Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pardon My l'Histoire...

Whenever history is being told, remember there is almost always a bias on behalf of the person(s) telling it. Often, parts are left out, justified by one party involved, or even told inaccurately; it takes a lot of research and work to uncover the complete history of anything. I was talking with someone yesterday about California; they made the offhand comment that the city of Hollywood doesn't have a long history. This is both true and false. As a populated city, it's just over 140 years old. When you ask any American about the history of a place, it rarely goes back any further than the earliest settlers from Europe. After the founding of the 13 original colonies, of course.

So who really counts as the first people in an area? What makes for historic events? How old is civilization in a location? Generally, these are more opinions than concrete ideas. Most of us know there were Native Americans living across the United States long before Europe even knew this land existed. But even beyond that, there are chunks of missing history left out of teachings about whole states. Even my own home state of Ohio has a far more interesting past than many of us know about.

Ohio was one of the first states beyond the original colonies to be carved out of the land back two hundred years ago. But what was it before then? You might be surprised by the answer. And had history gone very differently, we might be speaking an entirely different language.

If we go back a hundred years before the the Constitution existed, Europeans were already settling and conquering and claiming land across North America as their own. What would eventually become Ohio was part of the French colony of Louisiana (also called "New France" at certain times). Aside from the British colonies and Spanish Florida on the east (and New Mexico to the west), the rest of the land was claimed by France. This French part of Ohio history is completely ignored, but it doesn't end there. In the 18th century, Ohio was someone else's land as well.

In the decades before the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (which almost made eastern Ohio into a state called Washington), the land owned by the French changed drastically. Spain acquired much of the western states and France split the land owned by England in half. Today, part of the section of New France stretching through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River all the way to the Atlantic Ocean still holds on to its heritage and early name: Quebec. Shortly before the British took possession of much of this land in 1763 through the Treaty of Paris, Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania and New York were part of Quebec. Forgotten by today's residents, a few clues remain behind. The city of Erie, Pennsylvania, still sits near Presque Isle (or presqu'île, the French word for peninsula); Ohio has towns named La Croft, Bellevue ("beautiful view"), Bellefontaine ("beautiful fountain"), Marseilles, and even Marietta (named for Marie Antoinette).

One thing is certain; the French had a better rapport with the native Indians than their British counterparts. Centers of trade and forts sprang up throughout Ohio. One French trading post was just down the road from where I live, where the Cuyahoga River meets Tinkers Creek. Another was to the south in Boston, Ohio, where early settlers found apple trees planted by the French in the 1600s. And when the British tried to take over land, the Indians tended to side with the French. After the US became independent, they sided with British Canada. This is part of the reason there was such animosity between early settlers and the natives. Indians allied themselves with the wrong side regularly. Their punishment would eventually be to live on tiny reservations, stricken with poverty and alcoholism.

While there's a lot of history we'd rather forget, there's no valid reason to deny the French past for Ohio and many other states. We seem so keen to remember the British and American portions of US history yet ignore all the rest. But this is why I love history; it's a fascinating, unending discovery full of myths and mysteries. There's always something new to learn, even about your native town.

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