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My Country Tis of Thee

Normally, I do this kind of thinking-out-loud on my own blog, where about thirty people are paying attention. But then Charlie said "hey, I've got this guest spot, come make yourself vulnerable visible here!" And sure, why not?

Hi, my name's Laura Anne, and while in the past I've mostly been known for urban fantasy (of the modern-magic-and-mystery variety) and the fact that I convinced a publisher to pay me to write three books about wine-based magic (and got a Nebula nomination for it!), my next project decided that it was going to drag me screaming and kicking somewhere slightly more problematic: American history.

Now, the talk in genre these days is about diversity, calling for more characters of color and alternative cultures, and more writers of color and non-Western backgrounds.  And I'm 100% behind that  - not because I'm a guilty white liberal.  Because I'm needy.

There.  I admit it.

Yes, literature - genre or mainstream - is a mirror.  We look into it to see ourselves, through whatever reflects back. And that's why it's important for there to be diversity - so everyone gets a chance to see themselves.  But literature is also a window.  It's how we see things that aren't us, that bring new views, new light into who we are

So I want to see more stories set in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, in cultures that aren't mine, with characters who aren't me, in race, religion, color or sexuality, because they let me see something else, something I can't get any other way.  I need more of that, please!

But where does that call for diversity, and cultural authenticity, leave me as a writer?  I'm of mixed and muddled background - four different bloodlines each carrying several different countries on their backs and continents in their wake.  But for me to claim one of them as my mirror?  Would be false, because I'm not a member of those cultures: I'm American, three generations deep.   So how much of American culture can I claim? 

The modern side, absolutely - I've spent ten books, three novellas and a number of short stories writing about the American immigrant and integration culture through the Cosa Nostradamus novels. I think I've done a reasonably good job, there.

But what about where all that formed? If my next book were, say, set in a divergent history of pre-1800's North America - is that my culture? Is that my mirror, too? Or is it a window?

Was I appropriating something that didn't belong to me?

That's a thought to stop a writer dead in their tracks, if we're being honest. Both the fear of being called out for it, rightly or wrongly, and the inevitability of getting it wrong, because short of growing up immersed in something, we WILL get things wrong, and "but alternate history!" only buys you so much wiggle room.

But I had a story I needed to tell, things I needed to say, and this was how they were going to be told and said. So it was important for me to figure it out.

The book - the working title was THE DEVIL'S WEST - plays with the idea that rather than the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 that doubled the size of the United States with a pen stroke and a large check, that area was left in the hands of an entity known in the newspapers of the time as The Devil: an entire Territory within which the tribes remained unmolested, and any people of any nation who wanted to settle there needed to play by the devil's rules - or else.

I thought I could write my main character Isobel's point of view reasonably well - she's a first generation immigrant who thinks of this land as her own, as her home. But what of those she encounters, on both sides of the colonization argument?

The real history that created this setting is at heart the history of the hundreds of tribes and dozens of confederations that western incursion pushed to the side. In that sense, I am the outsider, the observer through the window. And for a non-Native American, writing about that portion of our history is deeply problematic on pretty much every level. I could not imagine what life had been like back then; the truest histories are locked away from me by nature of my skin and language, and I have access only to the things that were written down and shared - and too often when they were shared, elements were reserved, lost, or destroyed. I could only be true to what I could see through that window, and be aware that there was much beyond that window, out of my sight.

But the settlers who chose to risk, to go to a new world and find their fortune and their future, knowing that they left all security and certainty behind? I knew those people, though these were none of mine, coming predominantly from western and northern Europe. I knew what it felt to hope for a welcome somewhere else, to plant the seeds of your future in that hope - and to arrive only to discover that the streets were not paved in gold, but rather hardship and distrust. There was my mirror, the familiar things I can study, and know.

And so that was how I approached my research, and my story: as a mirror reflecting into a window, casting a third image. And there were a lot of days I couldn't write, because what I'd researched required me to tear up things I'd thought I'd known, or stop and process something I hadn't known. And knowing that this was necessary, for the story and for my own ability to tell the story, ended up being small comfort.

Did I stay on the line of respect and accuracy, while playing with real history, and real cultures? I hope so - for my sake, and the sake of those who shared their knowledge with me.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Because in a very real sense, that is the legacy of my nation, that is the culture I've been born into; problematic from the start, sometimes blending and sometimes clashing, the things that are good and the things that are bad, the things we are proud of and what we regret. My country, tis of thee I write.

As to how the whole thing turned out.... That, the future will have to tell (October 2015, to be exact).



Hi Laura Anne-

Great post, thank you. You raise some really important issues of writer integrity. Nothing earth-shattering to add. I just wanted to note that your experiences are similar to those who of us who are also anthropologists (and I work in Europe). As an anthropologist you also have a deep sense of responsibility to those you collaborate with in other places, not least, we're talking about some very good friends (for me).

There is never any weasel room for 'it's just fiction' when you are dealing with the privalege of who gets to write about who. Virginia Woolf made very sure of that: "Think, we must" was her call. It's so hard to recognise that you are situated in a particular body, that you cannot speak for other bodies, but you can, at least, make people and places travel from your own partial perspective–not writing for, but writing with.

My go to person in the circumstances you describe is Ursula Le Guin (no surprise there!). I think her book 'Always Going Home' does it well, fiction written in sympathy to mixture. All I know is that someone will feel I got it wrong. But then that's the fun part: I get to learn something else weird and wonderful about the universe. Huzzah!

Best wishes for the book...


The problem with much "diversity" in novels is that it is an extension of the old maxim "Inside every foreigner is an American trying to get out".


Even good old culturally monolithic England isn't, and the stories we all know are lies.

Did the Celts conquer Europe, or was it more a case of "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a new Halstatt shield?" Start looking for genetic markers and Gaul wasn't all Celtic, just as Caesar said. The Anglo-Saxons were here since the last Ice Age, and the split our teachers told us about, the conquest of Britain that pushed the Celtic tribes to the west has the problem that the precursors of the Welsh don't seem to have ever been here in the east. My remote ancestors came to Britain, as the ice retreated, across the German plains and Doggerland, while the Celts came up the Atlantic coast from Spain and southern France.

That migration pattern also makes you wonder if the Celts who the Greeks feared were the same as those who invaded Rome, and if the Anglo-Saxon take-over of England was just a new name for yet another Celtic invasion.

To be honest, I reckon Geoffrey of Monmouth has a lot to answer for.

And then my history teachers bored me silly on Victorian parliamentary reforms. I failed the O-level. It's the only one I did fail. We had three years of wars and battles and feuding kings—the Wars of the Roses are English Kings acting like the Hatfields and McCoys—and then it was a dreary litany of Reform Acts, preached about by a voice coming from within a cloud of tobacco smoke.

You don't have to be writing in American history to tear up what you were taught in school. My mother told me that her history lessons went all the way up to Chamberlain's "Piece of Paper". Which was a couple of years before she started at Grammar School.

And I do have a copy of "1066 And All That", which is a Good Thing.


Thanks for the post, Laura Anne.

I've only in the last few years started to be really aware, when reading, of this issue. The whole idea of the "Exotic oriental" trope was something I was completely and utterly blind to for years and years. And I am still learning.


Well said, Laura Anne. I've been circling around these questions myself for years, ever since we inherited a remarkable set of letters from my father in law's grandmother's father (got that?) who was a silver miner in Colorado who finally went west.

He experienced it all--San Francisco, riots aimed at the Chinese laborers, a devastating quake--then he met his wife, who had been dumped by her spouse back east. Couldn't get a divorce, so she got herself aboard a ship and crossed round the Horn to come west to find a life, with her daughter in tow. I'd love to form a story around them, but I hit the very questions you do, and quail.

Looking forward to yours.


Thank you!

My academic background is history, so on the one hand I was aware of mulitplicity of views for any one story, but on the other, it was a training to observe and deduce, not get into the middle, the way anthropologists often must. So that retraining was interesting...

The book that started it, for me, was FACING EAST FROM INDIAN COUNTRY, by Daniel Richter.


Nope, you're right: we all have our histories to unlearn and relearn. With American history, it's so much closer to the surface because (as many Europeans take delight in reminding us) we're (still) so young....


"I'm of mixed and muddled background - four different bloodlines each carrying several different countries on their backs and continents in their wake. But for me to claim one of them as my mirror?"

You might appreciate Bill Murray's inspirational speech from "Stripes":

"We're Americans, with a capital 'A', huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We're the underdog. We're mutts! Here's proof: his nose is cold! But there's no animal that's more faithful, that's more loyal, more loveable than the mutt. Who saw "Old Yeller?" Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end?"


I know it's a bit late, but I would have recommended "Families, Nations, and Empires" by Anne F. Hyde.

It covers America west of the Mississippi from 1800 to around 1860. Two words. Fur trade. The book does not paint Anglos and their fire ant capitalism in any kind of good light. The 1850s are especially nasty.

Also, West of The Revolution, by Claudio Saunt.

I would comment, but it would all be just the blackest George-Carlin-flavored cynicism.


"Both the fear of being called out for it, rightly or wrongly, and the inevitability of getting it wrong, because short of growing up immersed in something, we WILL get things wrong, and "but alternate history!" only buys you so much wiggle room."

I'm not sure that I agree. You can do a lot with AltHist. Phillip K Dick imagined perhaps the most bleak alternate America possible in "The Man in the High Castle":


"an entire Territory within which the tribes remained unmolested, and any people of any nation who wanted to settle there needed to play by the devil's rules - or else."

I just finished reading "Lonesome Dove". I think the reality of the Old West was that Old Scratch was always in charge.


We're all Africans anyway. It's just that the Americans arrived by more diverse routes than most.



Except the story I'm telling is set in 1801-1803. So all that history comes after my period.

Next project, I'm going to pick an era that has a lot of first-person written sources to play with. This... was not that period. *headdesks*


The keyword here, it seems to me, is "acculturation". That is, the process of assimilating into another (typically dominant) culture. Some immigrants/immigrant communities resist it, others acculturate very rapidly -- my grandfather reportedly didn't learn English until he was eight (he was born in Poland, to a family of Jewish wool merchants) but my father identifies as English-Jewish and doesn't speak Polish or Yiddish; I was born two-thirds of a century removed from any first generation immigrant experience and I'm about as Polish as Sushi.

Other groups don't assimilate/acculturate rapidly. I think there's a class/money aspect to it -- people who need to do business within the middle/upper classes place a premium on blending in, but poor people don't have the energy, time, or resources to spend on education and costumes that lets them "pass". Let alone sending their kids to boarding school.

I can't help thinking that uncertainty of one's identity, and a backlash against the parental generation's acculturation, is also behind some of the more disturbing expressions of islamism in the UK and elsewhere in Europe (such as why some young muslim women want to join IS).


As for joining IS, I imagine a large part of it is about the adventure. Getting out of a boring meaningless life and going to carve out an Empire in the Middle East. Of course, there are one or two regrettable excesses, but you can't make an omelette without cracking heads...


There is also a feeling in the US, at least, that we're torn between wanting to be "American" and a lot of disagreement about what "American" means - we've embraced the melting pot (e pluribus unum) but there's also a sense of being patchwork, where the bits work together, but don't blend.

And the two come into conflict, over and over again. See also: Can you be a hyphenated American, and still be a 'real' American? Or are we required to shed those ties, keeping them only as amusing artifacts?

The (internal and external) demand to acculturate is confused by the urge to remain distinctive/remember your roots, and respect others. Seven-car pileup follows.

Relevant to your comment, Charlie, my grandmother refused to allow Yiddish to be spoken in the household, so my dad had to learn it as an adult rather than growing up bilingual. Because Yiddish was the language of immigrants, not Americans. Argh.


My impression is that for a good chunk of the population, religion figured in the reason for immigrating, voluntarily or involuntarily, especially to North America. And for the same reason, religion, would dictate how rapidly that new group would get acculturated/absorbed. (Amount/type of hair/skin showing, jewelry, clothing, etc. - all telegraph visible differences, and some religions have strict codes about this. That is, some religions basically go out of their way to ensure that their adherents do not blend into the other, possibly larger population group.)


There were a few schools back when I was growing up where kids would learn their ancestral language as a foreign language during day-long Saturday classes. Great idea - the kids acquired a sense of continuity with their extended and older family, plus got credit for a foreign language course. (They had to pass the set exam of course.)


That article makes me think of an Islamist version of Focus on the Family, their founder wrote similar things about women and their roles in christian households. It's not just young Muslim women, but some would-be converts. There was a recent case of one from Denver who is charged with aiding terrorists, despite not actually doing anything--she never made it out of the country. You have to wonder if they have a realistic idea of what they're getting into.

As for Yiddish, I had to teach myself to read it (with a dictionary handy), not having any living relatives who may have spoken it. I never heard my Lithuanian great-grandfather speak and assumed he didn't speak English, though later learned he did. He died when I was young, and my grandparents didn't speak it.


My impression is, especially the latter half of the 19th century, and in North America, the motivation was privation, more specifically, the prospect of eating as much meat as you wanted to. Not freedom, and not freedom to worship or to work. Meat.


Agreed ...

Each immigrant wave arrived for different sets of reasons. How each wave was greeted/treated probably was based on then-historical and most recent experience, so probably not especially meaningfully/usefully for either the immigrants or the locals.

I wonder whether the notion of permanent residency/nationality still makes sense or matters. Up to the late 20th century, most people expected to at least live in the same country where they were born. Now, it's not uncommon to move several times over one's career/lifetime.


Thanks for consciously incorporating history and neglected cultures in your historical fiction. It may be hard, it may not go as well as planned, but some of us readers appreciate it. I like historical fiction and speculative fiction that immerses me in alien settings. Little is more immersion-breaking than a historical novel, or a far-future speculative fiction story, where the prominent humans are costumed players hailing from the middle class Anglosphere circa $DECADE_OF_PUBLICATION.


> Was I appropriating something that didn't belong to me?

You're an American, therefore a scion of English culture. Appropriation *is* English culture; when we see something we feel is interesting or useful, we make it ours. Language, clothing, music, cooking... all the world is there for us to pick over, like browsers at a garage sale.


TRX - One of the useful things about being a child is growing up aware of, and trying not to repeat, the mistakes your parents made.

That's the goal and the aim, anyway.


My daughter is doing a history project on Bent's Fort in Colorado (near modern day La Junta) which was a world very much like the one in your story. It was on boundary between Old Mexico and the Louisiana purchase, a stone's throw from the Arkansas River, by American fur trading middle men from St. Louis (a small city at the time), who married into local tribes and traded with a cosmopolitan, massively multilingual and varied set of passers by, while creating a bit of the culture of their origins and of the larger world within its walls. Some of it was a bit like the bar scene from Star Wars. Governmental authority was too distant most of the time to be relevant.


Or you could stop contemplating your navel and just write the best story you can, ignoring what that says about your 'embracing of diversity', or 'cultural mirrors'.

Frankly writing top class, A1 fiction is hard enough without second guessing that some third party will think - or indeed caring overly much.

In this competitive, dog-eat-god world doing anything at the top level means total focus - and a raised middle finger to anyone whinging.


Frankly writing top class, A1 fiction is hard enough without second guessing that some third party will think - or indeed caring overly much.

You've never had to earn a living by selling your fiction, have you?

Hint: "some third party" is an umbrella term that nicely covers another: "commissioning editor".


That sounds awesome - I'd love to hear more about it, if she wants to share!

*puts on Giant Social History Nerd hat*


Hrm. You consider it "contemplating your navel," but I consider it "respecting your sources enough to want to do a proper job with them."

It's all in how you approach the situation.

And since the stories I love the most, and readers (and editors) seem to love the most, all come from that place of deep respect and interest, I think I'll stick with my approach. Even if it does take more work.


"The best story", eh? Brilliant. Now all we have to do is define what makes a story "best", and so long as we don't find anyone who likes stories that deal with cultures in the way Gilman is discussing, we're all done.

Suffice it to say, in my opinion, simply telling someone to do something "the best" when such a thing is impossible to define adds nothing to the conversation and also displays a breathtaking shallowness.


"Frankly writing top class, A1 fiction is hard enough without second guessing that some third party will think - or indeed caring overly much."

I don't know what you write by your handle here, but surely you've thought deeper than this.

You need to care about your target audience. If your target audience is history buffs who care deeply about accuracy in your fiction, then you must be utterly meticulous and you'll still run afoul of the things they don't have decided among themselves. Luckily the number of people who will decide to stop buying your fiction if you get arcane historical details wrong is very small. So you can be successful anyway (cf Gone With the Wind, Tales of the South Pacific, Shogun etc).

But you may feel you have a responsibility to the public, because they will tend to believe what you say.

So if you write about the fur trade, and you have native americans negotiate with a fur trapper, explaining to him that they can let him have so many muskrats but that will mean the bobcat production will be down next year because he's taking muskrats out of the bobcats' mouths -- the sort of consideration they almost certainly did, except you're making up the details -- ten years later you may find people quoting your exact words as the truth.

Generally easier to write science fiction where you don't have to fit the "truth" as anyone knows it, but try to make it seem plausible that things could possibly happen that way.

Target audience is vitally important. You can't hope to please everyone, but you must be prepared in case someone takes their rage to extremes. So for example, if you write about a historical culture that appears to be patriarchal, you probably need to make entirely plain that you disapprove, that the culture was dysfunctional, and that women who were successful in it found ways to exploit its weaknesses while not approving and not giving in. Otherwise there might be a movement to boycott your work. That might increase sales for this particular novel, but it also might get you blacklisted by particular publishers, random editors in other publishing houses might try to sabotage you in sneaky ways, and it could affect your personal life for a decade or more if you are personally labeled a sexist, entirely independent of your actual feelings and beliefs.

Similarly you must be careful that your sympathetic characters never express culture-wide opinions about homosexuals, blacks, etc. They need to be just like respectable early-21st-century Americans or Europeans or you could have difficulties.


Okay, I'm verging on trite ... but the best stories are about 'truth'. How that particle of truth is presented is up to the author in terms of genre, character, plot, etc. but fundamentally the story gives the reader a new insight. This requires an author who's a good/honest observer, and who doesn't screw up/around with their data (of whatever form) just because it's convenient or 'what the market is buying'. I think this latter bit is what writers mean when they say a story takes on a life of its own.


I'm calling bullshit on your suggestion that defensive writing is essential.

There's plenty of proof that it's possible to be a raging homophobic or racist ass-hat and still sell well. Case in point: Orson Scott Card (homophobe) or, going back a bit, John W. Campbell (racism) -- these days the racism has to be a bit covert, but it's still acceptable in US/UK fiction to direct it towards muslims (cf. Michel Houelebeq, who right now has the #1 bestseller in France). Sexism ditto. Frankly, there is a niche audience of angry men who don't think they're gettin' any because the wimmins is uppity, and you can make a solid living pandering to their prejudices. It's a smaller audience than the non-sexist variety because (surprise!) the majority of fiction readers are female, but it still exists.

So you can take your pro-MRA sexist dog whistle and stuff it where the sun don't shine, sonny. I'm not buying it.


I'd suggest reading James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed although it's more about south east Asia than about Europe.

Here's a thought: the Celts have more to do with modern Appalachia than just ancestry: they were defined by Rome and the previous empires of the Mediterranean, in sort of a "dark twin" relationship.

This isn't just about textual sources. Thing is, "Celtic" is a label a lot like Latino. People in Latin America don't call themselves Latino. They're Mexican, Venezuelan, Cuban, Honduran, Garifuna, etc. Heck, Hispanics didn't even exist as a "race/ethnicity" until Cortes literally started screwing around with his Aztec concubine. The point here isn't to denigrate Latino culture in the US, it's that just as Latino is an American label for a group of really heterogeneous people from along our southern borders (even when they've lived in the US for centuries), Celtic is a Roman label for a similar diversity of people.

The Celts were the people at the western edge of the empire, and their lives and often livelihoods were bound to the empire as much as the Roman empire depended on having them too. Rome needed a place to expand into, to conquer and gain tribute, slaves, and other resources. The barbarian frontier needed a place with which to trade (by selling slaves, among other things), but they also acted as the escape hatch for everyone who wanted to get away from Rome: escaped slaves, frontiersmen, people who fled to avoid being conquered. To use Scott's term, Celtic and Germanic lands were the "shatter-zones" at the expanding edge of Rome. If Romans were the people processed into civilization (from the Roman word civitas), Celts were "half-cooked" semi-civilized tribes and Germans were "fully raw" barbarians.

You also have to remember that the Romans were famous for rumbling into a village, fully armed, asking who was in charge, and then making that person submit to Rome's authority, with the now Roman delineated tribe (dediticii) forced to pay tribute. The people caught in this mess could have been largely thrown together out of people who'd previously fled the expansion of Rome or previous empire-building efforts, along with refugees pushing ahead of those being pushed out of the steppes, formerly Roman renegades, runaway slaves, and so on. They weren't some sort of genetically pure group, they were a blend, as Latinos are today. Later on, those tribute-paying tribes were often settled on Roman reservations, excuse me, pulled into a Roman-style civitas settlements with gridded streets and all. There they ultimately became (second-class) Roman citizens, most were enslaved, and they disappeared into Rome. Any echoes between this and American treatment of Indian tribes in the 19th and 20th Century, or British Imperial practices in 19th Century Burma, are strictly non-coincidental.

There are also parallels with modern Appalachia, where whites and others went into the highlands for centuries to get away from the "laws" and live their own free life in the hills and hollows. I think it's no coincidence that these areas are where we see the strongest "Celtic" culture in the US. It's even more interesting when you think about how many cultural elements in "Celtic" Appalachia came from non-white people escaping American civilization, whether it was ex-slaves bringing their African banjos, or various Indian tribes trying to stay off the rez. While the Appalachians are often seen as a place where primitive ways of living hang on, they're as much a melting pot as anywhere else. I'd suggest that they're primitive by choice, not by accident.

The people of Scott's Zomia in the south-east Asian highlands went even further down this road, and developed a set of wildly diverse, superficially primitive cultures, all with characteristics to make it as hard as possible for them to be drawn in as peasants in lowland, rice-farming states. The highlanders aren't primitive by inheritance, they are, in Scott's words, "barbarians by design." They don't want to be inside a state, many of them were the descendants of refugees from states (for example, former Ming fleeing the Qing expansion). While they want to stay free, they often depend on some trade with the state they're trying to stay outside of.


"I'm calling bullshit on your suggestion that defensive writing is essential."

I doubt we disagree so much. I say that you must carefully consider your target audience. So if you *want* to pander to a niche audience of angry white men or whoever, then you probably need to be careful to say what they want to hear. But if you want to include the audience of self-described feminists, then you must be careful to avoid things they might misinterpret as what they don't want to hear.

It isn't possible to write for everybody, so you must choose who you want to avoid offending.

I think I was right to point out the social issue also -- after all, if you immerse yourself in the viewpoint of angry men who aren't getting any so you can write effectively for them, there is some likelihood you might become one of them....

Is there something in the ultrasonics here? I didn't hear anything controversial in what I was saying.

Which was in fact the point I was making, that it's important to be sensitive to the subtle meanings that members of your target audience may put on your writing.


Is there something in the ultrasonics here? I didn't hear anything controversial in what I was saying.

I get periodic drive-bys from racist/sexist ass-hats who think they can use my blog as a soapbox for their views. You aren't a familiar name, and you triggered my alarms. Nothing to see here, evidently ...


The history of the colonies and the War for Independence proves that whether there had been an illegal, non-constitutional Louisiana Purchase by President Jefferson from Napoleon or not, the colonies / states would take over all of that territory, just as they did with the Purchase. One can see this by reading the political papers of the colonies, particularly in the Southern colonies, about these lands.

One of the two primary reasons for the War of Independence was that Britain had forbid expansion into Indian lands, and the colonies Were Not Having It. Slavery was well in place already, thank you.

And even then, as always throughout the history of what becomes the U.S. is massive immigration, and that's because of LAND, available land, promised to anyone who can pull it together to get some. The Brits, who knew not at all the colonies, could not stop this.

Alternate history can't change in any plausible manner those facts about colonization of North America.

Not to mention the connections between North America and the Caribbean colonies, and those historical consequences for land, slavery, smuggling and trade.


It is sort of interesting, if you are a product of many countries, though I can really only claim my Spanish descended grandfather for being of any non NW Europe and Russian ancestry, but nonetheless my ancestors were travellers and migrants.
My great grandfather left Russia to work on the trans-Siberian railway and my grandmother grew up in Manchuria, then Harbin, Vienna and London.
My USA side came over in the early eighteenth century, intersting bunch of folk.

Though as an aside, my time in in a fourth grade (and by that I mean crap, realised fourth grade might be confusing on the American side of the pond) boarding school in the UK(And it never occurred to me at the time) was a diverse dream, I knew Indian kids who had had polio, Nigerians, white Kenyans, Nigerians, Russians, Iraqis, every type of European, you name it. Of course, the place was trying to to turn us all into chinless wonders, in that, I think it failed


"Alternate history can't change in any plausible manner those facts about colonization of North America."

When you say it that way I want to challenge it, and yet I don't know enough.

I read that a lot of people agreed that it was bad to sell guns to the native americans. People who did sell them guns defended their choice, claiming that it was only old obsolete hunting guns that would be worthless for attacking whites.

What if Britain, or France, or somebody did sell modern guns to native americans at a reasonably low price? I don't right off see why they would, but it's something that any government could choose to do, or to allow.

It seems reasonably plausible that if one tribe got modern weapons they might use them to raid their traditional tribal enemies, and the result might be to make them collectively weaker. But let's say for some reason that didn't happen much.

Imagine that lots of native americans got modern weapons and gunpowder and even the skills to make their own powder, and they didn't much fight each other. Or they fought each other just enough to develop their own distinctive tactics that worked better than those the whites used.

And then settlers in the native american lands started finding that they were welcome to live there under native rule, provided they fit in and behaved like good citizens. And when a US state or the US government set up provocations and started a war, it got beat. Say two or three times.

Would that be enough to change things? What makes me think it wouldn't is the gigantic population pressure from europe. More and more immigrants, and they needed a place, and they could provide great big armies to replace armies that were lost. Native american populations could not replace themselves so fast. The whites could lose wars longer than the native populations could win them.

And after each war they would have to impose mild terms -- if they gave even a little reason for people to think that victorious wild heathen injuns were going to massacre everybody right up to the atlantic, then the USA would go crazy and do whatever it took to exterminate them. They might go that crazy just from losing a war.

So I think to have much chance of survival, the native americans would need to accept a lot of immigrants, and that would change things a lot for them even in the best case. They couldn't afford to weaken themselves fighting each other, they'd need to accept whites who accepted their ways, they'd have to maintain the weapons and learn ways to support large populations. Lots of chances to fail.

The result wouldn't be *that* different. But if the US expansion stalled, and if slaves and immigrants and the lower classes had a chance for something better, just over the border ... maybe that could have made the USA a better place, at least for awhile.

I don't know if that's plausible to you, but to me it seems maybe possible. I haven't thought of anything that seems likelier to happen, that could make as positive a difference.


Was I appropriating something that didn't belong to me?

No more so that the first American Indian to open a casino, or the first Japanese chef to adapt pizza to their tastes, or the inventor of Brazilian jiujitsu. Appropriation is what happens when cultures interact peacefully. If we worried about that sort of thing too much, the English wouldn't have appropriated the Roman alphabet.


I should probably mention that peaceful interaction is a sufficient but not necessary condition for appropriation.


Actually, AFAIK language and culture shift likely played a large part in the spread of Celtic languages and the associated cultures, maybe with some recruitment of local elites. I guess it was somewhat similar to some scenarios proposed for the Indo-Aryan "migrations":

Thing is, which "Celts" are we talking about? People speaking a Celtic language, people being part of some descendent of the Hallstatt culture, or people the Romans and Greeks called "Celts"? It's quite unlikely all of those are exactly the same, and till Caesar even some Western "Germanic" tribes were called "Celtic". Where BTW the origin of the Hallstatt is in Southern Germany/Austria and like:

Let's just say equating linguistic and material cultures is a quick way to get quite a few archaeologists apoplectic.

As for the first British transversing the Doggerbank, if you assume the Proto-Indo-Europeans were somewhat associated with the Yamna culture, this was long before PIE showed up, let alone Celtic or Germanic languages. And if you assume Linear Pottery is linked to the spread of agriculture, it was even somewhat time before the spread of agriculture. Er, yes, I know what I said about equating linguistic and material cultures, but let's kepp it at that.

If early British were arriving before agriculture, they were part of early Western European hunter-gatherers, which got plowed under, err, no pun intended, by later Early European farmers from Anatolia. Funny phenotype, BTW, it seems they had dark hair, swarthy complexion but light eyes. There is a new paper on European population history:

If so, it's likely the descendants of the Early European Farmers arrived some time later. As for how and when that happened, no idea, but please keep in mind that the Nordic Bronze age, quite often associated with "Germanic" cultures didn't reach that much down from Denmark till 1200 BC, so even if they came from Germany, they were quite likely not "Germanic". OTOH, Denmark and Scandinavia are not that far from the British East coast...

Sorry for digressing, back to text.


What about historical fiction, where what are now unacceptable attitudes were "normal" - or where they are not what people now think they are?
F'rinstance, racism was probably worst in Britan "between the wars" in the same way that women actually had it worst 1832-1870 & not earlier....

You need to show it, without condoning, I presume, but it ain't going to be easy, is it?

Talking of "races" - which don't actually exist remember ...
Remember, too that there is usually more diversity within a group than out of it & Charlie's repeated point about cultural plasticity & maleeability of humans.
ATT on the "Celts" - there's this wonderful book:
"Celts, Ancient people or modern invention?"

Oh does it wind-up the SNP & others who HATE "the English" for no reason than petty spite ....
[ I have a recent example, which I'll produce, if challenged, btw ]
Particularly when one regards people like "Cheddar Man" - who was well pre-celtic & whose direct descendants are living, erm, in Cheddar.


I should, perhaps have read further down!
Your short listing is very illuminating for some, I'm sure.
Can I recommend, for others:
"The New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History" by McEvedy.
Most interesting & punctures far too many "accepted" but false tropes, I'm glad to say.


Could the American Native tribes build *and support* artillery? If they couldn't then it's game over for them. Rifles are useful in war but artillery breaks nations.

There's no point just getting hold of artillery pieces, they need the trained crews to operate them, an industrial base to maintain them and feed them with shot and powder in sufficient quantities, transportation to get the artillery pieces to where they are needed etc. Roads and railways are as much an essential part of modern warfare as guns.

SF: "Custer's Last Jump" by Utley and Waldrop, a lovely AH where Custer's 7th Airborne Cavalry preparing to parachute from airships onto Greasy Grass are shot down by Crazy Horse's ex-Confederate biplanes. AKA "They Died With Their 'Chutes On".


"Could the American Native tribes build *and support* artillery? If they couldn't then it's game over for them. .... Roads and railways are as much an essential part of modern warfare as guns."

If they could prevent military roads into their land being built, or prevent them being usable by foreign military, that might be sufficient.

I dunno. Without some special military strategy that I haven't independently invented for them, I can't see how they'd win. Without artillery they couldn't keep modern armies from taking ground. They might make it expensive,but they couldn't stop them. Maybe the armies couldn't stop them either, but with artillery the armies could take and destroy their cities, and they couldn't take US cities.

If they could get by without cities, still the armies could come in at harvest time and destroy their crops.

The way I heard the story, the apaches held out for a long time because they didn't have cities or crops to destroy and the armies couldn't catch them, while they could hit armies wherever the armies were weak -- supply trains etc. But they couldn't stop the whites from destroying their buffalo.

I don't know. It would take something special. They couldn't do it with the weapons they actually had. I don't know whether they could have done it with the infantry weapons that were useful for european infantry at that time; they might have needed something else.

Looking back, it seems mostly inevitable that it would go the way it did. But if they *had* found something that worked, then looking back it would have seemed inevitable that it came out that way too. So when I try to imagine it different, I think some special military trump would be necessary. And I don't know whether it was possible, given some supplies and technology provided by some european government. I know they did not in fact find a way, and whatever assistance they got from european governments probably did not include what they needed.


For examples of how natives could have held out, look at the Maya. Unlike the Aztecs (which were surely doomed) and the Incas (who could have survived), there were still independent Mayan polities in the 1700's.

A more 19th century example would be the Caste War, where the Mayans were within a hairs breath of taking over the then independent Yucatan Republic. They had the capital (and last outpost of the Spanish-descendant elites) under siege, but they had to interrupt the siege to harvest their crops. I wonder if any tactics from there would apply to the US?

Now, the problem with the scenario mentioned is that even winning wars wasn't enough. Look at the Seminole Wars, where the Seminoles won the first 2 wars and lost the 3rd. Note that later historians tried to whitewash Seminole victories by calling it one war. I doubt that the first two Seminole Wars were the only ones the US lost and were later retconned.

I'm not familiar with the tactics in these wars to really offer advice, beyond becoming familiar with actual battles, strategies, long-term goals, and intercommunity relations of both sides. Don't just limit yourself to the US. Mexico's version of the Indian Wars actually ended in the 1920's. I have no idea about when the Indian Wars ended for Canada.


I guess there are two scenarios for Native Americans stalling the US advance; let's call it the Inuit and the Meiji approach.

Of course, the Inuit scenario is named for the fate of the Inuit and Norse settlements in Greenland, with the latter seeming more technological advanced but nontheless perishing, while the Inuits survived.

That would likely happen in areas with difficult condition, e.g. deserts or swamps, where European advances in agriculture, transports and like could be outmatched. Of course, this is only a short-time-solution, but it might be long enough for a story, and maybe there is a culture of mixed traders or craftsmen taking over.

The Meiji scenario is of course the story how Japan modernized itself under said dynasty and won against the Russians some time later, something of a first for a Non-European power against an European one.

This approach might work with some of the highly organized tribes, like the Iroquis or the Cherokee. As for gunsmiths, they could be hired Europeans or members of said tribes learning the trade.


Loan, you point out possibilities and say you don't know enough. I don't know enough either. Holdouts in land that nobody wanted much don't really tell us much. Like, there could be a community of independent native americans up in the broken lands around the Rocky Mountains still today. They do subsistence farming and don't make enough money to pay taxes. They don't reliably fill out US census forms. They are an independent nation that survives because the US government continues to utterly ignore them. How much difference does that make to anybody but them?

I think Foxessa's claim is the way to bet. But was it a sure bet, or was it only 90% sure? If several things had gone different, could they have maintained a significant independent nation?

The Seminoles were too small. They couldn't win a victory so large that the USA couldn't ignore it, so the USA could keep attacking until sooner or later the Seminoles lost once.

If a lot of native americans could settle their own disputes, and accept enough immigrants, and grow enough food for their larger population, and develop enough trade with europe, and develop good relations with european governments, and win military victories, and display the diplomatic skills to show the USA they were too strong to fight but not scary enough to require a crusade, could it work?

It doesn't seem that likely. But I don't know, and even knowing a whole lot more about what actually did happen wouldn't be enough to say for sure.


There is another factor. These wars were not like modern ones. Nobody was moving in to convert one set of people from one ideology to another, nor to replace their ruling class with their own. The Indian Wars were wars of displacement and extermination. The nearest analogy would be what the Nazis planned for the Russians had they won.


Don't know about the copyright, but somebody scanned Anthony's "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language" and but it up on

I guess there are some mistakes, but it's a fascinating read on Eastern European cultures like Yamna and Indo-European (IE) languages.

Sad thing is, you learn quite fast certain areas of interest have a strange fandom, and your search for an German translation landing you on one of the sites inspiring Mr. Breivik is quite unnerving. No idea what they find appealing about the first European farmers coming from Anqatolia and the Levant, maybe even speaking some Afroasiatic language, the speakers of Proto-IE sitting in the Eastern Ukraine, being likely a mixture of said farmers and some Eastern Eurasian hunter-gatherers and living in an environment where tribal identity was fluid and people had to speak multiple languages and interact with different groups just to survive, later on exporting their language and culture into old Western Europe. Though I guess it involves plenty of cognitive dissonance. ;)

As for the "Celts", I thought I remembered a paper that argued quite a few of the "Continental Celtic", "Para-Celtic", you name it languages were just somewhat archaic IE languages of the centum type, which maybe later on became superseded by other, somewhat more innovative IE languages like Germanic, "real" Celtic, i.e. Gaulish, Italic etc. languages, with "Insular Celtic" still being a valid clade, but I was unable to find it, so think that one busted. Though it might play well with the Beaker culture, which also landed in Britain:

As for using the usual keywords to find said paper (was it Ringe, was it Eska...), err, I can take only so much "European identity" website on one day, sorry...


You might want to check out the Trail of Glory series by Eric Flint (the first book used to be available for free online, but that doesn't seem to be the case anymore). The basic premise is alt.hist where the Trail of Tears doesn't happen. The afterword of the first book goes into some detail about how it could have been avoided, but from memory the upshot was that he was originally asked to come up with an alternate history that avoided the genocide of the native americans, and he refused on the basis that once the continent was discovered by Europeans, it was inevitable, just from sheer numbers, unless you decend into total fantasy, change europe radically, or have some kind of scifi intervention.

However, he later came to the conclusion that the more southern north american tribes, such as the Cherokee, might have survived, if they could have made their own exodus under their own terms, taking much of their wealth with them, rather than being forced into it. Hence the Trail of Glory replaces the Trail of Tears in the OTL. The key part of this was that the Cherokee and other tribes in that area were already closer to European definitions of "civilised" in the early 19th century - they were an agrarian farming civilisation, with recognisable cities and were starting to use european technologies. Given breathing room to prepare, he reasoned that they might plausibly be able to form a recognisably european style nation west of the Mississippi before they could be overrun with settlers.

Again, this is my recollection of his afterword after several years (I don't have the book to hand right now), so don't hold me to the details, but I believe that's the gist.


Another other interesting alt-history possibility for the Americas would go something like this:

1. There was regular contact across the Bering Strait, not just of the local Aleuts and Siberians, but of traders from China and Japan coming after sea otter pelts (which were a luxury good in Qing China) and possibly the bones of Stellar's Sea cow (which is sometimes sold as "mermaid bone" in knife handles and is quite hard).

2. The result of this regular trade, which doesn't get past British Columbia, is that the great plagues of Eurasia do make it into the Americas, going down the west coast.

3. When the European Conquistadors and explorers got to the Americas via the eastern route, their diseases weren't anything new. This is the point of Mann's 1491 and other books, that the landscape reported by the earliest European explorers of the 16th Century were nothing like what explorers of the 17th Century encountered, and there's some evidence that disease played a huge role in depopulating the landscape before white settlement.

4. As a result of prior exposure to disease, the Indian depopulation of North America doesn't happen. Instead of the Cherokee and other scattered tribes, white conquistadors meet and conquer the mound builders.

5. Because there are a bunch of sophisticated societies in place in North America, the Americans use more of Cortes' strategy, replacing the rulers rather than colonizing a putatively wild country. The result is a continent that looks a lot more like Mexico than what we have today, with a largely indigenous underclass, the most white on top, and the light brown in between. It's also reasonably likely that things like democracy and the US don't come to pass either.

6. Because there wasn't a massive die-off of Indians due to disease, there wouldn't have been the massive Atlantic slave trade from Africa, bringing in slaves to replace the dead Indians.

7. Oh, and then there's the Andes. Pizarro's expedition came pretty close to disappearing into those mountains without a trace. If the Inkans hadn't been so universally despised by the people around them, and if they hadn't been in a power struggle for the Inkan crown precipitated by some disease which probably wasn't smallpox, who knows what would have happened? The Andes could have ended up much more like the Himalayas than they did, with would-be Conquistadors disappearing into the mountains, lured by the promise of gold and silver, and never returning. The Andes would have been conquered, but it would have been later in history. Andean silver would not have supported the Manila Galleon trade, nor propped up the economies of late Ming China or the Spanish empire. The Ming would have fallen apart sooner, and probably most of those wars that the Spanish empire prosecuted wouldn't have happened either.

In fact, Cortes' conquest of Mexico might have gone a bit differently too. Hmmm.

8. There still would have been wild Indians, particularly in the Amazon, but also in Appalachia, northern Canada, and various mountain ranges, swamps, and deserts. Pierre Clastres makes a good case that many of the "primitive" rain forest tribes of South America, particularly in Guyana where he worked, weren't primitive people who'd "failed to evolve" because they were "inferior" in some way. Rather they were the descendants of those who'd run away from European disease and European conquerers who were trying to make them into serfs and slaves on their plantations. In those conditions, living a nomadic life with few material possessions makes a lot of sense. Other authors have pointed out that the "primitive slash and burn" agriculture practiced by many Amazonian tribes is only possible with steel tools. The stone axes from the region are ineffective at rapidly clearing forest. Prior to European contact, the Amazonian Indians (who'd lived in the forest for thousands of years) used a very different set of horticultural tricks to live in fairly settled communities, often at higher densities than they do now.

Even without disease, the Europeans would have still conquered the New World, but many more Indians would have survived or run away. Equally importantly, there wouldn't have been as much room for European peasants to colonize the New World, so there wouldn't have been that population release valve from social pressures in Europe. On the flip side, Spain would have had less silver to throw into European warfare, and England wouldn't have profited from the Atlantic slave trade.

Rather different landscape, this. All from a minor fur trade in Alaska. Too bad the Japanese and Chinese explorers never went north and sneezed.


This was covered in Saunt's West of The Revolution. The Russians standard tactic was (since guns were useless in hunting sea otter) was to take Aleut hostages and force the rest of them to hunt sea otter. Really classy. Initially, this resulted in the Aleuts massacring the crews of four Russian vessels. The Russians responded by depopulating several islands - men, women and children. I doubt you would get Chinese and Japanese traders as they were in their insular period.

Were I to write a book ala Guns Germs and Steel? I'd call it Germs, germs, germs, vermin, pests, and occasionally steel and guns.

Disease spread through the Norse vector was also unlikely due to their sparse numbers. Besides, the Vinland expeditions were never going to come to anything anyway because, well, they would invariably be slaughtered and/or driven into the sea by the 'skraelings' due to the Norse were hillbilly asshole neighbors.

One scenario that might work along your lines is what I call the Vivaldi Divergence.

The brothers Vandino and Ugolino Vivaldi, in 1291, set sail from Genoa to find a route to India, stumbled upon North America. The brothers and their Majorcan crew, raving from starvation and thirst, barely recognizable as human, nursed back to health by Waccamaw natives. And then, of course, the Great Dying starts, as the natives succumb to smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic and pneumonic plagues. The native peoples are mowed down, as pestilence spreads across the continent, and then southwards through South America, until finally, in mere decades 30 million people are dead. The New World depopulated, the Inadvertent Spanish Holocaust occurring 200 years earlier than it did.

And in Europe, as in our own world, the Vivaldis vanished, forgotten, until Columbus arrives in 1491, to a renewed and resistant population of American Indians. (There is a chance that Columbus disappears, in which case, exploration into the Ocean Sea is postponed for decades). American Indians do not succumb to disease. The Spaniards, the Portuguese, the English and French are unable to gain a foothold in the New World. No Conquest. No colonies. No gold. No silver. More importantly, the Columbian biological exchange is slowed or delayed a century. Meaning, no potatoes. No guano. No Northern European population surge.

The US of A could easily have been stuck east of the Appalachians for quite some time had contingencies played out different. After all, the English colonization effort (without the drug trade - tobacco) was not exactly a spectacular success. At the time of Revolution, you could reach the western boundaries of the colonies after a three weeks trudge, and this after 150 years of colonizing. The attrition rate for English colonists was something like 9.6 for every 10. Virginia was worse than Ebola.


Hi John,

It depends on which period you're talking about. China and Japan both went through expansionist periods around the Medieval Warm period (even Korea was an international trading nation around that time), and became very isolationist after the Little Ice Age. While I suspect there were very good reasons why they didn't develop a northward push to get more sea otter out of the Bering Strait--perhaps because there were sea otters in Siberian waters IIRC--there's no real reason they couldn't have.

In any case, there are all sorts of possibilities and implausibilities for people crossing to the Americas with a load of diseases early enough that the great epidemics of the 16th Century Americas didn't happen. While I still think that guns and steel would have eventually won out, I also think the colonization of a disease-resistant New World would be more like the colonization of Africa or Asia, where the colonists try to insert themselves at the top by replacing the existing rulers, rather than colonizing as we did.

As for the Columbian Exchange, I suspect that would still have happened. People are always trading crops back and forth, especially if they are in friendly contact.

One thing I should point out is a complaint raised by Native American historians, that they think Diamond's work somehow absolves whites of our role in the atrocity, that by saying we succeeded via disease and technology, we're trying to absolve the conquistadors of moral culpability in the atrocities they committed. That's not the way I read Diamond. I see him as saying that Guns, Germs, and Steel enabled some psychopaths to conquer where they wouldn't have otherwise. Still, it's worth remembering that, just because we have guns, germs, and/or steel, it doesn't therefore follow that it's morally okay to go out and try to conquer everyone with them.


"Still, it's worth remembering that, just because we have guns, germs, and/or steel, it doesn't therefore follow that it's morally okay to go out and try to conquer everyone with them."

A remarkably modern attitude and not one shared by most people through most of history.


If Leif Erikson's expedition had brought smallpox 500 years earlier, the native American population would have recovered by 1492. From point 3 on it gets to the same place, but more closely follows real history.

As far as Diamond's book goes, I always thought it was about why Europeans were unusually successful in their conquests. The motivation for the conquests wasn't examined and didn't really need to be, since thousands of years of human history shows that people everywhere conquer whenever they can.


"... since thousands of years of human history shows that people everywhere conquer whenever they can."

I know you aren't serious but I want to use this example to point out a common habit of circular reasoning. Suppose there were times in human history when people could have conquered and didn't. How would we know? Once we decide that they do it whenever they can, then the natural thing is to simply not notice the opportunities that were not taken, and if we do notice a few then come up with JustSo stories to explain why they couldn't have -- because they didn't.

Again, no criticism of you, it's just that often people say this sort of thing without noticing, as if it's real.


"Still, it's worth remembering that, just because we have guns, germs, and/or steel, it doesn't therefore follow that it's morally okay to go out and try to conquer everyone with them."

A remarkably modern attitude and not one shared by most people through most of history.


Two counter-examples suffice. One is the perennial problem of training soldiers to kill. Yes, this is, in part, overcoming cultural conditioning, but it's also to the point that most civilized people don't try to go out and conquer everyone. Rather more stay armed just to prevent that from happening. In general terms, self defense is okay, assault is not. This goes to the point that even the US occupational forces are run by the US Department of Defense.

Then let's turned to those barbarians who aren't culturally constrained from killing, because they live outside states and have to protect themselves. Oddly enough, quite a few of them are the descendants of those who ran away from states who were expanding. That's the whole point of that book by Scott that I keep mentioning. Given how much effort they've put into making themselves ungovernable, it's rather a stretch to claim that they're all would-be conquerors hiding out in the wastes, waiting their turn to rule. Some are, of course, but most aren't.

Oh, and a third point: if everyone went out and conquered, why do we name the conquerors and would-be conquerors, no matter how short their successes and how questionable their tactics? Obviously they're unusual enough to be remembered, for better or worse. That's not a good argument for conquest being part of normal human nature.


Had to be away from the computer for most of yesterday, so apologies for the late responses...

Alternate history can't change in any plausible manner those facts about colonization of North America.

No, it can't. But it can explore what happened, and what could have NOT happened, and what MIGHT have happened. That's what the speculative part of speculative fiction is about.

Fiction can't and probably shouldn't apologize for what happened in the past. That's for people to do. But it absolutely must question what happened.


It was an overstatement to say that everyone is a would-be conqueror, but it is a recurring theme in human history. Ditto ape history, to the extent that we've recorded it. Ditto the history of pretty much every territorial animal, when anybody has bothered to write it down.


Having spend some time googling...

I was not able to find a paper that questioned a wide Continental Celtic language, so think that one busted.

However, there ist still some discussion with the systematics of Continental Celtic, especially given it's relations to Italic languages. And there are quite a few languages in Italy that seem difficult to categorize, namely Ligurian and Venetic. Add the fact the latter name is mentioned elsewhere in Europe, with just enough data to think it might not be a coincidence or application of similar Indo-European roots, and you're in for a world of pain.

And then, there are always Krahe's work about Old European hydronymy and the idea of an Nordwestblock, which might hint at other non-Germanic and non-Celtic IE languages in Europe.

And then, there is always the fact Caesar mentioned three parts of Gallia, e.g. the (in)famous "Gallia omnis divisa est in partes tres, quarum unam incolant Belgae, alterum Aquitani, tertium, qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostris Gallis appelantur"[1]. We know Celtae spoke Transalpine Gaulish, but the Aquitani seem to have spoken an early relative of Basque, not even an IE language. Which makes for interesting questions concerning the Belgae, they might have spoken some kind or relative of Gaulish, a Germanic language or even some other language, maybe even the Nordwestblock mentioned above.

Er, have I already mentione Roman ethnography is a mess and the "tribe names" are likely somewhat akin to US "towelhead" for people in the Near and Middle East?

Whatever, the Belgae also ventured into Britain

which just is an icing on the cake.

TLDR, never underestimate pre-Roman cultural and linguistic diversity in Europe.

[1] "The whole of Gallia is divided into three parts, of whom in one the Belgae live, in another one the Aquitani, in the third those that are called Celtae in their own language, but in ours Gallis."


In this context, it's perhaps woth noting that the UK "War Office" didn't change its name to the "Ministry of Defence" until 1964 (the year Charlie was born if that helps).


Surely "Omnia Gallia in quattro partes divisa est"?


"'s rather a stretch to claim that they're all would-be conquerors hiding out in the wastes, waiting their turn to rule."

I did not say or imply that. What I did strongly imply was that if they had all the conquering tools to hand for an easy victory they would probably use them.

As for "naming conquerors" that is rather rare as you point out. Because most conquest is a piecemeal affair of petty murder and displacement carried out over decades. For ever Custer there are a million settlers being rather more effective in making the conquest stick.


You mean a certain small village in Armorica as the fourth part? ;)

Actually, the corresponding text is:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur. Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt.

Had to learn that one by heart, thank you, half a life away and far away at home. OK, far away translates to about 50 km, and "half a life" is 37/2 = 18,5 years.
And you see what old age does to my memory, where is my Zimmer frame...


Yeah, but no ...

The Celts in Gaul and Hispania and Britain were at the western fringes of the Roman empire because, well, geography, and it takes time to build an empire, and somebody has to be last on the list. On the other hand the Celts in Italy and Greece and Asia Minor were not on anybody's fringes. When Brennus came calling, the problem was Close To Home.

It was a long time ago though. Language, religion, cultural stereotypes drift over time. Identification with ancient cultures is ironically a modern innovation.

[[URL repaired: the quotes were missing — mod]]


Well yes, and I ducked out of Latin at the earliest possible opportunity, having acquired the ability to identify Latin roots to words in modern languages and thinking that physics and chemistry were more useful to my career plans than translating into and out of Latin.


Err, in my case the alternative to Latin was French. So I had to chose between an near useless and a totally useless language. *ducksandcovers*


Err, and BTW, we never learned to translate into latin. Though I guess starting you biology examination with "ave, moritorus te salutat" alone was worth it. ;)


I see what you mean; I've used French more on tourists than as a tourist (but have used German which wasn't even an option offered at school as a tourist).


"As for "naming conquerors" that is rather rare as you point out. Because most conquest is a piecemeal affair of petty murder and displacement carried out over decades. For ever Custer there are a million settlers being rather more effective in making the conquest stick."

Really? My impression was that, at least in the US, it was a matter of getting a tribe to submit and moving them to a reservation, before the settlers came in. That was how most of the US was settled, although it was a 19th century activity. So far as I know, the Romans did the same thing, and so did the Spanish in California where I live. So did the lowlanders in South-east Asia, to pick on the book I'm rereading.

Yes, there are many cases where settlers come in with the indigenes. Often, especially in earliest cases, they "go native" rather than the reverse.


"My impression was that, at least in the US, it was a matter of getting a tribe to submit and moving them to a reservation, before the settlers came in."

I think it went every which way, as an organic process. Settlers come in and take the land they want, and if nobody resists then it goes that way. If somebody resists, then they get fought first by settlers and then by armies supporting the settlers, and the natives who resisted along with any other natives who have land that settlers want, get moved to reservations. Or maybe sometimes they move the natives out first and then let the settlers in. Maybe sometimes there's a treaty and the army helps keep settlers out until the government changes its mind.

Sometimes they encouraged natives to take land from other natives farther away, and maybe gave them some resources to help them do that. The farther natives have the problems of resettling or exterminating the ones that try to move in with them, either way winding up weaker when the settlers or army get around to them if they win the battle with the displaced people.

Every possible permutation of approaches that ends with the natives gone and the settlers settled.


The Empire of the Summer Moon is worth a look, and not just for the historical story behind the classic western The Searchers.
The Commanche had in fact stopped Spanish expansion into what is now the US south West, dead, for two centuries , and chased the Apache off the plains. What did for them in the end was the US/Mexican war, which meant they no longer occupied a buffer zone, and the introduction of repeating firearms, which removed their military superiority.


From what I know, Northern America might not be the best example for the Romans (err, which part of Roman history are we talking about, BTW?).

I guess in most cases, a better model would be the British in India or some parts of Africa, e.g. Kenya.

Get called in on some pretext, make treaties with the natives or subjugate them, keep some local guys around for administration and tax the hell out of the place. As for the supervision of the local aristocracy, this is a part-time job for your second sons (or occasional first sons) to sanitaze their financial situation and examine the local fuckable population, both sexes included. There might be the occasional turmoil, but that's what you own surplus population is for.

If we use India as a model, the Celts are not so much the border dregs but the successors of the Mughals. Of course, the Zomia phenomena is also extant, in the case of India, I'd guess the actual Zomia and the North Western teritories, in the case of Rome, those pesky Germanics.

Using the uniformity principle to use the present or near past to illuminate the distant past is quite worthwhile, though always tricks. I guess the celts are a bad contender for "Zomia", they had quite sophisticated fortifications. The Germanics, OTOH...

It's becoming increasingly clear that the Romans didn't abandon Germania after the Varus debacle. There have always been some late Roman historians writing about expeditions into the Germanic hinterland, and we're starting to make the necessary archaeological finds.

AFAIR usual modus operandi was for the Romans to go into "free" Germania with a few thousand soldiers, look for some settlements, burn them down. I guess what they did to any native they found was not nice, but, again AFAIK, usually the people living there had evaded into the surrounding area. Which was very definitely not the place to go if you were not that interested in the way Germanics treated prisoners of war. Afterwards, you went home and tried not to get into some ambush.

Oh, and when you were not showing who was top dog, you traded with the "wild" Germanics, maybe even did some treaties with local leaders etc. Not to mention quite a few of the soldiers were Germanics themselves. With interesting dynamics in the long run.

Come to think about it, AFAIR the Romans went best against people having some kind of centralized structures, from town upwards. Otherwise, they quite often failed, see Germanics, see Parthians etc.
Technologically, the difference was usually not as big as with Native Americans and Europeans, the Romans took quite a few military technologies form said "barbarians".


Err, Heteromeles is using theUniformian Principle, AKA Ecclesiasted 1.9[1]. And in the context of the "barbarians" of the Ancients this is quite interesting, e.g. many historians start to believe the "ethnic groups" mentioned by Roman historians are quite fluid phenomena. Same goes for many Eurasian steppe warriors, both from the Roman and Chinese side of Central Asia.

Problem is just to see when it's applicable and when not.

Og, as for identifying oneself with Ancient empires, I think I remember the Romans quite identifies with some mythological Place in Asia Minor, what was the name, err, Illion, ever heard about it, AKA Troy...?

[1] "That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun."


Life stopped being quite so zero-sum in the seventeenth century, quite dramatically by the late 19th, so the uniformitarian assumption isn't a good one after those dates. The industrial revolution changed the situation quite a bit, with effective birth control changing it further in the mid 20-th century and later. There are a lot fewer third sons with no prospects than there used to be.


There are a lot fewer third sons with no prospects than there used to be.

Except in the Middle East, which explains a lot.


Very good points, and I agree there are issues. Taking it from the top, I'd assert (without getting into the whole Scott/Zomia thing) that Celt is a label applied by the Romans to a diverse jumble of people, just as "Latino" is a label applied by Americans to a diverse jumble of people. I'm not sure that the Celts outside Rome ever called themselves that, or whether they used their own names for themselves, just as I don't think that most of the people in Latin America outside the US spend much time thinking of themselves as Latinos.

As for whether Scott's model applies to Roman-era Europe, things get weird, and unfortunately, I don't have the relevant paper with me, so I'm doing this from memory. According to the archeologists, northern Europe before Roman expansion had a bunch of "oppida," settlements that traded with each other on both sides of the Rhine. My semi-informed take is that they were a lot like city-states. Similar well-organized towns were found in, oh, Central America (Mayans) and many other places, but that's getting off the subject.

After the Romans took over Gaul, oppida disappeared all over Europe, including across the Rhine in places the Romans never conquered. What remained in their place (outside the empire) were much simpler settlements, possibly with more movement among the population (the latter may be me misremembering the paper). The paper certainly did talk about this as a potential societal collapse in Iron Age Europe, due to pressure from Rome.

This change in settlement pattern is very much what Scott's talking about with Zomia, the pattern of people making themselves as ungovernable as possible. It involves societal changes like: being relatively egalitarian (so that invaders can't simply replace your ruler and use your hierarchical setup to dominate you), growing crops that are hard for an army to confiscate (common in Zomia, debatable in Roman Europe, although there is a difference between Roman-style and Celtic-style agriculture), abandoning writing (very definite in the Celts, where they were literate around 700 BCE, especially in Celtic Spain, but non-literate in Britain when Rome got there), and moving to places (Wales, Scotland, Germany) where it was hard for the Roman Army to do more than tramp through and burn a few steadings on the way out.

Should I point out that something similar happened in the Americas during colonization?

I think the whole issue is worth debating. What Scott's asserting is that there are a set of strategies that the targets of an invasion can use to stay free. These strategies are aimed, not at opposing the invasion with force, but at making conquest and subjugation as unprofitable and annoying as possible, so that even if an army marches through, it can't pillage the land and use the proceeds to build a permanent outpost. While he's talking about one geographic area and a particular time, he claims (with some evidence, again worth debating) that a lot of people independently figured out the same set of strategies and used them at different times all over the world.

Finally, I'd agree that, right now, Zomia-style tactics don't work, because there are few places where the "jellyfish tribe" trick still works (that's another name for it, although jellyfish don't divide so fast). The Pakistani tribal area may be the last holdout.

Still, that's for now, when we're all worried about overwhelming nation-state control of everything. If our global nation-state system does collapse, and especially if the nascent panopticon disappears, I expect Zomia-style tactics will reappear with a vengeance. There are just too many times when heading for the hills really is the best option.


Err, I did mention that it was also the first sons, didn't I? Caesar was an only son, BTW.

Being a Roman politician was a costly issue, it started with most offices were not paid for,

and corruption is a somewhat tricky strategy. And just when the creditors come around, those pesky Helvetians get the wanderlust, and one of you local proxies asks you to intervene. Good thing two thirds of the Helvetians perish, so they don't need their money anymore, and you can build some cool architecture:

err, did I mention recent aracheological finds are not that easy to reconcile with caesar's story? Maybe he was searching for WMDs, e.g. Cacofonix...


I'd have thought that Getafix (Kensaratrix in the Scots translation) was more of a WMD?


And I don't know whether it was possible, given some supplies and technology provided by some european government.

In my mind logistics won out. Repeating rifles require lots of ammo over time. The locals/natives had to steal it or buy from someone who stole it. The cavalry was being supplied. Even more so with things like artillery.

I heard once that Patton made a comment during WWII that he wasn't sure exactly what logistics was but he was sure glad he had more of it than the Germans. A bit of exaggeration I'm sure but it was true that supply lines made a big difference in many conflicts.


Yes, logistics are vitally important and it would take something special to overcome that.

It would not be enough for the native americans to develop their own economy to the point they could slug it out. If they had to turn into monsters so they could fight the monsters, they would have lost. (Although more of their genes would survive.)

Could they disrupt the supply lines? No, even if they could manage that, it would only prevent giant incursions deep into their own land. The army could protect settlers on the edge, and as the settlers built up it would get harder to disrupt supplies beyond the de facto border, and the edge would keep moving west.

If they couldn't prevent great big incursions, then armies could move in and destroy their cities or towns, or crops, or anything they couldn't carry away faster than the army could follow. A few tribes that *could* live with only what they could carry caused a lot of trouble, but it wouldn't work for everybody.

So their only chance was to make attacks too costly to be worth it, but their land was valuable and the USA with so much immigration could enlist an unlimited number of soldiers who would not particularly be missed if they were killed.

Was there any way to reduce the immigration rate? Somehow spread stories that the USA wasn't worth coming to? Probably not. Europe was a miserable hellhole for the poor, and anybody who just barely had enough money to leave, had to figure that maybe next year he couldn't get out at all.

I don't see any plausible way for it to work. There might have been some military tactic and strategy that could have worked, just because I don't see it and they didn't see it doesn't mean it's impossible. But I still don't see it.

Maybe if they got european geologists and metallurgists etc to help teach them how to industrialize as fast as possible? That almost worked for Japan. And accept lots of immigrants, giving them a better deal than the USA? They'd have to give up a whole lot, but maybe they could salvage something.


Hmmm. I think you're missing the feedback effects.

Let's start with a North American Indian population that wasn't decimated by disease in the 16th Century, so that there were tens of millions of Indians facing the colonists, across a continent that was completely settled, not wild. Yes, the Indians were at a technological disadvantage, so they would have been enslaved (which happened in real life. However, Indians on plantations soon died, so plantation owners started bringing over African slaves). However, and here's the critical point, America would have stopped being much of an outlet for Europeans looking for a better place to live. Yes, some would have come, but there wouldn't be much unoccupied land, and there wouldn't have been as big a market for bonded labor, for people to work their way over.

Instead, you'd get a situation where there was active enslavement of the Indians to work plantations, balanced by Indians running off whenever they could get away and taking whatever they could get away with. This in turn would make the Appalachians a real barrier to westward expansion, since anyone trying to build a settlement would either have to go native or deal with a constant, low-level, guerrilla war situation.

I'm not sure the US would have bought the Louisiana Purchase, since it would be a lot more like buying into a piece of central Asia (with malaria, which was endemic in the US until about 1950), rather than a sparsely inhabited frontier. Worse, the European powers would probably be arming all the natives up and down the Mississippi basin as they competed for trade, making it that much harder for American pioneers to settle in the most fertile part of the continent.

What would happen once the mound builders got their hands on guns and horses? That's another interesting question. We know that the Plains Indians (who were, in part, the descendants of the mound builders), totally transformed their way of life in one or two generations once they got horses, so it's silly to think that something similar couldn't happen with something like ten times more Indians living in that part of the country.

The upshot is that this alt-history is not the equivalent of an industrializing 18th Century US facing a bunch of neolithic Indians, it's that the US may not have industrialized much if at all. It would have stayed mostly east of the Appalachians, based largely on plantations and trading with the Indians. The European wars of the 17th and 18th Centuries would have been different because they wouldn't have been fueled to the same extent by resources stripped from the New World, everything from gold and silver from Spanish possessions to timber for English ships. I'm not sure what that does to the Industrial Revolution, but it would be silly to think that England's development as the first industrial power would have been unaffected by what happened in North America.

We don't have a good, real world analogy for this situation. One imperfect analogy might be South Africa, another might be how the Russian empire expanded into Central Asia and Siberia.

Of course we'll never know. The point is that a author interested in alt-history could have a lot of fun creating an America where the United States never took over the continent. Indeed, if one hypothesizes that the Americas were contacted before Columbus by everyone from Phoenicians to Romans, Chinese, and Basque fishermen, this would have been a more likely outcome.


The key thing that made the Industrial Revolution occur in a pissant small nation off the coast of Europe was, going back a few links, coffee and tea.

Coffee-houses and tea-houses became meeting places for men of business to discuss financial affairs such as shipping insurance, loans and such and with a reputation for honesty that long-term insurance brokering required that led to the idea that someone could get the funding to build a factory to make cloth or develop an idea like steam engines without having access to the purse of a nobleman or a local princeling. Money begat money, canals moved the raw materials to where they were needed and the shipping ports sent the manufactures out into the world.

Without that financial and banking system, independent of the whims of nobles and rulers, the Industrial Revolution couldn't take place. There were other necessary factors, of course -- enclosures, improvement and crop rotation meant there was food to be had while freeing up labour to work in the mills and factories. Education made the factories work properly, with even the lowest ranks of supervisors and foremen needing to be able to read and write and do basic arithmetic to do their jobs.


Yes, if you go back earlier and allow a much larger native population, that changes things. Then the british and dutch etc might have had a much harder time establishing a foothold on the east coast.

The Spanish probably would have had it harder too. They took various caribbean islands easily enough so they'd have had bases. And the aztecs were ripe for conquest. But afterward without the diseases they might have found themselves siding with one or a few native factions instead of taking over everything. The progress of conquest might have gone more like the dutch in indonesia, or the british in burma.

But after the die-off I don't see a way for them to avoid the immigration. I don't know everything, there might have been a way. I just don't see it.

If syphilis (which might have come from there) and other western diseases had depopulated europe, that would do it.


"The key thing that made the Industrial Revolution occur in a pissant small nation off the coast of Europe was, going back a few links, coffee and tea."

The industrial revolution also happened with a vengeance in france and germany. But thew british wound up with the biggest empire so they got to write the british history books.

I like your idea. They couldn't prosper without a financial industry with a reputation for honesty.

Ah! That leads to a vital question!

How can we get one of those?


Yeah, I've got to side with J Thomas on this one. The British capitalist system was notorious for blowing financial bubbles, and the British East India company had to be taken over by the crown. While I think they were effective at growth, I'm not sure honesty is quite the quality you're looking for. Chutzpah might cover it better.

As for the issue of depopulating the Americas...If I understand you right, I think we agree that, once disease had spread across the Americas, it would have been extremely difficult for the remaining native population to fight the European invasion/colonization effort. The whole point of doing an alt-history where the die-off didn't happen is to highlight how important it was.

I kind of hope that some writer will take up the challenge of writing a story set in some version of that alt-history. There's a certain balance in the idea of all those explorers and renegades reaching the Americas from about, say, 1500 BCE on, inadvertently spreading pandemics, but ultimately immunizing the peoples of the New World against the diseases of the Old World. Then, when European colonization began in earnest, things went very differently. Heck, imagine how things would have gone if the Chinese had brought horses to the West Coast before Columbus got to the Caribbean. The ramifications (no Manilla galleon trade?) would have been truly world-wide.


As for the issue of depopulating the Americas...If I understand you right, I think we agree that, once disease had spread across the Americas, it would have been extremely difficult for the remaining native population to fight the European invasion/colonization effort. The whole point of doing an alt-history where the die-off didn't happen is to highlight how important it was.

I kind of hope that some writer will take up the challenge of writing a story set in some version of that alt-history. There's a certain balance in the idea of all those explorers and renegades reaching the Americas from about, say, 1500 BCE on, inadvertently spreading pandemics, but ultimately immunizing the peoples of the New World against the diseases of the Old World. Then, when European colonization began in earnest, things went very differently. Heck, imagine how things would have gone if the Chinese had brought horses to the West Coast before Columbus got to the Caribbean. The ramifications (no Manilla galleon trade?) would have been truly world-wide.

I like this alt-history jumping off point a lot. It would also be interesting if smallpox had originated in the New World and come back to Europe via early ship exploration. Europe would still have the edge in armaments, but perhaps not the people to throw into waves of colonization/conquest in the Americas. And of course if Europe, Asia, and Africa all had smallpox-naive populations in the early modern period, the impact of smallpox following their equivalent of the Columbian Exchange could have changed a LOT.


Here's another idea.

After the Napoleonic Wars, France's birthrate steadily declined. Compare France's population in 1800 at 30 million to 40 million by 1900. Before WWI, France's total fertility rate (TFR) was actually below replacement level, and immigrants were being brought in from Spain and Italy. From what I understand, this meant that few French people emigrated after the Napoleonic Wars (most of the Algerian settlers were Italians and Spanish). I don't have time to go through the list, but most French Americans and French Canadians predate the Napoleonic Wars:

Similarly, Japan was able to support its own population through industrialization to such an extent that it also has a small diaspora relative to its population:

Off the top of my head, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium had similar demographics in the 19th century. In short, Europe didn't have to be a bottomless pit of people. Perhaps if similar trends had occurred throughout the rest of Europe, Native Americans would have survived simply due to a lack of settlers? Perhaps a much faster industrial revolution?


On second thought, this might be a better link for Japan

I realize Wikipedia's numbers are slightly questionable, but I don't have time to do the background research to get more accurate numbers.


I like your idea. They couldn't prosper without a financial industry with a reputation for honesty.

Ah! That leads to a vital question!

How can we get one of those?

Relative to the other options of the times. :)


It would not be enough for the native americans to develop their own economy to the point they could slug it out. If they had to turn into monsters so they could fight the monsters, they would have lost. (Although more of their genes would survive.)

I keep wondering just how much things changed from 1500 to 1700 in North America west of the Appalachian mountains and in upstate New York. Are the native American societies we know of from the 1700s on the result of a society crash? I assume yes.

So just how "savage" or peaceful were things before 1500? I have to think some of the tribes behaviors were the result of that crash. Especially the more ruthless ones. But who knows. It would be interesting to have a good history of that 200 years.


I'm not so sure about Japan. in 1940, by my quick calculations, the population densities of Japan and the UK were about the same (193 and 199 people/km2). At this time, Japan also had a couple million people in China (Manchukuo), Korea, and Taiwan, as they'd turned into an aggressively expanding colonial empire. Indeed, IIRC, when I did some research about Japan in WWII, a lack of jobs and opportunities in the 1920s was given as a reason why the hard right wing progressively took over from 1910, culminating in the disaster that was WWII.

Now I'm not saying that demography is destiny. After all, the UK was a denser country than Japan, but the UK didn't attempt to colonize Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Civil War, which was basically what Japan did to China and Korea with the fall of the Qing Dynasty.

Still, I'm not sure that one can make the case that simple demography would have kept the Americas safe from colonization. I think it would have to be drastic demographics, something like the catastrophic plague on Europe that underlay Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt, where most of Europe was wiped out by the Black Death and recolonized by the Ottomans, Mongols, etc. His take on American colonization was very different, too.

This is also to point out that this take on alt-history has been done. Not that it can't be done again.

Admittedly I don't pay much attention to all the alt-history out there, but the only one I recall that had anything like my scenario was the alt-history/SFF/Carlos Castaneda mashup that was (is?) Thomas Harlan's Wasteland of Flint and its sequels. In that one, Japanese explorers encountered the Aztecs in the 1200s, and somehow produced an interstellar empire by 2400. To which I say, go figure. However, I don't know of anyone who has done, say, an 18th century or 19th century alt-history take on a non-pandemicized New World.


"Are the native American societies we know of from the 1700s on the result of a society crash? I assume yes."

I am not an expert on this topic, but I want to point out that the popularized story about it does not make sense.

An estimated 1/3 of europe died in the black death, and in two generations they were back to normal and expanding. It's easy to imagine why. Before, a whole lot of farmers were farming marginal land that barely fed them. They could on average have two surviving children, any other survivors would join armies or try to survive in cities, and die. But when there was enough good land because a lot of farmers had died, they farmed only the best land and had surpluses and if 3 or 4 of their children survived, in a couple of generations it was over.

In recent generations smallpox killed about 30% of infected victims. But those were people whose ancestors had survived it. Maybe it would kill more in a new population, maybe 90%. So, say that two plagues came in and killed 99% of the people.

There were big areas where europeans hadn't come in to disrupt things. Wouldn't those get back to normal in three or four generations? Without population pressure, likely women could average 8 surviving children. Three generations, easy.

To make plague work as a primary explanation, we would need a collection of different plagues, none of which people got much resistance to. So every time their population rose to the point they had a lot of trade, they'd get another plague to knock them down again. Did that happen?

All I remember to say it did, was an autobiography titled I, Nuligak where an Inuit born around 1915 talked about special marionettes that the old people played for the children at the winter solstice, and there was an epidemic that killed all the old people so the secret of how to make them was permanently lost. There's at least a big local epidemic that did not get a lot of attention from the whites.

I guess another possibility is that before the death they had an economy which was so intricate and interconnected that it collapsed and could not be rebuilt. So they were stuck at a low carrying capacity. Northeastern natives had a mythology that winter was the dying time, when people starved and the ice-giants came and ate people etc. I have the impression that was still true in 1700, and not just a cultural remembrance. I'm looking for some reason that native americans (particularly those who weren't getting directly trashed by europeans, like in the northwest), couldn't build their population back up. I don't think the complex interdependent economy that couldn't be rebuilt is a good candidate.

Could there have been another plague, one that destroyed a central food source? North america would be hit pretty hard if a disease wiped out our corn. We have other crops but nothing as productive. I haven't heard of any crop like that. The chestnut blight was 20th century. Passenger pigeons died out in the 1800's. Etc. But imagine that european diseases were hard on indian corn and beans. We have bred lots of resistant strains, and the various blights and blasts and rots are things we just deal with. But they'd have to breed resistant strains on the fly.... And we wouldn't necessarily have any records of it.

A single depopulation event explains some things. It doesn't explain why they hadn't bounced back by 1700. I expect the evidence is weak. Maybe the population was never more than twice what it was later, and after an event that killed a whole lot of people, by 1700 the population was back to normal. (Or higher than ever, usuing european technology.) Or maybe there had been many more of them and there are important but mostly unknown reasons why they couldn't recover.


There's a simpler answer: what ravaged the Americas wasn't a single plague.

Here's a partial list from Alfred Crosby's (1976) "Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America" (you can find it on Google Scholar):

1616-1619: bubonic/pneumonic plague in New England, est. death toll 90%

1630s: Smallpox, Great Lakes Region, killed 50% of Huron and Iroquois

1738: Smallpox killed 50% of Cherokee and Catawbas

1776: Smallpox killed 50% of Piegan tribe

Early 1800s, Smallpox killed 67% of Omaha, ~50% of all people living between the Missouri River and New Mexico

1820s: Fever (unidentified) killed 80% of people in the Columbia River area

1837: Smallpox killed ~50% of Plains Indians

Note (per Crosby) that 38% of unvaccinated Union soldiers died of smallpox, so these numbers aren't anomalously high. In Crosby's words "As far as we can say now, Old World diseases were the chief demographic determinants in the demographic histories of particular tribes for 100 to 150 years after each tribe's first full exposure to them." This was in addition to things like war, murder, and dispossession. The pattern Crosby talks about is a sharp decline for four to six generations, followed by a gradual recovery.

The other thing is that multiple virgin ground diseases may have struck after contact One example given by Crosby is of the Teslin Lake tribe who dealt with the expansion of the Alaskan Highway in 1943. In the following year, they experiences measles, German measles, dysentery, jaundice, whooping cough, mumps, and meningococcal meningitis. Reports from 1520s Espanola attributed its depopulation to "smallpox, measles, respiratory infection, and other diseases unnamed." Simultaneous epidemics of smallpox and something (perhaps influenza) hit Mesoamerica in the 1520s (ten years after Cortes).

The other problem is that everyone tends to get sick at once in a virgin ground epidemic, so there's no one around to care for the sick but other sick people, let alone keep them fed, tend the crops, etc. It's a grim situation.

Hope this helps make sense of it. It wasn't a crop blight, it was everything hitting all at once.

That's why it's fun to play with a scenario where the epidemics trickle in one at a time and become endemic, giving populations a chance to recover and develop cultural practices (like quarantine) to deal with diseases they can't cure.


"It wasn't a crop blight, it was everything hitting all at once."
"That's why it's fun to play with a scenario where the epidemics trickle in one at a time...."

Your numbers show that. People talk like the native population was considerably larger before contact, maybe 10 to 20 times as big as the 1700 population. You show diseases killing 50% to 80% of various groups in the 1700s and 1800s.

Maybe everything hit at once around 1500 and spread across two continents and killed 95% of the people, until the population was so low that they could no longer propagate the diseases.

But then every time they started to recover they got hit again. By the same diseases or new ones trickling in.


As I said. It would be interesting to have a history of the times that's more than just folklore from 10 generations earlier.

We keep finding entire towns that seemed to go empty during that time.

If you have a big enough population crash >80% and require farming for a season to survive the winter things can get grim very fast.


Then how do you explain France, Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark? Why do you think that only a famine could have reduced Europe's population? France's experience refutes that.

Besides, there is nothing which limits the invention of the pill to the post-WWII world.

Of course the UK didn't invade Spain and Portugal. They had Australia and Canada. Yes the militarists won because of a lack of jobs. It was the Great Depression. That doesn't change the fact that


Problem is, I'm not that sure if it was just lack of prior exposure that made those epidemics so deadly.

Thing is, it seems most Native Americans stem from a quite small group of people crossing Beringia, which makes for quite a founder effect and little genetic variation, and as you went to Patagonia, it became worse. And most pathogens love little variation. Might also explain why it was not as bad in the North, were genetic variation was somewhat higher.

Funny thing is, there was likely still some gene flow to the Americas after the breakup of Beringia, the Na-Dene speakers seem to be a somewhat latecomer. Maybe some later Asian groups also reaching the Americas is not that improbable. and some of these might even have had some encounters with smallpox et al.

On another note...
It seems like the genus Equus evolved in North America and crossed into Eurasia and Africa with the Ice Ages. There are also indication Equus ferus itself evolved in Northern America. Now of course the Northern American equids became extinct shortly after the Clovis people crossing Beringia, but let's assume this doesn't happen, and there still are still some populations of Equus when European arrive.

Now when a species migrates from its point of origin, genetic variation goes down. This is even more so with domestication, which quite often started with very small populations.

So it's quite likely that the American equids have some nasty diseases they are somewhat immune to, but the European horses go down, till we do some additional breeding.

This might mean colonization is happening on a somewhat slower scale, and communication with colonists is quite difficult. And if settlements fail, the survivors might not go back or join other colonists, but join some Native American groups. Which would mean genes and memes are flowing somewhat stronger between the two groups, so we might get

a) somewhat bigger groups somewhat resistant to the epidemics
b) a higher technological standard, e.g. with weapons or iron ploughs


If equine plagues of similar virulence to smallpox et al spread back to mainland europe, that should shoot colonisation squarely in the head for a few generations, given the Europe will now be in a massive famine and social upheaval. Possibly the agricultural and industrial revolutions kick off early? Or possibly we end up with the reintroduction of slavery to replace the lost labour from all those dead horses? Are there any other domesticated animals (oxen?) that could be re-purposed to fill the various horse roles?


I must admit that I'm sufficiently far removed from any agriculture and like that I'm not that sure about other animals substituting for horses, but I guess it's not just power but also speed, feeding needs etc. coming in. Please note oxen can digest with cellulose, well, actually they harbour microbes doing so, a feat humans are not that much known for. Still, horses are said to have more drawing power than oxen, but then, you can use more oxen.

But equines are about the only riding animals I know, and they are somewhat faster than oxen. So my main concern would be fast communication and scouting, not so much transportation. It might be quite easy to stay in touch with settlements 50 km away with horses. With oxen, maybe not so much. Just some speculations, BTW.


Are there any other domesticated animals (oxen?) that could be re-purposed to fill the various horse roles?

Oxen pulled most of the wagons across the west. Movies got it wrong. :)

They are slow and plodding but they can plod along for a long time pulling wagons. Horses are more delicate and better suited for riding or speed when needed.

And as a side note very few people rode in those wagons. Too much wasted energy. If you were fit you walked across the plains and mountains.


In thinking about it I suspect that wiping out cattle (oxen) would have had a bigger impact on settling the Americas than wiping out horses. Losing horses would have slowed things down. Losing cattle would have hugely impacted a portable source of food.


Well, yes, but AFAIK the bovini did large parts of their evolution in Eurasia, crossing over into Northern America a few million years ago with the bison, so variation both in animals and parasites would be highest in Eurasia.

And as mentioned, I don't want to stop colonization, I want to slow it down, so that transfer between Europeans and Native Americans has a fucking chance. Insert pictures of somewhat light eyed and non-black haired Native Americans for added lulz here. ;)

Let's just say we revive old Siberian traditions...


" Losing horses would have slowed things down. Losing cattle would have hugely impacted a portable source of food. "

WRONG, I'm afraid.

When I was a Child back in the 1950s - in the North East of the U.K. - I often used to travel to school by bus past a house end that had been painted with an advertising sign that was part weather worn at the top but which retained the, Tradesman’s Shop, PROUD Identification of the Age of Victoria’s ADVERTISING ... Thus,.. “Purveyors of Horse Meat for Human Consumption”

It’s a funny old world but there are still many Jokes made in the UK about Knackers Yards and Slow Race Horses being just a few yards ahead of the Pet Food section of the local slaughterhouse.

But the thing is that horsemeat was once a standard item on the menu of the Human Race, and this not so very long ago in the UK and it is still quite usual elsewhere across the English Channel.

Just consider the sheer number of horses that powered human civilisation as recently as less than a century ago and then ask you what happened to the carcases of all those ‘Knackered ‘horses.

Horses are just MEAT on LEGS if you are desperate enough.

We are ever so squeamish about Real Meat these days and it is usually to be found in plastic wrapping as far removed from the carcass as possible.

As recently as the 1960/70s in the U.K it was the usual practice of the Smaller 'Family ' type Butchers to hang carcases on racks to one side of the shop so that the customers queued past the dead animals that they were about to see sliced up before their very eyes by the Butcher to their order. This is quite a rare sight these days in the age of the Supermarket but I’m told that it’s still quite a usual practice in other countries.

Come to think of it Humans are just MEAT on LEGS if you are desperate enough.

But, elsewhere?

“ "Americans do not want to see scarce tax dollars used to oversee an inhumane, disreputable horse slaughter industry," Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society argues in a press release. He has been lobbying for a ban on funding for horse slaughter inspections.
"We don't have dog and cat slaughter plants in the U.S. catering to small markets overseas, and we shouldn't have horse slaughter operations for that purpose, either," Pacelle writes.”


Your mention of Oxen spured a very vague memory that I have of Rider Haggards " Allan Quartermaine ' books.

" King Solomns Mines " is probably the best known of the series but there were several others.

Anyway I was sufficently sure of my memory to google " oxen south africa tsetse flies " and came upon this following quite by chance ..

" Animals in the Military: From Hannibal's Elephants to the Dolphins of the U ...
By John M. Kistler "

A bit pricy as an e book but the available preview is fun.

Chapter 9 for the Oxen ... but I don't dare read the passage on " Bats " which just CAN'T be as, er ..well I'm not going to spoil the Killer Attack Bat Image that my imagination has just painted for me by reading that passage from the book.


I dunno about attack bats, but there was the bat bomb...


I didn't say you couldn't eat a horse. I said that cattle were better for travel meat than horses. And horses were better for faster transportation. And from everything I've seen horses are more fragile.

I've yet to see a female horse turned into a reliable source of milk. With cattle it's done all the time.

It only takes a 1/2 dozen or maybe less of cattle to have a sustaining supply of milk and lots of meat where you slaughter 1 or 2 a year.


You might want to google kumis, which is fermented mare's milk, and widely drunk in Central Asia.

From David Anthony's The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, the advantage horses have over other livestock is that they use their hooves to clear away ice and snow in the winter, in order to find browse beneath the snow. Sheep use their muzzles, and when there's ice on the ground, they'll clear with their muzzles until they're bloody, then stop trying and starve to death. Cattle reportedly don't really understand that there's browse beneath the snow, and will starve if the grass is covered up by snow or ice. Where open range cattle survived blizzards in the US back in the day, it was because they'd follow herds of horses that broke through the snow, and grazed in the openings the horses created.

Assuming Anthony's correct, it's easy to see why the nomads of Central Asia and the Great Plains relied on horses, more than on cattle, sheep, or goats. These other animals have their place, but each is ecologically different.


If dealing with snow is very important, other possible herd animals include reindeer/caribou, musk ox, and bison. As you say, each is ecologically different.

I imagine a friendly domesticated bison trying to nudge his way into your tent or hut could be rather inconvenient....


For those that have dived off onto a side track on diseases and Possible First Nation survival of the diseases, there is an old GURPS article "A Plague zon Both Your Houses," which assumes a more urban population in the Americas and disease stomping down hard on both sides of the Atlantic.



Well, yes, but also quite a few Germans would look at horse meat akin to the way Jews and Muslims look at pig meat, in more than one way[1]. This is even stronger with some other Ethnic groups, for example the Roma and Sintikes. There are quite some theories about this, from a situation similar to the cow in India, e.g. you don't kill the basic means of production, to the fact horse sacrifices were quite common in pre-Christian cultures, maybe a leftover of some steepe migrants accostumated to horse meat. Where said sacrifices were, err, interesting:

The chief queen ritually calls on the king's fellow wives for pity. The queens walk around the dead horse reciting mantras. The chief queen then has to mimic copulation with the dead horse, while the other queens ritually utter obscenities.

On the next morning, the priests raise the queen from the place where she has spent the night with the horse. With the Dadhikra verse (RV 4.39.6, YV VSM 23.32), a verse used as a purifier after obscene language.

As for the Western reception, well...

Griffith (1899) omits verses VSM 23.20–31 (the ritual obscenities), protesting that they are "not reproducible even in the semi-obscurity of a learned European language" (alluding to other instances where he renders explicit scenes in Latin rather than English). A. B. Keith's 1914 translation also omits verses.

Well, talk to a humanist about Ganymed...

BTW, since I already stumbled about the Latin language, one reason for young men of a certain age in the 19th century to learn Latin was to read the raunchy bits. ;)

As for my idea, I'm just trying to engineer a scenario where things like this

happen more frequently.

[1] E.g. to quote one Howard Wolowitz, "getting freaky on the Sabbath with a bacon cheeseburger".


Err, you read that one before I mentioned it on Feb 12, did you? Otherwise I'm somewhat ashamed of my reading speed. ;)

One of the problems with Anthony is that I'm not that sure if "horse-riding" means "using a horse as a drawing animal" or literal "riding on the back of a horse".

From what I know, the early horses were quite small and not that suited for riding, which lead to the development of chariots. See "Early Riders":

OTOH, it seems Anthony assumes they were ridden on, though I guess "bit wear" could also mean they were in front of a chariot or like:

(Please note this is Dienekes, who IMHO has something of a Greek nationalist agenda. Not that this means he's necessarily wrong, just that you might have to correct for some bias. OK, and maybe I have a soft spot for Eastern Europeans/Western Asians with a tendency to deposit adipose tissues in some areas. Go figure.*g*)


Just as a social data point, I recall in Scotland in the 1980's seeing the carcases hung up at the side of the butcher's shop that we used, only about a yard away from the customers.


The "real family butchers" I use now hang the carcasses in the chill room and not on public view, but you can still see/have them disappear in back to cut your order off half a ton of cow!


(re: historicity)
very highly recommended:

A People's History Of The United States - Howard Zinn (RIP)


The butcher's shop in the high street where I grew up had a ceiling-mounted rail system for moving carcasses through the shop from where they were unloaded from the truck outside to the chill room at the rear. That's all gone now, I expect as butchering has moved one step back from the shop to a more hygenic central facility which dresses the meat, packages and chills it before shipping it shelf-ready to the local supermarket.

I don't know if they still do it but at one time the Royal Highland Show would have a display of a small flock of live lambs[0] on the Friday and by the Sunday half the flock would be left and the other half would be dressed carcasses to show the visitors what lay under the fleecy wool and lambskin. Very educational for the kiddies, I'm sure.

[0]Whoever came up with the concept of Jesus being a Good Shepherd never really unerstood what a good shepherd does to his flock over the period of a year. Culling the children soon after birth, castration of the males, shearing during the summer and then a mass rape of the surviving females in the autumn...


“But what of the settlers who chose to risk, to go to a new world and find their fortune and their future, knowing that they left all security and certainty behind? I knew those people, though these were none of mine, coming predominantly from western and northern Europe. I knew what it felt to hope for a welcome somewhere else, to plant the seeds of your future in that hope - and to arrive only to discover that the streets were not paved in gold, but rather hardship and distrust. There was my mirror, the familiar things I can study, and know."

Just a brief excursion to the Present via the Past of those settlers who maybe chose to flee a society that was developed by an Ancient Aristocracy in quest of something better? So, courtasy of a News Item from todays Press ..From the Torygraph of all things! This Better is ? ...

Ah well, at least they aren't engaged in a US of American version of the Wars of The Roses with LOTS of Spilt Blood in the Cause of the Family of Your Choice.

Hurrah for the Democracies of the 21st Century eh wot?

Unless you happen to live Far Far beyond the US of America and in the modern version of ultima Thule
and on the recieving end of Drone Strikes?



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