Category Archives: History

Pigs and People, The Other “Missing Link”: Thomas Fleischman on “Communist Pigs”

In February of 1922 Henry Fairfield Osborn, world-famous paleontologist, conservationist, and director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, received a package in the mail from Nebraska. Inside Osborn found a note and a carefully wrapped molar. A rancher and amateur geologist named Harold Cook had discovered the ancient tooth in a ten-million-year-old layer of rock bed in the Snake River near his home. Believing it to have “human type” features, Cook sent the tooth to Osborn to verify his assessment. Osborn was thrilled. The man who had christened the Tyrannosaurus Rex believed he now had evidence of another epoch-making discovery: a “missing link” fossil, evidence of man’s descent from apes. Studying the shape, size, and wear of the molar, Osborn determined the tooth belonged to a third genus of extinct hominids—and the first found in the Americas. He named this new primate ancestor Hesperopithecus, or “Ape of the Western World.” The press dubbed it simply “Nebraska Man.”

That same year Osborn published his findings in several prominent periodicals. Lest anyone doubt his claims, he also sent casts of the molar to museums and universities in the United States and Europe. It didn’t take long, however, before skeptics began to poke holes in his case. In response, Osborn sent crews back to Nebraska in the summers of 1925 and 1926 to scour the same riverbed deposits for more fossils. In the dry heat of summer they found fossils and bone fragments of numerous mammals, but none belonging to Nebraska Man. The expedition concluded that the molar belonged not to a hominid, but instead to an extinct species of peccary called Prosthennops, a primeval relative of the modern pig, Sus scrofa. Osborn was not the first person, nor would he be the last, to go looking for humans in the past and find a pig instead.

Osborn’s mistake can be forgiven. Pig bodies and human bodies have a great deal in common. Similarities include their teeth (like all omnivores, pigs and humans share a similar array of molars, incisors, and canines), but also much more. Pigs’ internal organs are nearly identical in ability and form to our own. When the first experiments in heart transplants began in the 1950s, researchers looked not to the ape but to the pig, whose heart was strong enough to pump blood through a human body. Today porcine valves and skin grafts are used regularly in surgery on people. Scientists have used stem cells from pig fat to grow human jawbones. Pig eyes have similar ocular power and see the same color spectrum as humans, and relative to other members of the animal kingdom pigs are remarkably nearsighted. People and pigs also share many ailments, including cancer, rheumatism, and arthritis. And most infamously, infectious diseases like H1N1 spread easily between our species and theirs. Osborn was right to intuit that his molar belonged to a genetic cousin of modern humans—he just chose the wrong family.

Even more significantly, people and pigs have lived closely alongside one another and in various degrees of cooperation for millennia. While not the first animal to give up its freedom in exchange for domestic living (dogs beat all animals there some twenty thousand years ago), pigs were never far away, lurking just beyond the reach of campfire lights, rooting through midden heaps for scraps. And when domestication of Sus scrofa began around nine thousand years ago, pigs proved so amenable to human society that they were domesticated over and over again. Paleogeneticists have pinpointed not just one site or moment for pig domestication, but multiple locations and dates, stretching over thousands of years and from what is now modern Turkey to southeast Asia. Pigs, it seems, were just as willing to live within human society as they were to cast off the human hand and live on their own in the wild.

Historians have also have homed in on this special relationship to raise new questions about the past. They have used pigs to explore the cultural and economic lives of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English small-holders, or as a synecdoche for medieval antisemitism among French peasants in Languedoc. They have identified pigs as agents of imperial conquest and dispossession, from the Columbian Exchange in North America to the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe. They have shown how the rise of scientific pig breeding in the nineteenth century inaugurated an ecological succession in the US Midwest, from old-growth forest and prairie grasslands to landscapes defined by corn and dotted with whiskey distilleries, piggeries, and slaughterhouses. And in the age of the factory farm, the lives, labor, and deaths of millions of pigs reveal that people remain ensnared in the same system of exploitation and degradation. In each case, pig bodies, behaviors, and diets provide clues about the human past.

My book Communist Pigs builds on these insights to tell the story of agricultural development in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, during the Cold War. It uses the pig’s propensity for adaptation and change to narrate a history of East Germany’s rise and fall. It analyzes three predominant archetypes of Sus scrofa in the GDR—the industrial pig, the garden pig, and the wild boar—to connect the complex environmental history of European communism with the industrial development of rural spaces around the world. Communist Pigs shows how this animal came to occupy a commanding place at the center of industrial agriculture. It explores how East Germans struggled to overcome the ecological constraints and obstacles of industrial hog farming. And it uncovers the surprising mixture of small-scale pig farming and boar hunting that emerged in response to environmental pollution and the limitations of a planned economy. Together, the GDR’s three pigs reveal how a communist regime was drawn rapidly into capitalist markets for cheap grain, meat, energy, and capital. This shift precipitated an ecological and political crisis that culminated in the collapse of East Germany and the end of the Cold War.

Pigs, like people, make their own histories. These histories are specific to the environments in which they occur and their moments in the past. Pigs can open new ways of considering the rigid frameworks—say, the divide between communism and capitalism—through which we interpret human histories. In the specific case of the twentieth century, pigs show us how industrial agriculture has physically remade the entire earth and all the things that live and die upon it to promote the production of meat. But just like any relationship, the one between pigs and people can be undone and remade anew. The pig may even survive us as the dominant species on the planet, if the resurgence of wild boar populations is any indication. And if in ten million years this porcine descendent species decides to excavate the rock bed formations of the Anthropocene in search of clues to their own prehistory, it may very well mistake the fossilized remains of Homo sapiens for its own “missing” genetic ancestor, which, as we know, is a very human error to make.


Thomas Fleischman is assistant professor of history at the University of Rochester. His book Communist Pigs is available now.

Sources

Anderson, J. L. Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019.

Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Blanchette, Alex. Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.

Fabre-Vassas, Claudine. The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig. European Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Gibson, Abraham. Feral Animals in the American South: An Evolutionary History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Hicks, Lucy. “Pig Fat Can Be Used to Grow Jawbones for Humans.” Science, October 15, 2020, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/10/pig-fat-can-be-used-grow-jawbones-humans.

Malcolmson, Robert, and Stephanos Mastoris. The English Pig: A History. New York: Hambledon Press, 1998.

Pennisi, Elizabeth. “The Taming of the Pig Took Some Wild Turns.” Science, August 31, 2015, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/08/taming-pig-took-some-wild-turns.

Porter, Valerie. Pigs: A Handbook to the Breeds of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Saraiva, Tiago. Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism. Boston: MIT Press, 2016.

Watson, Lyall. The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2004.

White, Sam. “From Globalized Pig Breeds to Capitalist Pigs: A Study in Animal Cultures and Evolutionary History.” Environmental History 16 (January 2011): 94–120.

UW Press at the Western History Association Virtual Conference

Meet UW Press’s History Editors

Three of the press’s acquisitions editors acquire in the field of the history of the US West, and each one has a particular specialty.

Mike Baccam (he/him) acquires in western history, critical ethnic studies, and Asian American studies. He is interested in projects that engage with race, gender, migration, imperialism, and labor and particularly welcomes interdisciplinary work. He accepts queries for the Emil and Kathleen Sick Series in Western History. He can be reached by email at mbaccam@uw.edu or on Twitter at @mikebaccam.

Andrew Berzanskis (he/him) acquires environmental history, geography, and books for general readers about the Pacific Northwest. Pitch him via email at andrewlb@uw.edu and find him on Twitter at @ABerzanskis. He also accepts proposals for our Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series.

Larin McLaughlin (she/her) acquires in Native and Indigenous studies, women’s history, gender, and sexuality studies, and visual culture. She welcomes queries for the Indigenous Confluences series. lmclaugh@uw.edu.

We encourage you to reach out to the editor whose emphasis best reflects the focus of your work. And please visit the WHA virtual conference and stop by our virtual booth to learn more about new releases in western history, view series flyers, and access other information.

2020 WHA Award Winners

We are excited to share the news that two of our recent books have received awards from the Western History Association this year:

Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract by Philip J. Deloria has been selected for the 2020 Donald L. Fixico Award for best book on American Indian and Canadian First Nations history that centers on Indigenous epistemologies and perspectives.

Reclaiming the Reservation: Histories of Indian Sovereignty Suppressed and Renewed by Alexandra Harmon has been selected for the 2020 Robert G. Athearn Award for best book on the twentieth-century American West.

The awards will be formally announced during the Virtual Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 16, at 2:00 p.m. (CDT).

Grays Harbor Workers: Aaron Goings on “The Port of Missing Men”

History has not been kind to the Washington coast’s working class. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thousands of the region’s workers toiled long hours in logging camps and lumber mills and in maritime trades—some of the country’s most dangerous industries. Those who acted collectively to improve their working and living conditions were targets of persecution, physically attacked by employers and their allies in the local, state, and federal governments. Vigilante businessmen beat, shot, and kidnapped activists, and deported them from towns, while police jailed them and raided their halls. Indeed, many of the most famous financially successful men in the history of the Olympic Peninsula and southwest Washington defended their wealth through a combination of violent anti-labor activism and support for anti-union legislation. Stories of vigilantes and cops brutalizing working-class women, men, and children fill early twentieth-century newspaper columns—providing potent reminders that the scenes playing out across the United States in 2020 are part of a long history of violent reactions against workers’ movements.

In the past forty years, many of the region’s workers have faced a fresh round of horrors: layoffs and mill closures, as parts of southwest Washington and the Olympic Peninsula began to resemble a Pacific Northwest “Rust Belt.” A recent gut punch came in June 2018 when the Aberdeen Museum of History burned. The fire destroyed priceless labor history collections—virtually the entire archive of Grays Harbor’s rich working-class history is now lost to posterity.

The archive told the important history of collective action in the heart of lumber country. Highlights included huge collections from the International Woodworkers of America and locals of the Cooks and Waiters’ Union—the latter an important source of women’s working-class activism before women won the right to vote. The fire also turned to ashes a collection of records from maritime unions—groups of workers that persistently fought for the types of work-life improvements Americans celebrate on Labor Day.

One of the most important (and certainly the most famous) labor activists from Washington’s coast was William “Billy” Gohl, subject of my new book from the University of Washington Press, The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest. Gohl served as agent for the Aberdeen branch of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific between 1903 and 1910, when Grays Harbor ranked as both the world’s most prolific lumber port and Washington State’s most densely unionized area.

Gohl was the best-known and most effective union activist in Grays Harbor. His fellow unionists twice elected him president of the local labor council, and he led efforts to force ship captains to follow union contracts and workplace safety laws. Gohl’s activism extended well beyond the shop floor: he was also a community activist committed to improving the lives of maritime workers and making the local waterfront safer.

Not surprisingly for anyone who has done much reading in US labor history, Gohl’s lasting fame has nothing to do with his community activism. Instead, Gohl’s life has long interested journalists and true-crime junkies, because “Billy” is widely known as the “Ghoul of Grays Harbor.” Dozens of true-crime tales—and popular memory—blame Gohl for the deaths of dozens of working men whose corpses were found floating in the Chehalis and Wishkah Rivers. Journalist and popular historian Murray Morgan wrote, “These anonymous dead men, culled from the hordes of migrant laborers who had flocked to Grays Harbor to cut trees, came to be known as the Floater Fleet. Billy Gohl was credited with launching most of them. If he was responsible for even half of the floaters found in the harbor during his day, Gohl was America’s most prolific murderer. Over a ten-year period the fleet numbered 124.”

Arrested and charged with murder in early 1910, Gohl became the subject of a massive campaign by local employers and their allies in the mainstream press to pin the region’s entire history of violent crimes on him and “his gang.” On the day of his arrest the Aberdeen Daily World blamed Gohl “for many of the members of the ‘floater fleet,’ comprising more than 40 bodies.” Three months after his arrest, Gohl was convicted of one murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Gohl was not the only convicted murderer in early Grays Harbor history, and the jury had difficulty coming to a decision about his guilt. Yet by the time the jury convicted him of a single murder Gohl already had been convicted in the public mind of being a cold-blooded killer who spent seven years ravaging Grays Harbor. The case against him appeared to be “the dream of some dime store novel writer,” said Gohl, as employers and the state conspired to remove Gohl from his place in the labor movement. Media accounts of Gohl’s “crimes”—like subsequent stories about Gohl—omit the important historical context that shows employers acting collectively and often brutally to eliminate labor activists in Grays Harbor and throughout the United States.

The Port of Missing Men bears little resemblance to earlier writings about Gohl. I strove to avoid portraying him as a caricature, instead placing Gohl in his historical context. Unfortunately, like Billy the Kid, Gohl has reached the status of a legend. He is now a part of Wild West mythology that often casts imagined “monsters” like him—rather than larger forms of structural oppression—as responsible for violence.

The myth of Billy Gohl the mass murderer has proved remarkably resilient, and rare indeed is the person who, when asked about their knowledge of Billy Gohl, fails to mention the term “serial killer.” But Gohl was a militant labor leader and local bosses saw him as a dangerously effective enemy who needed to be silenced. My new book returns Gohl—the labor and community activist—to the center of a region’s working-class history, a history that, like the materials lost in the Aberdeen museum fire, often ends up in the dustbin.

 

Aaron Goings is associate professor of history and chair of the History and Political Science Department at Saint Martin’s University. He is coauthor of The Red Coast: Radicalism and Anti-radicalism in Southwest Washington and Community in Conflict: A Working-Class History of the 1913–14 Michigan Copper Strike and the Italian Hall Tragedy. His latest book, The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest, is available now.

A Newcomer to the Big Empty: Sam Waterston on Ellen Waterston’s “Walking the High Desert”

We’ve all noticed how sharp our sensations, perceptions and observations are when visiting a place for the first time, from the Grand Canyon to the manmade canyons of New York City. We take in the sounds, smells, and sensations more acutely, more vividly, before familiarity moves in on our guilelessness, bringing its partner, contempt, along with it, the deadening “taking for granted” of the inherent and unique beauty of a place.

My brother Sam has visited me at various locations in the high desert: when I was ranching on the Crooked River; in Bend, at the foot of the Cascades mountains where I run a literary nonprofit; and in the wilds of Oregon’s Outback, during my research for Walking the High Desert. His below comments illustrate his capacity for experiencing this grand space each time as if for the first time. He brings, as he does to all he does, a fresh eye, an open mind and heart, and then extrapolates to a bigger invitation, tuning in to the plea of the place or the circumstance. Covid-19 has upped our appreciation game as everything seems more precious, fleeting. The pandemic has reminded us to appreciate what is right in front of us, what, perhaps, we have heretofore taken for granted; and, as Sam’s generous comments advocate, to take action to protect what is “fierce, fragile, beautiful,” the high desert and the earth itself.

Ellen Waterston


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Ellen Waterston and her brother Sam Waterston in Washington, D.C. in a Fire Drill Friday rally in support of legislation that protects the environment. January 2020

The high desert is like the ocean or the mountains of the moon: by itself, the name calls up space, the vast sky, the nearby stars, the one-hundred-mile gaze, the place where things and people stand out. It’s amazing. Many born and raised in it know this and never lose their awareness. After a lifetime of living in it, some still have the cowboys’ long horizons in their eyes. Some others, working to make it yield and bend to their needs, temporarily or permanently lose their amazement . . . Even an amazing place can become commonplace, merely where you do what you do; even here, a person can forget where they are. And isn’t that the way of it for most of us, wherever we live?

Most visitors do feel the wonder of the high desert at first, like babes in the woods, and that astonishment can last and last. It has with me. I first came out here to see my sister Ellen, who wrote Walking the High Desert. There aren’t so very many places where a hay field is measured by the thousand acres, where your front yard is fifty acres of wild iris, and the view is of the moon.

My sister was a newcomer to the Big Empty once. Because of the life she led and the person she is, her amazement at the wonder of the place she had come to never left her…and she went deep, looked deep. She is a poet and a journalist. She spent a lot of her time out in the desert, recorded what she witnessed, and brought the place to second life in words. This book is one fine example. She has a lot to say about the high desert. The high desert has a lot to tell. Almost inevitably, the long walks Ellen Waterston took out there over all those years landed her on the Oregon High Desert Trail—and she brought out for us the gold, the story of the place, entwined in her own story.

The earth is like the high desert, a fierce, fragile, beautiful, amazing place. We can’t afford to take it for granted anymore. There are as many opinions about what to do with it and for it now as there are interested parties . . . and we are all interested parties where the fate of the earth is involved. At least, we need to be. There is no place left for bystanders now. We all have to put our heads into this. My sister’s book will get you in the right state of mind.


Sam Waterston is an American actor, producer, and director. Waterston is known for his work in theater, television and film as well as his environmental activism.

Ellen Waterston is author of Where the Crooked Desert Rises: A High Desert Home, a memoir, and four poetry collections including a verse novel. She is the founder and president of the Waterston Desert Writing Prize and the founder of the Writing Ranch in Bend, Oregon. Her latest book, Walking the High Desert: Encounters with Rural America along the Oregon Desert Trail, is available now.

Five Tips for Better Science Communication: Susan Hough on “The Great Quake Debate”

How can scientists best talk about the risks of natural hazards with the general public? And how can a lay reader assess debates among scientists? Susan Hough offers useful tips for both, drawing on her new book, The Great Quake Debate: The Crusader, the Skeptic, and the Rise of Modern Seismology.


Through spring of 2020, the publication process moved forward apace for The Great Quake Debate. In a sense, it might be considered a coming of age story, focusing on the chapter in time when a major metropolitan region, Los Angeles, first came to grips with a seemingly existential peril: earthquake hazard. Could the rapidly growing city—one of the leading oil-producing regions in the world—really be hit by a massive earthquake like the one that had left San Francisco in ashes not too many years earlier? The Great Quake Debate is a story complete with (putative) heroes and villains, drama and intrigue.

It is also a story with lessons for our times, in particular now that the entire world struggles to come to grips with a different mortal peril. In the early 20th century, many people had the luxury of viewing earthquake hazard as somebody else’s problem. Later science would prove them only partly right, but, indeed, earthquakes pose a real and present dangerin some places than in others. Microbes, on the other hand, do not concentrate along narrow fault lines. Potentially they reach us all. The realization dawns, that some of the lessons of The Great Quake Debate are especially relevant for our tumultuous times, including lessons for both scientists and the public regarding the business of science communication. Let me pull out five of them, three for consumers of scientific information, and two for those who disseminate it.

  1. If you want information, go to the source. As directly as possible, go to the source. When parts of The Great Quake Debate have been told before, renowned geologist Robert T. Hill has been painted as the villain, a “tool” used by local city boosters to advance their agenda. A generally well-researched earlier biography focused on the extent to which Hill was manipulated by city boosters, describing him as a victim of their machinations. The personal papers that he and others left behind tell a far more nuanced, complex story.
  2. When you are looking for scientific information, know that science has limitations. There are truths in science, and as the saying goes, science doesn’t care what you believe. But in a rapidly developing field, science can be messy. The answers might not be black-and-white, and even well-respected scientists can be wrong. In his crusade to convince the public to take earthquake hazard seriously, in 1926 protagonist Bailey Willis made public statements that southern California would likely be wrenched by a great earthquake within three to 10 years of 1926. Although many saw the 1933 Long Beach earthquake as vindication of Willis’ prophesy, the magnitude-6.4 earthquake was not the major temblor that he had predicted. Hill’s refutation of the prediction, on the other hand, drew from sound science.
  3. Listen to scientists. Wait, what? Why should anyone listen to scientists, if they might themselves be wrong? The thing is, scientists might not be right, but at any given time, their understanding is as good as it gets. Had people listened carefully to either Willis or Hill, they would have heard a debate on some key questions, but also very similar messages from both, delivered with no small degree of passion, regarding the importance of understanding earthquake hazard and taking steps to reduce earthquake risk.
  4. For those of us who are ourselves scientists, beware the perils of over-stepping what science allows us to say. Willis based his prediction on analysis of early surveying data that he should have known to be highly uncertain. Hill correctly debunked the prediction, but did make statements downplaying the severity of earthquake hazard in Los Angeles. His reassuring statements, while never dismissing hazard entirely, were based on some misperceptions of his day, for example concerning the potential severity of shaking caused by moderately large earthquakes. He, too, should have known that such statements were not well-supported by available data. The media may have amplified the message, but scientists themselves set the tone. Where science collides with public welfare and public fears, missteps in one direction can assuage fears, while missteps in the other direction can fan flames. Neither serves the public good.
  5. Sooner or later, the natural world will have the last word. Scientists can debate the severity of the perils that we face, and the need to take risk mitigation seriously. People and policy-makers can choose to heed warnings, or not. Depending on the nature of the risk, it can be expensive to heed warnings, or personally uncomfortable, or inconvenient. If worst fears are borne out, what will you wish you had done yesterday? Do it today.

 

Susan Hough is a research seismologist in Pasadena, California. Her popular-science books include Earthshaking Science: What We Know (and Don’t Know) about Earthquakes and Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man. Her latest book The Great Quake Debate: The Crusader, the Skeptic, and the Rise of Modern Seismology is available now.

 

 

 

While Making Other Plans: Ellen Waterston on “Walking the High Desert”

 

In 2012 the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) pieced together a 750-mile trail that starts at the Oregon Badlands Wilderness outside of Bend and continues to the southeastern Oregon canyonlands that flank the Owyhee River. I moved from New England to the high desert of central Oregon four decades ago. Though I now live in Bend, my love of this hardscrabble outback still informs me every day. So it’s no surprise that this new trail spoke to me, lured me back into the desert. No longer actively ranching, I decided I’d walk sections of the trail to bring attention to the ONDA’s Oregon Desert Trail especially as it underscored public and private land use issues. I would make a point of evenly and fairly presenting the conflicting points of view about repurposing open areas of public land. I prided myself that in so many ways I already knew the players: ranchers; Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife employees; schoolteachers in rural schoolhouses; merchants in remote outposts; American Indians on reservations in the high desert; law enforcement officials who, some years back, were kind enough to wave me on, despite my excessive speed, as I made my way along desolate Highway 20 back to the ranch with a station wagon full of fussy infants and sacks of groceries.

In 2015, I began researching and writing this A to Z examination of land use issues in the high desert. But the January 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters by an armed group of far-right extremists changed all that. Life and writing projects are what happen while you are busy making other plans. The occupation was an invitation I couldn’t refuse to broaden the scope of the book, to examine how each section of the trail, in its own unique way, underscored issues that weren’t only regional but also national, if not international, seen through the optic of the high desert—issues such as water resources, climate change, protection of environmental habitat, recreational demands on open spaces, the rural-urban divide, economic inequities, and racism in the rural West.

Writing this book has led me to love the desert even more and to deeply apprehend how fragile it is socially and environmentally. With so many new people moving into this high and dry region, just as I did before them—there needs to be a commensurate commitment to care for it. I hope this book inspires people to engage in important conversations not only about the high desert but also about how these broader and seemingly unresolvable issues manifest where each of us live. As I encountered those issues, I confess I didn’t see any chance for resolution, but by the end of the book… well, I won’t be a spoiler.

 


Ellen Waterston is author of Where the Crooked Desert Rises: A High Desert Home, a memoir, four poetry collections, and four poetry collections including a verse novel. She is the founder and president of the Waterston Desert Writing Prize and the founder of the Writing Ranch in Bend, Oregon.

Walking Nearby History: Judy Bentley on “Walking Washington’s History”

Staying home and walking more in your neighborhood? There’s more underfoot than you may realize. Cities are rich in layers of history, some visible, some not.

Heading out my side door, I find a clothesline pole still standing between my house and the condo building next door, trailing vines instead of drying sheets. A half-mile away is a monument marking the landing of the Denny-Low-Terry party at Alki in 1851. Those are the obvious finds.

Less obvious is the median sloping downhill in front of our house, separating two narrow one-way streets. When we moved here 16 years ago, the hillside was overgrown with weeds. One lone plum tree drooped with fruit each fall. In the early 1900s children walked to the neighborhood school along a one-lane dirt road paralleling a meadow. “We frequently preferred the trail along Chilberg Avenue,” recalled one resident, “to enjoy some of the most beautiful wildflowers in the open fields and leading up into ‘the woods,’ the hillside forest.” Pleasant memories for troubled times.

Troubled times are nothing new. As I researched Walking Washington’s History: Ten Cities, I often found conflict. I had read about the Everett Massacre of 1914 when striking millworkers in the city were supported by Wobblies who arrived on boats from Seattle. The Wobblies were met with gunfire. The dock where the clash occurred is long gone, but as I walked the waterfront in 2017, I found wreaths made out of dried cedar hung on a wire fence, each commemorating one of the 12 men killed.

WA History 1

At the Chinese Reconciliation Park in Tacoma, the haunting figures of Chinese workers expelled from the city in 1885 are painted on stone, an attempt to remember and acknowledge.

WA History 2

There were moments of pleasure, too, when I found the cool bubbling spring behind the Bigelow House in Olympia, which supplied drinking water to the early residents. Vancouver has not just one but three statues of women: a pioneer mother, a Native American woman, and a World War II welder.

WA History 3

Where history is less visible, interpretive art recalls the work of ordinary people. A sculpted fruit-picker’s bag sits on a square in Yakima.

WA History 4

To find history underfoot, look closely as you walk, and ask why. Then visit the local historical society when it opens again; you may find an oral history or memories that recall experiences like a walk to school.

Today, the meadow along that old dirt road has been reclaimed by community volunteers with plantings of more fruit trees, native shrubs, and wildflowers. Some of the forest above remains, on a hillside too steep for development. Walkers passing the wildflowers on this relatively quiet street are in good historic company.


Judy Bentley is the author of fourteen nonfiction books for young adults and three books published by the University of Washington Press, including Walking Washington’s History: Ten Cities, Hiking Washington’s History, and Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master. She taught composition, literature, and Pacific Northwest history for more than 20 years at South Seattle College.

Looking to the Past in an Uncertain Present: Paula Becker on Betty MacDonald’s “The Plague and I”

Like many people struggling to understand our present moment, and to prepare for what is coming, I’ve turned, this week, to books, to history.

Life can change quickly, both then and now. Take Mary McCarthy’s straightforward description of boarding a Minneapolis-bound train in Seattle with her parents and three younger brothers during the 1918 worldwide influenza pandemic: “Waving good-bye in the Seattle depot, we had not known that we carried the flu into our drawing rooms…but, one after another, we had been struck down as the train proceeded eastward” (Memories of a Catholic Girlhood). McCarthy’s parents died shortly after the stricken family was carried from the train. I’ve reread Katherine Anne Porter’s devastating “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” This short story spells out the reality that while individuals may survive pandemics, these diseases irrevocably alter our society. I keep thinking of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, a children’s picture book, which matter-of-factly describes the burning of a little boy’s favorite toy due to its contamination during his confinement with scarlet fever.

More cheerfully, I’ve also turned, as I usually do sooner or later, to Betty MacDonald. Betty’s follow up to her worldwide best selling first autobiographical book, The Egg and I, was The Plague and I, a tartly poignant recounting of her battle with and recovery from tuberculosis in a pre-antibiotic-era King County, Washington sanatorium. When Betty was admitted to Firland (called The Pines in Plague), tuberculosis was endemic worldwide. Betty’s was one of nearly two thousand cases diagnosed in Seattle in 1938. Tuberculosis still strikes today.

Firland patients lived in almost complete isolation from society, and—as much as was possible in shared rooms—from one another. The cure was mainly resting, supine, without talking or even reading. Difficult as the experience was for her, Betty’s memoir crackles with her trademark humor: “Being sent to an institution, be it penal, mental or tuberculous, is no game of Parcheesi, and not knowing when, or if, you’ll get out doesn’t make it any easier. At least a criminal knows what his sentence is.”

Despite Firland’s rigid rules governing patient interaction, living in close quarters meant coming to know her roommates’ strengths and weaknesses. “From my stay at The Pines,” Betty MacDonald explained, “I learned that a stiff test for friendship is: ‘Would she be pleasant to have t.b. with?'” Of the many women Betty roomed with during her time at Firland, her favorite was a young Japanese-American woman named Kazuko Monica Itoi. Kazi appears in Plague under the pseudonym “Kimi.” “Unfortunately,” Betty added, “too many people, when you try separating them from their material possessions and any and all activity, turn out to be like cheap golf balls. You unwind and unwind but you never get to the pure rubber core because there isn’t any. When I started unwinding Kimi I found that under her beautiful covering she was mostly core.” This friendship endured through the two women’s recovery and hospital discharge, and Kazi’s internment in Minidoka War Relocation Camp during World War II. At the height of her own success, Betty encouraged Kazi (by then married and using the name Monica Sone) to write about her experiences. The result, Nisei Daughter, provides an understanding of yet another form of isolation.

Betty and Monica’s accounts of isolation were on my mind as I maintained my now-prescribed six feet of social distance from fellow neighbors circling the path atop the lidded-over Maple Leaf Reservoir in north Seattle. We ventured from our homes this sunny day, smiling encouragement to one another while shunning contact. Isolation is different now, softened somewhat by podcasts, audio books, and streaming video. We have our social media, alternately comforting or alarming, depending on who you follow. I try to apply Betty’s standard in making that choice: look for someone who is mostly core.

I’ve not been subject to true quarantine, as I will be if Covid-19 touches me directly. I can still walk the spookily empty streets and circle the track, all the while keeping my distance. I am living a little of what Betty learned during her quarantine: health is not a given. Friendship runs deep, even when friends have been moved down the hall or aren’t allowed to visit you. Community sustains, and it is up to us to find ours even when aspects of our lives are constrained. Life, all of it, needs to be noticed. It must be deeply noticed.


Paula Becker is the author of the biography Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I and the memoir A House on Stilts: Mothering in the Age of Opioid Addiction.

Lil Nas X is in Good Company: Cowboys Have Always Been Black and Gay

Country rapper Lil Nas X had a monumental summer. His hit song, “Old Town Road,” broke records with 19 weeks atop the Billboard’s Hot 100 list. A stunning victory for an African American singer in a music genre that has been persistently imagined as white, even as the music industry hotly debated whether or not the song should be considered country. While riding his groundswell of support, he also came out as gay in a series of tweets. His fans widely celebrated this revelation while the media heralded the news as groundbreaking.

In an era when the nation is divided along political and geographical lines, Lil Nas X’s desire to leverage his stardom into expanding the increasingly narrow definition of the cowboy deserves a deeper look. As I demonstrate in my book Outriders: Rodeo at the Fringes of the America West, the cowboy has always been a contested figure in the American imagination and many groups of people have claimed cowboy identities despite being written out of the popular narrative. For many, the cowboy has always been black and gay.

Working cowhands in the 19th century were often working-class men of color. Influenced by the mounted herding traditions of Mexican vaqueros, American cowboy culture emerged along the cattle trails of former slave states. Enslaved and free black men, alongside Native, Creole, and Mexican people, made up a significant portion of the cattle industry both before and after the Civil War.

These were not solitary heroic figures—they were wage laborers in a rapidly industrializing country. They spent much of their time forming long-lasting relationships with other men whom they depended on for safety and companionship. They worked seasonally in sparsely populated areas in order to drive meat on the hoof towards industrial centers, but they also spent a great deal of time in the West’s rapidly expanding cities.

These classed and racialized realities of working cowboys were present in early versions of western performance, even as the figure of the cowboy steadily became whitewashed by Jim Crow segregation and mythologized in dime novels, Wild West shows, and early rodeo. Black cowboys, whether popular individuals like Bill Pickett, a respected African American rodeo cowboy, or entire black communities, like Boley, Oklahoma, carved out places for themselves in western performance. Feeding an ever growing number of black riding associations and rodeo circuits, like the Anahuac Saltgrass Cowboys Association and the Bill Pickett Invitational, the Boley rodeo helped inspire black cowboys across the country. Likewise, white women, many of them first generation Americans, competed in bronc riding and trick riding in mainstream rodeos in the early twentieth century and formed the Girls Rodeo Association in the 1940s.

During the Cold War, the idea that a cowboy was and had always been a white, heterosexual man solidified in the American imagination. Still, many groups of people, from civic leaders in Oakland to incarcerated people in Texas, used cowboy performance to assert their belonging in the nation. Some of these groups, like the International Gay Rodeo Association, explicitly used the language of civil rights to urge for the reimagining of the cowboy icon. Officially formed in 1985 after a decade of successful gay rodeos in Reno, Nevada, this association tapped into the cowboy craze of Reagan’s America. Gay cloggers, line dancers, two steppers, and rodeoers worked to create spaces where many men and women who had fled rural places in fear could find a connection to the lifeways of their childhoods. Today the association still struggles to normalize the existence of queer cowboys, despite thriving for nearly forty-five years.

Lil Nas X has handled backlash from homophobic fans well. He explained that he understood the consequences of his decision to come out, stating “I know the people who listen to [‘Old Town Road’] the most, they’re not accepting of homosexuality.” Yet as this young man is inundated with both praise and vitriol, told that he is either destined to be forgotten or represents the future, he should not be made to feel alone—the history of the cowboy is the history of black, gay cowboys.


Rebecca Scofield is assistant professor of American history at the University of Idaho and author of Outriders.

If you are attending the 2019 Western History Association conference in Las Vegas, please join us for a special book signing at the University of Washington Press booth (No. 30) on Friday, October 18th at 3 p.m.

Giving Historical Context to Elizabeth Warren’s Plan for Native Americans

On August 16, Senator Elizabeth Warren announced the policy she will pursue for American Indians if she wins the presidency in 2020. While the New York Times called it a plan to “help” Native Americans, the Huffington Post emphasized Warren’s intent to “empower tribal nations,” noting specifically her desire “to reverse” a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that tribal governments have no power to prosecute non-Indian lawbreakers.

Warren promised to seek congressional affirmation that tribes have “inherent jurisdiction over their sovereign territory,” including jurisdiction to arrest, try, and jail non-Indians who commit crimes there. Voters may think that is a radical and unrealistic proposal, but Warren’s choice of words – her call for legislation to “restore” tribes’ jurisdiction over non-Indians – suggests that radical change came with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of existing law. Indeed, a year before the court ruled, the American Indian Policy Commission – a body created by and composed of US lawmakers – adopted virtually the same position on tribal jurisdiction as Warren has. A commission investigation revealed that several dozen tribes were applying their laws to non-Indians as well as Indians, with encouragement from key federal officials.

This historical information is not from Warren’s manifesto; it appears in Reclaiming the Reservation: Histories of Indian Sovereignty Suppressed and Renewed, my book recounting modern tribes’ efforts to regulate all people and activities within reservation boundaries. Reservations – even those established for Indians’ “exclusive use” – were never entirely closed to non-Indians, but thousands of non-Indians now live on reservations because Congress allowed them to acquire land there in the late 1800s. For five subsequent decades, the undeniably dominant United States tried to dismantle tribal nations and discourage Indian self-governance but did not abolish reservations or deny tribes’ inherent sovereignty. Meanwhile, through several turns of US policy, lawmakers and judges made a jumble of the rules for governing what remained of Indian country.

With stories from Indian perspectives, which the Supreme Court did not consider, Reclaiming the Reservation shows why and how tribes brought the issue of their power over non-Indians to national attention in the 1970s. Several factors had combined to convince them that taking responsibility for reservation conditions was essential for their communities’ survival and was their right under US law. Although tribes featured in the book did want to deter criminal activity, that was a secondary aim – a corollary of their desire to preserve and manage the land and resources on which their future as tribes depended.

Nevertheless, the action that eventually provoked a Supreme Court case about tribes’ jurisdiction over non-Indians was not a land use regulation; it was an arrest and prosecution for assault. A climactic chapter of the book examines the court’s denial of tribal power in Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe along with the criticism that opinion earned for its blinkered, disingenuous account of relevant history and its evident racial bias. The book does not end there, however, because – as Elizabeth Warren’s familiarity with the issue indicates – tribes’ determination to ensure safe conditions on reservations did not end there. The Supreme Court’s veto of criminal law enforcement has not deterred them from invoking civil power to regulate non-Indians.

As the number of non-Indians who travel, live, or work on Indian reservations has grown in recent years, so have the stakes in the jurisdiction debate. Yet most non-Indian voters today are as uninformed about reservation community histories as the justices were in 1978. Thus, while Senator Warren’s support for tribal power may win her Indian votes, it could alienate more numerous non-Indians, many of them fearful that tribal police and courts will be unfair. Rather than address that fear directly, Warren identified tribal jurisdiction as a sensible response to another, proven threat: criminals are escaping justice through gaps in reservation law enforcement. She cited Native women’s shocking rate of violent victimization, often by non-Natives who never face prosecution – a scandal that motivated Congress in 2013 to approve limited tribal court jurisdiction over Indians’ abusive, non-Indian intimate partners.

That amendment to the Violence Against Women Act was politically feasible because tribal governments are increasingly sophisticated, effective, and accepted as permanent components of an American federation that has three kinds of sovereign polities. Senator Warren’s position on tribal jurisdiction is also a consequence of that historic tribal resurgence – a sign that tribes have persuasively communicated their need for empowerment and their ability to wield power judiciously. Their accomplishment illustrates a central theme of Reclaiming the Reservation: long after Europeans invaded America, Indians continue negotiating with their conquerors for terms of relations that will enable sovereign tribal communities to endure.


Alexandra Harmon is professor of American Indian studies at the University of Washington. She is the author of Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History and editor of The Power of Promises: Perspectives on Pacific Northwest Indian Treaties. Her book Reclaiming the Reservation is part of the Emil and Kathleen Sick Book Series in Western History and Biography.

To hear more about Reclaiming the Reservation, please join us for Professor Harmon’s Emil and Kathleen Sick Lecture on November 6th at 3:30 p.m. in UW Allen Library’s Peterson Room.