Historical Narratives of America's Founding

By: Johnny Stumpff

Narratives of America’s Founding

back to the first few times you got into an argument with your friend or
sibling as a child. For example, you might have claimed that you have been
nothing but nice to your sibling, while your sibling may claim that you called
them something hurtful. When I was younger, I often found myself in disputes
like these, with an adult as the ultimate judge. After a few minutes of harsh
words and hurt feelings, the argument almost always devolved into two competing
interpretations of the basic facts of what occurred. Looking back, I now
sympathize with the adult mediators of such debates. How could they possibly
settle the argument when they’ve been presented with two conflicting
interpretations of a single event? We may be tempted to think that one child may
be telling the truth while the other is lying, but in most cases, both are
telling their own version of the truth. 

a dispute is analogous to the archetypal struggle of historians: behind an
event lies a nearly infinite amounts of interpretations of a single seemingly
objective event. For this reason, when studying, analyzing, and telling
history, we must exercise unique caution compared to other academic
disciplines.  While fields that rely on
the scientific method such as biology, chemistry, and physics may try to claim
objectivity, scholars of history worth their salt must acknowledge the
subjectivity inherent to the study of history. The importance of recognizing
the variations in historical narratives is increasingly evident when
considering traditional history education in the United States. Many American
teachings of history privilege the perspectives of certain groups over others,
especially those of dominant groups in American society. In her award-winning
2014 book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne
Dunbar-Ortiz acknowledges this discrepancy and seeks to ameliorate the
disproportionate popularity of European perspectives. She does this by
elucidating the experiences of Indigenous peoples during the genocidal process
of European colonization. To clearly communicate and contrast different
historical perspectives, Dunbar-Ortiz compartmentalizes narratives of European
colonialism in the Americas into three separate categories.

Dunbar-Ortiz writes about the “Doctrine of Discovery,” one of the most
Eurocentric historical narratives describing European colonization. This
narrative frames colonization as a beneficial event wherein colonists are
simply protagonists fulfilling their destiny as servants of God. This system of
thought portrays pre-colonial America as a wasteland, devoid of complex society
or culture. Therefore, colonists such as Christopher Columbus justified their
violent actions by framing them as corrective procedures that insert “positive
changes” such as Christianity, gender binaries, and various hierarchies into
the “less civilized” Indigenous societies. Indeed, many Calvinist colonists
interpreted their successful conquest of Indigenous peoples as a sign from God
that they were “predestined” and therefore justified in expanding their empire
across the North American continent. American schools often perpetuate this
perspective by literally painting a history of colonists simply riding their
carts and horses across vast empty plains in order to create a “New World” from
“nothing.” While the Doctrine of Discovery does provide some valuable insight
into the mindsets of the colonists, it blatantly ignores the established,
complex, advanced, and flourishing Indigenous societies that colonists

since the Doctrine of Discovery had some obvious biases toward European
perspectives, many historians instead opted to adopt a “Multicultural
Perspective” that frames colonization as an ostensibly neutral encounter
between Europeans and Indigenous peoples. During the propagation of this
perspective, we see a shift from the word “discovery” to describe Columbus’
landing in the Americas to a new, more fashionable “encounter.” Traces of this
school of thought can be found in traditional American conceptions of
Thanksgiving where Puritan colonists and Indigenous tribes were able to simply
coexist and maintained a neutral relationship. This narrative still falls short
to tell a complete history because it ignores the fact that colonization was
not neutral – European colonists went on the offensive to violently subjugate
Indigenous peoples in a manner that was unique from normal international
relations, or even normal methods of warfare. While many countries go to war
over territorial disputes, political differences, or perceptions of a threat,
this instance of conquest distinguishes itself by its goal: the complete and
utter annihilation of a group of people. 

Dunbar-Ortiz amplifies some of the most ignored perspectives in the history of
colonization: Indigenous perspectives. This narrative, named “Settler
Colonialism,” portrays colonialism as an inherently violent event where
Indigenous peoples were forced to fight for their survival as a people (rather
than as individuals). While other perspectives such as the Doctrine of
Discovery have the capability to tell the stories of forced conversion and
dependency on the state, they fail to account for the true horror inflicted
upon Indigenous peoples over the past few centuries. Since colonialism is an inherently
violent and genocidal event, proponents of this school of thought claim that it
follows that we should prioritize the stories from the perspective of the
people who suffered the violence. The stories encompassed by this historical
narrative have often been excluded from mainstream conceptions of history for a
few reasons. Firstly, the realization of Indigenous suffering puts existing
institutions, which were built on colonial violence, in jeopardy. For this
reason, various institutions have incentives to suppress evocations of
Indigenous perspectives. Secondly, many historical records of violence against
Indigenous people were destroyed in the process of the widespread destruction
associated with European colonization. Overall, the Settler Colonial narrative
provides valuable insight into the lives that suffered in the process of
America’s founding. 

each of these three narratives can enable us to attain a more complete
understanding of historical events. Specifically, the spread of disease by
European colonists in the Americas has been framed vastly different by each
historical narrative. Alongside settlement came the death of approximately
ninety percent of the Indigenous population in the Americas, with much of this
staggering number resulting from the spread of disease. As told in the Doctrine
of Discovery, this spread of disease was not intentional at all, but simply an
unfortunately inevitable event. Proponents of this theory have argued that,
since Europeans tended to live in more “advanced” and dense cities, their
immune systems were more resilient and resistant to common pathogens. This
argument clearly takes the blame away from the colonists and instead attributes
it to the alleged “weakness” or “uncivilized nature” of Indigenous inhabitants.
Historians telling the Multicultural Perspective may adopt a similar mindset,
claiming that the spread of disease was an accidental occurrence resulting from
the simple encounter between Indigenous peoples and European colonists. The
Settler Colonial perspective stands out from these previous two perspectives in
its clear blame of the colonists for the spread of disease. Rather than framing
plague as a terrible accident, proponents of this perspective use various
empirical examples to support the idea that settlers used biological warfare to
eradicate Indigenous populations. Since many of the settlers in North America
were previous participants in the Irish colonization effort, many colonists
likely carried ideas of difference with them as they sailed to the Americas,
resulting in the deliberate infection and death of millions of Indigenous

conclusion, historical narratives differ for many reasons. Since there are
multiple sides to every conflict and historical event, it would be negligent to
acknowledge only a single perspective. Additionally, the writers of history
often have incentives to prioritize the perspectives of certain social groups,
and many historians in the past have selectively chosen particular narratives
of history to tell (such as the Multicultural Perspective) in order to quell
dissent and appease a populace with a rosy, sugarcoated telling of historical
events. The history of the founding of the United States of America contains
the perspectives of many different groups, most notably the European colonists
and Indigenous peoples. As previously mentioned, some of the most popular
perspectives in American society focus on the heritage and needs of European
landowners. For this reason, Dunbar-Ortiz highlights a less frequently
mentioned history: the painful struggle of Indigenous peoples as they were
forced to defend their land, culture, and posterity. It is important that
students, scholars, and the general population understand a variety of
different historical narratives so that they can deconstruct hierarchies and
limit forms of violence that could be avoided. Every political action we take
is guided by our subjective interpretation of history, so it is our duty to
ensure we attain a well-rounded, accurate, and fair understanding of historical

Work Cited

Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. Beacon
Press, 2015.