Historian Peter Stark on the hopes, fears, and follies of America

Historian Peter Stark on the hopes, fears, and follies of America

In Open Book - Everand Originals by Laura Hohnhold

Historian Peter Stark on the hopes, fears, and follies of America
In his wide-ranging, action-packed career, adventure writer and historian Peter Stark has written about awful ways to die in the outdoors (Last Breath), paddling a croc-infested river in Mozambique (At the Mercy of the River), Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to colonize the West Coast (Astoria), and George Washington’s tumultuous career as an untested colonial soldier (Young Washington). In the new Scribd Original, Sins of the Founding Father, he takes us to the Ohio wilderness of 1791, where a little-known battle between U.S. troops and Indigenous warriors led to controversial political decisions that still affect us today. Here, Stark talks about the wiliness of American presidents and the lure of unexplored places and stories.

The events you write about took place in 1791, in the remote Ohio wilderness, and have long been forgotten. Yet the story has never been more relevant than it is today. Can you discuss why? 

Peter Stark: The events of 1791 and their aftermath resonate profoundly in our precarious political situation today. This is for several reasons, not necessarily in order of importance. First, this forgotten battle and its aftermath showed how tenuous the American Experiment was at its beginning, and in some ways still is. The Constitution, for all its embodied wisdom about separation of powers and so on, is a flawed document for not addressing many key issues, and for its vagueness on others. At this very moment in our national discourse, there is an impassioned — and very high-stakes — battle unfolding over the powers of the Executive Branch versus the powers of Congress and the powers of the Judicial Branch. These current events expose gaping holes in the Constitution. What power does Congress have to investigate a president (or ex-president) accused of wrongdoing and to demand his papers? What power does the Judicial Branch have in relation to a president accused of wrongdoing? What power does the president have to stand up to these other two branches?

This quote is from a recent New York Times article, in which presidential historians are asked about the recent search of Mar-a-Lago and other events surrounding the investigations of Donald Trump:

“The [interviewed] historians said the events are a test of the resilience of American democracy when it is under assault.

“‘We are in the middle of a neo-civil war in this country,’” Mr. Brinkley said. “‘This is a starkly unprecedented moment in U.S. history.’”

I would say this ‘unprecedented moment’ has its antecedents in the vagueness or silence of the Constitution on many of these issues, and in the events of 1791 and its aftermath.

Also, the 1791 battle did much to harden U.S. policy toward the Native Nations, which found themselves encompassed by U.S. territorial claims. What followed was literally a genocide. This nation is still wrestling with the legacy of that today, and, in reality, there is a rapidly growing awareness among non-Natives of that ‘sin’ and how it haunts us. This growing recognition is an encouraging sign, but there is still so very far to go to make most Americans aware. 

Readers might be surprised to learn that Donald Trump looms large in this story about the earliest days of the United States. What do you think George Washington and the Founders might say about him?

Peter Stark: Wow! Yes, good question. I’ve wondered about that myself. I would say, almost to a man — a white, propertied man at that, because that’s what they all were — the Founders would say something to the effect of, “Donald Trump is exactly the kind of person we created the Constitution to guard against.” For all its vagueness on some points, the Constitution is very specific on the importance of guarding against an individual seizing power. The Founders had a mortal fear of creating a permanent, standing army for the new nation. Armies were the instrument used by the tyrants of Europe to wield their power. That’s why the Constitution is very specific in saying that any military force can only have two years of funding at a time, and it has to be authorized by Congress. This makes it difficult for a would-be dictator to turn the army inward, against the citizens and a democratic system. Could you imagine George Washington considering using the army to seize ballot boxes if an election didn’t go his way?

Your last book, Young Washington, was about George Washington’s early life and military career. Were you surprised by anything new you learned about him while researching this story?

Peter Stark: Well, I knew that, from a young age, he had a lust for land, as many Virginians did, but it surprised me how strong that desire was until I saw more of the specific details of it while researching this story. I use a “kid in a candy shop” image as Washington goes down the Ohio by canoe in 1770 (pre-Revolution), looking for the best, tastiest slices of land — for himself. It comes out in other details, too, like the way he pitches wealthy people to rent his western lands, and his rage when the Brits suggest he and colonial officers like him might not receive “bounty lands” promised after winning the Revolution.

On the positive side, my admiration for other aspects of Washington’s leadership grew while researching this story, as I learned more about how conscientious he was in trying to establish precedent in governing an infant nation, and how discreet he was about it in some ways. He really, really wanted the American Experiment to succeed, and, at a certain point he wanted to pass on responsibility for it to a younger generation of leaders. I think he would be horrified by where we are today, politically. But he was also very calm and deliberate in a crisis, which might be the advice he would give us from the beyond.

Sins of the Founding Father shows how methodical and dishonest the U.S. was in its mission to force Indigenous peoples further west. Much of it was prompted by racism, but it was largely about real estate. Can you tell us why land acquisition was so important to a brand-new government that could barely control the 13 states already under its jurisdiction?

Peter Stark: Western lands were the national savings account for the infant U.S. The Founders hoped to use the sale of western lands — acquired, in so many dubious ways, from the Native Americans — to pay off the nation’s debts from the Revolution and elsewhere. At first, the U.S. didn’t have the ability to impose taxes, so western lands were seen as its source of wealth.

And, of course, there was a powerful impetus on the part of both resident Americans and arriving immigrants to acquire their own piece of land and become independent as farmers and in other ways. Without this almost infinite expanse of western lands, this would not be possible. The Native Americans were barely considered in this formula for the nation’s growth. Washington thought if the U.S. offered to pay them for land (never mind the ridiculously low prices offered), they’d simply pull up and move on. This was not the case. 

Your next book, coming out in 2023, is about the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who makes a brief appearance in this story as a young warrior. He would go on to be a major player in the fight over Indigenous lands. How did U.S. policies toward Indigenous tribes evolve from the time of Sins of the Founding Father to the 1800s to now?

Peter Stark: That's a huge sweep of history, so it’s difficult to be specific without pinning it to a particular era. But I’ll try: In essence, U.S. policies toward Indigenous people and their lands became even more brutal and more unfair from the time of Washington through the 1800s and into the 1900s. In Tecumseh’s era, his nemesis, Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison (who would, much later, become the ninth U.S. president), took Indian lands on a massive scale — tens of millions of acres — in the first few years of the 1800s, abetted by President Thomas Jefferson, whose secret advice to Harrison was to get the Indian leaders into debt with traders, so they would have to split off pieces of their lands to pay them.

In the 1830s, there was the infamous period, pushed by President Andrew Jackson, of forced removal of tribes from legally held Indigenous lands to areas west across the Mississippi River, into what’s now Oklahoma and elsewhere. This was the tragic time of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, the Potawatomi Trail of Death, and other forced exoduses.

Then came the Plains Indian Wars, in the mid-to-late 1800s, which most Americans have at least a visual picture of from countless Hollywood movies. At the heart of these Plains wars was a simple and brutal truth of U.S. history: If an Indian tribe happened to occupy lands that whites saw as valuable for farming, for having gold, or for whatever, those tribes were forced off, whether they wanted to leave or not. And if they didn’t want to leave, the U.S. would force them to by violent, armed conflict. The infamous Custer’s Last Stand — Battle of the Little Bighorn — occurred when whites discovered gold in the Black Hills, which was Indigenous land. Whites coveted that land, and the tribes resisted.

In the very late 1900s and early 1900s, a whole different set of abuses occurred — from the Dawes Act, which allowed whites to buy pieces of Indian reservation lands, to sending Indigenous children to white boarding schools in order to obliterate their tribal languages and cultures. There was also a concerted effort to terminate the sovereignty of tribes as independent nations. Thankfully, that trend is now reversing.

Early in your career, your focus was contemporary adventure stories, many of them about your own hijinks in the wild. What prompted the shift to historical adventure, a niche you helped to create?

Peter Stark: I call myself an “adventure-historian.” When I explain the trajectory of my career in response to questions from audiences at readings, I respond — only half in jest — that “I realized a guy could get himself killed doing this sort of thing.” By that time, I was in my late 40s, had a wonderful wife, two lovely children of grade-school age. I was never a crazy, devil-may-care risk-taking adventurer — I always tried to assess the risks carefully, and in some ways was quite cautious — but in the middle of a kayak first-descent of a river in Africa as part of a small expedition, with unknown waterfalls, crocs, hippos, around any given blind river bend, I said to myself, “This is enough. This is as far as I’m going as an explorer/adventurer.” After that, I started to write about other people getting into trouble in the wilds. I discovered I loved writing about history and had a certain knack for it. My father was an amateur historian who wrote about Wisconsin’s frontier history, so I grew up steeped in that atmosphere and it came fairly naturally to me. Of course, the problem with making the decision that I was done with adventure/exploration while halfway down the uncharted river in Africa was that I still had to paddle the second half, and there was no other way out — only forward.

Would you like to have been an explorer back then? No tents, no Gore-Tex, no GPS!

Peter Stark: I would like the absence of modern technology, but not the possibly fatal consequences of doing my “exploring” on lands belonging to another group of people who consider it home and might strongly object to my being there. 

I grew up camping on canoe trips in Wisconsin without Gore-Tex or GPS, although we did have tents. But so did many early explorers, and also Native Americans, who had various shelters while traveling, from tents to lean-tos improvised from materials at hand, such as tree boughs, sheets of bark, etc.

Don’t get me going on GPS and cell phone map directions! (Although I do use them sometimes while driving.) It makes me crazy how many people, young people especially, can be standing on familiar ground and not be able to point (sometimes even while looking at their phones) which direction is north, south, east, or west. Or even care! These cardinal directions tell you everything about how the earth lives — sun and shade, wind and rain, warmth and cold, not to mention which direction to head when you want to go somewhere. It drives me nuts!

Historian Stark provides an insightful look at a little-known yet consequential defeat of U.S. forces by Indigenous tribes in 1791. The fallout from the battle raised questions about executive power that echo today in the Jan. 6 hearings.


Sins of the Founding Father is a Scribd Original and is available exclusively on Scribd. It’s included in our subscription service as an ebook and an audiobook. You can find more Scribd Originals here.

About the Author: Laura Hohnhold

Laura Hohnhold is a longtime magazine and book editor. She was deputy editor of Outside and executive editor of Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine and the digital book publisher Byliner. She is currently a nonfiction editor for Scribd Originals.