Tag Archives: American West

Abstract for ASCH paper re-write

Today’s post is an exercise engaged with the writing process I am following this semester based on a campus writing group and Wendy Laura Belcher’s workbook on creating journal articles.  Submission of the full-length version of this paper is one of my projects for the semester.  Below is a draft of an abstract based on this paper (originally presented at the American Society for Church History conference in January 2014) .  Writing and revising the abstract was an exercise for this week.  What I am posting is abstract 8.0, and I’m  certain it needs some additional revision but hopefully readers can get the gist of the paper from this piece.

“‘Listen to the words of your Father above.’ Ministering the Natives of Nebraska in the early 19th Century”

Christian missionary efforts among Native Americans have both a long history and historiography.  Christian priests, ministers, and missionaries have attempted to convert native people in North America to Christianity for centuries and during the last 50 years or so, historians have increasingly attempted to understand the relationship between such missionary efforts and their impact on native life.  Nearly fifty years ago, Robert Berkhofer demonstrated that missionaries had a tremendous impact on native life and culture, arguably because the main goal of missionaries was to alter that very life and culture.  Thirty years later, pastor and historian George Tinker took this view to an extremely harsh interpretation, stating that missionaries were nothing less than partners in “cultural genocide.”

For native people as a whole, one must wonder, what was the appeal of Christianity or American civilization at all?  How might access to this new faith and/or new products enhance people’s lives in any way? Would, as historian Willard Rollings describes, “individualism” hold a torch of progress aloft for Native Americans and how might one define “progress” in the first place?  In the last thirty-five years, historians Michael Coleman, James Ronda, and James Axtell have all called for fresh examinations of mission history – the former encouraging critical case studies of individual missions and missionary societies.  The latter two, along with Tinker, see missions as culturally revolutionary and seek to focus attention on native responses to such intrusions.  This study seeks to ask questions  about the experience of specific missionaries in the period of the Early Republic and whether these particular missionary experiences fit the model of “cultural genocide” as enunciated by Tinker.

Around 1819 at Fort Atkinson, one of the first Christian sermons was delivered in what would become the territory, and later state of Nebraska. By the 1830s, missionaries such as Baptist Moses Merrill, and Presbyterian Samuel Allis were preaching their message among the Otoe-Missourias, Omahas, and Pawnees. In preparation for his journey, Merrill spoke of his desire to have the Lord’s help in preparing for service, “among these benighted Indians. May we be the honored instruments of turning many from darkness to light.”

Allis arrived in Bellevue after the Merrill family did in 1834 and then moved farther west and served as missionary to the Pawnees until 1845.  After 1845, Allis built and briefly ran a boarding school for natives before returning to the Bellevue area in 1851.  Also in the 1830s, the Belgian Catholic priest Father Pierre-Jean De Smet conducted services and baptisms in the area, chiefly among fur traders, those of French descent, and certain natives who had taken on the Catholic faith.

Men like Merrill, Allis, and De Smet thrust themselves into largely ‘foreign’ environments within the boundaries of property owned by the United States but contested by various native people.  These frontier missions were both probes into native space and extensions of white American culture that differed from trading posts and military encampments.  The missions, and those who ran them, sought to both build relations with native people and, in most instances, challenged and changed native culture. To that end, Allis went so far as to suggest that missionaries who committed to marrying into native tribes would have greater success.  Despite this somewhat ‘radical’ thought, Allis also subscribed to at least one traditional approach. Conversion for natives was more likely to be successful once people like the Pawnees shed aspects of their lifestyles and came to mimic white farmers.

Other missionaries believed that conversion had to come first in order to lead natives to civilization.  Ultimately, disagreements over conversion efforts (style, sect, speed, etc.) led to debates and discussion as to the purpose and intent of white men such as Allis living among the Pawnees and other native people.  In many ways, debates between some of the Christian missionaries and other Americans were more lively than any discussion between native people and missionaries in general.

This is not to suggest that there was not some level of respect for native culture. Allis in particular was an admirer of the Pawnees and their ways of life, even suggesting that native people like the Pawnees had a lot more positive to be said about them then the white settlers who displaced them. Allis pointed out after two winters and one summer among the Pawnees that he had learned aspects of their language and culture in his time living among these native people, but also much about their character as fellow human beings.

Allis and Merrill can be described as both sympathetic to their native neighbors and conversion targets, and still judging from their own world view.  My reading of the experience of these two particular missionaries in Nebraska does not reveal a concerted effort at “cultural genocide” as Tinker might conclude.  To successfully judge the Pawnees, Otoe-Missourias, and New England missionaries by their own standards, as should be done according to James Axtell, is difficult because we are examining a clash of two societies.  This study focuses on the perspective of Allis and Merrill – the views of Otoe-Missourias and Pawnees living near the missionaries are only presented through the lens of their American neighbors.  Here is where Tinker has a point – Allis and Merrill may have been well-intentioned, but their actions still, in the end, could be viewed as causing harm and perhaps, due to conversion efforts and cultural interchange, limit our ability to achieve Axtell’s vision of interpreting native society by its own standards.

I would like to thank a number of people who have aided this project – panel chair Lindford F., panelists Joshua R., Brian F., and the audience at the ASCH session who all provided valuable resources and feedback to the original paper; writing group members Chalet S., Brian C., Cindy G., and Stephanie G. who all pointed out that the “lede” was buried!  Thanks to writing group members Hillary S. and Joe C. as well for help with another matter on the native imagery project!


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Sabbatical research continued

For the second time in one week I was fortunate to spend several hours at the New-York Historical Society working in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.  On this visit I was chiefly concerned with utilizing a digital camera to document a number of the images I had discovered on the previous Tuesday.  I had enough time to take over 170 pictures, while also working my way through four books and three additional boxes of archival material before the doors closed.

While most of the pictures covered images from the Bella C. Landauer collection, I was also able to snap a few from the Gosman family papers.  These two collections offered me a broad spectrum of materials that presented a variety of views of Native Americans from the 1840s through the early 1940s.  Landauer was chiefly concerned with the advertising world and as a result, the bulk of images I’ll be analyzing from her group included pamphlets and broadsides related to so-called Indian patent medicines.  The Gosman collection, as I mentioned the other day, was a completely unexpected piece.

The Gosman family’s papers reach back to the eighteenth century but the contributions from a teenaged Richard Gosman are thus far the only pertinent pieces.  Gosman was heavily influenced by publications like Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.  Below, a comparison between an actual Leslie’s publication and a cover for Gosman should give readers a sense of what I am seeing when working with the material.








Gosman clearly consumed and understood the manner in which these papers operated as well as their intended audience.  Much of his written text as well as the general content for his versions of the press contain stories that mirror the style one would see in the time period in question.  Gosman’s pieces were brought to my attention largely because of the large number of Native Americans included throughout his newspapers.  Gosman’s images reflect a general nineteenth century American sensibility about what Native Americans “should” look like.  Despite the fact that the young boy grew up in a state with a strong Native American presence, (the Iroquois Confederacy), Gosman only seemed to envision natives as ensconced in fringed leggings, eagle feather headdresses, and, typically, involved in conflict with white Americans.  If indeed Gosman had seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at Madison Square Garden (as is implied in one edition), it is no wonder that his understanding of Native Americans would prove so limited.  Another comparison is apt so I’ll include another sample from a Leslie publication (one aimed at younger boys and girls) and a piece from Gosman.







There is much more to be done with Gosman’s pieces and I have a number of examples to more thoroughly analyze.  I’m also convinced that if similar collections to Gosman can be discovered, there will be value in pursuing a separate project that explores how children and young people co-opt elements of the adult world in creative ways.  Between Gosman and the Landauer collection though, I believe I have extended the possibilities of the study.  The day before I returned to the archives, I determined that a database would prove necessary in terms of keeping track of the types of images, region of origin, purported Native American tribes represented, scenes depicted, media, etc.  I’m hopeful that building a catalog of the examples I find will allow myself and other researchers to more thoroughly understand the choices made by individuals in representing native people as well perhaps shed some light on why this problem continues.

Although I will explore Landauer in more detail separately, a few brief words and an example of this collection is worth remark.  The bulk of the collection I examined focused on medicine companies from the late nineteenth-century, many of which were located in the northeastern United States, yet that laid claim to close connections with Native American medicines and “spiritual” solutions to physical ailments.  In particular, the Kickapoo Medicine Company of New Haven, CT took great liberties with the history of the Kickapoos in general, presenting an invented “sagwa” liquid as a cure all for many an ailment.  In large, lavishly illustrated pamphlets, the company presented the “history” of the Kickapoos and the arguments for why their medicines were of great benefit to the general public.  A cursory level of research on my part reveals zero connection between the founders of this company and the Kickapoos themselves.  Like Gosman, the founders of the company chose to illustrate native life on their own terms.  While I’m not surprised by my initial findings, I am curious to see where the pursuit of additional ephemera takes me.



*Gosman and Landauer Collection images from the NY-Historical Society


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Visitations and guest lectures

One of the challenges of working as a professional educator is keeping current with ideas about curriculum, both in terms of content, style, and matching the needs of students.  Over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to both contribute to these conversations as a presenter and benefit greatly from my role as an observer and participant.

In mid-September, SUNY-Cortland Professor Gigi Peterson was kind enough to give me time in two of her classes and social studies teacher workshops.  Pr. Peterson and I met in January at the American Historical Association meeting in New Orleans when I sought out her post presentation entitled “A Class Apart?” Latinos in the Secondary Social Studies Curriculum.  Gigi asked several important questions including:

  1. How are Latinos included in social studies curricular guides and textbooks at the secondary level?
  2. How can their diversity and histories be re-framed as a vital part of the US past and its transnational dimensions?
  3. Secondary-level teachers face politicized, commercialized, and shifting state education expectations.  College history instructors work with students whose perceptions are shaped by these systems, which often promote interpretations of the US past that are at odds with current scholarship.  How can both of these groups incorporate Latino history into their teaching so as to promote critical rethinking of interpretations, and understanding of current issues? (questions taken from Pr. Peterson’s description of her presentation available at http://aha.confex.com/aha/2013/webprogram/Paper11619.html )

Pr. Peterson and I talked about our respective institutions and students, the nature of social studies educator preparation in New York versus Massachusetts, English Language Learners in the classroom, and more.  Over the spring semester and summer we planned on maintaining contact and eventually I was invited to speak on the issue of “Western ‘Exploration’ and Expansion:  Revisiting Pre- and Early US History and Building Historical Thinking Skills.”

For my two presentations the intended audience was M.A. students in history, local social studies teachers, professors, and a class of pre-practicum history education students.  I sent ahead some readings, (eg, Pekka Hämäläinen, “The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures,” Journal of American History 90, December 2003; preface to Daniel Richter’s America’s Ancient Pasts; the prologue to Colin Calloway’s One Vast Winter Count), and agreed on an earlier assigned piece from Juliana Barr, “Beyond the ‘Atlantic World’: Early American History as Viewed from the West,” OAH Magazine of History 25:1, 2011.   Then I borrowed heavily from a couple of folks to give an organizational framework to my conversation.

I started by paraphrasing Laura Westhoff’s remarks in the July 2013 OAH Magazine of History, in which she suggested that a “perfect storm” of three fronts – intellectual, technology, and policy – created changes in history education.  I asked the students to identify what they believed Westhoff meant by intellectual, technology, and policy – with some prompting and conversation, we put the words “Standards,” “Internet,” and “historical thinking” on the board.  So, I asked, what standards? US history standards, curriculum frameworks of individual states, Common Core State standards, etc.  We explored why the Internet and what/why historical thinking?

While the importance of the former seemed obvious – the sheer amount of information that could be disseminated had grown tremendously in the last fifteen years, the latter was arguably more complicated.  Historical thinking can create an argument, it can be a form of deliberation, sometimes moral or ethical, it should be related to stories of the past.  In historical thinking, historians and their students might spend more time and energy wrestling with the information than focusing on “learning” information.

In exploring themes like the American West and exploration, I pointed out that while we want to accumulate knowledge and information, at times this can be at the expense of getting students to think for themselves about history and its significance.  As David Voelker and Anthony Armstrong, argue in the same OAH Magazine of History as Laura Westhoff, designing a question driven U.S. history course can help develop students’ abilities to think critically.  Can we then develop historical thinking through inquiry planning? What types of inquiry should be deliberated and who gets included in both the design of the question and as the subject of the inquiry?

On those two days, I was attempting to discuss exploration and the American West and what those concepts mean in the context of American history – in other words, where does the American West fit as a place, a time, etc?  At the same time, I tried to get students to address concepts of historical thinking and gain a better understanding as to the origins of their understandings of the American West.  To that end, we took a moment to draw ‘the west’ –  students in both classes were asked to fill in a blank box with images or a scene that captured, for them, the American West.  This idea is directly adapted from chapter five of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  While I was less concerned with questions of gender in the students’ drawings, I shared Wineburg’s interest in what commonalities would students utilize to represent the time period/place, etc.  It is an exercise I have done with my history education students for several years.

The end results shaped our discussion for the remainder of the period, so I didn’t get to my other exercises – students were to draw explorers or exploration and students were to write a 50 word saga about an event in the history of the American West.  That latter idea is borrowed from Daniel Pink’s Whole New Mind (he in turn borrowed the idea from a contest hosted by the United Kingdom paper The Daily Telegraph).  My purpose was to get students thinking about their own understanding of the past (in this case exploration of the American West and expansion in the American West).  Once we had the main ideas up from images and discussion, it was clear that almost every student had chosen an image from the nineteenth century.

At this point, I referred back to the readings and pointed out that we had a problem.  What is West?  Several students volunteered that West is about ones perspective and so quickly grasped that defining the region itself was a challenge.  I pointed out that in the twenty-first century we face the same types of challenges – I teach in western Massachusetts which to residents of the capitol in Boston is seen as “then end of the earth” yet there I was on a Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning working as a guest instructor some four hours west of my home base in a place that wouldn’t seem like the west to my wife who grew up in North Dakota.  Then I utilized images of different aspects of the American West as they would have appeared to native people and we proceeded apace to explore what the West and exploration/trade etc. meant to the continent’s first human beings.  Ultimately, I was also making a case for the importance of telling these, to borrow from Daniel Richter, layered pasts.  When we “layered” the New York state curriculum standards on we found we had another challenge – a lot of what I was talking about fit only into United States History and Government, Unit One, Standard I, A and B – geography.  This fact was not lost on me prior to my visit to SUNY-Cortland, but it revealed one of the problems Pr. Peterson and I share – how do you convince young teachers that exploring content at the fringe of the “standards” is worthwhile?  As it turns out, a lot of what I was discussing in these classes was reinforced by two experiences I had in early October.

This past week I returned to  the classes at SUNY-Cortland, this time as a guest, listening to a number of ideas presented by Hofstra University Professor Alan Singer.  Pr. Singer is currently a professor of secondary education and director of social studies education at Hofstra and worked for years a New York City high school social studies teacher.  Singer also is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  Recent posts include “If Massachusetts was a Country”  and a piece about common core lesson planning in New York.  Pr. Singer is passionate, high energy, and all that we might hope a teacher of history/social studies to be, including interesting!  Students in his high school classes and the teacher-scholars with whom he collaborates to improve social studies education should count themselves lucky.

Among other topics, Pr. Singer discussed good, bad, and ugly uses of the Common Core state standards, using examples surrounding critical analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Singer expressed concerns that in the ugly format, the future of education looked somewhat bleak – will Common Core, APPR, PARCC all combine to create a system whereby outside agencies (some making a fair amount of money) give us the curriculum to teach, then design the test for the kids, then test the teachers on how well they taught the kids?  Singer’s important point was that teachers must separate the Common Core from the tests for students and the evaluation systems established for teachers.

What was good about the Common Core, argued Singer, was that it encourages teachers to be conscious decision-makers and systematic planners.  In addition, adoption of the Common Core could be utilized by teachers as leverage to improve common planning time.  Teachers need to be able to strategize together in order to most effectively integrate these standards.  He pointed out several examples of coordination at certain high schools in his immediate region near Hofstra where teachers worked at combining disciplines where possible.  Always, Singer returned to the theme of teachers as conscious decision-makers and systematic planners – for our students to learn, he passionately explained, you need to organize around a question or a problem and then you have to design the lesson or unit in such a way as to give the students the opportunity to answer the question or solve the problem!  Systematic planning allows for Common Core standards and state curriculum guidelines to be used, multiple entry points for student consideration to be developed, and summary questions explored that allow students to integrate ideas from a single day or earlier classes.  Always, the teacher should reflect on their own good, bad, and ugly, developing strategies for improvement.

In a separate discussion Tuesday evening, October 1, Pr. Singer utilized political cartoons from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century rotating on a powerpoint slideshow behind him to illustrate the dangers of lobbying powers as they relate to the future of education.  Passionately critiquing Pearson in particular, but also Education Testing Service and the College Board, Singer used Eisenhower’s warning about the dangers of the military industrial complex to explain why we should be equally concerned with the combination of politics, financial markets, and education policy.  When Pearson, a British multinational conglomerate expresses their efforts at influencing American education as reform, Singer suggest that their actions, combined with those of the Gates Foundation, the National Governor’s Council and others is about guaranteeing money and profits while influencing education policy.  Pearson controls 60% of the market for education products and by July 2014 will take over teacher education evaluation in New York State.

The edTPA (Teacher Performance Assessment) is a classic example of what Singer describes as the problem with efforts at “reform” that are truly efforts at controlling exams, assessments, and evaluations.  This program was created by Stanford University but with investment money from Pearson.  The program was then “sold” back to Pearson who in turn has sold the product to states, including New York, for implementation.  Pearson will therefore be making money in New York from statewide administered tests at the elementary and secondary school levels, from the testing for licensure candidates seeking to become teachers, and from the evaluation systems used to assess teachers and their performance.  In short, argued Singer, a corporation will be making money on all steps of the educational ladder in a movement that he describes as decidedly anti-union and anti-government.  This passion can be followed on Singer’s various Huffington post articles and in his activism with present and past students.  I’ll be watching closely as Pearson continues to develop its connections to Massachusetts education “reform.”

Finally, on Friday in part due to my role as lead historian for the Teaching American History Grant project entitled “Memorializing Promise and Conflict,” I was fortunate to have a front row seat for a workshop conducted by University of Michigan professor and former Cleveland high school teacher Bob Bain.  I first encountered Pr. Bain a number of years ago at a few national conferences speaking on connecting the Common Core to social studies work (he also introduced his then nascent steps into the Big History Project which is a subject worthy of an entirely separate commentary, especially in light of its sponsors).  In addition to Bain’s call to embrace elements of the common core (check out some of his arguments expressed on these slides), he insists clearly that one cannot proceed with history/social studies instruction without considering and grappling with literacy.  In other words, history teaching is literacy teaching.

To raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge, understandings and appreciation of American history was one goal of Teaching American History grants, but Bain made a compelling case that this stated goal from over a decade ago was not enough.  The goal, Bain explained clearly, was not sufficient for raising student achievement.  Bain sought, through a variety of workshops, his own teaching, and work in other TAH grants, to make certain that students understood a little bit more than when they started a course or unit and that they had a good time learning in the process.

The main strategy employed was to focus student attention on the argument, problems, evidence, etc. in order to excite their interest.  Bain referenced John Dewey here, pointing out that all knowledge was once a problem, a question, a puzzle, or a curiosity.  And yet, argued Bain, we as teachers tend to not give the students the problem or the question, but rather we give them the answer and then have them work out ways or methods to reach that set answer – this strategy can result in boredom.  Problems, argued Bain, are our friends because they make us think, and historiography and history is all about problems.  Constantly, we should be asking our students (and ourselves) how our problem or the grappling with a problem supports, extends, or challenges the way we think.  If you’re a teacher, you’re asking those questions about how you teach history and approach learning in general.

A specific example of Bain’s problematizing approach can be found in history/social studies classrooms exploring the question of why people choose to move to Detroit.  The kids in question are living in Detroit and might be wondering the same thing in this present day – Bain suggests that by exploring the question in different time periods in American history, the students become actively engaged in reading evidence, using evidence and are trained in how to support, extend, or challenge the way they think.  By giving the students more cognitive tools, anything that helps them think, the students can improve their ability to read, manipulate language, write, etc.  Perhaps, argued Bain, by exploring the historical problem of “why do people choose to move to Detroit?” students might create reasons to move there today in the twenty-first century!  The notion is not dissimilar to Singer’s approach to organizing a unit or lesson around a problem.

Teaching history is filled with unique and often hidden problems and through historical thinking and literacy practices, teachers can help create cognitive tools that will serve their student well in the history/social studies room and in society.  We can’t, pointed out Bain, see our own thinking let alone that of our students, but if we start working on issues of how habits of mind are developed and training our students on developing these cognitive tools we can not only deal with the problems we face as teachers of history, but also better understand the problems are students face as students of history.

In sum, Singer and Bain, and I hope to some degree, my own strategies, seek to make the subject matter.  By asking our students to “think aloud” and demonstrate their thought processes through problem solving or “picturing the American West” we can start the process of exploring a “standard” from a place of inquiry.  We want to make all thinking visible and hopefully when students see this in action, they can engage with historical and political problems in ways that not only engage our students, but gives them the power and evidence to reassert or challenge their assumptions and preconceptions about history and it impact on our lives.

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Weekends and life

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed week one of this reading and writing project though I’m thoroughly aware that its ambitious scope is probably in need of a reassessment.  First, other folks who have done similar work – 365 days of reading, quest to read a book a day, etc. – don’t always write about everything.  Second, as anyone who has tried, writing can be difficult.  I don’t mean the kind of writing I do here – this style is not particularly elegant nor, frankly, difficult.  It’s when I sit and scrunch up my face, purse my lips a bit and think about what I want to say about a text that I run into problems, blocks etc.

Then there’s life.  I’ve been able to work through a lot of these texts this week because my daily grind of advising and grading has been slashed, but that doesn’t stop graduation ceremonies, t-ball, first communions, dates with my wife, eating, etc. from getting “in the way” of the book or pen/computer screen.

Also, I did not set any parameters for this project – no rules about how many or how few pages or style of texts.  I fell into a pattern this week of every other book being pulled from the bookshelf while the others emerged from the library collection of potential source books for courses I’m teaching or research.  This decision means a wide range of lengths and styles, some heavy with citations and others completely absent of footnotes.   The Breen text was the longest thus far and was a push at some 326 or so pages.  As a result, I decided that Sundays might be a good day to collect myself, edit or add material to the previous week’s posts, and prep for the next week’s round of books.

Then there’s my preferred writing style which I’m not sure is going to work for this project and, frankly, which I have yet to employ.  I like to grasp a nice flowing pen, preferably some kind of gel ink type, a legal pad, and simply write.  Whatever words come down on the page are fine by me, even if they have nothing to do with the books I’m reading and reviewing.  It’s in the typing that the real edits start, and even then I’m not always that conscientious.  We’ll see if I can get back into this style at some point during the summer months.

A final thought or two should be offered on reading I suppose.  Years ago, when preparing for either grading undergraduate papers or my graduate level comprehensive exams, I got in the habit of constantly reading material whether it be fiction or non-fiction alongside coursework assignments and necessary historiographies, book reviews, and research articles.  The fiction particularly, but some non-fiction news articles, aided me immensely, though on more than one occasion a professor looked askance at me and said “How can you possible have time for that?”  What worked for me was what I called ‘priming the pump.’  I read, say an Agatha Christie novel, while preparing for my comprehensive exams in the history of the American west.  I might read a chapter or two of Christie and then drop it, switching to Patty Limerick or Richard White or Donald Worster.  These books, perhaps challenging in many ways for style, content, etc. almost opened themselves to me – there’s no other way to describe it.  The texts became light and swift to my eyes and I could both read quickly and retain information better, having read the novel(s) first.  Here’s hoping that this summer this old strategy works once more, and that I’ll finally dig into research on reading enough to find out what to officially call my habit.

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