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Another Redirect…

September 8, 2013 2 comments

To a small slice of history from my home of Santa Fe, originally posted on my personal blog. Hope my faithful readers–all six of you–enjoy it.

 

A Slice of History

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Napoleon of the Stump

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

For the last several months, for two hours a week, I have been locked in a soundproof room with James K. Polk. Yes, that Polk: 11th President, architect of the war with Mexico, subject of a They Might Be Giants Song (alas, to my ear, not one of their best efforts; I suppose they thought the obscurity of the subject was good enough.  Me, I would have gone for Millard Fillmore).

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

OK, I am not actually locked into that little booth. And of course Mr. Polk has been dead for some 160 years. What I am doing is recording his diary for the New Mexico State Library’s division for the blind. It’s very similar to the volunteer gig I did a few years ago in Chicago, with one main difference. There, we read books requested by our clients, and multiple readers did one book. Here, it’s one reader, one book. And the readers choose the books to record.

Yes, that’s right, I chose to read aloud Polk: The Diary of a President 1845 1849 (edited and annotated by esteemed historian Allan Nevins), thinking some hearing-impaired person might be longing to share in its wonders too.

Gotta keep those History Nerd bona fides up.

Actually, the diary makes some sense for our library. We try to focus on books that have some appeal to Southwestern clients, and what could be more relevant than getting the perspective of the president who brought much of that region into the Union? And it seemed right up my alley to choose something that would give me new insight into one of our presidents—perhaps a bit of a controversial one—given my role at Biographers International Organization (here’s a sample of the newsletter I edit, for the curious). Finally, if I’m gonna read a book out loud, it might as well be about history, since that is my vocation.

I say Polk is controversial because as a champion of manifest destiny at the expense of Mexico, he seems to have tapped early on some of the imperialist impulses that truly emerged some 50 years later, and there was a chauvinistic element in his attitude toward the Mexicans. And of course he was all for letting slavery expand into America’s newly gained Western lands. Or am I wrong?

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

In his introduction, Nevins offers a historiographical view of Polk that dismisses earlier claims such as those. He says an “anti-slavery interpretation of the Mexican War” led late 19th-century historians to paint Polk as a conqueror marked by “Machiavellian adroitness” who lied to Congress—or suppressed facts, as Nevins puts it, to get a war with Mexico he already wanted. Not so, Nevins claims: Polk was honest and conscientious, if stiff and mediocre, and not capable of “deceit and double dealing.” (Of course, there is this observation of Polk from a contemporary political adversary, John Quincy Adams, who called him a “slaveholding exterminator of Indians.”)

Nevins wrote in 1952; later historians were more apt to side with their 19th-century brethren in assessing Polk’s aims and attitudes. After all, he ran on a Democratic platform in 1844 that was staunchly expansionist. Still, as one college textbook from 2000 notes, war was not inevitable with Mexico; Polk just “made decisions and carried them out in ways that exacerbated already existing tensions and made war difficult to avoid.” In the end, the authors claim, Polk was lucky things turned out as well as they did, but many of the gains he sought—primarily California and the Rio Grande as a border with Mexico—might have been obtained without a war that killed 50,000 Mexicans and left many others under the rule of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon nation that disdained them.

H. W. Brands, writing in 2002 (The Age of Gold) emphasizes that California was the prize Polk truly craved. He asked Mexico to sell the land; when it refused, Brands says, “Polk determined to take California by force.” Not a vote for casting the Mexican War as an accidental conflict, I don’t think. And, apropos of the Adams’ description quoted above, the 2003 work Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre, shows how Polk’s Southern roots and slave holdings shaped his pro-slavery political views, including support for the gag rule in the House.

So what does the Polk diary reveal about the man? To be fair, I’m only about halfway through, but he does come across as someone who knows his “private” words will be read by others (as surely all president have for generations, if not all the way back to Washington). He also also endured something modern presidents I’m sure are glad to be done with: entertaining complete strangers who come to the White House seeking handouts and loans. Not government money, mind you, but Polk’s personal funds. Perhaps that’s what made him seem so humorless, except when recounting his exasperation with Congressmen and others seeking political favors (so glad that practice has ended). He also seemed to keep close track of personal and political slights, sometimes impugning the motives of those who disagreed with him, showing some of the self-righteousness and pettiness he has been criticized for by some historians.

I don’t particularly like the Polk who emerges from his own words, but that probably reflects my biases. But like anyone else, he has his high and low moments. He condemns one Protestant minister seeking a chaplaincy in the army for his “abuse of Catholics and…fanaticism,” and he made a personal loan of $100 in gold to a Congressman, even as he deplored the man’s descent into alcoholism (the lawmaker soon after killed himself, leaving Polk to comment on the “melancholy” of intemperance). Yet Polk also had derogatory views of the Mexicans (though not an uncommon stance for Americans of the day), and he found it amusing when a Portuguese diplomat gave a “solemn account” of the queen of Portugal’s miscarriage. Huh?

I’ve seen several sources that say at one time Polk was often included in historians’ lists of the top ten presidents, primarily, I assume, because of the huge expansion of the country that went down on his watch. A 2010 poll I found still had him highly ranked, at #12. So, as I keep reading and recording, I’ll try to keep an open mind about Young Hickory.

And dead last in that survey? Andrew Johnson. I don’t think I’ll be reading his diary any time soon.

History Close to Home

September 23, 2012 Leave a comment

One reason why I chose to live in New Mexico (or perhaps why the L of E chose me) is its rich history. I know, no matter where you live, you can find interesting historical tidbits about people and places, but something about that intersection of the three cultures here, played out amidst such amazing scenery, has captivated me since my first excursion to Santa Fe and Taos more than 15 years ago.

Unfortunately, of late I haven’t been exploring the area too much to experience some of that history firsthand. I rectified that a bit yesterday, with a trip to the Puye cliff dwellings followed by a drive to Los Alamos. It was a day of contrasts: the ancestral Pueblos and 20th-century Americans, pottery shards and detritus of the Cold War. But all of it was framed by the Jemez Mountains and a sense that this is truly a unique place.

The Puye Cliffs

The Puye cliff (and mesa) dwellings date back to about the 900s and were occupied for almost 700 years. Today’s descendants of the residents live just to the east and north at Santa Clara Pueblo. The Santa Clarans administer the cliff site today and provide the guides for the tour.

Before the tour, I wandered around the Exhibition Hall, which had a one-day treat. Two state archaeologists were on hand, displaying artifacts—genuine and replica—representing some 14,000 years of New Mexico history. The state, you may know, was the home of two paleo-Indian sites that gave their name to past cultures: Clovis and Folsom. We saw arrowheads from the era, some made from obsidian, which turns up frequently at Puye (the Spanish, when confronting the Aztecs to the south, quickly learned of the acute sharpness of weapons made from this volcanic rock, and in modern times surgeries have been done with obsidian tools, which leave behind smaller scars). The discussion included a short lesson on how the paleo-Indians hunted, and how the dry New Mexico climate has helped preserve artifacts that would have disintegrated in other parts of North America.

We also heard how the first New Mexicans used the atlatl, as people around the world did to increase the range and force of their thrown missiles. The diffusion of the atlatl is a mystery: was it spread by migration and/or trade contact, or did it originate independently in areas as distant as Australia and South America? I don’t know, but I do know I love to say atlatl. Atlatl, atlatl, atlatl!

Thank you for indulging my juvenile diversion.

The archaeologists went on to explain how the ancestral Pueblo people and their descendants made a fiber from yucca, which was used for shoes, clothing, and baskets, among other items. One of the archaeologists explained that waterproofed yucca vessels could be used as cooking pots, with hot rocks dropped inside to warm a stew. In recent years, some Indians of New Mexico have been turning to that fiber again.

On the mesa

I added to the collection of shards and obsidian started by tourists before me.

For the tour itself, I chose the mesa dwellings, since I’d already seen the larger and better known cliff dwellings at nearby Bandelier. Sam was our guide, and he took us inside the kiva on the mesa, which is surrounded by the ruins of several buildings with many small rooms, one fairly well-preserved larger building, and a spot where a reservoir once sat (farming went on down below the mesa). Sam explained that artifacts still cover the site. The Santa Clarans had halted an early dig there when the Anglo professor in charge, Edgar Hewitt, took all the bones his team found of the long-dead dwellers and less than respectfully threw them into a heap, which he then covered with rocks. Today, Sam said, some tourists take home pieces of pottery they find (which is against the rules), only to return home and begin experiencing odd, supernatural occurrences. The shards are returned post haste.

To return to the welcome center, we had a choice of taking a van or walking down, then using a ladder, as the Pueblos once did, for the final descent. One woman in our party was game, so the rest of us followed. That simple choice showed the serendipity one must rely on when traveling/exploring. Although I sometimes unsteadily navigated the foot holes long ago cut into the rock, I made it down to the ladder. And on the ledge Sam pointed out petroglyphs, including one he said is perhaps the earliest depiction of a Spaniard in what became the United States. He also showed us a tiny piece of turquoise he found on the trail. The gemstone, like the pieces of obsidian we saw all around, came from mines not far from the dwellings.

The Spaniard clutching a heart–religious symbolism, or something more nefarious?

Coyote and roadrunner, pre-Warner Brothers

The tour at Puye is not cheap–$20 for what was supposed to be an hour, though ours was more like 90 minutes, thanks to the walking descent. And Bandelier gets all the attention for cliff-dwelling attractions. But this little excursion barely an hour from my home was rewarding because of Sam—a person with direct ties to the people who once lived there. And like other ruins of ancient Southwest cultures or the surviving pueblos of New Mexico, Puye awed me again with the resourcefulness of people who could thrive in such seeming isolation in a challenging environmental setting.

Leaving Puye, I headed for Los Alamos, on a drive that offers some stunning scenery. In the town, I headed for spot decidedly less ancient than Puye and less stunning than the drive: the Black Hole. Something of a Los Alamos institution, I only heard about it because it was holding its going-out-of-business sale this weekend. The Black Hole was the all-consuming passion of “Atomic Ed” Grothus. He called it a military surplus store, but from what I saw, nothing of it was the guns and camo you usually find in such places. Grothus gathered much of his surplus from the nearby Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb (Grothus once worked at “the  Lab,” as everyone here calls it, until he decided he’d rather not be at a place associated with nuclear annihilation.)

A must for every home–the atomic toilet!

Grothus was not overly about selling his wares; he just liked to accumulate them. As he told NPR a few years back, his store’s name reflected the fact that things enter the Black Hole, but they never leave. I wandered through the collection of atomic-era relics, mostly wondering what I was looking at. But a group of what I assumed to be artists, at-home tinkerers, and curio buffs seemed to be finding things to their liking. When the sale is over, I wonder if some of this stuff will end up in a dump—or a museum.

Our archaeologists back at Puye said that the essence of their work is using artifacts to explain how people lived. The obsidian and shards on the mesa tell one tale. What will the electronic equipment and pumps and pipes Ed gathered say about us? At least we can say, with I hope some conviction, that the nuclear holocaust that seemed so imaginable during the Cold War is a distant memory. But what the Los Alamos scientists wrought will never go away, even if the Black Hole does. The histories of the modern era and the ancestral Pueblos will still sit side-by-side here in northern New Mexico, and the History Nerd is better for it.

Still Ridin’ the Rails

March 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Come with me on a ride back through time, when iron horses chugged across the Wild West, outlaws terrorized the trains riding the rails, and the coming of the railway meant life or death for many Southwest towns.

Or, take a slow, short jaunt into the outskirts of Santa Fe. Like the one I took this weekend on the Santa Fe Southern Railway.

On the railroad again...

To kick off a new season of train-based tourist traps—uh, trips—the SFSR offered half-priced rides on its routes into Lamy and the Galisteo Basin. (The railway also still brings some freight into the city.) Being a cheapskate as well as a History Nerd, I jumped all over this deal, taking the ride into the basin. I am also something of a train aficionado (though not to say expert, not by a long shot), and I’ve written about some of my past railway experiences here and here. This ride promised to be a short trek back into time as well as physical trip into the Santa Fe environs.

The railway came to Santa Fe in 1880, though just barely. The main route of the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe passed some 15 miles to the south of the capital on its way from Las Vegas (our Las Vegas, not the other one) to Albuquerque. Concerned Santa Feans, worried about being shut off from civilization and commerce (there is, of course, a huge difference) begged for and got a spur line that ran from Galisteo Junction (now Lamy, named for the French bishop of some renown/infamy in these parts) to their city. Today, Lamy’s stucco train station is an Amtrak stop, and Santa Fe’s station is…basically non-existent.

Inside, quite the festive atmosphere.

On its tourist runs, the SFSR uses a modern diesel pulling several coaches from the 1920s—though they were used back east, in New Jersey, rather than out here. Our tour guide said that he’s also in charge of reupholstering the seats when they wear out, and he’s counted 17 layers of fabric on some. He offered some historical tidbits along the way, and of course no telling of Santa Fe history in the days of the first railroads would be complete without mentioning Billy the Kid and Governor Lew Wallace. I don’t think either man had a direct connection to the trains; perhaps they rode on the line at some point. But the tourists sure do like hearing about Billy the Kid! And the New York accent of the folks behind  me was just one sign that many of the day’s riders were tourists. I doubt many locals would take this trip, certainly not at full price, as the scenery is, in all honesty, not very compelling for these parts. And the history, too, is a little thin.

I learned the most when we reached our destination, the Galisteo Basin. Another tour guide joined us on the one open, flatbed car and talked a little about the ancient history of the region. Archaeological artifacts about 7,000 years old have been found there. So have parrot beaks, a sign that the Native American of the region once traded with peoples much farther to the south, exchanging  turquoise and other minerals mined in the nearby Cerrillos Hills. And it’s thought that some Anasazi Indians left their grand city of Chaco Canyon and settled in the basin some 800 years ago. They and later inhabitants built several thriving pueblos in the region, though few traces of them remain today. (More on all this can be found here).

No trip back into New Mexico history would be complete without mentioning the state’s role in the movie biz. Tour guide #1 recounted some of the films shot nearby, including Young Guns 1 and 2 and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. The railway’s wooden trestle, which gave me pause when we passed over it  (will this thing hold?), was featured in the latter–I think; I was spacing out a bit at that point.

And some art along the way.

Or not spacing, exactly, but ruminating on the role trains have played in our history. They were once the largest employers of Americans. They gave us our system of time zones. And they created the wealth of some of the robber barons of the past—with government help, of course. Yes, when some people like to champion our rugged-individualism brand of capitalism, they overlook that it was the granting of government land to the railways that helped create that wealth—and then help timber interests, mine owners, and ranchers make money, too. At times, capitalism needs a dose of government intervention to thrive, and the railroads are a prime example of it. Though some would argue that not all the land grants were good for the country as whole, an idea explored in great detail at Landgrant.org.

Today, of course, we have the perennial attempt by conservatives to shut down Amtrak. And some New Mexicans grumble about the cost of our commuter line, the Rail Runner, which I love. The fact is, some people still need the trains to get from point A to point B, or to move their goods efficiently. Riding the rails is not just a pleasant Sunday excursion. Forget nostalgia—we need trains, modernized trains, to be a part our transportation network. If the SFSR’s trips can convince folks of that, then I’m all for them.

Happy–Mostly–Anniversaries

January 6, 2012 Leave a comment

In these parts, no one has put away the party hats and noisemakers with the passing of New Year’s Day. No, we have a centennial to celebrate here in New Mexico: 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of that famous dance, the kangaroo dip.

A map of the territory of New Mexico, 1873

Oh, I’m joking, of course. No one knows for sure when that hot-footed step and its bestiary cousins, the camel walk, the crab step, and the bunny hug, were first introduced, though Gordon Carruth, in his What Happened When, says 1912 was about the time when the still-popular ragtime craze inspired these steps. No, what we New Mexicans are about to start celebrating on January 6 is the inclusion of our fair state in the Union. It only took some 60 years after the Kearny invasion (described a bit here), which is rocket-like speed, really, when you consider Californians had to wait, uh, about two years. And Missourians sat on their hands some 18 years after the Louisiana Purchase before they—wait a minute. Two years? 18? And New Mexicans had to wait more than half a century? What gives?

Well, racism, partly. And religious prejudice. Because to the conquering Anglo mind, how could Spanish-speaking Catholics and various Native Americans be trusted with the delicacies of democracy? One Eastern visitor during the 1850s berated the New Mexicans as “lazy and indolent.” The Civil War hero William T. Sherman said the United States should go to war with Mexico again—to make it take back New Mexico.

And when talk of statehood came up during the 1880s, members of Congress who opposed it noted that the New Mexicans themselves were not exactly clamoring for a change in their status: “No agitation of the question in late years has been noticeable. “ (You can read more on this here.) In 1889, when the residents had a chance to approve a constitution—a prerequisite for statehood—they voted it down. The Santa Fe New Mexican (still published) noted that many residents feared their taxes would increase if they joined the Union. Good guess.

Uh oh...

TR on the stump, 1912

I’m sure every two-bit historian in the Land of Enchantment (including, of course, the History Nerd), will be trotting out various state centennial stories in the months to come. But I wanted to highlight some of the other events of 1912 that are worthy of exploration during this 100th-anniversary year, some of which I hope to delve into here:

  • The one you are apt to hear about most: the sinking of the Titanic. I’ve written about it twice for kids and will certainly be able to dredge up a few interesting tidbits: the alleged ghost stories, the myths, the heroics.
  • And Big Centennial Event number two, especially if a third-party candidate runs in November, is the presidential race between Teddy “Bull Moose” Roosevelt, William Howard “I Did Not Get Stuck In a Bath Tub (but I did order a larger one for the White House)” Taft,  and Woodrow “Prig and Racist” Wilson. It is, as far as I can tell, the only time a current, ex, and future president squared off in a three-way race. And amazing to consider when today’s Republicans fall over each other to display their conservative bona fides, two of them were liberal GOPers at heart, back when that concept was not an oxymoron.
  • The passage of key federal labor laws, including one that gave workers under federal contract an 8-hour work day.
  • The violent “Bread and Roses” Lawrence, MA, textile strike, which featured immigrant workers and the Wobblies—you know, back when workers were actually ready to fight for their rights.
  • The rise of Jim Thorpe as an American sports hero—and the subsequent black cloud that smothered his reputation.
  • And perhaps most important to me, the Boston Red Sox’s victory in the World Series (something I seriously doubt will happen in 2012…).

I’m sure other noteworthy centennials will pop up as the year goes on. Stay tuned to the History Nerd for all the excitement.