Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

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by James W. Loewen

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In Lies Across America, James W. Loewen continues his mission, begun in the award-winning Lies My Teacher Told Me, of overturning the myths and misinformation that too often pass for American history. This is a one-of-a-kind examination of sites all over the country where history is literally written on the landscape, including historical markers, monuments, historic…  See more details below


In Lies Across America, James W. Loewen continues his mission, begun in the award-winning Lies My Teacher Told Me, of overturning the myths and misinformation that too often pass for American history. This is a one-of-a-kind examination of sites all over the country where history is literally written on the landscape, including historical markers, monuments, historic houses, forts, and ships.

Lies Across America is a realty check for anyone who has ever sought to learn about America through the nation's public sites and markers. Entertaining and enlightening, it is destined to change the way American readers see their country.

Editorial Reviews
The Whole Truth

Historian James W. Loewen took a trip across America, and what he found made him very angry.

In his previous book, the controversial and bestselling Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen attacked the myths prevalent in high school textbooks. In Lies Across America, he leaves the classroom and hits the road, and he's shocked (exclamation marks abound in this book) to find the same myths and lies at the very sites that are supposed to teach visitors about the country's history. Museums, plaques placed at childhood homes and massacre sites, roadside markers, and gilded statues all offer a "warped" view of American history and serve to create a "landscape of amnesia."

Despite the occasional emotional outburst, Loewen is a lively, engaging guide as he travels from California to Maine. He convincingly demonstrates that slavery, segregation, and the slaughter of American Indians are either completely ignored or utterly misinterpreted. For example, Sutter's Fort, a California attraction, celebrates a site where Indians were not only enslaved but where more than 8,000 were massacred. In Michigan, a bronze statue celebrates Orville Hubbard, a mayor who is valorized for "speedy snow removal" and other civic contributions. Yet there's no mention of the fact that Hubbard was a staunch segregationist who ran a "Keep Negroes out of Dearborn" campaign.

Loewen's book is an effective exposé of the persistence of racism, but it is not merely an attack. The truth, as Loewen reveals it, is often more interesting than the feel-good myths. The sites offer bland portraits of genuinely fascinating heroes and villains. One would never know that Helen Keller, the blind-and-deaf pioneer, was a radical socialist. Sites inform visitors that author Willa Cather "wrote from her heart wonderful tales," but, according to Loewen, she also arrived at the University of Nebraska dressed as William Cather, her opposite-sex twin. The town of Amherst and the University of Amherst celebrate a war hero who, in fact, helped spread smallpox among Indians, a people he referred to as "the vilest race of beings that ever infested the earth."

Loewen notes that Americans "rejoiced when East Germans toppled their statues of Lenin" yet are unlikely to topple their own monuments to evil men. Americans encouraged postimperialist African nations to change their names (e.g., Rhodesia) but a brouhaha would take place if such a tactic were attempted in, say, Amherst. If vandalism and renaming are too radical, Loewen insists that we still "must tell what happened, without the public relations puffery of local boosters." But it's hard to image that towns like Darien, an all-white Connecticut enclave, will take Loewen's suggestion and mount a sign saying, "Darien is still overwhelmingly white; some clubs within it still keep out African-Americans, Catholics and Jews. Thus, Darien poses a problem for the New York metropolitan area and indeed for the nation."

Loewen's angry and witty exposé will surely spark debate. While civic leaders might take issue with his report, the irony is that Loewen actually makes the history of small towns and dead people interesting and lively. His book does what so many sites and museums don't. It presents history as tragic, violent, and dynamic, full of devious eccentrics, arrogant villains, and inspiring heroes.

—Margot Towne

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1. The Tallest Mountain — The Silliest Naming

ALASKA Denali (Mt. McKinley)

Since people probably reached Alaska before any other part of the Western Hemisphere, they probably named North America's tallest mountain thousands of years ago. They didn't call it Mt. McKinley.

    Replacing Native American names with those of European Americans is a form of cultural imperialism. The practice declares that the new rulers of the landscape can afford to ignore what Native names mean and connote in favor of new names that typically have no relation to what is named.

    Low-profile conflicts have raged for many years between those who want to change the names of localities and geographic features back to their original Native names, and those who want them named for European American people, towns, or words. To some degree this is a contest between Native Americans and European Americans, but European Americans are usually found on both sides of the arguments. The battles might also be characterized as between traditionalists and those desiring change, except that both parties claim to have tradition on their side. Denali, or Mt. McKinley, dramatically embodies these disputes about names all across America, not only because it is such a dramatic place but also because the controversy at Denali has gone on for more than twenty-five years.

    William A. Dickey renamed the peak, the tallest point in North America, Mt. McKinley in 1896. Why he got to nameit is hard to fathom. Dickey had come to Alaska spurred by discoveries of gold in Cook Inlet. With three companions he made it to Talkeetna and saw Denali, "the great one" in the language of the nearby Tanaina Indians. According to C. H. Merriam, testifying before the U.S. Geographical Board in 1917, "The right of the discoverer to name geographical features has never been questioned," but Dickey was no discoverer. Native people had discovered the mountain thousands of years earlier. Even if only white people "discover," Russians saw it in the 1770s or 1780s and named it Bulshaia Gora, "big mountain." Even if only English-speaking white people "discover," George Vancouver saw Denali in 1794. Dickey was not even the first white American to see it; other Americans had preceded him by a quarter century.

    Dickey had no serious reason to name the mountain as he did. William McKinley had not yet been martyred when he received the honor; indeed he had not even been elected president. Nor had McKinley ever been to the mountain, or even to Alaska. William Dickey favored conservative fiscal policies, while most people in the West wanted to expand the amount of money in circulation by minting more silver coins and certificates. Dickey was irritated by arguments he had lost with "free silver" partisans on his trip and decided to retaliate by naming Denali after the gold standard champion.

    "The original naming was little more than a joke," according to George R. Stewart, author of American Place-Names. From the first, some people preferred the Native name, and Dickey's frivolous reason for choosing McKinley gave them ammunition. Nevertheless, probably because he wrote about his trip in the New York Sun, Dickey's choice began to catch on. McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1896, so at least the mountain turned out to be named after a president, and, when McKinley was shot in Buffalo in 1901, after a martyred president.

    Today however, many Americans consider the Native name more melodious and object to "McKinley" on aesthetic grounds—as if the Mississippi River had been renamed for, say, Zachary Taylor. Others support Native efforts to gain more acceptance, including better recognition on the landscape. "It's time we listened to the Native people of Alaska," declared Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska in 1991. "This mountain is the largest in North America. It was named by the Natives long before we arrived."

    Nationally, a lone congressman from Ohio prevents the renaming of the mountain. In 1975, Rep. Ralph Regula from Canton, William McKinley's hometown, blocked a compromise proposed by the Alaska legislature to name the mountain Denali and leave the national park surrounding it named for McKinley. Five years later the National Park Service agreed to a compromise Regula couldn't block: it changed the name of Mt. McKinley National Park to Denali National Park, but the mountain stayed Mt. McKinley. This resolution proved unstable, however. Finding its Native lobby more persuasive than Ohio's McKinley lobby, Alaska changed its name for the mountain to Denali, relegating the 25th president to the parenthetical statement, "(also known as Mt. McKinley)." Regula has found a way to block any change on the national level, however. His aide told me, "The Board of Geographic Names won't change names so long as legislation on the subject is pending. Congressman Regula always has legislation pending." The legislation never gets anywhere, but it suffices to prevent action by the board.

    When the Board on Geographic Names was considering a proposal to rename the mountain in 1977, Congressman Regula testified, "This action would be an insult to the memory of President McKinley and to the people of my district and the nation who are so proud of his heritage." But Americans aren't! That's the problem: most Americans don't rank William McKinley very high in the pantheon of presidents. They remember him if at all as a creation of political boss Mark Hanna, beholden to big business, and addicted to high tariffs. He also got us bogged down in a seemingly endless colonial war in the Philippines (25). Such facts do not deter Regula, who portrays McKinley as "a champion of the working class" and credits him for "settlement of the long-standing Spanish-American conflict."

    Naturally the congressman's office claims higher principles, not mere local pride, motivate Regula to block renaming the mountain. "The congressman feels that a lot of money goes into maps," emphasized aide Barbara Wainman, "and names shouldn't be changed lightly." Moreover, she noted, if they win Denali, Native groups will want to change other names.

    On that last point Wainman is right. Entry 24 tells that Native groups do want to change other names all across America. And American Indians are winning some of these battles. Memphis renamed DeSoto Bluff "Chickasaw Heritage State Park." "Custer's Last Stand" is now "The Little Bighorn Battlefield." Also, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names adopted a policy in 1990 to favor names derived from American Indian, Inuit, and Polynesian languages. Eventually Natives will outlast Ralph Regula and rename Denali.

* * *

2. King Kamehameha I, The Roman!

HAWAII Honolulu

Kamehameha I was an extraordinary leader. Born on the Big Island of Hawaii about 1758, he died on Kona in 1819. Using his intelligence, courage in man-to-man combat, his own genealogy (very important in traditional Hawaiian culture), diplomacy, Western arms, and capable advisors and underlings, Kamehameha conquered all of the Big Island of Hawaii in the 1790s. He then moved northwest, conquering Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Oahu. Finally in 1810 by negotiation he was acknowledged king over Kauai, unifying all the Hawaiian Islands for the first time.

    Kamehameha's imposing statue stands across South King Street from Iolani Palace in Honolulu. An identical statue stands near his birthplace. A third statue, made from molds prepared from the one in Honolulu, stands indoors in the United States Capitol. Eight and one half feet tall with gold robes, it is "easily the most striking in the National Statuary Hall" in the words of the guidebook for the collection. Kamehameha's likeness can thus be seen on the landscape at more places than that of any other Asian or Pacific Island American.

    Only it's not Kamehameha's likeness.

    The statue had its origin in 1878 when Walter Gibson, a non-Polynesian member of the Hawaiian legislature, proposed it in connection with the centennial of Hawaii's "discovery" by Captain James Cook. This had a certain logic, since Kamehameha was among the many Hawaiians who had met Cook during his two visits to the islands before he was killed there. The legislature appropriated $10,000 for the project and made Gibson chair of the monument committee, which included native Hawaiian members but soon became a one-man show. Gibson chose Thomas R. Gould, a Boston sculptor, to craft the work.

    Gould never went to Hawaii and seems never to have learned what Kamehameha looked like, although several portraits did exist, painted at different points in his life. Photographs of native Hawaiians were mailed to Gould as he worked on the statue in Florence, Italy, but they did not make much impact either. Gould was in Italy, so he made the statue look like an Italian with a long Roman cloak. According to travel writer Hal Glatzer, "The statue is essentially that of a Roman general with dark skin. The features are more Caucasian than Polynesian. The pose, with the right arm extended, palm upturned, is `supposed' to be a welcoming aloha gesture. But it is based on the Roman pose with an upright staff or spear."

    David Kalakaua had become king of Hawaii in 1874, and in 1882 Hawaiians finished the Iolani Palace for him. The statue of King Kamehameha I, not ready for the 1878-79 centennial of Cook's visit, was scheduled as part of Kalakaua's belated coronation festivities connected with opening the new palace in 1883. Cast in bronze in Paris and then shipped to Hawaii via Cape Horn, the statue was lost before rounding the Cape when the ship wrecked at the Falkland Islands.

    The Hawaiians had insured the statue for $12,000, and with that money they ordered another one. Gould made a copy and sent it off to Hawaii. Before it could get there, however, a ship came into Hawaii with the original! Enterprising Falkland Islanders had recovered it from the sea and sold it to the captain for $500. He sold it to Gibson for $875. Now Hawaii had two statues, and neither looked anything like Kamehameha. The reordered statue was placed in front of Iolani Palace, while the original went up near the northernmost point of the Big Island, near Kamehameha's birthplace.

    Making Kamehameha look Roman is a classic example of Eurocentrism. Hawaiians do not look Italian. James King, lieutenant to Captain Cook, said Kamehameha had "as savage a looking face as I ever saw." "Savage" of course was a Eurocentric way of saying "Polynesian"; Hawaiian women found Kamehameha quite attractive. Nevertheless, Native Hawaiian activist Poka Laenui points out that the statues do symbolize how Hawaiians of that era were finding ways to "walk in two worlds"—their own culture and the European-dominated world economy. Hawaii adopted a written constitution and other accoutrements of modern nationhood. Regardless, Europeans were taking over Hawaii as they were taking over Kamehameha's likeness. In 1887, whites forced Kalakaua to sign a constitution supporting white interests. Venereal disease, cholera, influenza, measles, typhoid, smallpox, and other diseases from Europe and Asia, including leprosy which arrived in 1830, decimated the Hawaiians. Hawaii's Native population shrank from perhaps 350,000 when Captain Cook arrived to about 35,000 by 1893. In that year American residents on Hawaii, aided by 162 United States sailors, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani, Kalakaua's successor. It seemed then that Native Hawaiians might disappear from their own country as thoroughly as the likeness of King Kamehameha had from his own statue.

    Since then, "pure Hawaiians" have continued to decline in number to about 8,000. In the 1970s and 1980s however, in a development that paralleled Black Power and American Indian movements on the mainland, the number of Hawaiians who identified themselves as Native Hawaiian soared. So has the number of Native Hawaiians learning Hawaiian music, dance, language, crafts, and navigation. In the 1990 census about 140,000 people had substantial Hawaiian ancestry and were identified as Native Hawaiian Although that is only one-eighth of the population of the islands, their numbers continue to increase rapidly.

Entry 26 tells of a similar population decline and rebound among Native Americans, and a corresponding rise in the number of those identifying themselves as American Indians.

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What People are saying about this

Carol Kammen
Carol Kammen, author of Undoing Local History
A marvelous review of America's past that will engage and delight the reader. Loewen exposes with humor and outrage the lies told by our public monuments. He is the high school history teacher we all should have had.
Thomas Connors
Thomas Connors, Professor of History, University of Northern Iowa
I would have thought it impossible for Loewen to write a book that I would find more interesting than Lies My Teacher Told Me, but he's managed to do so.
Robin W. Winks
Robin W. Winks, Townsend Professor of History Yale
An astute, funny, yet very serious book…Lies Across America will make us think hard about how easily the public can be mislead by a group determined to get their view of history displayed on our road-sides.
Edwin Bears
Edwin C. Bears, former Chief Historian, National Park Service
A winner by any criteria: informative, stimulating, and challenging. Loewen's wry wit is a welcome bonus, too often missing in books of this character.
Ira Berlin
Ira Berlin, Professor of History, University of Maryland
A great book, a fun book, and an important book.
David Lowenthal
David Lowenthal, author of The Past is a Foreign Country and The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History
An exhilarating, irreverent, often hilarious romp across our commemorative landscape, deftly mixing a vivid reportage with caustic muckraking.

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Meet the Author

James W. Loewen taught race relations at the University of Vermont. His previous book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, won the American Book Award, the AESA Critics' Choice Award, and the Oliver C. Cox Anti-Racism Award of the American Sociological Association. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Lies across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Way cool. Way, way cool. A very readable collection of demonstrations showing how history doesn't just happen; how, instead, it is deliberately created. Read this book before you end up being the last person on your block to believe in the existence of 'facts,' 'nonfiction,' 'truth,' or kindred myths of modern existence. Trust me, you'll enjoy the liberation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this is one of the first nonfiction books i couldn't put down. it makes you wonder what out there is the truth.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great Read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This guy has done more harm to America than the War in Iraq. He, and most of his reviewers, positively foam at the mouth in their misguided attempt to make American History culturally correct. I suggest reading it only to learn just how diabolical these people are.