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Lies Across America : What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2000-11-14
  • Publisher: Touchstone

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In Lies Across America, James W. Loewen continues his mission, begun in the award-winning Lies My Teacher Told Me, of overturning the myths and misinformation that too often pass for American history. Lies Across America is a one-o

Author Biography

James W. Loewen taught race relations at the University of Vermont. His previous book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, won the American Book Award, the AESA Critics' Choice Award, and the Oliver C. Cox Anti-Racism Award of the American Sociological Association. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Table of Contents

In What Ways Were We Warped? 15(25)
Some Functions of Public History 25(4)
The Sociology of Historic Sites 29(7)
Historic Sites Are Always a Tale of Two Eras 36(7)
Hieratic Scale in Historic Monuments 43(8)
Alaska Denali: The Tallest Mountain--The Silliest Naming
Hawaii Honolulu: King Kamehameha I, The Roman!
California Sacramento: The Flat Earth Myth on the West Coast
California Sacramento: Exploiting vs. Exterminating the Natives
California San Francisco: China Beach Leaves Out the Bad Parts
California Downieville: Killing a Man Is Not News
Oregon La Grande: Don't ``Discover'' 'Til You See the Eyes of the Whites!
Washington Cowlitz County: No Communists Here!
Washington Centralia: Using Nationalism to Redefine a Troublesome Statue
Nevada Hickison Summit: What We Know and What We Don't Know About Rock Art
Nevada Nye County: Don't Criticize Big Brother
Idaho Almo: Circle the Wagons, Boys---It's Tourist Season
Utah North of St. George: Bad Things Happen in the Passive Voice
Arizona Navajo Reservation: Calling Native Americans Bad Names
Montana Helena: No Confederate Dead? No Problem! Invent Them!
Wyoming South Pass City: A Woman Shoulda Done It!
Colorado Pagosa Springs: Tall Tales in the West
Colorado Leadville: Licking the Corporate Hand That Feeds You
New Mexico Alcalde: The Footloose Statue
Oklahoma Oklahoma City: The Oklahoma State History Museum Confederate Room Tells No History
Kansas Gardner: Which Came First, Wilderness or Civilization?
Nebraska Red Cloud: No Lesbians on the Landscape
South Dakota Brookings: American Indians Only Roved for About a Hundred Years
North Dakota Devils Lake: The Devil is Winning, Six to One
Minnesota St. Paul: ``Serving the Cause of Humanity''
Iowa Muscatine: Red Men Only---No Indians Allowed
Missouri Hannibal: Domesticating Mark Twain
Wisconsin Racine: Not the First Auto
Illinois Chicago: America's Most Toppled Monument
Indiana Graysville: Coming into Indiana Minus a Body Part
Indiana Indianapolis: The Invisible Empire Remains Invisible
Kentucky Lexington: Putting the He in Hero
Kentucky Hodgenville: Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace Cabin---Built Thirty Years after His Death!
Michigan Dearborn: Honoring a Segregationist
Ohio Delaware: Who Menaced Whom?
Texas Gainesville: ``No Nation Rose So White and Fair; None Fell So Free of Crime''
Texas Alba: The Only Honest Sundown Town in the United States
Texas Pittsburg: It Never Got Off the Ground
Texas Fredericksburg: The Real War Will Never Get into the War Museums
Texas Galveston: This Building Used to Be a Hardware Store
Arkansas Grant County: Which Came First, the Statue or the Oppression?
Arkansas Little Rock: Men Make History; Women Make Wives
Louisiana Laplace: Suppressing a Slave Revolt for the Second Time
Louisiana Colfax: Mystifying the Colfax Riot and Lying About Reconstruction
Louisiana New Orleans: The White League Begins to Take a Beating
Louisiana Baton Rouge: The Toppled ``Darky''
Louisiana Fort Jackson: Let Us Now Praise Famous Thieves
Mississippi Hazlehurst: The End of Reconstruction
Mississippi Itta Bena: A Black College Celebrates White Racists
Alabama Calhoun County: If Russia Can Do It, Why Can't We?
Alabama Tuscumbia: Confining Helen Keller Under House Arrest
Alabama Scottsboro: Famous Everywhere but at Home
Tennessee Fort Pillow: Remember Fort Pillow!
Tennessee Woodbury: Forrest Rested Here
Georgia Stone Mountain: A Confederate-KKK Shrine Encounters Turbulence
Florida Near Cedar Key: The Missing Town of Rosewood
South Carolina Beech Island: The Beech Island Agricultural Club Was Hardly What the Marker Implies
South Carolina Fort Mill: To the Loyal Slaves
South Carolina: Columbia Who Burned Columbia?
North Carolina Bentonville Battlefield: The Last Major Confederate Offensive of the Civil War
Virginia Alexandria: The Invisible Slave Trade
Virginia Alexandria: The Clash of the Martyrs
Virginia Richmond: ``One of the Great Female Spies of All Times''
Virginia Richmond: Slavery and Redemption
Virginia Richmond: The Liberation of Richmond
Virginia Richmond: Abraham Lincoln Walks Through Richmond
Virginia Appomattox: Getting Even the Numbers Wrong
Virginia Stickleville: A Sign of Good Breeding
West Virginia Union: Is California West of the Alleghenies?
District of Columbia Jefferson Memorial: Juxtaposing Quotations to Misrepresent a Founding Father
District of Columbia Lincoln Memorial: A Product of Its Time and All Time
Maryland Hampton: ``No History to Tell''
Delaware Reliance: The Reverse Underground Railroad
Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Telling Amusing Incidents for the Tourists
Pennsylvania Valley Forge: George Washington's Desperate Prayer
Pennsylvania Lancaster: ``You're Here to See the House''
Pennsylvania Gettysburg: South Carolina Defines the Civil War in 1965
Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Remember the ``Splendid Little War''---Forget the Tawdry Larger Wars
Pennsylvania Philadelphia: Celebrating Illegal Submarine Warfare
New Jersey Trenton: The Pilgrims and Religious Freedom
New York Manhattan: Making Native Americans Look Stupid
New York Alabama: Which George Washington?
New York North Elba: John Brown's Plaque Puts Blacks at the Bottom!
New York Manhattan: The Union League Club: Traitors to Their Own Cause
New York Manhattan: Selective Memory at USS Intrepid
Connecticut Darien: Omitting the Town's Continuing Claim to Fame
Massachusetts Boston: The Problem of the Common
Massachusetts Amherst: Celebrating Genocide
Massachusetts Boston: What a Monument Ought to Be
Vermont Burlington: Shards of Minstrelsy on a Far-North Campus
New Hampshire Peterborough and Dublin: Local History Wars
New Hampshire Concord: ``Effective Political Leader''
Rhode Island Block Island: ``Settlement'' Means Fewer People!
Rhode Island Warren and Barrington: Fighting Over the ``Good Indian''
Maine Bar Harbor: At Last---An Accurate Marker
Snowplow Revisionism
Getting into a Dialogue with the Landscape
A Selecting the Sites
B Ten Questions to Ask at a Historic Site
C Twenty Candidates for ``Toppling''
Index 468

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1. The Tallest Mountain -- The Silliest Naming

ALASKA Denali (Mt. McKinley)

Since people probably reached Alaska before any other part of the Western Hemisphere, they probably named North America's tallest mountain thousands of years ago. They didn't call it Mt. McKinley.

    Replacing Native American names with those of European Americans is a form of cultural imperialism. The practice declares that the new rulers of the landscape can afford to ignore what Native names mean and connote in favor of new names that typically have no relation to what is named.

    Low-profile conflicts have raged for many years between those who want to change the names of localities and geographic features back to their original Native names, and those who want them named for European American people, towns, or words. To some degree this is a contest between Native Americans and European Americans, but European Americans are usually found on both sides of the arguments. The battles might also be characterized as between traditionalists and those desiring change, except that both parties claim to have tradition on their side. Denali, or Mt. McKinley, dramatically embodies these disputes about names all across America, not only because it is such a dramatic place but also because the controversy at Denali has gone on for more than twenty-five years.

    William A. Dickey renamed the peak, the tallest point in North America, Mt. McKinley in 1896. Why he got to name it is hard to fathom. Dickey had come to Alaska spurred by discoveries of gold in Cook Inlet. With three companions he made it to Talkeetna and saw Denali, "the great one" in the language of the nearby Tanaina Indians. According to C. H. Merriam, testifying before the U.S. Geographical Board in 1917, "The right of the discoverer to name geographical features has never been questioned," but Dickey was no discoverer. Native people had discovered the mountain thousands of years earlier. Even if only white people "discover," Russians saw it in the 1770s or 1780s and named it Bulshaia Gora, "big mountain." Even if only English-speaking white people "discover," George Vancouver saw Denali in 1794. Dickey was not even the first white American to see it; other Americans had preceded him by a quarter century.

    Dickey had no serious reason to name the mountain as he did. William McKinley had not yet been martyred when he received the honor; indeed he had not even been elected president. Nor had McKinley ever been to the mountain, or even to Alaska. William Dickey favored conservative fiscal policies, while most people in the West wanted to expand the amount of money in circulation by minting more silver coins and certificates. Dickey was irritated by arguments he had lost with "free silver" partisans on his trip and decided to retaliate by naming Denali after the gold standard champion.

    "The original naming was little more than a joke," according to George R. Stewart, author of American Place-Names . From the first, some people preferred the Native name, and Dickey's frivolous reason for choosing McKinley gave them ammunition. Nevertheless, probably because he wrote about his trip in the New York Sun , Dickey's choice began to catch on. McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1896, so at least the mountain turned out to be named after a president, and, when McKinley was shot in Buffalo in 1901, after a martyred president.

    Today however, many Americans consider the Native name more melodious and object to "McKinley" on aesthetic grounds--as if the Mississippi River had been renamed for, say, Zachary Taylor. Others support Native efforts to gain more acceptance, including better recognition on the landscape. "It's time we listened to the Native people of Alaska," declared Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska in 1991. "This mountain is the largest in North America. It was named by the Natives long before we arrived."

    Nationally, a lone congressman from Ohio prevents the renaming of the mountain. In 1975, Rep. Ralph Regula from Canton, William McKinley's hometown, blocked a compromise proposed by the Alaska legislature to name the mountain Denali and leave the national park surrounding it named for McKinley. Five years later the National Park Service agreed to a compromise Regula couldn't block: it changed the name of Mt. McKinley National Park to Denali National Park, but the mountain stayed Mt. McKinley. This resolution proved unstable, however. Finding its Native lobby more persuasive than Ohio's McKinley lobby, Alaska changed its name for the mountain to Denali, relegating the 25th president to the parenthetical statement, "(also known as Mt. McKinley)." Regula has found a way to block any change on the national level, however. His aide told me, "The Board of Geographic Names won't change names so long as legislation on the subject is pending. Congressman Regula always has legislation pending." The legislation never gets anywhere, but it suffices to prevent action by the board.

    When the Board on Geographic Names was considering a proposal to rename the mountain in 1977, Congressman Regula testified, "This action would be an insult to the memory of President McKinley and to the people of my district and the nation who are so proud of his heritage." But Americans aren't! That's the problem: most Americans don't rank William McKinley very high in the pantheon of presidents. They remember him if at all as a creation of political boss Mark Hanna, beholden to big business, and addicted to high tariffs. He also got us bogged down in a seemingly endless colonial war in the Philippines (25). Such facts do not deter Regula, who portrays McKinley as "a champion of the working class" and credits him for "settlement of the long-standing Spanish-American conflict."

    Naturally the congressman's office claims higher principles, not mere local pride, motivate Regula to block renaming the mountain. "The congressman feels that a lot of money goes into maps," emphasized aide Barbara Wainman, "and names shouldn't be changed lightly." Moreover, she noted, if they win Denali, Native groups will want to change other names.

    On that last point Wainman is right. Entry 24 tells that Native groups do want to change other names all across America. And American Indians are winning some of these battles. Memphis renamed DeSoto Bluff "Chickasaw Heritage State Park." "Custer's Last Stand" is now "The Little Bighorn Battlefield." Also, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names adopted a policy in 1990 to favor names derived from American Indian, Inuit, and Polynesian languages. Eventually Natives will outlast Ralph Regula and rename Denali.

* * *

2. King Kamehameha I, The Roman !

HAWAII Honolulu

Kamehameha I was an extraordinary leader. Born on the Big Island of Hawaii about 1758, he died on Kona in 1819. Using his intelligence, courage in man-to-man combat, his own genealogy (very important in traditional Hawaiian culture), diplomacy, Western arms, and capable advisors and underlings, Kamehameha conquered all of the Big Island of Hawaii in the 1790s. He then moved northwest, conquering Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Oahu. Finally in 1810 by negotiation he was acknowledged king over Kauai, unifying all the Hawaiian Islands for the first time.

    Kamehameha's imposing statue stands across South King Street from Iolani Palace in Honolulu. An identical statue stands near his birthplace. A third statue, made from molds prepared from the one in Honolulu, stands indoors in the United States Capitol. Eight and one half feet tall with gold robes, it is "easily the most striking in the National Statuary Hall" in the words of the guidebook for the collection. Kamehameha's likeness can thus be seen on the landscape at more places than that of any other Asian or Pacific Island American.

    Only it's not Kamehameha's likeness.

    The statue had its origin in 1878 when Walter Gibson, a non-Polynesian member of the Hawaiian legislature, proposed it in connection with the centennial of Hawaii's "discovery" by Captain James Cook. This had a certain logic, since Kamehameha was among the many Hawaiians who had met Cook during his two visits to the islands before he was killed there. The legislature appropriated $10,000 for the project and made Gibson chair of the monument committee, which included native Hawaiian members but soon became a one-man show. Gibson chose Thomas R. Gould, a Boston sculptor, to craft the work.

    Gould never went to Hawaii and seems never to have learned what Kamehameha looked like, although several portraits did exist, painted at different points in his life. Photographs of native Hawaiians were mailed to Gould as he worked on the statue in Florence, Italy, but they did not make much impact either. Gould was in Italy, so he made the statue look like an Italian with a long Roman cloak. According to travel writer Hal Glatzer, "The statue is essentially that of a Roman general with dark skin. The features are more Caucasian than Polynesian. The pose, with the right arm extended, palm upturned, is `supposed' to be a welcoming aloha gesture. But it is based on the Roman pose with an upright staff or spear."

    David Kalakaua had become king of Hawaii in 1874, and in 1882 Hawaiians finished the Iolani Palace for him. The statue of King Kamehameha I, not ready for the 1878-79 centennial of Cook's visit, was scheduled as part of Kalakaua's belated coronation festivities connected with opening the new palace in 1883. Cast in bronze in Paris and then shipped to Hawaii via Cape Horn, the statue was lost before rounding the Cape when the ship wrecked at the Falkland Islands.

    The Hawaiians had insured the statue for $12,000, and with that money they ordered another one. Gould made a copy and sent it off to Hawaii. Before it could get there, however, a ship came into Hawaii with the original! Enterprising Falkland Islanders had recovered it from the sea and sold it to the captain for $500. He sold it to Gibson for $875. Now Hawaii had two statues, and neither looked anything like Kamehameha. The reordered statue was placed in front of Iolani Palace, while the original went up near the northernmost point of the Big Island, near Kamehameha's birthplace.

    Making Kamehameha look Roman is a classic example of Eurocentrism. Hawaiians do not look Italian. James King, lieutenant to Captain Cook, said Kamehameha had "as savage a looking face as I ever saw." "Savage" of course was a Eurocentric way of saying "Polynesian"; Hawaiian women found Kamehameha quite attractive. Nevertheless, Native Hawaiian activist Poka Laenui points out that the statues do symbolize how Hawaiians of that era were finding ways to "walk in two worlds"--their own culture and the European-dominated world economy. Hawaii adopted a written constitution and other accoutrements of modern nationhood. Regardless, Europeans were taking over Hawaii as they were taking over Kamehameha's likeness. In 1887, whites forced Kalakaua to sign a constitution supporting white interests. Venereal disease, cholera, influenza, measles, typhoid, smallpox, and other diseases from Europe and Asia, including leprosy which arrived in 1830, decimated the Hawaiians. Hawaii's Native population shrank from perhaps 350,000 when Captain Cook arrived to about 35,000 by 1893. In that year American residents on Hawaii, aided by 162 United States sailors, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani, Kalakaua's successor. It seemed then that Native Hawaiians might disappear from their own country as thoroughly as the likeness of King Kamehameha had from his own statue.

    Since then, "pure Hawaiians" have continued to decline in number to about 8,000. In the 1970s and 1980s however, in a development that paralleled Black Power and American Indian movements on the mainland, the number of Hawaiians who identified themselves as Native Hawaiian soared. So has the number of Native Hawaiians learning Hawaiian music, dance, language, crafts, and navigation. In the 1990 census about 140,000 people had substantial Hawaiian ancestry and were identified as Native Hawaiian Although that is only one-eighth of the population of the islands, their numbers continue to increase rapidly.

Entry 26 tells of a similar population decline and rebound among Native Americans, and a corresponding rise in the number of those identifying themselves as American Indians.

Copyright © 1999 James W. Loewen. All rights reserved.

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