When I was a boy on our annual summer vacations, the family car seemed to stop at every historical marker and monument. Dad thought it was “good for us,” and I suppose in a way it was.
Little did he suspect that it was also bad for us—that the distortions we encountered on our trips across the United States subtly warped our view of the world. Consider what may be one of the most beautiful historical markers in the United States, a piece of stone in Almo, Idaho, carved into the shape of its home state. “Dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives in a most horrible Indian massacre, 1861,” it proclaims. “Three hun- dred immigrants west bound. Only five escaped.” And at the bottom, “Erected by S & D of Idaho Pioneers, 1938.”
Unfortunately, the marker is a fraud. The Indians did not massacre 300 pioneers in Idaho in 1861, not 30, nor even three. It never happened at all. A fine historian, Brigham Madsen, spent decades on research proving this negative.
Thus the Almo marker has nothing to teach the unwary tourist about 1861. But it does have something to teach. First, it teaches us that every historic site is a tale of two eras: the era of its inspiration and the era of its construction. And this site tells nothing about 1861 because nothing happened in southern Idaho in 1861. It does teach about 1938, however. Indeed, it deserves to be in the Idaho State Historical Museum with a label, “Artifact of 1938,” explaining that in that era, whites—at least the Sons and Daughters of Idaho Pioneers—would believe almost anything about “savage Indians.” And in fact the Idaho State Historical Society has been trying to get Almo at least to take it down, but Almo won’t. They love it so much they decorate it with Christmas lights. It may be the biggest thing that ever happened in tiny Almo, even though it never happened.
The marker also suggests that we rethink our terminology. How many dead whites does it take to warrant “massacre?” A Florida state historical marker, “The Bradley Massacre,” tells of the deaths of two children of the Bradley family “before the Indians were driven off.” A marker near Mifflinburg, Pa., sets an even lower standard: Titled the “Leroy Massacre,” it tells how “Near here John Jacob Leroy was killed by Indians on Oct. 16, 1755.” And Almo suggests the answer can be zero!
How many dead Indians does it take to comprise a “massacre”? Hundreds of American Indians can perish and almost no whites, and the clash will be a “battle,” as it was in the “Battle of Horseshoe Bend” in Alabama or the “Battle of Wounded Knee” in South Dakota.
The words aren’t the only problems. Images matter—especially on historic monuments and memorials. Many monuments follow an artistic convention known as hieratic scale—hier as in hierarchy. All across America they depict whites in dominant positions over American Indians. In front of Ysleta Mission in El Paso, Texas, is a monument put up by the Knights of Columbus that features an American Indian kneeling at the feet of a conquistador. On the grounds of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield stands Father Menard—again, with an Indian depicted in subservience. Further east, in Plattsburgh, N.Y., Samuel de Champlain towers on a pedestal above an obsequious native.
Sometimes the pressure to conform to this convention has been so strong that it muddles the stories artists seek to tell. Facing west from the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines are three figures titled The Pioneers. The artist meant them to represent a “father and son guided by a friendly Indian.” But such is the power of hieratic scale that the sculptor has shown the Indian seated subserviently looking off to the side, while the white man stands gazing capably ahead. No visitor would guess that the Indian was meant to be the guide of the group.
And that’s a shame, because the historical commonplace of Indian as guide to westering pioneers is a concept not very familiar to most Americans. We’ve all been influenced by the archetype of the whooping Indians riding around and around the wagon train, circled for protection. It turns out that this scenario probably never happened either—even once. Of course, a moment’s thought makes evident its silliness: Why would anyone ride around and around, trying haplessly to fire accurately from his bouncing steed, while presenting such a tempting broadside target to John Wayne, lying prone with both elbows braced for best aim?
In reality, Indians rode around and around because they were in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and its many imitators, and they were performing in circus tents. Circus tents are round. In the real West, not only did Indians not ride around and around, they were much more likely to make money off the newcomers by selling them fish, helping them ford the river, or, as in Des Moines, hiring on as guide. But we don’t learn that from most movies— or from most historic sites.
But an increasing number of museum exhibits, historical markers, and even Hollywood movies are making the effort to tell about the past more accurately. Not only is this an exciting time to live because of the events taking place around us daily, it is also an exciting time to learn about the more distant past—which, like the present, is alive with controversy.
James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1996) and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (2000).