“In fourteen hundred ninety two . . . “ How many of you instinctively filled in the dots with “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”? Such was the state of North American history as taught throughout most of the twentieth century. This view did not become dogma until there was a deliberate rewriting of history texts between 1890 and 1910. It may surprise most that history students of the late 1800s were taught a more diversified North American history than most of us learned in school. As much as we like to think that we know more now than scholars did over 130 years ago, there is mounting evidence that students of the 1880s knew more about the true history of North America than we were taught. How did our historical narrative get hijacked? This was the work of one man who simply felt that he knew more about it than everyone else: John Wesley Powell. It is just another example how a person in a prominent position can influence future generations by imposing their own ideas of a topic, even when their ‘facts’ were wrong.
The name John Wesley Powell may sound a little bit familiar: being the first to explore the Colorado River by boat in 1869 was his initial claim to fame. Powell’s reports about the river and Grand Canyon led Congress to fund more of his explorations from 1871 to 1873. It was Powell who recommended the establishment of the United States Geological Survey, a suggestion Congress acted on in 1879. Powell was named the director of the USGS, serving in that capacity from 1881 to 1894. Born in Mount Morris, New York in 1834, the college educated Powell joined the army during the Civil War. He rose in rank from private to major and lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh. After the war, he became a professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University and made his first trip to the Colorado Rockies in 1867. Before we can discuss how he influenced the teaching of North American history for most of the next century, we should first examine what was known and taught before Powell got his oars in the water.
Much physical historical evidence was unearthed in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries by the European immigrants (and native born Americans) in this newly minted country. It was difficult for those who studied them to interpret these pieces of the North American historical puzzle. Take for example Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis. Both were avid amatuer archaelogist who teamed up to investigate the remains of structures left behind by people known simply as the Mound Builders. An account of their work entitled Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley found its way into the first issue of the Smithsonian Institution’s publication Contributions of Knowledge in 1848. Later, The Aboriginal Monuments of the State of New York was published in 1851. Both presented some ‘facts’ that were somewhat accurate and others that were less close to the truth. Unfortunately, many of their erroneous facts became the standardized view for the next 150 years just because they were printed in a Smithsonian publication. Squier and Davis claimed artifacts called ‘dolmans’ (a large rock set up on three smaller rocks) could either be attributed to the local indigenous people or labeled as ‘glacial erratics.’ The impossibility of retreating glaciers randomly leaving behind multiple examples of these dolmans was ignored. The indigenous people had nothing in their oral histories about these structures (one of which is located on the top of Huron Mountain between Marquette and Baraga). When Squier and Davis uncovered 30 furnaces in Spring Hill, Ohio, there was evidence that both bog iron and copper had been smelted at that site. They rightly pointed to the source of the copper as the Lake Superior copper district and toyed with the idea that people from overseas had a part in the mound building periods. Squier and Davis changed their tune when these ideas were roundly criticized. They backpedaled, settling into the ‘no pre-Columbian visitors came to North America’ camp. Unfortunately, some errors are persistent and the glacial origins of dolmans continue to appear in USGS materials to this day.
Powell was the most influential voice when it came to squelching any notion that there had been earlier civilizations visiting (and then vanishing from) North America. He simply felt that only Stone Age Indians had lived in prehistoric North America. Any theories or artifacts hinting otherwise were deemed, “false, fake, or misinterpreted and must, therefore, be discarded or ignored.” Powell’s final words on the subject were widely accepted because of his reputation: “[That] vestiges of art discovered to not excel in any respect the arts of Indian tribes known to history. There is, therefore, no reason for us to search for extra limited origin through lost tribes for the arts discovered in the mounds of North America.” Based on Powell’s opinion, the mound builders became mythical, theories about similar subjects were met with hostility, and textbooks were systematically rewritten to expunge what he disliked in favor of the tried and true, “Fourteen hundred ninety two . . .” refrain. Again, crediting the indigenous peoples of North America for mounds, earthworks, burial sites, and the artifacts found in concert with these sites ignores the simple facts: the oral histories of indigeious people would surely have made mention of these workings.
What about other evidence pointing to pre-Columbian explorations by the Vikings? I found this description of a typical text entry in Fred Rydholm’s 2006 book, Michigan Copper – The Untold Story (Winter Cabin Books and Services). His source was a history textbook widely used in 1902 (Students American History – by Genn & Company Publishers): “The Northmen: The Discovery of North America by the Northmen: Vinland the Good. The Scandinavians, or Northmen, were the most skillful and daring sailors of the middle ages. For them, “the Sea of Darkness” had no terrors. Before the mariner’s compass had come in Europe, they made distant voyages in vessels often not so large as modern pleasure yachts. Their only guides on those perilous expeditions were the sun, the stars, and the flight of birds.
In the ninth century (875 A.D.), the Northmen planted a colony in Iceland. Their sagas or traditions inform us that late in the next century (981 A.D.), Eric the Red set sail from Iceland in search of a strange land which a Norse sailor, blown off of his course, had sighted in the far west. He found it, and giving it the tempting name of Greenland, lured a band of colonists to those desolate shores. In the year 1000 A.D., Leif Erickson, later known as ‘Leif the Lucky,’ a son of Eric the Red, set out from Greenland in quest of a land which a storm-driven mariner had seen in the southwest. He discovered a beautiful country which abounded in wild grapes. From its products, Leif gave the land a name, and called it ‘Vinland.’ In 1347, the Norse records mention a ship going to this southern colony after a load of timber. That was the last that we hear of the settlement. The Norsemen ceased to make voyages to the west, the colonies they had planted died out, and all the records of them were forgotten.”
If I may condense the two paragraphs above a bit: students of American History were being taught about the pre-Columbian exploration and colonization of North America by the seafaring Norsemen until these ideas fell out of favor. Ruins of a Norsemen settlement were discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows on the Atlantic coast of Canada in 1956. The discovery was just one of the more recent proofs that Columbus was a latecomer in the exploration of North America. The concept was taught in the 1880s but lost to history students in the decades that followed.
How about the stores about Vikings in Minnesota (you know, the ones they named the NFL team for)? The most common complaint about Vikings visiting Minnesota was the lack of a direct water route for them to sail into the Great Lakes at that time. The Norsemen were very detailed in writing their own clan histories and if one reads some of these surviving Norse sagas, they provide the answer. Many of their voyages of discovery departed to the west and not to the south toward Vinland and the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Traveling to the west, they would have come to Hudson Bay which would lead them to the Red River. Vikings were capable of river navigation as well as ocean travel, so following the Red River to the south would have brought them into (ta da) Minnesota. Stories like the discovery of the Kensington Stone unearthed in Minnesota in 1898 (purportedly telling the story of a band of Norse who were attacked by the indigenous people in the year 1362) sound more plausible once the right dots are connected.
Some time ago, I read a book by Tim Severin who wrote a number of books about his adventures building historical sailing craft, Severin would test the sailability of these vessels and then try to make the historical voyages attributed to them. One of his adventures involved building a craft with a hull covered in oxhide. There are many Irish writers who have discussed the voyages of Saint Brendan who reportedly found his way across the stormy North Atlantic to North America. Severin built his craft and succeeded in island hopping to North American via the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. Some of the Norse sagas report that by the time they made landfall in Greenland, there were already remains of stone structures. The Irish writers use these sagas as proof that monks from their country sailed to Great Ireland before anyone else. Artifacts found down the eastern seaboard of North America could indeed be of Irish origin. Pit furnaces found in the northeastern United States closely resemble the iron smelting works found in Ireland. Some accounts say the Irish may have reached as far south as Brazil.
Fred Rydholm reported evidence that Lake Erie got is named from Eire, the ancient name for Ireland. Stories of ‘white indians’ in the Lake Erie region have been widely reported by multiple sources. Fred suggested that, like any Irish colonies along the east coast that vanished, the Irish Eire colonies were absorbed by the local indigenous tribes. Oneida Indians who remain in this area today exhibit light skin and red hair that might be the only lasting record of an Irish presence in North America before other Europeans arrived. These examples point to a host of seafaring visitors coming to these shores before Columbus, but when these theories were branded as ‘fake’ by the likes of Major Powell, vigorously investigating them was simply not allowed.
Fred Rydholm often mentioned how disappointed he was when he encountered ‘experts’ who simply refused to consider any view other than the ‘1492’ view of North American history. One has to think, “Okay, if this is fake, why did someone go to that much trouble to make fake artifacts? If it isn’t fake, then what does it tell us about the people who came here to explore or colonize?” No one faked the ingot stashes that the modern miners found in some of the ancient miner’s pits in the Keweenaw. There were a lot of modern mines established on these sites. Our museums are crammed with hammer stones that were certainly not planted around the ancient mine sites to confound us. For many years, the question was, “Where did they go? Surely some of the miners would have perished here. Why don’t we find buried remains in the U.P. ?” Fred contended that a direct water route from the Copper Country to Lake Michigan could be found if the Sturgeon and Escanaba River systems that empty into Bay de Noc were joined. When rock walled garden beds and a calendar circle made of stone were discovered on Garden Island and Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan, it seemed to answer some of these nagging questions.
In a future installment of From the Vaults, we will take a more in depth look into a theory that might explain how ancient miners transported thousands of tons of copper from this area. Many of Fred Rydholm’s ideas are still generating pushback from some who wish to leave North American history in the hands of Columbus and those who followed in his steps. As a confessed ‘Rydholmite’, I often told my students, “Much of what you are learning about the history of our area doesn’t show up in the history books…yet.” I should have mentioned that the students in 1880 knew more about this area than some of the modern scholars.
Top Piece Video – live from New York! The best history theme song ever…in my opinion, mind you!