In working on my book about the myth of the Mound Builders, I encountered a bizarre historical sideshow that is probably worth mentioning, if only because it gives the lie to the idea that some sort of conspiracy has forever kept the “textbooks” clean of fringe ideas.
Regular readers will remember that in the 1830s, an Albany writer named Josiah Priest produced a lengthy volume called American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West, which, across its five editions, accumulated a massive pile of random claims for all manner of European and Old World incursions in the New World before Columbus, culminating with the conclusion that the continent had been peopled by the Lost Tribes of Israel, the ancient Egyptians, and the Romans.
At the time that Priest wrote, the standard textbooks used by students in America’s best schools, such as George Bancroft’s History of the United States (1834), delivered what was then the consensus about the peopling of the Americas, that the first Americans were the Native Americans and that they crossed over from eastern Asia many millennia ago. This was the conclusion of most scientists when Thomas Jefferson discussed it in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) and it remained so half a century later.
But in the 1830s and 1840s, Priest’s book and other like it had changed the national conversation. In the wake of wars against the Native Americans and the Indian Removal Act, there was a strong incentive to find non-Native first Americans. The new textbook taking American schools by storm in the late 1840s played right into that propaganda need.
History of the United States of America, Designed for Schools (1847) genuinely surprised me. It was written by a young homeopathic doctor in his 20s named Egbert Guernsey, who somewhat disingenuously claimed his one year of teaching experience to be a long career in education. What surprised me is that the first chapter of the book is entitled “American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West,” and it borrows heavily from its namesake, without citing Priest by name. Parts are a virtual plagiarism of Priest’s least reliable claims about the connection between America and the Flood of Noah, Romans in America, and even a cavern heaped with Egyptian mummies in the South.
The conviction forces itself irresistibly upon was on our mind, that the people who made this cavern and filled it with the thousands of their embalmed dead were indeed from Egypt. If they were not, whither shall we turn for a solution of this mystery? The North American Indians were never known to form catacombs for their dead, or to be acquainted with the art of preservation by embalming. Catacombs are numerous all over Egypt—vast excavations, with niches in their sides for their embalmed dead, exactly such as the one we have described. This custom is purely Egyptian, and was practised in the earliest age of their national existence.
Keep in mind that this was a textbook used in high schools and colleges.
Did the Indians erect any thing like the walled towns on Paint Creek? Did they ever dig such wells as are found at Marietta, Portsmouth, and above all, such as those at Paint Creek? Did they ever manufacture vessels from calcarious breccia, equal to any now made in Italy? To this we respond, they never have: no, not even their traditions afford a glimpse of the existence of such things as forts, tumuli, roads, wells, mounds, walls inclosing between one and two hundred—and even five hundred acres of land; some of them of stone, others of earth, twenty feet in thickness and very high, are works requiring too much labor for Indians ever to have performed. The skeletons found in the mounds never belonged to a people like our Indians.
He finished his chapter by speculating that the first Americans were Nephilim from the race of Giants before the Flood of Noah, possibly from Atlantis. So awesome was this prehistory, he said, that it would stop people cold in their tracks if only they know of the wonders of the antediluvian age:
Speak to childhood of the buried world and its mysteries, and the heart-bubbling laugh is stilled, and childish hopes forgotten. The hopes and aspirations of manhood are for a time relinquished in the overwhelming contemplation. The maiden's cheek is blanched as her woman's heart prompts thoughts of life, and its never-ceasing changes. The aged man, with the accumulated wisdom of years, bows his head as he thinks of those by-gone days; and feels by every weakened nerve, that he, too, in turn, must go down to his resting-place in earth’s bosom, and sleep with “patriarchs of the infant world.” Here, too, young reader, thou shalt rest. The silver cord will be one day loosed, and the golden bowl broken.
To you and to me, such a bizarre opening chapter, comprising a full 10% of the volume, ought to have been disqualifying for any textbook attempting to represent seriously the history of the United States. But it wasn’t so! Opinion was overwhelmingly positive.
The Rev. John Abbott, the head of the prestigious Abbott Institute school for girls in New York, one of the city’s most exclusive academies, endorsed the book: “I should prefer it, as a text-book for recitations, to any other History of the United States with which I am acquainted,” he said. Publications for teachers gave it near universal praise, and several other educators offered their full-throated endorsement. Charles Wingate, the principal of the English and Classical School in New York, specifically singled out “the introductory chapter on American Antiquities, containing much that is both new and interesting on a subject that in most of our histories is neglected” as the reason he threw away all of his school’s American history texts and replaced them with this one.
The mound builder myth would remain a standard (though not always accepted) part of American history texts for the next half century.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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