Two hundred years after the first Pilgrims, Dutch East Indian employees and English Cavaliers arrived on these shores (and began the long, agonizing process of wresting it from its original owners) 90% of the non-Indian population still lived within 50 miles of tidewater. Despite America’s well-known penchant for looking westward, we actually have a long tradition of facing East, across the Atlantic, back to the old country.
The reason is, we depended upon Europe for everything from news to clothing to tea, paper, nails, and even lumber! The earliest years, of course, were consumed with the mere goal of survival. Crops failed regularly, and settlers were slow to build factories, mills, or other means to produce our own goods, thus making us even more dependent upon Care packages from home.
Originally it was the lack of roads – not just good roads, ANY roads – which kept the settlers from straying far from the only transportation conduit available to them: water. People and goods traveled almost exclusively on the ocean, lakes, rivers, and streams. And when we got to the point where we needed more space for living, our first thought was to build canals to expand our reach, rather than roads.
So, although it is true that “westward moves the course of empire”, it happened much more slowly than the history books would have us believe. Partly this is because American textbooks have tended to condense our colonial history (1609 to 1789) down to half a chapter (at least in my experience) in order to trumpet the achievements and “progress” of the 19th century in the areas of exploration, settlement and economic development of North America’s western reaches.
Even the wrenching central tragedy of our national history – the Civil War – receives short shrift in many public schoolbooks. It is all about the westward expansion movement, filling in the blanks on the map, “conquering” the wilderness and exploiting its resources.
Of course, this last is a matter of opinion. I am reminded of one of my favorite memes:
“The whites called it wilderness.
We called it home.”
While another saying reflects that “history is written by the victors”, (I’m just full of trite overused aphorisms today) I personally would be very curious to read an American History textbook written by a Native American. For one thing it would be unwieldy: they’ve got roughly 20,000 years on us – at least on this continent. But like Elizabeth Warren, they “persisted”.
Although I am proud and happy to live in the western United States – and delighted to share this part of the world with my travelers – I do make an effort to respect and clarify the history of those who came before. It’s the least I can do as an immigrant myself.