When Does American History Begin?

This forum works best when sharing practical strategies, pedagogical musings, and classroom innovations, but content’s important, too. And, when teaching the first half of the U.S. history survey, the first content question is a simple one: “When to begin?”
Probing the origins of American history is not a hollow academic exercise, but a teachable problem that performs quite a bit of work for me at the outset of each semester. When does American history begin? With Jamestown? With Columbus? With Beringia? With the Big Bang? Each answer hinges upon its own assumptions. I always frame course content as the columniation of a series of deliberations and remind students that, given the vast sweep of time, history is as much about omission as it is about inclusion. Asking students the “origins” question establishes at the outset that the history we teach is but a collection of pedagogical choices and, by evaluating how different generations have chosen their own starting points, reveals that those choices evolve with time and carry their own particular cultural and political imperatives.
While earlier generations might have begun with Columbus or Jamestown, I suspect most contemporary American history surveys start with the Bering Land Bridge. Some, perhaps, if only briefly, might even move forward from the Big Bang. Why not? Why not embrace a slice of what David Christian calls “Big History,” the large-scale story of humanity? We study English history to understand English colonies; if we study the first Americans, why not trace their many forebears backward through deep time? More importantly, though, the Big Bang points to the politics of the past. From the very beginning, by gesturing at evolution and the origins of humanity, the history survey can reveal the politics of knowledge and the ways in which ideologies and beliefs shape our approach to academic questions. Besides, if the very inception of humanity connects past and present through controversy, what then of the much more immediate material that will follow? What about the Revolution, and slavery, and expansion? How do we navigate the ideological mine-field of the culture wars while maintaining academic rigor? Even if it offers no firm answer, the origins question at least prepares us for the challenge.
Now that we are a few months removed from our first weeks of the semester, and the first weeks of the next, when did you begin, and why?

2 thoughts on “When Does American History Begin?

  1. In my early U.S. survey class, I begin with a lecture that describes the peopling of the North and South American continents, the rise and fall of the Hopewell and Mississippian cultures (especially Cahokia), and ends with a tour of Native lifeways around what is now the United States prior to 1492. In the lecture, I hope to convey the diversity of Native life, the dynamic nature of Native cultures over time, and the distinctly human problems they faced. All of this is designed to push back against the image of the Native American promoted in popular culture of social groups who never changed, who lived only as semi-nomads, and who lived in perfect harmony with their environment. It seems to me that that image of Native Americans dehumanizes them by treating them as merely a part of the landscape or the natural environment.

    I’d love to start at the Big Bang, but I’m certain I don’t have the time to do it justice in a U.S. survey. I think it would be quite fun, however, to teach a world history survey from the big bang to the present all in one term. By forcing you to think about only the broadest features of human history, you would have to really grapple with what it truly means to be human.

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