Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Our America: the diversity of the American founding

Commenting on the work of historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Agnes Howard over at The Anxious Bench provides a great reminder that the founding and settlement of what is now the United States was the work of a lot more folks than refugee Puritans and Southern aristocratic hopefuls: Hispanic America is Our America. As Howard explains, to know American history requires a knowledge of Spanish settlement and exploration:
Present-minded reasons might press us to learn more about Hispanic America. Even without them, Spanish colonization should be more familiar simply because a large swath of what is now the United States was first part of Spanish settlement. Learning about the history of our country requires learning about Spanish settlement. We overlook this even as the most obvious features of these states, names of their rivers, towns, mountains, monuments, make it plain: Los Angelos, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Brazos, San Augustin, and so on.
As a personal aside, when I was a teenager and began looking beyond the standard story about the settlement of the United States, I was delighted to find that the Spanish -- and hence Catholic -- settlement in St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest European settlement in the United States. Howard notes that looking more broadly at the American founding puts the focus not only on Protestant settlers but on Catholic ones as well:
Yes, Protestants and their institutions figure in Our America. But Roman Catholicism is much more prominent when the American southwest or Gulf coast is [a] focus of attention. Missions dotted the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Florida, as well as in more familiar locations in Texas, California, and New Mexico, before and after English settlers made first efforts to introduce the Gospel.
Howard also points out the pivotal role played by Mormon settlers in the colonization of the American West. One weakness of Howard's post is that she omits one other settlement group, critical to history of the far northwest of the American continent: Russian Orthodox monks who brought their distinctive form of Christianity to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. While the story of Alaska isn't central to the story of the American founding, the Russian Orthodox efforts there are an interesting and vital part of the larger story of European contact, for good and ill, with the native peoples already here.

Thanks to Howard's review, I now have another history book to add to the pile by my reading chair!


Tom Van Dyke said...

Good post, Mark. And all the Scandinavian Lutherans in the upper Midwest, the Garrison Keillor people.

I must note here for the record that this stuff doesn't jazz me much--it's more cultural anthropology than history. ["Marxian" even.]

I like how the ethos, the character, of an area might manifest itself in its politics, say the aforementioned Lutherans becoming the Robert LaFollette Progressives [which explains Senators Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone and yes, Al Franken].

But is there that big a difference between putatively Catholic Louisiana and the rest of the Protestant-as-hell South?* And of the former "New Spain," the swath of states from California to Texas, how Catholic is it?

FTR, I lived in Florida, even drove a carful of classmates in my '68 Fury III convertible to St. Augustine--The Oldest Continuously inhabited settlement in Americablahblahblah---one lost college weekend.

I suppose it felt sort of Catholic although we didn't go to mass or anything. Mostly Northern Florida feels like Georgia.
*Well, sure, the food. But look up "Acadians." They're friggin' Canadian fer crissakes, true story!

[I guess I like anthropology a little bit. But don't tell anybody.]

Mark D. said...

I think that it is helpful for us to remember that the religious aspects of the American founding aren't all Puritans and Deists and the Jefferson Bible. There's lots there -- and aspects of the religious world of the American founding and the frontier period are still with us today; the ethnic otherness of most Catholics, the Mormons in the intermountain west, etc.

You know, I don't really know much about the Catholic culture of places like the Southwest and the Louisiana. I have been to some of the missions in California and Arizona -- San Xavier de Bac in Arizona is an amazing place, and the Catholicism on display there is culturally very different than the German-American North Dakota - via the Pacific Northwest type of Catholicism was raised in as a child. Rod Dreher, although not raised Catholic and no longer a practicing Catholic, writes quite about how the part of southern Louisiana he hails from is very different from its nearby counties -- even though everybody around him is Protestant, the area is the dividing line between the old Catholic part of the state and the old Protestant part of the state. So, his side of the line was the Catholic side, again, even though nobody was Catholic.

Culture can be a funny thing.

Art Deco said...

Rubbish. Santa Fe and St Augustine are ancillary to American history and there are wide swaths of salient information neglected by secondary instructors at every level, including settlement history, the delineation of property rights, agricultural methods, the development of early industries, comparative assessments of medieval and early modern institutions in Britain with their American counterparts, &c.

Instead, you are recommending another round of patronage distribution. Sojourner Truth last year, "Hispanic America" this year. I guess you could say about it is that it is less eye-glazing than having a fourth-tier psychology professor fussing over Thomas Jefferson's private correspondence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

How I love an ace piece of anti-PC humbuggery. We can always count on Mr. Deco.