Essay by Martha Quillen
Y2K – February 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
THESE DAYS it looks as though our president may not have enough time or energy left to finish that bridge into the twenty-first century. But even so, this millennium is almost over, and the next is coming, ready or not. And curiously, that strikes us as somehow important — although we’re not sure why.
Here we are, in the very last year of our current millennium, but for a long time there’s been so much hype about it that the real thing seems a little anticlimactic. Since we don’t belong to some millennial cult, (and thus aren’t busily arming for Armageddon), this unsurprising and inevitable last span into the future doesn’t really seem to have much more significance than an odometer turning over. In terms of mileage, this old world had almost as much mileage on it in 1995 as it will in 2000.
Birthdays, however, do offer a time to stop and reflect, to look back at where we’ve been, and ponder on where we’re going.
A thousand years, though, seems like a major chunk of time to look back on. So we thought we’d get started, right now.
But being journalists, we naturally considered that old, reliable approach, The ten best stories of…
Picking the ten biggest stories of the millennium, however, was beyond us. What would you pick? The Holocaust or The Black Death? Reaching the New World or reaching the moon? Or the invention of the printing press, or television, or radio, or the atom bomb, or the mirror?
So we thought we could do a simple review. But a thousand years of history are more unwieldy to evaluate than a volume of encyclopedias. Besides, whether we decided to recommend this last millennium or not, we’re stuck with it.
Then again we could, of course, write a Letter from the Editors about it. But we’ve pretty much made the Letter From the Editors feature an opinion piece. And what kind of opinion can you have about a millennium?
Thus, we decided to commemorate this millennium, from 1000 AD to 2000 AD, with a simple historical outline.
But we are putting out Colorado Central, a little regional magazine that covers regional topics, and try as we might, we couldn’t find very many reference materials about historic happenings around here before 1550.
We had heard about Euro-centric histories, though, and they were not necessarily about Europe. And we had also heard about Anglo-centric histories, and ethno-centric histories. So we decided to do a Colorado-centric history.
Actually, Ed is always complaining about how all of his schoolbooks when he was a kid presented Eastern Seaboard histories, devoting chapters to Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and sections to the Iroquois Confederacy and Bunker Hill, and a mere three or four pages to everything west of the Mississippi.
Obviously, here was an idea whose time had come. We would write the first Colorado-centric World History. Though by necessity our history would be short — actually nothing more than an outline of events — surely others would follow our lead.
Thus we started, but as it turned out, writing even a mere outline of one thousand years of history can be a daunting project. History presents so many important events, ideas, inventions, that the chronicler has to pick and chose.
And we chose rather mercilessly. We didn’t bother with New York, Boston, the constitution, Puritans, or the thirteen original colonies. For the most part, we didn’t bother much with presidents or kings, either.
Even though we were striving for a world history, we tried to include what was happening in Colorado throughout the millennium. (Actually, we only bothered with Central Colorado. If the people of Fort Collins want a Fort Collins-centric history, they can devise their own.)
Anyway, on the whole, we chose world events that changed Western civilization, and thus presumably Colorado, or events that may have had a direct bearing on Colorado, or events that happened in Colorado, then threw in an event here and there just to illuminate its era, and tossed the rest. In truth, by the 1800s so much was happening we tossed nearly everything.
Also, for no particular reason, we usually left out labels like the Enlightenment, and The Age of Reason, not because we thought those things didn’t affect Colorado, but because we figured you could look at the list and decide whether those eras were enlightening or reasonable on your own.
The truth is, we thought a Colorado-centric history would be a bit bizarre, a little humorous, or maybe even silly. Instead, it was a learning experience. By the time we were through, our Colorado-centric history made as much sense to us as any other history.
Moreover, once we had done so much research, and made an outline, we realized that we could actually reduce the millennium to a short summary. So here goes:
BASICALLY, WHEN OUR MILLENNIUM BEGAN, kings, queens and nobles ruled over serfs and slaves, and the church ruled over everyone — except, of course, those peoples they hadn’t yet discovered. Back then, most Europeans were Christian and the Roman pope ruled over Europe’s clergy, literacy rates were low, and generally only the clergy could read. But Europe was also home to stalwart warriors, who slew dragons and neighboring vassals — when they weren’t on crusade.
Then dissenters started railing at the church, and merchants started building powerful guilds to support one another, and a lot of merchants learned how to read.Thereupon, the British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French built better boats, and everyone went to sea. And that’s where Columbus discovered America (perhaps because it was there).
And before long, men were exploring all sorts of things, including the heavens, the continents, and a lot of new ideas. And thus Europeans discovered many fascinating wonders like calculus, planetary motion, the Grand Cañon, and germs.
But since there was money in real estate development, that’s what Europe’s kings were most interested in. So by the 1600s, Spain, France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands all built empires where they presided over hapless villagers.
By then, however, the villagers of Europe had gotten a little tired of being presided over. So Europeans started talking about freedom, democracy, and the rights of the common man. And though the empire-builders didn’t know it yet, they were doomed.
In the late 1700s America revolted. Then France revolted, and by the 1820s, Simon Bolivar was liberating a country almost every year.
By the nineteenth century, everybody throughout Europe’s far-flung empires, including former colonists, former slaves, and Indians from both the New World and New Delhi, were convinced that they should be free, too — although many still weren’t so sure that their neighbors should be.
And finally, in the twentieth century in both Europe and America, everyone demanded civil rights and equal treatment whether they be European or non-European, rich, poor, young, old, male or female.
Well, that’s it.
In case you didn’t guess, we concluded that civil liberties have been the most important development in our current millennium. The emergence and growth of concepts of the equality of the common man, of freedom, liberty, democracy, and rights strike us as a pretty major outcome.
Which may explain why a Colorado-centric history isn’t really all that silly. Indeed, despite what our school texts may have implied, Colorado really is a part of the world, and it is also very much a part of the world’s continuing struggle toward individual rights.
But that’s a story for the next millennium.