“What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You”

Mark Finchum
1291 Ashwood Drive, Jefferson City, TN 37760 wfinchu1@utk.edu
Tennessee Council for the Social Studies Spring Conference, 2004
Memphis, TN

The First Americans

Your textbook will probably explain that the first Americans traveled across a land bridge from Asia to North America during an Ice Age 20,000 years or more ago.  Although this is a theory, albeit a commonly held one, your textbook may present it as fact.  In recent years some researchers have considered the possibility that those first Americans came by boat, island-hopping through the Aleutians. The Truth about Columbus

Regardless of what historians and archaeologists may say, the various native peoples have their own stories of origin.  The Apache tell that, “In the beginning the earth was covered with water, and all the living things were below in the underworld…But now the earth was dry, except for the four oceans and the lake in the center, where the beaver had dammed up the waters.  All the people came up (from the underworld).  They traveled east until they arrived at the ocean; then they turned south until they came to the ocean; then they went west to the ocean, and then they turned north.  And as they went, each tribe stopped where it wanted to.”  American Indian Myths and Legends

The Cherokee, for example, say that the Creator placed Kanati, the first man, and Selu, the first woman, in Cherokee country.  That site is near the Shining Rock Wilderness Area on the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 418.8).  The first Cherokee town was Kituwah, hence the name Cherokees once used for themselves, Ani Kituwah (The People of Kituwah).  The Cherokees have recently purchased this site.  It is located on U.S. 19, about 7 miles west of Cherokee, near Bryson City.
Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook


Did Columbus discover America?  Although he made four trips across the Atlantic, never once did he set foot on what would later become a part of the United States.  Instead he spent his time in the islands now often called the West Indies, and did once visit South America.  Even the lands he did visit, he did not discover.  Here is what Columbus wrote, “I discovered many islands, filled with innumerable people, all of which I took possession of.”  He could not have “discovered” a land already inhabited.  The Truth about Columbus

In your textbook, it may seem as though there weren’t very many native people in America when Columbus landed.  A census conducted by Columbus’s brother Bartholomew showed 1,130,000 people living just on the island of Haiti.  Current estimates range between 60 and 90 million people living in the Americas.  That includes 10-20 million in what is now the United States.  All of Europe is estimated at having 75-90 million at the time.  The Truth about Columbus

Indian people at the time of Columbus are often labeled as being primitive, while the Europeans are seen as civilized.  It should be noted that the Incas in Peru were organized into a large nation-state.  Remember that Spain had just become such a state as well.  In the New England area, the Algonquians were organized by towns and loosely into confederations.  Eastern Europe was the same way.  On the Plains, the Indians were organized as family clans, just like people in Scotland.  Obviously a comparison of societies does not show one to be more civilized that the other.  The Truth about Columbus

Can one group be considered more civilized than another based on its technology or architecture?  The Aztecs established their capital city Tenochtitlan in the middle of Lake Texcoco.  They anchored wicker baskets to the lake’s shallow bottom.  They then piled silt and plant matter on top of them to make artificial islands for farming.  The city grew to 1,000 stone buildings, interconnected by canals.  About 300,000 people lived there.  They conquered their neighbors for economic reasons until their empire comprised five million people.  Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes

The Spanish demanded food, gold, cotton, and sex from the Indians.  To ensure cooperation, Columbus would have his men cut off the nose or ears of an Indian who committed even a minor offense.  The person was then sent back to his village as a warning.  Every person ages 14 and up had to bring in a specified amount of gold or cotton.  Failure to do so meant having a hand cut off.  Any surprise that many Indians today don’t celebrate Columbus Day?  The Truth about Columbus


Textbooks often pay attention to corn, or maize as it was often called in earlier times.  But the fascinating details are left out.  Many historians believe that corn was a major cause of population growth in southern Europe in the 1600s and 1700s.  Although many people did not have a taste for corn, they used it to feed their livestock.  This increase in the number of cows and pigs, and the higher quality of their meat, meant an increase in protein for people.  Larger families resulted.  The growth of the European population was one factor that helped bring about an increase in “exploration.”  Seeds of Change

Corn was also planted on the western coast of Africa and used as an inexpensive food source for slaves being transported across the Atlantic to the British colonies or to sugar cane plantations in the West Indies.  Bowls of corn meal mush were among the dishes served twice a day to the slaves.  The American Record

Even though we eat so much popcorn and breakfast cereals, it might also be interesting for students to know that only 15 of every 100 bushels of corn grown in the United States is eaten by people.  Many bushels are used to feed cattle and pigs, but more than 1,000 items we use today are made from corn.  Examples include paint, paper products, textiles, and explosives.  Seeds of Change

So little is said about corn in a typical textbook, but often even less is said about potatoes.  Scientists say that if you could only have one food for the rest of your life, you might want to choose the potato.  It has a good combination of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The Incas first grew potatoes in the Andes Mountains of South America.  More than 3,000 varieties were grown!  They even created what we might consider the first freeze-dried potatoes.  They spread them on the ground overnight and let them freeze.  The next day they would walk on them to squeeze out the moisture.  After repeating the process for four or five days, the potatoes were ready to be stored.  When the potato was first introduced to Europe, it was not an immediate hit.  After all, nowhere is the potato mentioned in the Bible.  Some even thought it would cause diseases.  When it did catch on, farmers realized that they could grow more than they actually needed for simple subsistence.  Many people could now leave the farm and go to work in factories.  Thus began the Industrial Revolution.  The failure of the potato crop in Ireland and other places in Europe sent millions of immigrants to America.  Today’s annual international potato crop is worth more than all the gold the Spanish took from the Americas during their efforts at colonial expansion.  Seeds of Change

Today’s snack food market owes much to the Indian peoples.  Potato chips, french fries, corn chips, nachos, tortilla chips, tomato sauces, salsas, guacamole, and jerky are all of Indian origin.  So are popcorn and peanuts.  Indians sometimes mixed peanuts and popcorn with maple syrup.  Today we call it “Cracker Jacks.”  And don’t forget the mixtures of peanuts, sunflower seeds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, and dried fruit known today as “trail mix.”  Its name is appropriate because Indian people on the trails carried it years ago.  Indian Givers

Because many of the drinks made from Indian roots and barks were spicy, they became known as peppers.  Dr. Pepper has a spicy taste and is of medicinal origin!  In everyday speech “pepper” came to mean excitement and hyperactivity.  Young people shortened the word to “pep,” and a new word came into the language.  Now we have “pep talk,” “pep rally,” and of course Pepsi.  Indian Givers

Let us not forget chewing gum.  The Indians of Mexico chewed the rubbery sap of the sapodilla tree.  They called it “chicle.”  Whites added lots of sugar to it.  A New Yorker named Thomas Adams built the first chewing gum factory in the 1880s.  Indian Givers

The Mayas and the Aztecs cultivated cacao beans and used them in part for currency.  They also boiled the beans with water and honey and called it “chocoatl.”  Spanish soldiers liked it for its shot of energy.  They could keep on fighting and killing for hours.  Indian Givers


If you saw the Disney version of the Pocahontas story, you would never have known that Pocahontas was only about 12 years old when the first settlers arrived at Jamestown!  The cartoon would lead you to believe that Pocahontas (dressed like a Powhatan, but wearing Navajo jewelry) protected Captain John Smith by placing herself between him and a warrior under orders from her father to kill the white man.  What may have happened instead was that this was a way for her to become his “protector” and thereby be able to keep her people informed regarding the actions of the Jamestown settlers.
Pocahontas was later captured in an attempt to hold her hostage.  During this time, she lived with a minister and came to accept Christianity.  She fell in love and married John Rolfe.  Jamestown


Textbooks always tell how the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and were helped to survive by the friendly Squanto.  But does the textbook report that European diseases had wiped out many of the native towns along the coast.  The Wampanoag town of Patuxet was one of them.  This site became the new Plimoth settlement.  Squanto was able to help the Pilgrims because he spoke English.  The textbooks usually say that, but don’t always tell how he knew the language.  Some Indians had been captured and held in Europe for years.  There they learned the language and observed the customs of the English.  Squanto was one of them.  When he made his way back to America, he found himself one of the few survivors of Patuxet, his hometown.   Before Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to grow corn, they had simply dug up Indian storage pits of corn, claiming that it was God’s providence that they find it.  As you might imagine, the Indians considered them thieves.  1621 A New Look at Thanksgiving

The original feast from which we get Thanksgiving was a three-day event.  About 90 Indians showed up.  Probably all men at first, just to make sure all was safe.  Women and children probably came shortly thereafter.  Unlike the paintings so often reproduced in textbooks, the Indians did not wear colorful feather headdresses.  Those were copied from the Indians of the “Wild West Show” made famous by Buffalo Bill.  Also the Indians would have brought their share of the food as well.
1621 A New Look at Thanksgiving

Because of the poor treatment their ancestors received, since 1970 many Indian people have gathered in Plymouth on Thanksgiving to observe a National Day of Mourning.  1621 A New Look at  Thanksgiving

Colonists vs. Indians

Colonists spread from these early settlements along the Atlantic Coast into all of New England.  As more colonists moved into Indian territories, conflicts arose.  One of the most significant is King Philip’s War of 1676.  We have all often heard of Indian atrocities such as scalping, but what did the Europeans do?  When King Philip (whose Indian name was Metacom) was killed, the colonists cut off his head and displayed it on the outskirts of Plimoth for 40 years.  By the way, Metacom was the son of Massasoit, one of the Indians who had befriended the Pilgrims years earlier.  King Philip, The Indian Chief

Speaking of scalping, the Dutch in 1641 put a bounty on the heads of the Raritans, a band of the Delaware (Lenni Lenape), making it profitable for the Dutch to kill local Indians.  The so-called “Peach Wars” began two years later when an Indian woman was killed by a white farmer for picking peaches from his orchard.  Warriors took revenge on the farmer.  The colonists raided villages, burned homes and crops, and even took children as hostages to convince their fathers not to fight.  Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes

Most of you, probably all of you, have heard the famous story of the Indians selling Manhattan Island to the Dutch for $24 worth of beads.  There is, of course, more to the story than that.  The Indians did not believe they were selling the land forever.  To Indian people, no one could own land any more than they could own the air.  They thought they were simply selling the right to use the land, in other words a lease arrangement. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes

Your textbook probably does not point out that when the Dutch bought Manhattan Island, they actually paid the wrong tribe!  The Canarsees, native to Brooklyn, were probably pretty satisfied with the deal.  The Weckquaesgeeks who lived on Manhattan probably weren’t so happy. Lies My Teacher Told Me

One of the most tragic stories of colonial relations with the Indians is that of Jeffrey Amherst, after whom Amherst College is named.  Amherst was the commander in chief of British forces in North America during the final battles of the French and Indian War.  He sent blankets infected with smallpox to the Indians around Fort Pitt (today’s Pittsburgh), thereby starting an epidemic.  Lies Across America


Averill, E. (1950). King Philip, The Indian Chief. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Duncan, B., & Riggs, B. (2003). Cherokee Heritage Trails. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press.

Erdoes, R., & Ortiz, A. (Eds.). (1984). American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books.

Grace, C., & Bruchac, M. (2001). 1621, A New Look at Thanksgiving. Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society.

Graebner, W., & Richards, L. (Eds.). (1982). The American Record (Volume One). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Hawke, S., & Davis, J. (1992). Seeds of Change. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Loewen, J. (1999). Lies Across America. New York: Touchstone.

Loewen, J. (1995). Lies My Teacher Told Me. New York: Touchstone.

Loewen, J. (1992). The Truth About Columbus. New York: The New Press.