The Northeast Corridor, Then and Now

      Recently I had to travel from Maine to New York City, via public transportation. I brought along book, Facing East from Indian Country by Daniel K. Richter (2003, Harvard University Press). On the cover is a beautiful Hudson River School painting, "The landing of Henry Hudson" by Robert Weir. It shows the English travelers being greeted, from the Algonquins' point of view, with the beautiful palisades in the background. The book's subtitle is "A Native History of Early America".
      I waved goodbye to Lisa and the kids at 7 AM in Bangor, feeling, when it came down to it, not at all unhappy about the prospect. A chance to sit, and think, read a book and watch scenery, for a few hours? OK by me.
      I have long marveled at the American disdain for public transportation. We have this lone-cowboy myth: "Yep, I'm gonna climb up into my SUV and drive where I want and make good time!" But it's nothing like that in reality. There are few things in life more conformist than a modern road trip. These are "limited access" highways. We don't stop when we want to stop; we stop at the stop, fuel up, hit the head and grab some grub. The standard Interstate rest stop is efficient, adequate, and utterly devoid of flavor; there's something downright Soviet about it. Rugged American individualism? I'm not seeing it.
      Not only is Interstate driving unpleasant, it's dangerous. There's another oddity: mainstream Americans are very safety-conscious; we strap into approved restraining devices, vaccinate our children, rinse our food and hit the power-locks in questionable neighborhoods. Yet we're willing to pilot our machines at speed over bumpy, ill-maintained highways, mere inches from hundreds of drivers in who-knows-what mental states. Someday, history will look back with bemusement upon our odd notions about transportation.
      I had read about the transportation systems of the Wabanakis of the Maine area, who had charted the myriad lakes and streams so thoroughly that one could travel by canoe hundreds of miles with only a few short, well-labeled portageways in between. As my motorcoach thundered over its hard, smooth path, I thought about how hard it is to envision such a way of life. Prehistorians marvel at ancient earthworks, but you want to talk earthworks? Look at these roadbeds! How many of those old stream paths did they close off? Biologists have recently begun studying how the imposition of a modern highway can divide an ecosystem into two utterly separate parts: if we still have squirrels in 200 years, why, we may very well have a different species of them on the west side of I-95 than on the east!
      The movie was starting. I opened my book.

      Richter acknowledges that history has striven to weave in greater understanding of the Native contribution to the history of North America but he offers a more radical reorientation: his quest is to understand the longer view, in which Europe was the "new world" that was "discovered":

...if we shift our perspective to try to view the past in a way that faces west from Indian country, history takes on a very different appearance. Native Americans appear in the foreground, and Europeans enter from distant shores.... Cahokia [the ancient Mississipian city, near what is now St. Louis, that once was home to some 20,000 people] becomes the center and Plymouth Rock the periphery, and themes rooted in Indian country rather than across the Atlantic begin to shape the larger story. The continent becomes a place where diverse people had long struggled against and sometimes worked with one another, where societies and political systems had long risen and fallen, and where these ancient trends continued right through the period of colonization.

      One of the first surprises, when we look at North American history from this perspective, is the fact that Indians discovered European goods long before they discovered European people. Metal tools and weapons, jewelry and other goods made their way through centuries-old trade networks and became familiar items long before most people saw a white man. These goods weren't imposed on the natives as part of some imperial strategy; they were good; they actually supplied a growing market demand. Hence, the initial contacts with their makers would not have been antagonistic. They quickly became so, in many cases as with the brutal march of Hernando de Soto's 600-man strike force across what would become the American South (1539-42). De Soto's adventure was outstanding in its utter savagery. In one respect, though, it was typical of Indians' first contact with Europeans: the Spaniards seemed less like fearsome conquistadores than hapless bumblers.

"Who are you? What do you want? Where are you going?" A chief from the town of Ichisi, in present-day northern Georgia, asks during one of these encounters. De Soto replies that he is "A Captain of the great King of Spain; that in his name he came to give them to understand the sacred faith of Christ, that they should know Him and be saved, and give obedience to the Apostolic Church of Rome.... And they would treat them as well, and with peace and justice..." if and only if they submit.

      De Soto was very taken with the string of pearls one Chief gave him, as a traditional gift of welcome; he interrupted the ceremony to demand more of them. Seeing that it was riches de Soto was after, the Chief sent him off with vague directions to a much richer city further inland. Village after village did the same thing. At length, having made it as far as the Mississippi River, having lost their leader and a third of their men, the Spaniards pounded the chains of their remaining Indian slaves into nails, built seven vessels and sailed for Mexico.
      At about the same time, the French explorer Jacques Cartier was making his third voyage up the St. Lawrence River. He and his crew spent a horrendous winter on their ship, dying of scurvy. Cartier forbade contact with the natives, who were also dying of some mysterious ailment, probably a new infection carried by the Frenchmen. The Micmacs, however, could have completely cured the French crew's vitamin C deficiency with a brew they made from cedar bark; instead, they grew suspicious, thinking the newcomers were planning an invasion. Cartier soon returned to France bearing a cargo of what he thought was gold and diamonds, but were actually only pyrite and quartz.
      So it went, for at least the first fifty years of Indian-European contact. The Indians were comfortable in their long-established ways of life, and the newcomers, erecting huge crosses and lacking even the most basic survival skills, seemed to say the least very misguided.

      We arrive at the newly-remodeled bus station in Portland to take on more southbound riders. Nearby, travelers can avail themselves of Amtrak's "Downeaster", by which passenger train service was recently returned to Maine, with much fanfare. I had wanted to try it on this trip, but it proved impossible: having had to ride for two hours to board the train, I would be taken to Boston's North Station, from which I'd have to travel across town by taxi to make a connection at Boston's South Station. Ah well bus travel may be a last resort, but at least it's available. We have train tracks as rusty hiking trails in forests all up and down this country but passenger trains barely run at all anymore.
      In Portland I get a seat-mate, a natty chap, who seems (thank goodness) content to watch the movie. I've already ignored the Bangor-to-Portland movie (pretty much; my eyes did keep straying up to admire the ingenue). Luckily, this is Trailways, where you can choose not to use the headphones. The "people professionals" at Peter Pan blast the audio at you whether you want it or not.

      I had always pretty much bought into the myth that the Europeans' technological superiority doomed the Indians to defeat, when push came to shove but Facing East from Indian Country details many dimensions of error in that view. Trade was increasingly important to both sides, and it was never a matter of the Indians being fascinated with what trinkets the Europeans tossed them. In fact, goods were produced in Europe explicitly to meet the demands of the Indian market and, Indians routinely modified and refitted European tools for uses that they deemed sensible. It's true that Europeans had metal and brass-tipped arrowheads were a significant improvement. In agriculture, however, the Indians had a strong advantage. They had been cultivating the "three sisters" corn, squash and beans for many generations. The three crops provided more high-quality food for less labor than anything the Europeans did. Corn stalks provided support for bean vines; broad squash leaves kept down the weeds; the beans' roots provided nitrogen fixation that enriched the soil. The crops could be grown on small plots that were readily reclaimed by the forest when they became depleted. Because native farming methods placed so little stress on the land, farming and hunting could easily coexist. Despite their "superior technology", the lives of 16th and 17th century settlers were far rougher and their advancement far slower than they would have been, if they'd adopted Indian farming methods. Instead, they cleared large fields and planted single crops on them which created erosion, and allowed pests to thrive and they raised livestock, which competed for the ecological niches occupied by the Indians' staple game animals. Hogs, which went everywhere and ate everything, were particularly reviled by the natives.
      When you consider how sumptuously productive Indian agriculture was, compared with the meager fruits of the settlers' hard labor, you have to wonder why there was so little cooperation and reciprocal learning. The settlers' lives were hard. If Indian ways of making a living were superior, why did they not catch on? Why could not a hybrid, cooperative culture have taken hold at the grassroots, rather than becoming ever more adversarial and violent?
      That happy outcome was precluded by two huge trends one economic and the other bio-medical. First, the tremendous European demand for beaver pelts brought unprecedented material prosperity but resulted in great alterations of traditional economic patterns, leaving many communities dependent on the fur trade for nearly all their supplies. Meanwhile, European microbes, to which the Indians had no immunity, were cutting a deadly swath through Indian country.

Exact statistics will never be known, but in 1492 the diverse but interconnected area east of the Mississippi may have been home to more than two million Native people.... As late as 1700, the European population had barely exceeded 250,000, and the colonists were confined almost exclusively to coastal and riverine enclaves.... By 1750 the population balance had shifted decisively, with Europeans and their enslaved African workforce exploding to nearly 1.25 million and the native population shrinking to less than 250,000.

      So many people died, so quickly, that one Indian nation after another was irrevocably pulled away from its cultural and economic patterns. Because contact was most frequent with adult men, they died in greatest proportion. Increasingly, there were not enough men to do the work that needed doing. This further weakened cultural patterns, and increased the reliance on the fur trade, in a vicious circle. Indeed, many of the "tribes" thought to have survived into the 19th century were actually cobbled-together amalgamations of separate, decimated nations. "Mourning wars" were conducted to raid other communities of their able-bodied adults. The Five Nations Iroquois were the most successful in this desperate competition. Richter quotes "a nineteenth-century descendant of the ethnic mixing that resulted":

The plan was to select for adoption from the prisoners, and captives, and fragments of tribes whom they conquered. These captives were equally divided among each of the tribes, were adopted and incorporated with them, and served to make good their losses. They used the term, we-hait-wat-sha, in relation to these captives. The term means a body cut into parts and scattered around. In this manner, they figuratively scattered their prisoners, and sunk and destroyed their nationality, and built up their own.

      While these horrific struggles were going on in the Indian community, the three Imperial powers of Britain, France and Spain were maneuvering for a position to gain control of the North American continent, in a long and complex series of battles which culminated in what we learned in high school to call "The French and Indian War".

      As we come into Boston, I surface, and find myself in a tunnel. "Oh!" I remark, "This must be the Big Dig." I get into a conversation with my seatmate, who turns out to be from Sweden, about this public works monstrosity. "It's the largest and most expensive highway construction project in history," I report. "I don't know what it cost, but it is at least four times what was projected to cost when it started." (Actually: the 1993 projected cost was $2.6 billion; the projected full cost at completion whenever that might be ranges from $10.8 to $12.6 billion.) The part we're driving through seems smooth enough, but when we emerge into the towering maze of ramps at the south end of the city, it becomes clear that their goal of finishing this thing before the Democratic Convention later this year just ain't gonna happen.
      What's the cultural significance of the Big Dig? Seems to me it's gotta be a monument to over-arching stubbornness, a massive commitment to staying the course against all common sense. I mean, we are so committed to private auto transportation that we're willing to dig an eight lane tunnel under an entire city? Ah, but can you imagine the immense real estate values that will be created, once they finally remove the above-ground expressway? Come to think of it, there's an opportunity there for Boston to recoup some of those cost overruns. Instead of higher fares, fees, taxes and interest payments, they could collect the rent that the Big Dig has created along the new "Greenway". It makes a lot of sense, but I have not heard anyone, at any level of government, suggest anything even remotely like it.
      Amazing. At least, though, when passengers get off of Amtrak's Downeaster at North Station, their taxi can zip thru the Big Dig to make that connection across town.
      My friend Mike Curtis suggested some years ago that for the cost of maintaining a busy section of arterial highway, we could transport the same number of people by rail. They would make their commute in the same span of time, and they would be far more productive, having had the chance to use their commute for resting, meditating or working. Why not? New York City straphangers commute to work in far less time than it would take to make their way through the city by car and now the center-city rush-hour jams have spread far and wide across the megalopolis. Today's technology could apply the model of the New York Subway system to the entire East Coast. And if we financed it as we should from the land-rent fund that its provision had created people could ride for free. There are so many things that we could do. The United Nations has estimated that the cost of providing safe drinking water for the entire continent of Africa would be roughly equal to that of the Big Dig (and less than the F-22 advanced tactical fighter, which, unlike the Big Dig, is completely superfluous). Our age may come to be known for the splendor of the opportunities it missed. When it comes to erecting giant mounds of stuff that's just not much use, the ancient Pharoahs had nothing on us.
      Boston's South Station is an imposing stone train station in the classic model: solid and reassuring, built to last. Its bus terminal, however, attached like a growth on the old station's neck, is a very unpleasant space. Its design motif is of a steel wheel, and its narrow promenade, the tire on the wheel, affords travelers little useful space. Half of the benches face the iron fence of the promenade, inaccessible for use; half the tables at the food court are at standing height, without seats. It's jangly and loud, and seems to be designed to make travelers want to get out of there as soon as possible. People stand in line waiting for their buses for at least half an hour before departure. I wolfed down my McSlab o'Grease and managed to catch a bus for New York before my scheduled departure time. I was glad to get it I couldn't read my book in that place.

      By the eighteenth century, European nations had a long-standing tradition of negotiating with each other in terms of power. Ideally, perhaps, the power would be strong enough to preclude negotiation the conquering king would simply have new subjects. When things were not so clear-cut, international negotiation in the European model could rely on the power of law and custom. Relationships played little role. To be sure, there were protocols and formalities but although such matters had some importance, they were not, as we might now say, "deal-breakers". If negotiation was needed at all, it was only to clarify the underlying power structure.
      Negotiations among Indian nations, however, had an entirely different character a fact that threw most Europeans for a loop, but did serve to enrich the careers of an imaginative few. When Indian nations had to decide matters of national import, such as territorial rights or alliances, they simply would not do so without establishing the proper context of respect, gift-giving and shared experience. Gift-giving was especially important, and the value of the things given was raised with the importance of the matter being decided.
      Many of us have been taught that the Indians used wampum intricate beaded belts woven with mnemonic designs as money; the word "wampum" has been translated as "money" in lots of bad literature. The truth is much more complex, of course, and our educational system misses a great opportunity when it refuses to emphasize this matter. Wampum was extremely labor-intensive. That made it a most appropriate emblem for agreements that affected the economic life of a community. If an agreement was important enough to seal with belts of wampum, then it was important indeed, and commanded attention. And, the design of the wampum belt served as a permanent record of what had been agreed to.
      The process of negotiating matters of national import between Indian nations and White colonies must have frustrated and puzzled both sides. Native traditions called for days of ritualized hospitality, gift-giving and establishment of a properly peaceful environment. It took considerable effort for two Indian communities to get on the same page in this manner; probably the Europeans never really managed it. They wished to transact the business of a treaty council in a matter of hours, shake hands and be done with it. Nevertheless, for many years, Indians insisted that treaties with the White people be done in this traditional manner, and only considered themselves bound by them if they were.

Drying tears, setting minds straight, establishing clear channels of communication, reciprocal exchanges of friendly words and symbolic gifts these, not the mundane details of whether Mohawks would agree to stand still and lay down their arms when they ran into a Virginian in the woods were the essence of eastern North American Indian diplomacy. In societies in which no leaders had a monopoly of force and in which a single grieving family could start a mourning war and provoke a devastating cycle of raids and counterraids, detailed agreements thrashed out by a few leaders in a smoke-filled longhouse had little hope of keeping peace between peoples. It was far more important to address the root causes of violence between people and groups and to create a climate in which peaceful rather than murderous thoughts prevailed and people saw the concrete benefits of their relationships to each other.

      Undeniably the white colonists would have had more incentive to take these treaty protocols seriously had not the Indian nations been so grievously weakened by disease. However, they did have reasons to pay attention to them, to some degree at least, even as late as the eighteenth century. The English, French and Spanish, seeking to expand their control over North America, were compelled to make alliances with the Indians throughout, even though the Indians' military and economic power was much less than it had previously been. According to Richter, from the native point of view the "French and Indian War" was less a matter of a fight between the imperial powers than a matter of their having been drawn into a complex series of territorial disputes among tribes that were desperately reconsolidating their decimated populations. In fact, the Five Nations Iroquois once ceded the same lands at the same time to both the English and the French, maintaining for a time their indispensability to both sides. Geopolitcal concerns also led the British to promise to the Indians in general all the "western waters" of the Appalacians.
      The British success in that contest and the subsequent victory of the American colonists over the British put an end to all that. No longer were the Indians useful as a bulwark against imperial challengers and no longer did the Indian nations have the numbers or the vitality to repel whites' westward movement. By this time, also, white Americans had little inclination find anything worthwhile in native culture; relations had become too hostile for that. What Richter brings to life for us, though, is how long the various Indian nations, despite having been severely weakened and thrown off balance, negotiated on their own terms, in their own ways, and remained political players in North America right through to the middle of the eighteenth century.

      A few weeks before I made this trip, a tanker full of fuel oil had crashed into a car and burned on a bridge on I-95 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The bridge melted, and sagged about five feet. The southbound lane of I-95 remained closed for two weeks after the accident. In an effort to get the highway open as soon as possible, the street below it was closed; the area was completely filled and new roadway installed on top. The resulting traffic snarls were horrendous even by Connecticut standards, but the Metro-North commuter railway picked up some of the load.
      I'm never happier to "leave the driving to them" than on this stretch of 95 between New Haven and New York. Here, the highway has reached a curious state of perpetual construction. There is no room to widen it, and with existing technology it is simply not possible to repair any stretch of it before the next part breaks down. Consequently, the lanes are narrower than they should be, and they swerve in and out of current construction zones, rendering the painted lines unreliable. One hundred and twenty thousand motorists subject themselves to this insanity every day. Our driver, bless his heart, has been conferring by radio with his colleagues for the last half-hour, trying to identify the least-clogged route into Manhattan.

      When British control over North American was consolidated, at the close of the French and Indian War in 1763, the native bulwark against the French was no longer needed west of the Appalacians, and settlers started moving west, despite Britain's long-standing promise not to let them. Soon after, seeded by the visions of Neolin, the "Delaware Prophet", began the first of many waves of spiritually motivated, pan-Indian resistance to white people and white ways. Indians, the prophet said, had brought their misfortune on themselves by adopting the tools, ways and beliefs of Europeans. The white man had to be removed from their lives and from their lands.
      These storm clouds had been a long time building, and they needed no help from England to burst. Nevertheless, it was this heavy weather that Thomas Jefferson referred to in the Declaration of Independence, accusing King George of having "endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." By the 1770s this characterization was often true but the same could be said of the pioneering work of Columbus and de Soto, and many others since. Brutal retaliation was long in coming. When it did come, it was the result of a breakdown of the traditional checks and balances that Indian nations had maintained against the temptation to such desperate and self-defeating actions. The white settlers, of course, had no way to grasp these subtleties; they saw only the bitter hatred and rage of the "savages", and became that much more determined to remove them.
      Facing East from Indian Country examines the legends of Pocahontas (the Disney version of which is familiar to us) and King Philip, or Metacom, the Algonquin leader who led a revolt against the Massachusetts colonists in the 1670s. Metacom was, at one time, a significant figure in popular culture; a popular play about his story was widely performed in the nineteenth century. Richter notes that it has been important for white Americans to believe in stereotyped versions of these representatives of Native Americans: a Pocahontas who wholeheartedly embraced John Smith, his culture and his religion, and a Metacom who fought against white incursions on his homeland. The real life stories of each of them were far more nuanced, of course, and Richter gives fascinating accounts of them. For the most part, Native Americans don't enter the commonly-taught history of the United States of America until the nation is caught up in "manifest destiny". By then, of course, white America was firmly and ruthlessly committed to a policy of ethnic cleansing. These facts, Richter believes, explain why historians have seldom been able to bring themselves to really consider Indian history.

...conflict with stereotyped Indians could indeed had to become central to the American story, but flesh-and-blood Indian people and the histories they made for themselves could not. So, as white Americans wrote their nation's past, their greatest erasure of all was of memories of Indians who neither uncompromisingly resisted like the King Philip of their imagination or wholeheartedly assimilated like the Pocahontas of their fantasies. Native people who instead struggled to find ways to incorporate European people, objects and ideas into Indian country on their own terms who adapted and changed in accordance with their own histories and traditions rather than in accordance with Euro-American scripts could find no place in the mythology of a nation marching triumphantly westward across the continent.

      Sometimes, arriving at Manhattan from the north, one catches a glimpse across the Harlem River of stony outcrops and a little patch of forest and for a split second you can imagine the place as it might have looked 500 years ago. The Hudson River, the glorious palisades, the indestructible granite backbone of the island, the overwhelming richness of wildlife in the woods and the waters, the ease of access by water to so many other good places: undoubtedly, this was always the finest piece of real estate in North America. In Maine there are 1.3 million people, living 41 to the square mile; that is about as many as live in Brooklyn, where they sometimes live ten or twelve to the bedroom. The great gift of Facing East from Indian Country the thing that makes it, I think, a must-read for students everywhere is the revelation that relations between Indians and Europeans need not have happened as they did. Is it not incredibly arrogant, after all, to discuss Indian "contributions" to the history of America? By changing our vantage point, we compel ourselves to examine the missed opportunities in detail. What kind of city might New York have been, as the metropolis of a nation where natives and immigrants had found ways to learn from each other? When I look at the New York skyline now, I see more missing than just the Twin Towers.

-- Lindy Davies