Hysteria and Martyrs

I didn’t care what my students thought. Their opinions were no business of mine. That they knew how to express those ideas, using factual information, was my business.

To introduce point of view, and critical thinking a quick textbook analysis did the trick. In groups (I assigned) students researched various history texts to spot biases in the presentation of historic facts. 

Over the years, a collection of comped survey books had accumulated on my classroom shelf. I used them for my own preparation, but decided to teach the same techniques to the kids. The task was pretty simple. All groups were asked to look up the two same topics: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. They noted the title of the text, the authors, the publication date, and any particular word choices used to explain or describe each episode.

This was the first day of school, mind you, and holy cow the results rocked these 15-year-olds orderly world.

When each group reported their conclusions, skewed viewpoints abounded. In other words the same facts drew decidedly different conclusions.

One book blamed the Witch Trials on tensions stemming from continuous Native attacks. Another blamed simmering resentment over social class, inheritance disputes, and property ownership. Moldy grain was to blame according to the Prentice Hall book. The good people living north of Boston were tripping on ergot fungus, a hallucinogen spreading on damp wheat baked into bread.

Nearly all texts made use of the terms “fear,” and “hysteria.”

The John Brown case provided even more interesting results. If the book had been published before 2001, Brown generally came off a saint. If after, the language use grew more sinister. In pre-911 America, fighting slavery had a righteous, noble language, that justified the violence. Something to the effect that, in the name of the mighty Jehovah, Brown martyred himself to strike a blow against evil. By contrast, books published after the collapse of the Twin Towers dismiss Brown’s means as unfortunate, though slavery was still bad.

By the end of this exercise students often seemed flummoxed asking “who can we believe?” 

“Yourself, of course, and your analysis skills,” I always replied.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle.

For more explanation on this lesson email at gailchumbley@gmail.com

Englishman’s Foot

Englishman’s Foot is a non-native plant introduced by English settlers to the New World. The plant sprouted from the manure, dropping from the equally non-native cattle. It spread unabated throughout New England, and metaphorically named by the native people.

The story is a familiar one. Dissenters of the Church of England, disciples of reformer John Calvin, departed for Holland, washing their hands of what they viewed as English apostasy. After a time among the Dutch, these expatriates watched in horror as their children came of age in the secular world of the Continent. Alarmed, William Bradford and other Separatist leaders determined to leave Holland as well, to take their chances in the New World. 

Bradford, later explained this decision in On Plymouth Plantation, deciding it was better to lose their offspring to the tomahawk than to lose their mortal souls to God. 

You know the next part of this story. 

Pilgrims, The Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, Samoset, Squanto, Corn, Thanksgiving, shoe buckles, etc . .

But this story concerns those already inhabiting the New World, the indigenous peoples of America. In truth, white men had been poking around the shores of early America well before the Mayflower sailed. Explorers, trappers, and fishermen had already encountered native people, trading goods, microbes, cultural practices, and language. Some indigenous folk spoke a bit of English, or the French they had acquired from couriers du bois.

In 1621, the Pokanoket peoples of the Wampanoag Confederacy observed the arrival of the Pilgrims to Massachusetts Bay. Their sachem, or leader, Massasoit, made the decision to cautiously welcome these newcomers, rather than force them back to the sea.

Dispatching the English-speaking native, Samoset, Massasoit hoped to learn the intentions of these outsiders. His own people weakened, especially by small pox, and perpetual warfare, influenced his decision to feel out an alliance with these gun-toting English settlers. In particular, against the Narragansett of nearby Rhode Island. Massasoit’s peaceful reception forged an uneasy pact that helped the Separatists survive their “starving time.”

After Massasoit’s death in 1661, followed by his eldest son soon after, King Philip, became the new sachem of the Wampanoag.

Philip’s time witnessed a massive expansion of British New England. Ships from East Anglia seemed to appear daily on the horizon, emptying thousands of new settlers to the Bay Colony. Plymouth Separatists welcomed a massive influx of Puritan dissenters under Governor John Winthrop. The Massachusetts Bay Colony pressed hard on native lands. It wasn’t long until Philip’s tolerance for the English reached a breaking point. By 1675, King Philip determined to take the action his father had avoided-force the English back into the sea.

It was a forlorn hope, and Philip met his end at the hands of a fellow-Wampanoag, an informer. The sachem’s corpse was mutilated, his torso drawn and quartered, and his head posted on a pike in Plymouth as a warning. Philip’s head remained on that pike for decades. 

In the end, and it truly was the end, Philip’s wife and son were sold into slavery in the Caribbean.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” a two-part memoir. Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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