Forget Columbus

Excerpt from The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Photo by Abigail Loney on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.

Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is. Stories. Such a definition might make the enterprise of history seem neutral. Benign.

Which, of course, it itsn’t.

History may well be a series of stories we tell about the past, but the stories are not just any stories. They’re not chosen by chance. By and large, the stories are about famous men and celebrated events. We throw in a couple of exceptional women every now and then, not our of any need to recognize female eminence, but out of embarrassment.

And we’re not easily embarrassed.

When we imagine history, we imagine a grand structure, a national chronicle, a closely organized and guarded record of agreed-upon events and interpretations, a bundle of “authenticities” and “truths” welded into a flexible, yet conservative narrative that explains how we got from there to here. It is a relationship we have with ourselves, a love affair we celebrate with flags and anthems, festivals and guns.

Well, the “guns” remark was probably uncalled for and might suggest and animus towards history. But that’s not true. I simply have difficulty with how we choose which stories become the pulse of history and which do not.

In 1492, Columbu sailed the ocean blue.

On second thought, let’s not start with Columbus. Helen was right. Let’s forget Columbus. You know, now that I say it out loud, I even like the sound of it. Forget Columbus.

Give it a try. Forget Columbus.

Instead, let’s start our history, our account, in Almo, Idaho. I’ve never been there and I suspect that most of you haven’t either. I can tell you with certainty that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover the town. Nor did Jacques Cartier or Samuel de Champlain or David Thompson or Hernando Cortes. Sacajawea, with Lewis and Clarke in two, might have passed through the general area, but since Almo didn’t exist in the early 1800s, they couldn’t have stopped there. Even if they had wanted to.

Almo is a small, unincorporated town of about 200 tucked into south central Cassia County in southern Idaho. So far as I know, it isn’t famous for much of anything except and Indian massacre.

A plaque in the town reads, “Dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives in a most horrible Indian massacre, 1861. Three hundred immigrants west bound. Only five escaped. Erected by the S&D of Idaho Pioneers, 1938.”

Two hundred and ninety-five killed. Now that’s a massacre. Indians generally didn’t kill that many Whites at one time. Sure, during the 1813 For Mims massacre, in what is now Alabama. Creek Red Sticks killed about four hundred Whites, but that’s the largest massacre committed by Indians that I can find. The Lachine massacre on Montreal Island in Quebec in 1689killed around ninety, while the death toll in nearby La Chesnaye was forty-two. In 1832, eighteen were killed at Indian Creek near Ottawa, Illinois, while the 1854 Ward massacre along the Oregon Trail in western Idaho had a death toll of nineteen. The 1860 Utter massacre at Henderson Flat near the Snake River in Idaho killed twenty-five. The 1879 Meeker massacre in western Colorado killed eleven. The fort parker massacre in Texas in 1836 killed six.

It’s true in 1835, just south of present-day Bushnell, Florida, Indians killed 108, but since all of the casualties were armed soldiers who were looking for trouble and not unarmed civilians who were trying to avoid it, I don’t count this one as a massacre.

By the way, these aren’t my figures. I borrowed them from William M. Osborn who wrote a book, The Wild Frontier, in which he attempted to document every massacre that occurred in North America. The figures are not dead accurate, of course. They’re approximations based on the historical information that was available to Osborn. Still, it’s nice that someone spent the time and effort to compile such a list, so I can use it without doing any of the work.

I should point out that Indians didn’t do all the massacring. To give credit where credit is due, Whites massacred Indians at a pretty good clip. In 1598, in what is now New Mexico, Juan de Onate and his troops killed over eight hundred Acoma and cut off the left foot of every man over the age of twenty-five. In 163y, John Underhill led a force that killed six to seven hundred Pequot near the Mystic River in Connecticut. In 1871, around one hundred and forty Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches were killed in the Camp Gran t massacre in Arizona Territory. Two hundred and fifty Northwestern Shoshoni were killed in the 1863 Bear River massacre in what is now Idaho, while General Henry Atkinson killed some one hundred and fifty Sauk and Fox at the mouth of the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin in 1832. And, of course, there’s always the famous 1864 Sand Creek massacre in Colorado, where two hundred peaceful Cheyenne were slaughtered by vigilantes looking to shoot anything that moved, and the even more infamous Wounded Knee in 1890, where over two hundred Lakota lost their lives.

Of course, body counts alone don’t even begin to tell the stories of these slaughters, but what the figures do suggest—if you take them at face value—is that Whites were considerably more successful at massacres than Indians. So, the 1861 Almo massacre by the Shoshone-Bannock should stand out in the annals of Indian bad behaviour. After the massacre at Fort Mims, Almo would rank at the second-largest massacre of Whites by Indians.

Three hundred people in the wagon train. Two hundred and ninety-five killed. Only five survivors. It’s a great story. The only problem is, it never happened.

You might assume that something must have happened in Almo, maybe a smaller massacre or a fatal altercation of some sort that was exaggerated and blown out of proportion.

Nope.

The story is simply a tale someone made up and told to someone else, and before you knew it, the Almo massacre was historical fact.

The best summary and critical analysis of the Almo massacre is Brigham Madsen’s 1993 article in Idaho Yesterdays, “The Almo Massacre Revisited.” Madsen was a historian at the University of Utah when I was a graduate student there. He was a smart, witty, gracious man, who once told me that historians are not often appreciated because their research tends to destroy myths. I knew the man, and I liked him. So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I have a bias towards his work.

Bias or no, Madsen’s research into Almo settles the question. No massacre. As Madsen points out in his article, attacks by Indians did not go unmarked. The newspapers of the time—the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, the Sacramento Daily Union, the San Francisco Examiner—paid close attention to Indian activity along the Oregon and California trails, yet none of the papers had any mention of Almo. Such an event would certainly have come to the attention of Indian Service agents and the military, but again Madsen was unable to find any reference to the massacre either in the National Archives or in the records that the Bureau of Indian Affairs kept for the various states and territories. Nor does the Almo massacre appear in any of the early histories of Idaho.

You would expect that the rescue party from Brigham who supposedly came upon the carnage and buried the bodies of the slain settlers—or the alleged five survivors who escaped death—would have brought the massacre to the attention of the authorities. Okay, one of the survivors was a baby, but that still left a chorus of voices to sound the alarm.

And yet there is nothing.

In fact there is no mention of the matter at all until some sixty-six years after the fact, when the story first appeared in Charles S. Walgamott’s 1926 book Reminiscences of Early Days: A Series of Historical Sketches and Happenings in the Early Days of Snake River Valley. Walgamott claims to have gotten the story from a W.M.E. Johnston, and it’s a gruesome story to be sure, a Jacobean melodrama complete with “bloodthirsty Indians” and a brave White woman who crawls to safety carrying her nursing child by its clothing in her teeth.

A right proper Western.

That the plaque in Almo was erected in 1938 as part of “Exploration Day,” an event that was designed to celebrate Idaho history and promote tourism to the area, is probably just a coincidence. In any case, the fact that the story is a fraud didn’t bother the Sons and Daughters of Idaho Pioneers who paid for the plaque, and it doesn’t bother them now. Even after the massacre was discredited, the town was reluctant to remove the marker, defending the lie as part of the culture and history of the area. Which, of course, it now is.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Inconvenient Indian – Summary

The Inconvenient Indian is at once a “history” and the complete subversion of a history—in short, a critical and personal meditation that the remarkable Thomas King has conducted over the past 50 years about what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

Rich with dark and light, pain and magic, this book distills the insights gleaned from that meditation, weaving the curiously circular tale of the relationship between non-Natives and Natives in the centuries since the two first encountered each other. In the process, King refashions old stories about historical events and figures, takes a sideways look at film and pop culture, relates his own complex experiences with activism, and articulates a deep and revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.

This is a book both timeless and timely, burnished with anger but tempered by wit, and ultimately a hard-won offering of hope—a sometimes inconvenient, but nonetheless indispensable account for all of us, Indian and non-Indian alike, seeking to understand how we might tell a new story for the future.

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas King.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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