Wednesday, July 10, 2013

History -- not quite what we thought

Hamlin Garland is not now a household word, if he ever was, and his late-Victorian writing style hasn't helped. But those seeking a realistic portrait of pioneering in the upper Midwest (Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota) will enjoy reading A Son of the Middle Border. He spent his boyhood, youth, and young manhood pioneering and ended in 1893 telling his father Richard,

Father, you've been chasing a will-o'-the-wisp. For fifty years you've been moving westward, and always you have gone from certainty to uncertainty, from a comfortable home to a shanty. For thirty years you've carried mother on a ceaseless journey -- to what end? Here you are - snowbound on a treeless plain with mother old and crippled.... You must take the back trail.
This message may be unwelcome to many 21st-century genealogists, as it was to the old Civil War veteran. But it's closer to real life than the sentimental sketches in the mug books being published around the same time.

Hamlin Garland was a man of his time. He maintained, and probably believed, the fiction that the Indians just "melted away" before white settlement. His critique of pioneering had nothing to do with the immorality of white people's stealing Indian land; it had to do with the resultant quality of life for the white people themselves.

A completely different approach to a similar subject is a recent working paper by economists on the results of the 1832 Cherokee land lottery, in which land recently "acquired" from Indians was offered at random to white settlers. The economists compared those who received the windfall with those who did not, using 1850 census data, and found that most of the benefits accrued, not to the poorest, but to middling and wealthy.
Almost two decades after the lottery, winners were, on average, $700 richer than a comparable population that did not win the lottery. The gains in wealth, however, are not evenly distributed among the lottery winners. Indeed, the poorest third of lottery winners were essentially as poor as the poorest third of lottery losers.
History is rarely what we expect; no wonder the future is so surprising.

Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border (New York: Macmillan, 1917).

Hoyt Bleakley and Joseph Ferrie, "Up from Poverty? The 1832 Cherokee Land Lottery and the Long-run Distribution of Wealth," National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper, 21 June 2013 version ( : viewed 5 July 2013).

Harold Henderson, "History -- not quite what we thought," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 10 July 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]  

No comments: