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    Contradictions of America’s founding in child’s history book

    Many of us were taught this seemingly unassailable fact: Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.

    We were too young and too innocent and too oblivious to question how he could have founded a country that was already occupied by native people. That mantra evaporated as we grew older and historians and others started to question the nonsense we had been taught.

    So I’m always intrigued when I see very early school books at auction (I also wonder who on earth kept them so long – a dealer? a descendant?). Whenever I come across a history book, I always take the time to read passages to see how certain Americans were treated in those publications. That’s exactly what I was looking for when I saw a thin tan history book on an auction table recently.

    founding of America

    The cover of “The Child’s History of the United States” by Charles A. Goodrich.

    The title, “The Child’s History of the United States,” was written in a fancy calligraphy script on the cover. The book was written by Charles A. Goodrich, and reprinted in 1878 (Goodrich died in 1862).

    Its first lesson told the story of the “founding” of America:

    “America was discovered by Christopher Columbus, in the year 1492. On Friday, the third day of August of that year, the sun rose upon three small vessels as they sailed out of the harbor of Palos, a seaport town in Spain. On board of one of these stood the commander of the little fleet, a white-haired man of nearly 60 years. It was Christopher Columbus, setting sail for discovery of the New World. … At length the eyes of Columbus and his companions rested upon a New World, and, on the 12th of October, they stepped ashore upon a little island belonging to a group since called Bahamas, one of the West Indies. Columbus gave it the name San Salvador.”

    Lesson 3 told of what the English found when they arrived in America in 1607:

    “When the English came to America they found the whole land filled with Indians. Their number was about one hundred and fifty thousand within the limits of the thirteen original states. How long the Indians had been in America is not known. It is supposed they came from Asia, across Behring’s Strait. The strait separates America from Asia. The Indians were quite tall and straight; their color was red or brown. They had long, black, and coarse hair. They were very brave, but cruel and revengeful.”

    founding of America

    Book opens with Christopher Columbus “discovering” America.

    Columbus did not “discover” our America; he never even made it to North America. He “reached” land in what is now the Caribbean that was new to him and most other Europeans, but was inhabited by friendly native people (whom he would terrorize and decimate). In fact, he was not the first European to arrive; Leif Erickson had arrived in North America in the 11th century. Columbus’ journey, though, led to the first full-scale exploration and colonization of the Americas.

    Goodrich was an author and Congregational minister who published the book in the 1830s when this country was at war with the native Americans, who as the book noted became less welcoming when they realized the Europeans wanted to take their land. He wrote many other history books both for children and adults, along with books on religion and travels to other countries.

    He began writing history books soon after he became an ordained minister. His first was a history of the United States in 1822, and the book was still being reprinted after his death. Many of the history book writers back then were ministers like Goodrich with no formal training in history, according to one source.

    arrival of English in America

    Book outlines arrival of English in America and the native peoples they found there.

    Indians were very prominent in the books, because they were all around the white colonists and interacted with them (by the late 1800s, they were not seen so often after being killed in battle and forced onto reservations). Textbook writers faced a dilemma about how to portray a nation of people who were being wiped out. If the Indians were presented as virtuous, it would be tough to justify taking their land. If they were shown as savages, the taking could be better justified.

    Most times, they were portrayed as savages who were inferior and would be made extinct by the superior Europeans.

    Grouping all Indian tribes as one monolith (there were more than 300 different groups here), Goodrich in his book wrote about how they lived (in wigwams), hunted (with clubs, bows, arrows, tomahawks), – “Indians delight in war” – worshipped and originated (which has been refuted).

    “The Indians worshipped a Good Spirit and an Evil Spirit. But of the true God they knew nothing; nor had they ever heard of the Bible or of Jesus Christ,” he wrote, putting the Indians at odds with what Christian children were being taught. By then, missionaries had for years tried to break Indians of their own religious customs and “civilize” them through the teachings of Christianity.

    founding of America

    Questions from two chapters about founding of America and arrival of the English.

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