Claudio Saunt is the chair of the history department at the University of Georgia, the Co-Director of the Center for Virtual History (http://www.ehistory.org/ ), and Associate Director of the Institute of NativeAmerican Studies . He teaches and writes about early American and Native American history at the University of Georgia and am currently at work on a book about Indian Removal. His most recent publication is West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776.
1. How and/or
when did you get you hooked on history?
I was not hooked until college, when I took a class with
James Shenton at Columbia University. He
was a legendary teacher, who could keep a room full of kids on the edge of
their seats with his gripping lectures.
Yet I never focused narrowly on history and still don’t. I like to read science journalism and am
interested in cartography and population genetics, among other subjects.
2. What role does
history play or has it played in your personal life?
Perhaps it is more interesting to ask what role my personal
life has played in the history I have written.
In some ways, all history is autobiographical. In my case, I grew up in San Francisco and
developed an interest in the people and places who rarely appear in traditional
accounts of early America, which focus so narrowly on the thirteen British
colonies, and often even more tightly on a handful of founding fathers.
3. How is/How was
history a part of your professional life/career?
I am the chair of the history department at the University
of Georgia as well as a teacher and author, and I keep busy both as an
administrator and as a scholar.
4. Why is
studying/knowing history important?
History students learn to analyze, to sustain an argument,
and to write, all qualities that employers value and that are useful in a wide
range of pursuits. They also learn that
the world is more diverse and complex than appears from our own small corner of
globe. I’m also a firm believer that
good history makes for good citizens and that it is difficult to carry on an
informed public conversation without some knowledge of historical context. Without an understanding of slavery, Reconstruction,
and Jim Crow, for example, it is impossible to have an intelligent discussion
about race in the United States.
5. What is your
favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I am interested in early America, a place and time full of
diverse people and places, with stories that continue to amaze me, even after
twenty-five years of studying the era.
6. Tell us about
your book West of the Revolution?
In 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, the
Continental Congress declared independence, and Washington crossed the
Delaware. We are familiar with those
famous moments in American history but know little about the extraordinary
events occurring that same year far beyond the British colonies. West of the Revolution explores the rest of
the continent not covered by the thirteen colonies then in rebellion against
Great Britain. In 1776, the Spanish
established the first European colony in San Francisco and set off a cataclysm
for the region’s native residents. The Russians pushed into Alaska in search of
valuable sea otters, devastating local Aleut communities. And the British
extended their fur trade from Hudson Bay deep into the continent, sparking an
environmental revolution that transformed America’s boreal forests. I tell these stories and more in West of the
surprising things will readers learn from your book?
There are so many because we teach so little about early
America in our US history classes. For starters, it will probably come as a
surprise that the thirteen colonies that declared their independence from
Britain in 1776 covered not even 4% of the North America. All kinds of formative events were occurring
elsewhere. The Sioux Indians, for
example, exploring the Great Plains, “discovered” the Black Hills in 1776. The mountain uplift has since become their
sacred homeland. The Osage Indians were
building their own empire in the heart of the continent in the 1770s. “The truth is,” Jefferson would admit in
1804, the Osages “are the great nation South of the Missouri.” The Kumeyaay Indians, in the vicinity of
present-day San Diego, launched their own war for independence a few months
after the “shot heard round the world” in distant Massachusetts marked the
beginning of the American Revolution.
More generally, the book opens up vistas that we rarely get to see survey
in traditional narratives of the period.