Thursday, December 30, 2021

June 2, 1816 - Bolívar Plans Universal Emancipation

Simón Bolívar, who would become known as El Libertador, returned to South America after yet another reversal of fortunes. Bolívar had been born to a wealthy family that lived in luxury thanks to slave labor in mines and plantations outside of Caracas. Bolívar’s parents had both died when he was young, and he as a boy was placed in the care of Hipólita, a nurse-slave, whom the later wrote served as his mother and father. Bolívar was handed to different tutors and uncles through his later youth, traveling Europe while learning the high ideals of the French Revolution as well as the ascendancy of Napoleon. When his wife died after only one year of marriage, he vowed never to marry again and instead turned his attention to independence for Venezuela.

Bolívar lived his philosophical life as a paradox. He quoted Enlightenment writing about the equality of all men, yet he kept slaves and adhered to the strict social structure of birth that ranked him beneath Spanish-born nobles yet above freemen of color. Bolívar considered these social matters and focused his attention on politics, looking to overthrow the crown-appointed officials in favor of elected representatives alongside special hereditary positions.

Upon Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, the colonies were ripe for independence. Juntas and coups broke out in New Granada, but Spanish loyalists were quick to fight back. After serving as a colonel in the First Republic of Venezuela and ending up in retreat to his plantations, Bolívar himself led a campaign in 1813, earning his title of “El Libertador” while marching to establish the Second Republic. He fought on the basis of his “Decree of War to the Death,” vowing to kill anyone who wasn’t an adamant supporter of independence, thus stripping the land of any potential neutrality. By 1814, however, he was fighting fellow republicans, losing momentum against the royalists, and then fleeing to the Caribbean in exile.

After failing to find European support in Jamaica, Bolívar traveled to Haiti and met with President Alexandre Pétion. Bolívar found Haiti a strange and admirable land, the only truly free republic in the world, yet it was thick with racial tension even after the supposed end of social hierarchy with the Rights of Man declared from Paris. Pétion, himself mixed-raced, happily offered aid with 1,000 soldiers and sailors along with weapons and transport on the condition that Bolívar free the slaves of the lands he liberated from Spain. Bolívar readily agreed, though he spent many nights awake pondering how best to do so.

Indebted to Haiti, Bolívar was nevertheless nervous about its sudden upheaval of the social norms. Haiti had won its independence only to turn to civil war between the absolutists maintaining the large plantations in the north under Henri Christophe, who named himself a king, and the troubled democracy in the south where the struggling economy of subsistence farming continued dissidence, prompting Pétion to revise the constitution to make himself an unquestionable President for Life. Bolívar knew he needed to offer liberation to slaves, both African and Native, for honor’s sake. He also needed to support rights of people of color, lest the new republic collapse again as the others had fallen largely due to pardo (mixed-race people) under the command of royalist caudillos like José Tomás Boves. Yet if the social order turned to chaos, he also might lose everything.

Turning to theory for his solution, Bolívar reread his constant companions: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the Letters of Voltaire, and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Bolívar needed to preserve the economy from the Wealth of Nations while creating a new government, which could be, according to Montesquieu, a monarchy built on the principle of honor, a republic built on the principle of virtue, or a despotism on the principle of fear. He at last determined to plan a society where honor could be established by means of virtue through service to the state.

Bolívar announced liberation for all slaves who came to serve his campaigns. Men were drafted into the military while women and children worked in support at camps and plantations that had been seized from royalists. As the military victories liberated New Granada, Bolívar pivoted his plans toward keeping up the economy by maintaining the government-owned plantations and mines as major exporting centers where workers elected their foremen and received salaries based on their output. Soon the economy recovered from its struggles, and wealthy landowners found ready competition for labor forces who had ready wages, which attracted men and women of every race.

When Bolívar marched south to liberate Peru and Rio de la Plata, cavalry-commander José Antonio Páez Herrera became the political voice in the new nation of Gran Colombia. Páez held a great deal of popular support but found the new independent government’s position under constant influence of the wealthy and the Catholic Church. Páez, who had grown up the son of a lowly ranked government clerk and literally fought his way to the top, decided to battle them both with expanding the economic opportunities Bolívar’s “virtue” plan had begun through the plantations and mines. Government investment into public works, education, and transportation such as roads, canals, and, later, railroads boosted the middle class while Páez encouraged legal action against the elite whenever they misstepped, such as illegally maintaining slaves or confiscating native land. Mixed-race general José Padilla became an ardent supporter of Páez and rallied the African- and native-descended population to maintain a united Gran Colombia.

Bolívar balked at Padilla, suggesting he threatened to exterminate the upper class, but again Páez was able to maintain peace by balancing one against the other. After Bolívar’s death from tuberculosis in 1830, Páez’s party became the dominant voice in not only Gran Colombia but also through sister-parties in Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Gran Colombia would serve as the economic and diplomatic leader of South and Central America as well as much of the Caribbean, proving to be a counterweight against the United States assisting in Spanish colonies gaining independence and joining the Latin Alliance, which itself served as the framework for the United Nations.


In reality, Bolívar sought to abolish slavery gradually. Initially, freedom was only granted to male slaves who volunteered to join his army. He then worked in 1819 to end the slave trade and in 1821 to emancipate children born to slaves on their eighteenth birthday. Bolívar did free his own slaves soon after the war, making good on his word. True abolition did not come to most South American countries until the 1850s.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

December 19, 1675 - Narragansett Victory in Great Swamp Fight

With the arrival of the first English settlers in 1620, a new player with steadily growing power came into the complex politics of the “New England” region. It was already home to several tribes, including the Wampanoags, who had served as allies with the English. Their sachem (“high chief”) Massasoit worked tirelessly to maintain peace in a land ravaged by disease and strained resources, balancing his own power with that of the English and the Narragansetts to the south. Following Massasoit’s death, his voice of peace faded, and his youngest son Metacom arrived as sachem with a plan to reestablish Wamanoag authority in the face of the English and end an era of broken treaties, theft, oppressive laws ordering native disarmament, and executing natives under colonial jurisdiction rather than native law.

Raiding began in the summer of 1675 in what the English called “King Philip’s War” after Metacom’s Christian name. Metacom organized attacks on Swansea, Dartmouth, and Springfield. Colonists fled to the fortified ports, and farmers worked to harvest and transport their wagons under the watch of militia. The United Colonies of New England pooled their defenses while other players, such as the Colony of New York and the Narragansetts, struggled to maintain neutrality.

When winter approached, the Wampanoags retreated toward the frontier between New York and New England as well as seeking shelter among the Narragansetts. Colonists remained nervous, and despite the Treaty of Neutrality between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Narragansetts signed that October, the colonists decided to make a preemptive attack on the Narragansetts in Rhode Island before the war would likely expand next spring. Governor Josiah Winslow assembled over 1,000 troops, including allies from the Pequot and Mohegan tribes.

The military action proved the warning cries of Metacom, which he had spread among the neighboring tribes. Using the example of the Mystic River Massacre, Metacom’s diplomats had argued that there was no long-term solution that would allow for survival for tribes while the colonies continued to grow. In 1637 during the Pequot War, colonists and Pequots battled one another with raids on trading. A militia led by Captain John Mason sieged a Pequot fortification with wooden palisades and set the village inside on fire. Those trying to escape the flames over the palisades were shot as they appeared. Of the hundreds of men, women, and children in the village, only five escaped.

Metacom’s storytellers had visited the Pequot, Mohegan, Narragansetts, and Mohawk of New York, stirring those who distrusted the colonists. While there were many natives who had converted to Christianity (known as “praying Indians”), the stories swayed many of those who had been undecided in allegiance. Word from spies among the Pequot gave the Narragansetts advance warning about the colonial attack, which planned to cross the frozen defensive moat for a direct assault. Narragansett warriors spent the night before the attack drilling small holes in the ice of the moat, making it so that only a few men could walk on it at a time. When the militia marched over the ice, they were caught by surprise when it suddenly gave way beneath them after enough troops marched onto it. The Narragansetts then charged out from the village, wiping out many of the militia and sending the rest to retreat in disarray.

In the spring of 1676, attacks by the natives resumed with new allies that included more than 2,000 Narragansett warriors under Canonchet. These marched on Providence, Rhode Island Colony’s capital, and burned it. Metacom swept through southern Massachusetts while guerilla warfare scattered settlers in the northern reaches of Massachusetts called Maine. Colonists went into disarray, many boarding overcrowded ships to sail south and others working to fortify their towns. A delegation traveled to London to appeal for military aid, but the court of Charles II was battle-weary from the Third Anglo-Dutch War and far too concerned with internal religious strife.

The colonists at last sued for peace. A permanent border was set at the Blackstone River for the rump Massachusetts Colony, which absorbed the remains of Rhode Island and New Hampshire. An allied Algonquian Nation formed among the Abenaki and others, ranging from southern ports on Narragansen Bay and stretching north to New France on the St. Lawrence River, bordering Connecticut and New York. Through Metacom’s contacts with the Mohawk and western Algonquins, he served as a mediator to secure a growing alliance that came to rival French and English in the region. English colonists preferred to settle southward, challenging Spanish control, while French interest in the western hemisphere faded when the fur trade died out.

The spirit of Metacom’s native alliance continued beyond the French interest, which had long supplied weapons and manufactured goods to the growing nation. Periodic wars with the English continued, but natives were always able to find new allies among the Dutch or Spanish to until they became self-sufficient with their own foundries and ports. Today North America is a patchwork of native countries with economic focus along the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes region, where a free-trade agreement keeps the waterways busy with craft from the Algonquin, Odawa, Mississaugs, Chippewa, and Iroquois.


In reality, the battle was a New England victory, described by James Drake as “one of the most brutal and lopsided military encounters in all of New England's history.” Once the militia crossed the frozen-over moat without issue, they stormed the fortifications and utterly destroyed the village. Following Wampanoag defeat by Mohawk in New York, battles through the latter part of the war went largely to the New Englanders, who killed Metacom at Mount Hope in 1676 and hung his head at Plymouth until 1701. By the end of the war, much of the native population had died, fled, or were sold as slaves to Bermuda.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

December 15, 1890 - Sitting Bull Saved by Ghost Shirt


In 1890, the Ghost Dance movement swept through the Native American populations of the western United States. During the eclipse of January 1, 1890, a Paiute man known as Jack Wilson and Wovoka in western Nevada collapsed in a vision. He traveled to heaven, where the spirits of those who had passed were living in peace. The vision showed him a round dance, the Ghost Dance, which would serve as a further link between the living and those who had passed.

Wovoka said that God had told him that the world be born anew in peace and plenty if every native person in the West lived right and performed the Ghost Dance. As his story spread, so did the Ghost Dance. Other tribes adopted it, and many reinterpreted its message that the buffalo, hunted to near-extinction, would return to the plains or that it would cause the white people to vanish from the continent. In South Dakota, many Lakota adopted the Ghost Dance in hope of a better life after the 1887 Dawes Act had forced them into reservation allotments for agrarian living and years of terrible harvests caused food to be scarce. Furthering the problems, supplies that had been signed under the Dawes agreement never arrived.

The expansion of the Ghost Dance onto Lakota reservations made U.S. Indian Agent James McLaughlin nervous. He had worked as an agent with the tribes toward assimilation since 1871, but he took this sudden return to traditional affairs as a precursor to a fight. To minimize the effect of an uprising, he dispatched a letter from the Standing Rock Agency at Fort Yates to reservation police to put longtime Lakota leader Sitting Bull into custody. Lieutenant Henry Bullhead led a force of more than 40 police to Sitting Bull’s home hours before dawn.

After his surrender in 1881, Sitting Bull had spent months touring Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show giving speeches and hosting dances and mock-battles. He had given away or eagerly spent his earnings, paying as much as $65 for a photographer to take his picture with fellow performer Annie Oakley. Once back in Standing Rock, he lived humbly, leading and campaigning for native rights, including hosting Ghost Dancers in his settlement. It is likely that Sitting Bull did not participate in the dances himself, although the rumors that he did quickly spread upon his seeming invulnerability to bullets.

During the morning of his arrest, Sitting Bull and his wife attempted to buy time by noisily getting washed and dressed. This brought curious neighbors, which became a growing crowd that made the reservation police nervous. Instead of loading him in a wagon, the police attempted to force Sitting Bull onto a horse. As the police manhandled him, Catch-the-Bear opened fire with a rifle in defense of the chief. Bullhead was struck and moved to end the supposed insurrection by shooting Sitting Bull in the chest at pointblank range. Sitting Bull did not even flinch. Police were so surprised by the reaction that one, Red Tomahawk, screamed it was magic. The others agreed in panic, and the police dispersed.

Legend quickly spread that Sitting Bull had been wearing a Ghost Shirt, one of the blessed garments worn during the Ghost Dance that were said to become impervious to mundane weapons, including bullets. However, further historical analysis showed that it was likely a silk “bulletproof” shirt, after the style described by Dr. George Goodfellow who noted how layered silk was able to impede bullets while he was stitching up gunfighters in Tombstone. Sitting Bull had likely collected one during his European travels, possibly as a gift from Buffalo Bill Cody, and wore it under his traditional buckskin and blanket winter attire.

Whatever the actual fact, the legend at the time played on nineteenth century superstitions. Sitting Bull, accompanied by dozens of warriors, arrived at the agency per McLaughlin’s supposed request, but McLaughlin refused to see him. In fact, McLaughlin and numerous other agents quickly resigned and fled eastward. There were calls to exterminate the natives before they marched invulnerable upon white settlers, but General Nelson A. Miles noted that it was the failure of Washington to uphold the treaties that caused native peoples to trust the Ghost Dance. Promises were soon made good, and reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs revealed corruption.

As politicians acted and used the media to quell panic, the world became fascinated with native culture. The famed “Christmas at Wooded Knee Creek” photograph of officials delivering supplies to the native people there circulated on newspapers and cards, even catching the eye of Buffalo Bill Cody and prompting his return from England. Acting as a go-between, Cody organized further tours, lectures via translators, and editorials that promoted native affairs. Boarding schools that had grown up popularly to stamp out native culture became vacated as local schools encouraged tribal art and language, ending the era of assimilation.


In reality, Sitting Bull was shot in the torso by Henry Bullhead and then the head by Red Tomahawk, which knocked him to the ground. He died of his wounds within hours. Relations between the Lakota and the Bureau of Indian Affairs continued to deteriorate, leading to forced disarmament and the Wounded Knee Massacre a few weeks later by U.S. military using repeating rifles and light artillery. Hundreds of Lakota were killed, most of them women and children. Although there was a military investigation due to public outcry, commanders were reinstated afterward and some 20 Medals of Honor were bestowed.

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