The 10,000 B.C. Question: How to Start the Survey

Today’s post is in the vein of ProfHacker, which is to say that it’s part descriptive of my practices in the classroom, and part a request for others to help work through a common problem.

Having just completed two consecutive semesters teaching the first half of the U.S. survey, I’m hoping to spend a little time this summer mulling how to improve the design of the course. At Framingham State, it runs “from the Age of Discovery to Reconstruction,” according to the course catalog. For our Europeanist readers and colleagues, that may seem like a mere drop in the bucket, but it’s quite a lot of ground to cover in just fifteen weeks. As a survey, everything feels like it gets short shrift. This much I knew going in, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity to reflect.

To start, I’d like to pose a problem I dealt with this semester at the beginning of the course. I encourage students to think about American history as something that predates Plymouth, Jamestown (I teach in Massachusetts, so that’s sometimes a bit of an afterthought), and Columbus. We talk about what it means to select different starting points on the first day of class—how does the story look different if we frame it from 1607 versus 1620?—and in the process introduce the “greatest hits” that most students have heard of before they get to their first college-level history class.

Then I hit them with the twist: what if we started in 10,000 BC? How does the history of the United States look when framed not in terms of Columbus or John Smith or John Winthrop, but the Bering land bridge? I mean it to be provocative, but I also mean it to push them outside their comfort zone by asking them to “face east,” as Dan Richter has written. And yes, I’ve borrowed his story—with attribution!—about looking back through the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

On a practical level, I reinforce the message in the first “real” class the next day with a lecture that runs from 10,000 B.C and the Bering land bridge right up to 1491, trying to put the course in a context that recognizes that the American past relates to Cahokia, Mississippian cultures, political shifts in the Great Lakes region, the Iroquois, and so on, just as much as it does to Jacobean England. The lecture is designed to do two things: first, make students aware of the deeper American past; and second, to puncture the romantic notion that Natives were, in Alan Taylor’s words, “environmental saints.” Empires rose and fell in the Americas, there was military conflict, cultures outstripped natural resources, and so on. After that, we read Alfred Crosby’s essay on “ecological imperialism,” discuss European empires, and then it’s straight to Jamestown.

I think we meet the second of those objectives, and that students come out with a more complicated and/or nuanced understanding of Natives. But the lecture doesn’t sit well within the overall narrative of the course. It’s a quick and dirty fix to an issue that deserves more but for which I haven’t yet found space within the constraints of the survey. So I want to do something better to fully integrate the pre-Columbian past into the survey without losing any areas that I need to cover as part of the university’s mission to train K-12 teachers (they have state requirements for coverage).

Perhaps an assignment? I was intrigued by the post that circulated last week asking, “What if people told European history like they told Native American history?” Inviting students to make the same move (pace Richter as well) would encourage them to see later events—Jamestown, the American Revolution, Andrew Jackson’s presidency—from the perspective of natives. But I don’t know.

What do you think? If you cover the pre-Columbian past in the US survey, what techniques have you found successful? Or, more interestingly, what ideas have crashed and burned?

21 responses

  1. Thank you for your post. I actually organize my survey the exact same way and do get the sense that students are waiting for the “real” American history to come after our discussion of Native American and European empires so I am interested to see what others do differently.

  2. A book like Elliot West’s The Contested Plains might at least allow you to return to the pre-Columbian themes at the end of the course. West uses a long environmental history (I think he starts in the Ice Age!) to explain why the Great Plains were ultimately incapable of sustaining the expansionary visions of both the Lakota and the Americans at the same time, setting the stage for the Sand Creek Massacre and the Indian Wars that followed.

  3. Just to provide my students with a basic conceptual framework I invoke a scene from “The Truman Show”, where the producers cue the traffic and such before Jim Carrey as Truman exits the door of his house. I present it as a frame of reference for how we tend to view American history – in short, nothing happens in a place until colonists/Americans get there. It is applicable to any time period, from pre-Columbian to Lewis and Clark’s voyage of “discovery”, and it allows me to constantly come back to the idea that people outside of the standard narrative were still living their lives and not waiting around for the Americans to arrive so that they could do something important. It’s a pretty simplistic idea, but it actually allows me to provide one more concept to tie together the whole course. As opposed to years past, however, I now need to actually provide a clip from the movie so that students know what I’m talking about.

  4. I think it’s critical to start this course prior to European contact. Neal Salisbury’s “The Indians’ Old World” has worked great with my students. He makes a brilliant and concise case that the pre-contact patterns of trade and diplomacy continued to be very important after European arrival. I refer to pre-contact North American as “Turtle Island,” to use an indigenous designation that resonates with the Native cultures in the Great Lakes region where I teach. The “land bridge” concept is really more of a hypothesis than a theory, and it has taken many hits in recent decades. In my view, the timing of the land bridge just doesn’t fit the evidence of a human presence in North America for tens of thousands of years. My approach is to explain that there is a lot of debate about the role of the land bridge in the peopling of the Americas.

  5. I think you have raised the key issue of how we write, and therefore how we teach, history. American historians are still largely interested in the formation of a nation state, and therefore we have not really changed the basic narrative of U.S. history despite an incredible diversification in U.S. historiography. James Merrel’s latest in WMQ attests to this. As Vine Deloria wrote back in the 1970s, we have taken a “basic ‘manifest destiny’ white interpretation of American history and lovingly plug[ged in] a few feathers, wooly heads, and sombreros into the famous events of American history.” Indigenous peoples cannot simply be the artifacts of an ancient past, or the foils to white expansion. They were not eradicated, and their story is intimately bound up in the narratives we tell our students every year. Making this work in lectures is challenging–my students found Calloway’s book on the American Revolution in Indian Country very challenging because the basic story of liberty, equality, etc. does not work out the same way it does for other minority groups (like slaves and women, who largely wanted integration and equality in American society.) As for the problems of the pre-Columbian lecture, Richter’s latest, Before the Revolution (which should be titled WAY Before the Revolution), is a better fit than Facing East.

  6. Both the textbook I use and my lectures frame Encounter as the *creation* of a New World, rather than the discovery of a New World — drawing here on James Merrell. I really hammer this home, doing, as you say, a more thorough comparison of migrations and politics in the Americas and Europe pre-European exploration. I also am a fan of Meinig, which we read in grad school, which uses Ghengis Khan to understand what helps kicks off the European migrations. My other favorite activity, which students really responded to, is the following:

  7. Thanks to all of you for your suggestions. Given the parameters in which I teach the survey, I may use the reading suggestions for personal use in developing lectures and discussions rather than further assignments.

    It’s obviously a bit of a knotty problem, and as I said in a discussion on Twitter, I’m currently working to revamp the syllabus in part by stripping out some of the content to identify more clearly three or four themes that run through the entire course. This would fall under something like a pedagogical skill-based goal of getting students to shift their perspectives and see other worlds, I think. But I’m early in my thinking (if that wasn’t already obvious from the open-ended tone of the post).

    • Your post is excellent. I’m developing my class which covers the same period. My classes are online delivery platforms. I find this to be a very good method of creating a learning-centered environment. By incorporating some visual media clips along with excerpts from readings I’m hoping to develop modules based on the textbook’s chapters. We have Pearson and their course shell which is really in depth for such a class. Their shell gives us a lot of material to work with, so much that I need to remove some because it is literally overwhelming.

      I am developing a reading list of sources for them to use if they wish to read more. This is a community college I teach for and this course is usually one of the first courses for most of these students. It also is very likely to be the only history course half of these students ever take in their lives. With that sobering thought and the realization that I have 16 weeks to cover such a huge swath of time I am prioritizing what the course entails. You bring up the three of four themes that run through the course. I think you are correct in doing that.

      I think it is important to establish our goals and objectives for the course in order to construct it for the students. If we overwhelm them with data they’re going to suffer from the overload so emphasizing the themes of continuity becomes important. While there are so many books I would love for people to read, the cold hard truth is they have other classes to take as well and therefore I think it is more important for them to focus on the textbook with some supplemental short readings from some of those books. Then provide the information on the books so they can read them on their own time.

      That’s one thing I love about online education. I just have to provide them with a link to the book after the reading and they can investigate it for themselves. Plus all the interactive maps and links that really flesh out the course. Toss in the discussion forums where they all have to participate and you can really have a wonderful semester of learning.

  8. Really excellent post, Joe.

    I teach the first half the survey in a similar but somewhat different way (I joke with students on the first day that the course is “a history of North America from the land bridge to Abraham Lincoln”). My first two lectures cover “Native” and “European” cultures before contact and trans-Atlantic imperialism. We then spend the third lecture discussing Columbus & the Columbian Exchange before moving on to full-borne European empires in the Americas. Cultural collision and adaptation is a key theme in the first 1/3 to 1/2 of the course.

    This approach is not original to me, of course. I adapt it from the first chapters of Dan Richter’s recent “Before 1776” and Alan Taylor’s “American Colonies.”

    I’ve taught this way over three semesters and the approach seems to work pretty well. An excellent discussion tends to emerge and I get some of my strongest midterm answers from these lectures.

    • I second this approach of teaching the Americas, Europe, then Europe and the Americas. The emphasis becomes the meeting and interaction of two fully developed ‘worlds,’ and as I move through the ‘real’ US history the numerous later inter-cultural encounters are building off these worlds, and the events down through Tecumseh and beyond carry greater context and weight as a result. It can also be necessary to teach the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation for context every bit as much as the American empires such as Cahokia or the Incan. I also find these early lectures can highlight different sources, especially in terms of material culture, than what is common later in the course.

      However, I have received evaluation feedback asking me to skip to the United States sooner. For that matter I’ve also received earnest questions about the Salutrean migration from Europe in about 19000 BC during these 1st day lectures, so there’s no telling exactly what you’re going to get from a given set of students. On balance, I recommend laying strong contextual foundations, and if you’re upfront with the benefits of studying these seemingly unnecessary periods, the students respond positively.

  9. Thanks for the helpful post. I have also struggled a bit with where to start – and the more I focus on the earlier stuff, the harder it seems to get to the end of Reconstruction by the end of the semester! Looking forward to some more feedback.

    One way I have tried to make it work is to use that first lecture (where I cover 10,000 BC to the early Chesapeake) as an opportunity to introduce 2 of the key (interrelated) themes in the course: 1) the problem of teleology (and the students actually do VERY well with this) – of thinking about how the U.S. we know today was not pre-determined; and 2) The dynamic (rather than static) nature of history (borrowed almost entirely from Cronon’s Changes in the Land). The benefit is that when I ask midterm/final questions about these two themes, they have to go back to the natives to think about it. But, as always, the problem is that it seems like I am not doing real justice to any of the subjects in that very long span of time.

  10. I do similar in that I start the course talking about starting (and ending points). I ask my students when the course should start and end, and what region it should include (just the 13 colonies, what is now the United States, the Atlantic “world” etc…). I then give them a series of maps from the early modern period of the Americas and we talk about different perspectives and biased knowledge. The second class gets into Native American groups (from Bering Straits to 1491), but I try to make it less a list of things that happened, and more a tour of life in the Americas before Europeans arrived.

  11. I think my survey is very similar to yours, Joseph Adelman. We speed through thousands of years of native history in one week, and then speed through thousands of years of European history the following week, and finally slow down for the early encounters. One weakness in my survey is that students often feel like we don’t really get back to native history very substantively again. Many of my Wisconsin students seem to really miss that. Last semester, I taught “American Indian History” for the first time, and that leads me to ask this question: is it reasonable for us to teach U.S. history and native North American history together as one subject? Can we do justice to more than one big story in a course? I think I’m not the first to ask this question, but at the moment I can’t remember where else I’ve heard this asked. Of course, one cannot teach U.S. history without some native history, but doesn’t it make natives something like supporting characters in the screenplay?

    • Thanks for your comments. You are certainly right that it’s difficult to cover that much ground (literal and metaphoric) in one semester. I also taught Native American history this past spring, which is part of what has prompted me to re-think this part of the survey. I do think that framing the American past within a North American and Native American context is an important story and message, especially in a context where the survey is the only college-level history course a student will ever encounter. So I wouldn’t want to lose it entirely (in fact, that may do a disservice).

  12. Excellent post. I’ve always started my USI survey (pre-Columbian to 1865) with the pre-Columbian period, hitting on recent DNA research and newly discovered sites like Cactus Hill here in Virginia and Monte Verde in Chile that pre-date Clovis. I have my students discuss these “changes” to examine how history is not a static, set-in-stone (no pun intended) discipline, but one that is always evolving as our knowledge grows. I like to show a very brief clip from Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”– he calls the Inca “unsophisticated and naive.” I have my students hold that thought as we talk about the Ancient Pueblo People and Chaco Canyon, the irrigation networks of the Hohokam, and, of course, the complexity of Cahokia. This then leads us into the Grand Exchange/Columbian Exchange,and the changes imposed on both the New and the Old worlds. (Irish potato famine, anyone?!?)

  13. I recently spent two days at a symposium offered at the Newberry titled “Why You Can’t Teach U.S. History Without Native Americans.” A series of presentations suggested ways of integrating N.A. history more completely into all aspects of the US survey. There is the promise of an edited volume of the essays. My question for you Joseph Adelman is why do you find it necessary to go to the Bering Land Bridge to begin a survey on the U.S.? This boils down a very complicated story of diversity, multiple peoplings and migrations across the western hemisphere to a a blur–it’s no wonder students don’t consider it the “real” history. If your objective is to make the history of the U.S. one that complicates the narrative by including N.A. perhaps you could begin by rooting pre-contact America in the period just prior to European settlement. Take your students to Iroquoia in 1400 or the Delaware River valley–then lead your intellectual excursion to the northwest coast, the Rio Grande highland and maybe return to the Chesapeake by way to the Mississippi delta. The 50 minute excursion across America (complete with powerpoint images and maps easily available online) will introduce students to a variety of Native American societies that will be crucial to any European and American settler encounters. It’s really not that difficult to do. And then perhaps you too will reconsider how anyone can teach U.S. history without Native Americans .

  14. I started my first half of the series with a map showing the Eurasian migrations between 80 and 50 thousand years ago that led to European and Native American populations, to make the point that these people came from the same original population. Spent a lecture on American prehistory (Beringia, Clovis, Monte Verde, etc.) I think this changed the students’ reactions to the Columbian exchange and the age of discovery. But yeah, it came at the cost of time taken away from the Civil War, which some of the students actually complained about come eval. time…

  15. Pingback: Framing the American Narrative as a Story of Diversity, Part One: The Survey – Professor Park's Blog

  16. Pingback: We ‘Need’ to Talk About Colonial American History – Adventures of an Americanist


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