Wednesday, January 6, 2016

7 Questions With Claudio Saunt, Author of West of the Revolution

Claudio Saunt is the chair of the history department at the University of Georgia, the Co-Director of the Center for Virtual History ( ), 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 Revolution.

7.      What 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.

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