a million dollars.

The author has not produced, nor has he aimed to produce, a critical history nor a philosophical history, but simply to collect and preserve what existed, but was in danger of being lost. For doing that he deserves the thanks of his countrymen.