This is one of my favorite sources from early America, both because it’s incredibly rich and because it’s surprisingly funny. The source is an excerpt of a book by a Franciscan French missionary Chrestien Le Clercq in his book A New Relation of Gaspesia (published in Paris in 1691). “Gaspesia” refers to the Gaspé peninsula, which lies alongside the St. Lawrence River in Canada. Le Clercq and other French missionaries had come to this region to attempt to convert local Natives to Catholicism and European culture.
The Franciscan missionaries weren’t as successful as they hoped. As it turned out, European practices weren’t immediately appealing to the region’s First Nations peoples. Among them were the Mi’kmaq, whose lands stretch across much of what is now eastern Canada and Maine. In the excerpt below, an unnamed Mi’kmaq person explains why he and his people did not want to embrace European culture.
In the book, Le Clercq explains how he encountered this man in 1676. Le Clercq could speak the Mi’kmaq language, and so some “gentlemen of Isle Percée” had asked him to interpret for them when they visited the local Natives “in order to make the latter understand that it would be very much more advantageous for them to live and to build in our fashion.” These gentlemen were “extremely surprised when the leading Indian, who had listened with great patience to everything I had said to him on behalf of these gentlemen, answered me in these words…”
When I was preparing to teach a course on the American Revolution last spring, I wanted to ask students to build an interpretation of the revolution’s causes. But I kept coming back to the same problem: most of my assignment ideas seemed to implicitly encourage them to focus on a single cause for the revolution.
Historians know better than to attribute any major event, like the American Revolution, to a single cause. While we can argue about the correct mix of factors—republican ideologies, economic incentives, efforts to protect slavery and white supremacy, demand for Native land, cultural changes, etc.—no serious scholar would claim that the revolution had a single cause and that nothing else mattered. The past is too rich and nuanced for that.
For that reason, a question like “What caused the American Revolution?” is an impossible one to answer in a brief essay. Asking students to answer some version of that question with evidence would be asking them to ignore most of what they had just learned. A good essay exhibits clarity, and nuance is challenging to clearly convey in just a few pages. When I thought about how I would answer some of the prompts I was considering, I realized that I was setting students a nearly impossible task.
One of the most interesting, and most difficult, primary sources that I have taught with is Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered.”
Handsome Lake was a Seneca man who came to prominence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He was an important prophet who was involved in the revival of traditional religion among the Haudenosaunee. He argued that the Native peoples of the continent should reject western culture—including alcohol consumption and land selling. Many Seneca disagreed, but his ideas resonated and have proven to be remarkably resilient across centuries. Indeed, his ideas continue to shape the religious practice of the Haudenosaunee today.
In 1923, a folklorist named Arthur Parker, who was a descendant of Handsome Lake, recorded a short narrative about the discovery of America that has been attributed to Handsome Lake. It was first written down more than a century after Handsome Lake died, but it is closely aligned with his theology. According to Parker, the story goes like this (my insertions are in brackets):
[note: this is an activity I developed for my Smith College course “Doing Digital History” taught in the Spring of 2020]
Early American Newspaper Citations
Download this data that I produced as a part of my research.
It represents nearly the entirety of late 18th century North American newspapers’ citations to newspapers outside of North America. These are all aggregated based on city and weighted by the number of citations. It’s structured in five-year increments.
N.B.: the Java kit takes about 300mb of space. If you’d prefer not to install software on your personal computer, hop onto one of the classroom PCs.
I have written these instructions for Mac users, but they can be easily translated to PC instructions. Using PC guidelines mostly involves making sure that the slashes go the opposite way. See Mac and PC directions on The Programming Historian site.