One of the ... benefits? … of teaching introductory history courses is that I get a ton of textbook samples from publishers every year. I’m always curious where these textbooks start the story of the United States. Why? Because there’s really no answer everyone can agree on. Even among my fellow historians here at MSU and beyond, the answer can vary widely. In fact, most universities just call their introduction to the first half of US history something like “US History up to 1865” or “US History up to 1877.”
One textbook sample I received started the story of American history with the evolution of homo sapiens. I know not everyone who reads these blogs will share the same views regarding evolution, but regardless, most of us would probably agree that the specific story of the United States does not begin with the appearance of modern humans. I mean, every tribe, confederacy, kingdom, empire, or nation-state throughout human history could claim the same starting spot, right?
Another textbook sample I received went as far back as Pangaea—a supercontinent that scientists hypothesize existed up until 175 million years ago. Yeesh! We certainly do want to take seriously the effects that geography can have on human history, but most of us would probably agree this is also a tad early to start talking about something that is distinctively the story of the United States.
Those two examples are extreme, of course. But it still raises the question: when does United States history start? Our individual answers to that question illustrate how we think about the story of how the country we experience came to be.
Is the story of the United States the story of British colonists slowly spreading across the continent? Then we might start the story in 1607, when Jamestown becomes the first permanent British settlement in what is now the United States.
Does the story of the United States center on its identity as the birthplace of modern democracy or on its pioneering political institutions and founding documents? Then we might start the story in 1776, or maybe not even till 1789. After all, the United States is a very different place under the Constitution than it was under the Articles of Confederation.
What if we think of United States history primarily as the newest chapter in the history of whatever we mean when we say “Western Civilization”? Then we might start the story in 1492, when Columbus’ first voyage marked initial contact between “the West” and “a new world.” Of course, Columbus never set foot in what is now the United States, so maybe we would start a little later – say, the first time Spanish explorers entered what is now Florida.
(Of course, that raises another question: to what extent do we need to understand events outside of what is now the geographic United States in order to get the beginnings of US history? Does American history in a way start with the English Reformation? Does it start in a way with the Crusades that exposed Europeans to Arab sailing techniques? Does it start in a way with the collapse of easy trade routes to China that forced Europeans to take to the high seas in the first place?)
All of these starting points have their strengths and weakness. And, indeed, no start point is going to be perfect.
That said, here’s mine:
I think to understand the United States, you have to understand the backstories of all the various groups that have contributed to making the nation what it is today. For me, the United States is the story of the moments of collision, conflict (sometimes violent), and cooperation between diverse groups of people over time. It is a product of a multitude of visions regarding what could come to pass within the same geographic area. Some visions won, some lost. Some mixed, melted, or mutated. Some have faded away, while some remain as strong as ever. But at least the echoes of all of those visions remain with us today in some form or fashion.
Maybe that sounds pretty good to you, or maybe you prefer a different starting place. But even if you agree with me … we haven’t quite solved the problem yet, have we? Where exactly do we start?
To make sure we understand the experiences and contributions of African-Americans, do we start no later than when the first African slaves arrived in Virginia around 1619? What about Esteban, a Moorish slave who traveled much of what is now the Southeast and Texas as one of four survivors from a doomed Spanish expedition in the late 1520s/early 1530s? He would die in what is now New Mexico during another failed expedition not too many years later.
When does the story of how Hispanics contributed to American history start? Does it start in the early 1500’s with the first Spanish expeditions? What about 1848 when what is now the Southwest became part of the United States, and a multitude of Hispanics suddenly found themselves “foreigners in their native land,” as one historian has described it.
You get the idea. Nailing down a starting date is hard, and so much of the date we choose depends on exactly what story we think we’re telling –which vision(s) we’re tracing.
Well, to begin our journey through the American story, we’ll actually start the next blog post with the first visionaries to inhabit this area of the globe: the ancestors of today’s Native American nations.