When students are asked, “When was the country we now know as the United States first settled?” many answer, “1620”—the year when English pilgrims landed in North America. Such an answer ignores Native Americans (who had “settled” North America millennia ago), Dutch settlers, and Spanish explorers who explored present-day Florida, New Mexico, Texas, and California—perhaps betraying an Anglo-Saxon bias in history textbooks.
Loewen’s investigations into textbook bias run deeper than the last chapter suggested: not only do textbooks betray a certain Eurocentric bias; they also exhibit a bias in favor of English explorers (and away from Spanish and Dutch settlers).
The usual “story” about the English pilgrims is that they left England because of religious persecution, settled in Holland, followed by North America, where they befriended the Native Americans and celebrated Thanksgiving together. Most students know nothing about the diseases that English fishermen brought with them from Europe in the years leading up to 1620. Because of their exposure to large-scale epidemics, and their regular contact with large mammals, many Europeans built up immunities to smallpox, influenza, and other illnesses. As a result, when English settlers came to New England in the early 17th century, they brought bacterial and viral diseases that wiped out more than 90 percent of the native population of New England. The impact of the Pilgrim’s plague was enormous. For fifty years, the Pilgrims faced no challenge from the Native Americans. Long afterwards, European-originating diseases continued to devastate the Native American population, clearing a path for European conquest.
History textbooks rarely discuss the role of germs and bacteria in American exploration, but it is undeniable that Europeans had built up immunities to many diseases, with the result that when Europeans sailed for America, they passed on these diseases to the (non-immune) Native Americans. It is likely that European-borne diseases wiped out huge chunks of the Native American population. This wasn’t really the Europeans’ fault (at the time, they had no idea what a germ was), but because the history of disease disrupts the narrative that English explorers cooperated with the Native Americans, history textbooks often ignore it entirely.
There’s been considerable controversy about the statistics of Native American population depletion. Some have argued that the impact of European disease has been overstated. One such historian argues that there weren’t more than one million Native Americans in all of North America before Europeans arrived, meaning that disease didn’t kill more than a third of the population. Loewen, however, argues that there were many tens of millions of Native Americans, the vast majority of which died from European-borne disease. He cites the accounts of the pilgrims themselves, who thought that some 95 percent of the Native Americans near their community had died. In contrast to the debate around issues of population depletion, most textbooks give no sense of a controversy; instead, they present conservative estimates of population depletion as facts.
Here, Loewen does what almost no history textbook does: gives a sense of the controversy and debate in the historical community. While Loewen clearly has his own point of view about the role of disease in American history (he thinks it wiped out more than 90 percent of the native population), he acknowledges that his interpretation isn’t necessarily true. Ultimately, his point is not that history textbooks offer the wrong disease statistics; rather, he’s arguing that textbooks give one set of statistics without giving a sense for the broad disagreement among historians.
Another controversial area of pilgrim history is the pilgrims’ intentions. It’s not clear if the pilgrims planned to settle in New England, if they had planned to settle further south and accidentally went off-course, or if some of the voyagers (most of whom, it’s been established, were not actually religious pilgrims at all, but just ordinary people seeking their fortunes) hijacked the ship and steered it toward New England. Again, textbooks give no sense of historical uncertainty: they present the pilgrims’ settling in New England as either an accident or a choice, but never a hijacking (perhaps because that would connote crime, and disorganization).
History textbooks continue to omit any sense of ambiguity in historical interpretation. Loewen speculates that their reason for doing so is to present English settlers in the most favorable light possible: a group that collectively decides to sail to New England might come across as more likable than a group that turns on itself and turns the ship around. Another clear example of bias is that textbooks call the English settlers in New England “pilgrims,” when, in fact, only a fraction of the settlers were pilgrims—but the word “pilgrim” connotes bravery, idealism, and steadfastness.
Textbooks tend to devote more space to the pilgrims’ New England colonies than to the settlements in Jamestown, Virginia. Perhaps the reason why is that pilgrims treated the Native Americans more kindly than their Virginian counterparts, thus painting a picture of European settlers as more moral people. In Virginia, the settlers enslaved and murdered hundreds of Native Americans. And although the pilgrims treated Native Americans better, they didn’t always behave honorably; indeed, pilgrims sometimes robbed Native American homes and appropriated Native American cornfields.
Textbooks don’t necessarily offer incorrect information; rather, they omit damaging information and present a one-sided account of the English colonization of North America.
It’s instructive to look at the life of Squanto, the Native American man who, as almost every schoolchild knows, knew English and helped the pilgrims survive in New England. But how did Squanto know English? Historians are fairly certain that Squanto was kidnapped in the early 1600s and taken to England and then Spain, where he was sold into slavery. Squanto escaped from his owners and returned to England, where he was able to convince a captain to take him back to North America. When he retuned to his home, he found that every single person in his tribe had died in an epidemic. Astoundingly, textbooks almost never include the full information about Squanto’s life.
Like Helen Keller, Squanto is a historical figure about whom every American schoolchild knows a few facts. But, just like Helen Keller, almost no American students know the truth about Squanto’s life: textbooks offer only the most optimistic and positive details about Squanto, ignoring the fact that Europeans kidnapped and enslaved him.
Another aspect of American history that every schoolchild knows is the “first Thanksgiving.” But the story of the first Thanksgiving is a creation myth, not a piece of history. Like all creation myths, it praises a group of “creators” (the pilgrims), it tells the story of how an institution came into existence (American society), and it involves a ritualistic reenactment of the past (eating foods like turkey and cranberries).
Loewen makes a nuanced point here. He isn’t necessarily saying that there wasn’t a literal first Thanksgiving. However, he argues that Americans have distorted the truth about Thanksgiving to make a “creation myth” that serves a clear social function: to justify the emergence of American society, and connect modern Americans with their ancestors.
The “Thanksgiving myth” is highly condescending, if not overtly racist, toward Native Americans. Schoolchildren are taught that the pilgrims kindly shared their food with a few Native Americans, whom they invited to dinner. Throughout their history, Americans have believed in semi-mythical stories of the same variety as the “first Thanksgiving” story, in which benevolent Americans provide shelter, food, and medicine for an “uncivilized” minority. The effect of such stories is to perpetuate the ethnocentric lie that Europeans are enlightened, while the other peoples of the world need to be “taught” how to behave.
As Loewen will discuss in more detail in the following chapter, American history conceives of European relations with the Native Americans as a “one way street”—Europeans introduced natives to some new ideas and technologies, but not vice versa. In fact, Native Americans and English settlers engaged in a lively cultural exchange in the years leading up to 1776—contrary to what the image of the first Thanksgiving would suggest.
There may not have been a literal “first Thanksgiving.” However, the pilgrims’ relationship with the Native Americans was, in some ways, worth celebrating. Even if the pilgrims sometimes took advantage of the Native Americans, there is also evidence that they cooperated with the Native Americans, traded fairly with them, and sympathized with them. In other words, it is possible to admire the pilgrims’ settlement in New England without glorifying it. In general, students need to learn to admire historical figures and movements without skipping over their major flaws.
In this section, Loewen implicitly defends himself from the accusation that he’s just presenting an overly negative, hostile account of European colonization. Loewen’s reply is that, in fact, there is plenty to admire about Europeans’ colonization. However, the only way to recognize European explorers’ legitimate achievements in America (and the only way to make European settlers interesting to students) is to separate their flaws from their virtues and discuss both.