George Washington never slept here

Essay by Ed Quillen

History – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN I WAS A SCHOOLBOY in and around Greeley, up in the north part of this state, I often felt deprived. I wanted to live in a place with a history, and Greeley didn’t seem to have one.

Of course Weld County had a history, and as it developed, that history, in the hands of a talented novelist, was potent enough to become the best-seller Centennial by James Michener.

And I wasn’t ignorant of that history. My parents were history buffs. They hauled us kids to museums, took us to historic sites, encouraged us to read up on local lore, spent Sunday-afternoon drives trying to trace abandoned railroads or determine whether the original site of Latham, an early stage station and county seat, was under a reservoir.

My mother would talk about the remains of Fort Fetterman in Wyoming (now restored) and my dad about a boyhood house in Fort Morgan, on the site of the original military post, and how delighted he had been to dig up an old button or bottle in the back yard.

So why would I, quite blessed in these matters, suffer from frequent feelings that I lived in a place without a history?

Being a Baby Boomer in good standing — that is, I’m supposed to blame somebody else for all feelings of inadequacy — and unable to indict my family in this matter, I’m left with the schools I attended.

We got pretty much the standard dose of what I now call “Eastern Seaboard Standard History.” The story of our country is quite simple in that version: America started in Boston and kept moving west. Nothing happened before the Yankees got here and started fighting the Indians, who were quickly run off, and civilization has since proceeded.

Because nobody from America had shown up on those High Plains before about 1870, that part of the world effectively didn’t exist during the Civil War, let alone the Revolutionary War. Further, our history books seldom mentioned Colorado at all, never mind our part of it, so obviously nothing important had ever happened where we lived, nor was anything likely to.

This attitude carried into other matters. My first reaction, in eighth grade, upon hearing that President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade had been shot at in Dallas, was that “He won’t be assassinated. Assassinations are historic events, and nothing historic could happen in my time.”

Another foolish boyhood notion, to be sure, but sometimes I feel as though I devote far too much of my adult life reacting against those youthful feelings I had about living in a place so unnoteworthy to history.

History is a lively field these days, as readers of the Denver Post might have noticed a few weeks ago when the Sunday editorial section carried a published argument between two historians: Stephen Ambrose, who writes from a “triumphalist” view of American history, and Patty Limerick, who is often called a “revisionist.”

I enjoy reading Ambrose’s books, and I’ve driven hundreds of miles to hear Limerick talk, and indeed, devoted considerable energy toward arranging for her to speak here last year. Count me as a fan of both, but put me on Limerick’s side as to whose interpretation of American history, especially the saga of the West, better explains how we got to where we are today.

The “triumphalist” view espoused by Ambrose strikes me as just a variant of the “Eastern Seaboard Standard History” that made me think I lived in a place without a history.

Nothing of importance happened, in this view, until Thomas Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty” arrived. And this gives Ambrose much too narrow a focus.

For instance, he wrote in Newsweek that a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6 was “the first white man to cross the Continental Divide” at Lemhi Pass on Aug. 12, 1805.

Someone immediately wrote to point out that Alexander Mackenzie crossed the Divide in Canada on June 12, 1793. Ambrose corrected to say he meant the Divide on current U.S. territory.

What then of Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Dominguez, who led a party northwest from Santa Fé, searching for a route to the Pacific Ocean. They crossed the Continental Divide at Horse Lake Pass on Aug. 4, 1776. They were literate men of European culture — but Ambrose the historian ignored them, perhaps because they weren’t getting their orders from the eastern seaboard.

And that’s just a symptom of what the “triumphalist” view misses. It covers the expansion of the United States of America from a coastal collection of colonies to a continental superpower, and that is one of the great epics of history, but it ignores what was here before the stars and stripes arrived, and thus fails to explain the world we inhabit now.

THE TRIUMPHALIST VIEW won’t tell you why there are so many Spanish place names, or why residents of San Luis keep fighting for the Taylor Ranch, or how something as vital as irrigation was developed. It won’t tell you why so many people in this part of the world regard the federal government, not as the guarantor of liberty and the agent of prosperity, but as a rather alien occupying force — and these attitudes extend across the political spectrum, from hardcore Hispanic activists to white guys building survival compounds in the woods.

The triumphalist view, which has the Indians getting swept aside, doesn’t explain why Ute water rights and the related Animas-La Plata water project remain a point of sore contention in the Four Corners Area.

Obviously we need a broader view, a more expansive history, if we’re going to understand how we got to where we are. Just how this broader history got tagged with the epithet “revisionist” is beyond me. I think of it as “adding to the story,” rather than “revising the story.”

But the right-thinkers sometimes act as though there’s something “unpatriotic” about studying the historical contributions of those who weren’t American citizens. In other words, celebrate Zebulon Pike’s 1806-07 expedition into Central Colorado, but ignore Juan Bautista de Anza’s 1779 campaign into the same territory. Anza, after all, was a loyal officer of the crown of Spain.

But Anza left the first known written account of our part of the world — the upper San Luis Valley, Poncha Pass, the Salida area, lower South Park. History by definition deals with written records (it’s archæology otherwise), and that’s what historians must start with.

Further, I think of Anza, and the other Spanish explorers, and the French trappers, and the Utes they fought and traded with, all as a part of our common heritage here, right along with Pike’s expedition, Frémont’s visits in the 1840s, and prospector Abe Lee’s announcement in 1860 that “Boys, I’ve got all the gold of California in this pan!” or cattleman Sam Hartsel’s 1860 discovery that oxen could survive the winter in South Park.

Anza’s crossing of Poncha Pass in 1779 is just as much a part of our history as George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in 1776. Learning why Spain failed to hold an empire is as instructive as learning how the United States gained and kept one.

And so, I get annoyed or worse when I read of Black History Month, or a women’s history course, or any of the wide variety of “histories” which get contrived.

TO SOME DEGREE, all this is a reaction to the Eastern Seaboard Standard History that perturbed me and still does. This Standard History is often as specialized a history as any of these others — the history of rich white guys expanding their power and influence, organizing much of a continent.

Several years ago, I wrote a long piece for High Country News whose working title was “Is Denver Necessary?” There I tried to examine how Colorado and the Mountain West had developed with a dominant city, and whether that city still had a major regional role.

I received a fair amount of criticism because some readers thought I had devoted way too much attention to those rich white guys — Charles Boettcher, John Evans, David Moffat, etc. — whose investments and ambitions had created Denver as a dominant city.

BUT IF YOU’RE examining capitalism, you have to write about capitalists. And I’ll freely admit they’re not the whole story, even though their careers answer a lot of questions. They reinvested in the area; Montana’s capitalists didn’t, and that’s one reason Colorado has a dominant city while Montana doesn’t.

This could be changing. Colorado’s institutions are increasingly controlled by outside owners; Montana has at least one billionaire, Dennis Washington, who is reinvesting in the state’s railroads, power companies, mines, etc. Commerce and culture have always been related, and this may help explain why Missoula is such a cultural hotspot these days, while there persists the old joke that the difference between yogurt and Denver is that yogurt has a living culture.

I could ramble indefinitely about such matters, but I want to get back to history. I’d like to think of myself as neither a “triumphalist” or a “revisionist,” but as an “inclusionist.”

That is, the exploits of the buffalo soldiers in the Tenth U.S. Cavalry are not part of “Black History,” but properly part of “American History.” Juan de Oñate’s colonization of New Mexico in 1598 isn’t “Hispanic History” or “Southwestern History” — it’s American history, part of how our nation came to be what it is. Caroline Nichols Churchill and her struggle for women’s right to vote in Colorado — it should be American history, not some pigeonhole of “women’s history.”

In some sense, I suppose, adding to the story means revising the story, which by definition is “revisionism.”

But adding to the story, as we often attempt to do in these pages, whether the story is as old as Anza or as recent as the development of church camps west of Buena Vista, is also a way to say “We’re part of the American story, too, even if George Washington never slept here.” And I think it’s something that needs to be said and said often.

— Ed Quillen