When it comes to the birth of America, most of us are working from a stew of elementary school history lessons, Westerns and vague Thanksgiving mythology. And while it's not surprising those sources might biff a couple details, what's shocking is how much less interesting the version we learned was. It turns out our teachers, Hollywood and whoever we got our Thanksgiving mythology from (Big Turkey?) all made America's origin story far more boring than it actually was for some very disturbing reasons. For instance ...
#6. The Indians Weren't Defeated by White Settlers
Our history books don't really go into a ton of detail about how the Indians became an endangered species. Some warring, some smallpox blankets and ... death by broken heart?
When American Indians show up in movies made by conscientious white people like Oliver Stone, they usually lament having their land taken from them. The implication is that Native Americans died off like a species of tree-burrowing owl that couldn't hack it once their natural habitat was paved over.
But if we had to put the whole Cowboys and Indians battle in a Hollywood log line, we'd say the Indians put up a good fight, but were no match for the white man's superior technology. As surely as scissors cuts paper and rock smashes scissors, gun beats arrow. That's just how it works.
This is all the American history you'll ever need to know.
There's a pretty important detail our movies and textbooks left out of the handoff from Native Americans to white European settlers: It begins in the immediate aftermath of a full-blown apocalypse. In the decades between Columbus' discovery of America and the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock, the most devastating plague in human history raced up the East Coast of America. Just two years before the pilgrims started the tape recorder on New England's written history, the plague wiped out about 96 percent of the Indians in Massachusetts.
In the years before the plague turned America into The Stand, a sailor named Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed up the East Coast and described it as "densely populated" and so "smoky with Indian bonfires" that you could smell them burning hundreds of miles out at sea. Using your history books to understand what America was like in the 100 years after Columbus landed there is like trying to understand what modern day Manhattan is like based on the post-apocalyptic scenes from I Am Legend.
"They call it 'The city that never sleeps' because the only guy who lives there is a notoriously sarcastic rapper."
Historians estimate that before the plague, America's population was anywhere between 20 and 100 million (Europe's at the time was 70 million). The plague would eventually sweep West, killing at least 90 percent of the native population. For comparison's sake, the Black Plague killed off between 30 and 60 percent of Europe's population.
While this all might seem like some heavy shit to lay on a bunch of second graders, your high school and college history books weren't exactly in a hurry to tell you the full story. Which is strange, because many historians believe it is the single most important event in American history. But it's just more fun to believe that your ancestors won the land by being the superior culture.
Yay for apocalypse profiteering!
European settlers had a hard enough time defeating the Mad Max-style stragglers of the once huge Native American population, even with superior technology. You have to assume that the Native Americans at full strength would have made shit powerfully real for any pale faces trying to settle the country they had already settled. Of course, we don't really need to assume anything about how real the American Indians kept it, thanks to the many people who came before the pilgrims. For instance, if you liked playing cowboys and Indians as a kid, you should know that you could have been playing vikings and Indians, because that shit actually happened. But before we get to how they kicked Viking ass, you probably need to know that ...
#5. Native Culture Wasn't Primitive
American Indians lived in balance with mother earth, father moon, brother coyote and sister ... bear? Does that just sound right because of the Berenstain Bears? Whichever animal they thought was their sister, the point is, the Indians were leaving behind a small carbon footprint before elements were wearing shoes. If the government was taken over by hippies tomorrow, the directionless, ecologically friendly society they'd institute is about what we picture the Native Americans as having lived like.
"Our foreign policy can be summed up with one word: peyote."
The Indians were so good at killing trees that a team of Stanford environmental scientists think they caused a mini ice age in Europe. When all of the tree-clearing Indians died in the plague, so many trees grew back that it had a reverse global warming effect. More carbon dioxide was sucked from the air, the Earth's atmosphere held on to less heat, and Al Gore cried a single tear of joy.
One of the best examples of how we got Native Americans all wrong is Cahokia, a massive Native American city located in modern day East St. Louis. In 1250, it was bigger than London, and featured a sophisticated society with an urban center, satellite villages and thatched-roof houses lining the central plazas. While the city was abandoned by the time white people got to it, the evidence they left behind suggests a complex economy with trade routes from the Great Lakes all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Contrary to what museums told us, the loin cloth was not the most advanced Native American technology.
And that's not even mentioning America's version of the Great Pyramid: Monk's Mound. You know how people treat the very existence of the Great Pyramid in Egypt as one of history's most confounding mysteries? Well, Cahokia's pyramid dwarfs that one, both in size and in degree of difficulty. The mound contains more than 2.16 billion pounds of soil, some of which had to be carried from hundreds of miles away, to make sure the city's giant monument was vividly colored. To put that in perspective, all 13 million people who live in the state of Illinois today would have to carry three 50-pound baskets of soil from as far away as Indiana to construct another one.
"What if we built a middle finger large enough to flip off God?"
So why does Egypt get millions of dollars of tourism and Time Life documentaries dedicated to their boring old sand pyramids, while you didn't even know about the giant blue, red, white, black, gray, brown and orange testament to engineering and human willpower just outside of St. Louis? Well, because the Egyptians know how to treat one of the Eight Wonders of the World. America, on the other hand, appears to be trying to figure out how to turn it into a parking lot.
But think of all the parking!
In the realm of personal hygiene, the Europeans out-hippied the Indians by a foul smelling mile. Europeans at the time thought baths attracted the black humors, or some such bullshit, because they never washed and were amazed by the Indians' interest in personal cleanliness. The natives, for their part, viewed Europeans as "just plain smelly" according to first hand records.
The Native Americans didn't hate Europeans just for the clouds of shit-smelling awfulness they dragged around behind them. Missionaries met Indians who thought Europeans were "physically weak, sexually untrustworthy, atrociously ugly" and "possessed little intelligence in comparison to themselves." The Europeans didn't do much to debunk the comparison in the physical beauty department. Verrazzano, the sailor who witnessed the densely populated East Coast, called a native who boarded his ship "as beautiful in stature and build as I can possibly describe," before presumably adding, "you know, for a dude." This man-crush wasn't an isolated incident. British fisherman William Wood described the Indians in New England as "more amiable to behold, though dressed only in Adam's finery, than ... an English dandy in the newest fashion." Or, with the bullshit removed, "Better looking than any of us, and they're not even fucking trying."
"Oh yeah, this is just my walkin' around paint."
OK, now that we got that out of the way, we can tell you about the historical slash-fiction your history teacher forgot to tell you actually freaking happened.
#4. Columbus Didn't Discover America: Vikings vs. Indians
America was discovered in 1492 because Europeans were starting to get curious about the outside world thanks to the Renaissance and Enlightenment and Europeans of the time just generally being the first smart people ever. Columbus named the people who already lived there Indians, presumably because he was being charmingly self-deprecating.
"I don't know what we'll call the people from actual India. That's the future's problem."
Here's what we know. A bunch of vikings set up a successful colony in Greenland that lasted for 518 years (982-1500). To put that into perspective, the white European settlement currently known as the United States will need to wait until the year 2125 to match that longevity. The vikings spent a good portion of that time sending expeditions down south to try to settle what they called Vineland -- which historians now believe was the East Coast of North America. Some place the vikings as far south as modern day North Carolina.
"The South will pillage again!"
After spending a couple decades sneaking ashore to raid Vineland of its ample wood pulp, the vikings made a go of settling North America in 1005. After landing there with livestock, supplies and between 100 and 300 settlers, they set up the first successful European American colony ... for two years. And then the Native Americans kicked their ass out of the country, shooting the head viking in the heart with an arrow.
So to recap, the vikings discovered America. They were camping off the coast of America, and had every reason to settle America for about 500 years. Despite being the biggest badasses in European history, one tangle with the natives was enough to convince the vikings that settling America wasn't worth the trouble. If you think the pilgrims would have fared any better than the vikings against an East Coast chock-full of Native Americans, you either don't know what a viking is or you're placing entirely too much stock in the strategic importance of having belt buckles on your shoes.
If the Indians had been at full strength in 1640, white people might still be sneaking onto the East Coast to steal wood pulp. That's as far as the vikings got in 500 years, and they were sailing from much closer than Europe and desperately needed the resources -- the two competing theories for why the viking settlements on Greenland eventually died out are lack of resources and getting killed by natives -- and, perhaps most importantly, they were goddamned vikings.
So why did your history teachers lie? This should have been history teachers' version of dinosaurs: a mostly unknown period of violent awesomeness they nevertheless told you about because they knew it would hook every male between the ages of 5 and 12 forever.
Consider this one a freebie, Hollywood.
It turns out that many of the awesomest stories had to be paved over by the bullshit you memorized in order to protect your teachers and parents from awkward conversations. Like the one about how ...