You can’t have history without a historian. Other people lived the past, but there’s no story of it unless someone puts it all together. Accordingly, you have to have a historian. So, U.S. history starts when we get our first historian. Who was that? I always find it interesting that we learn all kinds of historical facts about our country in school but never who kicked off the gig. We still operate under the illusion that history writes itself or that these stories are found and being True are the same no matter who writes it. The historian, then, is unimportant. But, that’s a lie. One of many we tell ourselves. Oblivious to the historian, we remain obtuse about his motives (and I do mean his).
You could argue that our first historian was William Bradford (1590-1657) — the Puritan leader who left behind the record Of Plymouth Plantation. That was really a memoir though, rather than a history. He wrote it some years after the fact and it seems his memory got a little away from him at parts. That’s how it is when you go back ten years later and try to recall it all. It might be better to say that our first historian was Juan Bautista Chapa (1627-1695), an Italian monk who took up service in the Spanish Catholic settlements of the southwest. He wrote a History of Nuevo Leon, 1650-1690 using actual governmental records for his sources. Thus, it was researched and inclined to be more scholarly and less biased (perhaps) than a memoir. But, it also celebrated the Spanish settlement of the southwest as the good work of the Catholic fathers (which the Indians would probably dispute). Interestingly, we do not generally start the history of the United States in the southwest. We define ourselves as heirs of the Anglo tradition instead, and this is because those historians who managed to capture the public eye and create the myths of our foundings were white men who lived on the east coast. Chapa has been forgotten.
In between him and professional history lay the fraudulent history of Washington Irving (1783-1809), best known for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Irving was a great storyteller, but his “history” was not so much fact. In 1809, he published a satire on local history under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving created his character and then pulled one of the greatest public relations stunts in American literary history. He planted a story in the papers saying that Knickerbocker, a notable Dutch historian, had gone missing. For a time, the City of New York was fascinated with the story. It made a name for Knickerbocker, and when his “history” of New York came out subsequently, it sold well. So successful was Irving in imprinting his character on the public psyche that New Yorkers came to be known as Knickerbockers (or Knicks). (Irving also dubbed the city “Gotham.”) Later, Irving served as Minister to Spain and had the opportunity there to peruse Spanish sources on Columbus’ journeys. He used this research to write historical fiction on the subject. It was closer to a scholarly work, but still fiction. In his later years, he traveled the mid-west, and wanting for money afterwards, he wrote Tour of the Prairies — a first record of Indian Territory at the time of the removals. This was more of a current events kind of piece however, and, meanwhile, an up-and-comer named George Bancroft (1800-1891) was creating the first scholarly Anglo-American history about this same time — eclipsing Irving and ushering in the dominate paradigm we still use.
Bancroft published the first volume of his History of the United States in 1834. He was an educator and a civil servant. He served as Secretary of the Navy, helping to found the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He was a WASP who was educated at Harvard and pursued additional studies in Germany (when only few could afford such an undertaking). Ultimately, he would write four volumes of the history, and it would be marked by romanticization of the founders and the themes of progress and exceptionalism. The founding of the United States, Bancroft wrote, was the greatest moment in the political history of mankind. Of course, Bancroft didn’t cover the history of the Indians or the colonization by the Spanish. No, his history was about the spread of democratic ideals from the English colonies and a celebration of the WASP tradition that produced the Constitution — that most sacred of texts. The most influential of our first historians, Bancroft and his interpretation really set the stage for future historians. Only John Fiske (1842-1901) would match him in influence during the nineteenth century.
Fiske was our first professional historian of note. Like Bancroft, he was educated at Harvard — where he later taught philosophy and history — and studied abroad as well. Early work on evolutionary theory led Fiske to believe in the racial superiority of whites as scientific fact, which naturally would color his history. Again, his work focused on the English colonies for the most part and ignored the Spanish settlements and Native American cultures. However, Fiske also helped further our history as a scholarly endeavor relying on the use of credible sources and factuality. It was part of the new history that attempted accurate representations rather than a celebration of God’s hand at work in the world or the value of the Church. His were civic myths rather than religious ones. A professional, he aided in the promotion of the discipline from a dalliance by wealthy amateurs to a rigorous scholarly undertaking.
Clearly, Fiske and Bancroft set the trajectory of our interpretations with their work and their biases. Thus, it’s valuable to recognize who they were and with what they blessed and cursed us. Really, until we can be conscious of that, we can’t really understand our history — or our historiography for that matter. Thus, to know our history, we must first know our historians.