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Small Errors, Big Problems

Updated on April 26, 2013
Robert Leckie, US Marine
Robert Leckie, US Marine

Out of Home Ground

The intellect needs exercise, and part of exercising your mind is introducing it to information, concepts, and practices that are not part of its routine. If you are a writer, however, this can be problematic, not in the exploration of the new, but in the writing of it, especially when what one is writing is popular history, a presentation of what are presumed to be facts. One must be very careful to get the facts correct. There are less sure facts in history than many consumers of popular history's believe, however, there are facts, and these things that are verifiably true set limits to a historian's interpretation and evocation of the time of which he, or she, is writing. Robert Leckie, a former Marine and a historian, left his comfortable base of twentieth century American warfare for the distant ground of colonial America, and I find that his foray was less successful than it might have been because of his laziness regarding facts.

Leckie's 'A Few Acres of Snow': The Saga of the French and Indian Wars, published in 1999 by John Wiley & Sons, needed a better editor. A competent, attentive editor would have eliminated some troubling ambiguities in language and the misuse of terms, Twain's second cousins and Inigo Montoya's 'I don't think that word means what you think it means' moments, that undermine the attentive reader's attempt to follow and respect the argument against a revisionist understanding of the colonial wars against the Iroquois that Leckie presents. Leckie himself died in 2001, losing his battle with Alzheimer's, and thus readers should recognize in reading A Few Acres of Snow that it probably does not represent him at his best, and that this, in addition to the subject matter's position within the ambit of American history but outside of his area of expertise, should prod us to treat his errors more gently than we might treat the same mistakes in another author, or in Leckie had the book been published earlier in his career.

With this proviso, then, that Leckie was not at his best at the time of the publication of this book,and that he was not served well by his editors, I have the following problems with A Few Acres of Snow: (1) there are obvious errors of fact, and these so obvious that they undermine the reader's confidence in the project; (2) that these errors are incorporated into argument, rendering the argument in which they find prominence void; (3) that there are lengthy repetitions of material from earlier in the book reprinted at later points; (4) that these repetitions of material are used to attack not only efforts by ethnohistorians to revise the history of colonial America, especially in regards to relations between colonists and Native Americans, but also the position of pacifism itself, leaping from the French and Indian wars of the 18th century to the pacifists of pre-World War II Europe.

Not Quite the Facts

History is much easier, and less problematic, if we ignore the verifiable facts, and merely invent, or, more often, mis-remember, elements that contribute positively to the particular argument we wish to make. Often even writers who make their living explaining history to the rest of us are led astray by the belief that a particular "fact" is certainly true, when it is not, but they are remembering a false fact that has played a dastardly trick upon them--it makes sense given the circumstances; it is reasonable. What is reasonable, however, is defined by the context: it is defined by what is known, and by what is believed. We judge the 'reasonableness' of past actions and decisions from a position in which we have far more information available to us than did those who made the actions and decisions we are judging, and often, especially at a great distance in historical time, we believe differently than those committing the actions and making decisions did in their time. Our frame for judging past actions often wrongs those men and women of the past by putting them within a false frame.

Perhaps this illusion of 'reasonability' played a role in some of the simple errors of fact made by Mr. Leckie in the course of his book. For example, one of the most glaring errors to me, rather early in the book, was the suggestion that Virginia Dare, the first English colonist born within what would become the United States, was born at Jamestown. This error is included within an argument that the change in English policy to encourage the immigration of women to the United States, thus encouraging family formation and an expanding population of English settlers in place of the single-male driven adventuring parties of earlier attempts, followed problems experienced at Jamestown. However, although this sounds reasonable, it is wrong. Virginia Dare was born at Sir Walter Ralegh's experimental colony, Raleigh, not in Jamestown. This does not disprove Leckie's argument, but it undermines it by making the whole claim linked to Virginia Dare's name suspect.

Once upon a time...or, maybe, never,--I am not sure and have no long experience within publishing houses or the warrens of different types of editors and professional text-fixers--there were men and women who checked facts. If they did not exist, they should. Such persons could save fine writers from falling prey to minor, stupid mistakes that render the scaffolding of their arguments and their narrative insecure.

The editors also bear some of the blame for words that just do not fit, or that are used incorrectly, creating unintentional difficulties for the reader. For example, Leckie is at one point discussing the movement of William the Silent/William the Sly into the English throne, and points to his use of mercenaries from throughout Europe to form the necessary army to threaten King James II of England. However, the text does not read that he brought mercenaries from the kingdoms of Europe, but that he gathered mercenaries from the kingdom of Europe. Kingdoms draws attention to the wide region from which William of Orange was able to draw fighting men in this phase of history, before the nation-state had become what it is today, with sharply drawn boundaries and concepts of loyalty and identity that did not obtain in William of Orange's day, while kingdom implies a united European monarchy that did not exist.

French and English colonial map
French and English colonial map | Source

Revision is not the greatest sin in history

Leckie objects to revisionist history. He is not all wrong. Many attempts to revise the history told in the United States in order to humanize Africans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and other participants in the creation of the complex society and clashing cultures of this continent have gone too far in the direction of the saint, creating types of those who had been previously denigrated and ignored no more real than those that obtained before the process of revision began. Saints are no more historically accurate than devils, and Africans, Native Americans, the Spanish and all those who have contributed to world cultures were neither. If it is against the creation of saints that Leckie spoke, I would not object.

However, Leckie's rejection of revisionist history and ethnohistory goes beyond the reclamation of a full humanity for all those involved in the story of our past, and to the resurrection of the Native American savage parallel with an elevation of European military heroes, like Champlain and Frontenac, and Christian missionaries, especially the admittedly brave Jesuits of New France.

The Iroquois were not a gentle, pacifist people of nature-loving, hippie gurus. They were a warrior people, engaged in their own creation of empire in North America, an empire both forwarded by the weaponry provided by European traders and, ultimately, defeated by European colonists. They practiced rituals of torture, and were in turn tortured by their enemies, the Algonquins, exhibiting in both situations their personal power and taking the power of their enemy. They were aware of a decline in their number, a decline that they traditionally dealt with by adoption of those they allowed to survive their attacks, especially women and children who could more easily be incorporated into the tribe. Before the arrival of guns, they fought with armor to protect them against Stone Age weapons, in larger formations than were typical after the Algonquin and Iroquois adjusted to the firearms provided to them by their European merchant-allies. The Iroquois were a menace in the early colonial period, proud and enthusiastic warriors, merciless in conflict. It is inappropriate to portray them as cartoon victim-Indians to indulge a guilt that comes too late, and too weak, to do any good to their descendants, and that certainly does not benefit the dead, but rather strips them of those elements of their lives in which they may have taken the most pride.

This is all fine and good. Let us have an end of the Weeping Indian, as we had to put away the Savage Indian before, and for the same reason: neither is a real, whole man. However, to reiterate again and again that revisionists fail to understand the true Native American, especially the Iroquois and the Algonquin, as the savage, bloodthirsty, cruel 'wolves of the forest' that they were, does not provide a whole man to replace the revisionist cartoon. It merely resurrects the old cartoon. This is shown most clearly in the reiteration of several paragraphs of text on the brutality and cruelty of the Iroquois spuriously linked to a broader accusation and ridiculing of pacifism, including the pacifists of Western Europe and the United States in the years leading up to World War II, that is out of place and indicates nothing more than Leckie's rejection of pacifism as a valid address of the human condition.

To his credit, Leckie does not wholly exonerate the colonists or Europeans of the 17th and 18th centuries of their own strain of brutality, cruelty, and sadism. However, episodes of settler brutality are gracefully ellided, always related to Indian savagery as a precipitator, while simultaneously celebrating the basic honor and nobility of the settlers. Leckie seems more disturbed by the moral bankruptcy of settlers in questions of land, and even these situations are treated briefly and inadequately given the importance of the land question in Native American-colonist relations, than he is by the savagery of colonists, the death they brought to indigenous populations, and the moral challenge the history of colonists and their descendants presents in regards to the treatment of Native Americans. Leckie, like many military men, loves a hero, and he finds his heroes in the Jesuit missionaries of New France and in the military men of the colonies, both French and English.

Unfortunately, Leckie's focus on the European colonists leads him into mistakes regarding the behavior of the Iroquois and the Algonquin. For example, he links the remarkable savagery participated in by both peoples when in conflict with one another to an Iroquois hatred of the French. This is a misinterpretation brought about by the belief that the French, the Europeans, were upon their arrival the single most important, decisive element in Native American decision making and cultural practices. This is simply not true. The Iroquois and Algonquin peoples did not hate one another because of the French arrival and interference in native combat, but their mutual antipathy predated the French and Dutch, and it would have continued without them, although probably with fewer guns. French, English, Dutch, and Spanish colonists entered into a world they did not fully comprehend, and the peoples already living in it had their own aims, factions, and desires, some of which they did not readily share with their new allies, although they were willing to make use of the power and technology these allies provided them.

A better analysis of the complex relationships between Native Americans in the Northeast and the colonists is found in two works mentioned in the book listing above: American Colonies and Y. Kawashima's book on the trial of John Sassamon. American Colonies makes use of ethnohistory and other strains of historical scholarship to provide a more nuanced and complex view of the colonists and the Native Americans in their initial encounters. Kawashima investigates the conflicts between Native Americans and Puritan settlers within the institutions of law focusing on an important legal event, the murder of a praying Indian and colonial informant, which served as both a cause and a pretext for war as Metacom (King Phillip) of the Wampanoags decided the colonists must be destroyed, or his people would be. Neither of these texts makes the Iroquois into saints or demons, but each contributes to the creation of a counter-image, I think a truer image, of Native Americans as whole, complete people dealing with a foreign people they did not fully understand in a situation that was novel and dangerous to both.

In short, I had hoped that Leckie's book would be better than it was. The Native Americans of the Northeast are too often left in a literary Erebus formed of James Fennimore Cooper and old television spots mourning the pollution of the earth. This neglect of American, and Canadian, colonial history does much damage to our comprehension of the relationships, clumsily formed and full of treachery on all sides, but primarily on the settler's side, that produced the first American image of the Native American. The Northeastern tribes were rapidly decimated by disease, warfare, malnutrition, and stripped of their territory to provide homesteads for ambitious, God-inspired settlers. They did not have the necessary luxury of time to formulate a counter-myth of their own to the settlers' own self-mythologizing propaganda, and so it was that the enduring image of the Native American was not formed in the East, but in the West. There, although the settlers moved rapidly, animated by avarice and its justificatory bigotry, the Native American had sufficient time to eloquently speak to what was done to him and by him. Native Americans did not win in the West, as they had not won in the East, but they were able at times to contribute to the telling of their own story.


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    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      The past is never dead, at least not that past we are still interested in enough to read and study. When the past is truly dead it no longer sparks debate, and the only people who care about it are pedants and scholars working within their specialty. Anglo-Saxon England is like that to Americans: long gone and, in the end, not interesting.

      Historians often adopt a voice of thorough objectivity, and I am not sure that this is a good thing. I prefer it when the historians own prejudices are up front, honestly acknowledged, and therefore the reader, prewarned, is able to use them in evaluating the information given. I assume all human beings bring with them biases and pre-judgments, prejudices and illusions, they wish to maintain. It is better when I know what they are than when I do not.

      Certainly, the reader should look at the author when evaluating a historical text. This is true when one looks at primary documents and secondary documents. We tend to privilege witnesses: it must be true, for he was there & he says so. Sometimes this works out, but often it does not. Think of a battlefield: what the private sees is not what the captain sees, and neither sees what the general is looking at. All have limitations placed on their perspective based on the information they have immediately available to them, the goal they have in mind when deciding and acting within their circumstances, and these are in addition to any differences in innate capacity or observational skill.

      Then, there is the problem of production: people express and organize their ideas differently as they write for different audiences and different people. A policeman writing an incident report will describe the crime very differently than he will when telling his buddies about it later. And he will describe the situation very differently ten years later than he will the day it occurred.

      One of the ways I judge the value of a historian's work lies in the manner in which he/she addresses the problem of certainty. The more cautious a historian is in presenting facts, the happier I tend to be. After all, even though we are taught in school that history is a collection of truths, a list of dated certainties, we soon learn, if we investigate history itself, that this is a false. History contains very few certainties, and most of these are the most unimportant elements of the story. Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States; there was a Civil War. The Holocaust did occur. We do not need thick tomes to establish these facts. Our thick books, our interest in the past and our connection to it, is formed from altogether different sources, from our questions about the whys and the so whats of the past, from decisions we make about human nature, questions we ask about human motivations and the actions of men and women under conditions different from our own.

      I find history fascinating. I do not find it easy. And all historians, all readers, should be cautious and careful. Instead of looking to historians to tell us what happened we should use their books to open avenues into events that will allow us to explore and, perhaps, understand what happened.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

      A thoughtful and analytical essay Ed. The interest for me lies in the difficulty of accessing information about historical events and determining which information is wholly factual, which is based in truth, but open to interpretation, and which is anecdotal myth. I know from my own experience in compiling web pages, some of which relate to events in history, how the more one researches, the more one finds conflicting 'facts' - I sometimes feel that one needs to analyse the motivations of the author as much as the evidence they present, in order to ascertain the validity of the information in a historical essay.

      Your essay provides a useful insight into the pitfalls that any writing on historical topics can encounter - whilst there is nothing wrong in an author presenting his/her personal view of history, it is important that the difference between genuine fact, circumstantial evidence and speculation is always made clear so the reader knows exactly where they stand. Voted up. Alun.

    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Speaking to the need for editors and fact-checkers, Virginia Dare was born in the Lost Colonyof Roanoke.