this year, our Homecoming tradition took us for the first time to a city where none of us have ever lived, and two-thirds of us had never been: the Crescent City, the Big Easy, home of the cocktail, voodoo, jazz, and beignets — New Orleans.
we were up early the first morning to explore the city, heading first to the French Quarter the oldest and possibly most atmospheric of the cities sections. initially, I was taken aback by how little of the city’s early history I knew — first settled by the French, then taken over by the Spanish and returned to the French only to be sold to the fledgling United States. up from the Louisiana Purchase I have a vague understanding of how things operated, but I was delighted to discover a much more layered and rich history than I’d ever anticipated.
one of the first plaza statues we encountered was of Bienville, one of the founders of New Orleans and early governor of the French colony. born in Montreal, he was appointed to the position for the first time in 1701 and established several settlements, including a deep water port at Dauphine Island, what is now Mobile, Alabama, and ultimately New Orleans. the slight elevation made it far more practical than other sites along the flood-prone river and delta and was convenient to important trading positions. with permission from the company directors, he established New Orleans in 1718 and the heart of it — what is now known as the the Vieux Carre or French Quarter — was drawn up between 1720-21. the proposed grid pattern was largely overlooked by settlers initially, but when a hurricane flattened most of the existing structures in 1722, the new pattern went into effect, as we see it today. it became capital of the new colony, named for the Duc d’Orleans, in 1723.
the land had been inhabited for thousands of years by native peoples and, generally, the original inhabitants welcomed and aided early settlers, such as French trappers and traders traversing the Mississippi River. Bienville was known for his cordial relations with Native Americans, one of few early governors who could communicate without the use of an interpreter and, moreover, willing to aid local tribes against opposition tribes. many of the settlers were unsavory types and the governor complained frequently in his letters back to the central government. his relationship with administrators of the Company of the Indies, which controlled the colony, was fractious and resulted in him being recalled to France in 1725. he returned some 8 years later and severed as governor officially and focused on fortifying the settlement. all told, he served 30 years as governor over a 42 year period and retired to live in Paris for more than twenty years.
another interesting ancillary fact about the site of the Tusayan ruins is its location on a slope coming down from the rim of the Grand Canyon, which allows a clear view of the highest peak in Arizona, Humphreys Peak (reaching an elevation of 12,637 feet above sea level). Humphreys Peak was (re)named in 1911 for a Union General who served a a civil engineer prior to and throughout the Civil War. following the war, he served as chief of the Army Corps of Engineers until his retirement in 1879. he was also one of the men who incorporated the National Academy of Sciences.
known in Hopi as Aaloosaktukwi, it is part of an extinct volcano chain that last erupted some two million years ago. the peaks, now known as the San Francisco Peaks and within the Kachina Peaks Wilderness, are sacred to over a dozen tribes, including the Havasupai, Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni. the peaks are said to contain abalone inside and be secured to the ground by a sunbeam. Humphrey’s Peak is associated with the Aalooska deity of the Two-Horn Society, which was based in the Hopi village in which the Spanish established a mission.
while native peoples have inhabited and worshiped on the land around the peaks for millennia, the first Europeans arrived in the mid-16th century and began building settlements in the 17th century. in 1629, a group of Spanish friars established a mission in at Awatovi (one of the largest Hopi villages and center of the Two-Horn Society); in the following century their successors named that mission in honor of St. Francis. in the 1870s, a follower of Brigham Young claimed land around the only reliable spring in the area, on the western side of the peaks and built a stockade to house workers toiling on the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad.
the area first became protected federal land (as a forest reserve) by direction of President McKinley at the behest of Gifford Pinchot. local reaction was hostile but had no impact on the protection status of the land; further developments on the peaks during the last century have sparked further protest and debate. today, those debates center around the varied development plans of recreational venues throughout the peaks.
visiting the Grand Canyon at the end of January proves an understandably more subdued experience than making a trip in the height of the summer tourist season. off the main track on the road to the eastern entrance to the park, it’s a bit hard to imagine more than a handful of people exploring the Tusayan ruins on a given day during the peak of the year. that said, I am thankful we took the 20-odd mile trek to find it before heading back to Vegas.
people have inhabited the Colorado Plateau for thousands of years, first as hunter/gatherers, and later in established settlements, like Tusayan or those at Mesa Verde, as subsistence agriculture became the norm. people constructed this pueblo site around 1185 C.E., based on tree-ring data. at any time during the twenty years in which the site was inhabited, somewhere between 16 and 25 individuals lived in the pueblo. the excavated ruins consists of a series of living chambers, storage rooms, and a kiva. down the hill from the structure, a small parcel of farm land has also been identified. compared to the farms near which we live, it’s interesting to consider how a community of nearly two dozen people could subsist on a plot of that size, supplementing their diets with gathered plants and what animals they could hunt or trap.
evidence on the site suggests that a small, timber-construction kiva burned down and was replaced at some point with a much larger, stone one in the southeast corner of the compound. used for ceremonial activities, both kivas are larger than any other room in the complex. it’s large enough to for the entire community to gather comfortably, perhaps when colder winter weather kept them inside and the living quarters (really only large enough for sleeping) might prove a bit to close for comfort. the kiva ruins have a bench lining about half of the interior of the structure, with posts set into them to help support the roof of the kiva. entrance to the kiva was via a ladder that descended through a main hole in the roof; early kivas were often located underground, but by the time the Tusayan kivas were constructed, kivas were becoming more elaborate and were more likely to be constructed above-ground.
|ruins of the larger kiva|
there is no clear evidence as to why the inhabitants of this pueblo abandoned it after only twenty years, though it may have had something to do with conflict with other people nearby. charred timber ruins at other once-inhabited sites around the Colorado Plateau suggest that fighting among bands of people in the region was likely common. whatever the reason, Tusayan was largely left alone until the early 20th century, as tourism to the Grand Canyon became more popular. in 1928, a “trailside museum” sponsored by Laura Spelman Rockefeller (wife to John D. Rockefeller) in the style of a Hopi structure was erected to introduce tourists to the site. two years later, a group from the Gila Pueblo Archaeological Foundation of Globe, Arizona (founded by a New York stockbroker) began investigating and excavating the site further. preservation took place in 1948 and again in 1965, and the government placed the site on its National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
I started this post right after we got back from South Dakota in September, but wasn’t inspired to complete it until I saw a StoryCorps piece on NPR about one of the stone carvers who helped craft the monument.
growing up, my family was big on road trips and on visiting Sites of Historical Importance (see also: Boston’s Freedom Trail) and Mount Rushmore and western South Dakota were on that list. I must have been … between second and third grads, or so. what I remember most from that trip is washing dishes at our campsite in what seemed an unexpectedly dense coniferous forest. it reminded me a lot of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or northern Wisconsin. also, that the Crazy Horse monument underwhelmed because they’d only completed his forehead and profile of his nose. (also, “Rount Mushmore.”)
one upside to visiting places while young, and returning later, is that appreciation can be twofold. my recollections of Mount Rushmore are vague but rosy and, now that I can place its construction into historical context, I’m rather more impressed.
the massive carving, suggested by Doane Robinson in the early 1920s, sought to entice tourists to the Black Hills. both environmentalists and Native American tribes objected to various proposed locations, but eventually supporters and opponents settled on this mountain (the tallest in the region, renamed for a New York lawyer from the original Lakota name, Six Grandfathers). (for purposes of this post, I’ll forego discussing the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and ongoing tensions between the U.S. government and the Lakota people for whom the Black Hills are sacred.) Robinson convinced sculptor Gutzon Borglum (who had lately worked on the face of Robert E. Lee at Stone Mountain, Georgia) to come to the Black Hills to ensure the completion of the project. Borglum died before the completion of the monument, but his son, Lincoln, carried on in his stead.
political and financial wrangling ensued: Congress authorized a commission to oversee the project; President Coolidge insisted that, in addition to President Washington, the monument include two Republicans and one Democrat — Borglum based his final selections on the role the Presidents had on preserving “the Republic” as well as expanding territory for said Republic.
between the start of construction in October 1927 and its completion in October 1941, some 400 people worked on constructing the monument. nearly 90% of the carving was done by dynamite; blasters could place charges specifically enough to blast rock off to within 3 inches of the final surface. once it got close enough, carvers switched to jackhammers, drilling a series of holes into the surface in a honeycomb patter to allow for more precise carving. this kicked up an incredible, fine dust. while they were provided with masks to prevent inhalation and subsequent damage to their lungs, the masks were stuffy and, in the direct sun hanging off the rock-face, many workers opted to go without. despite the dangerous working conditions, no one died during the course of the project, something rare for a monument of this size.
while the carvings at Mount Rushmore today don’t match the scope of what Borglum had in mind initially — head-to-waist high sculptures of the presidents, plus monuments to the Louisiana Purchase, Constitution & Declaration of Independence, as well as other territories, what stands today is pretty damn impressive.
people have inhabited the area for more than 11,000 years, the earliest of which were mammoth hunters. the Lakota moved in during the 18th century and came to dominate the region in part because of the command of horses they learned from Spaniards (it’s much easier to hunt bison on horseback …). French trappers quickly encroached on the Lakota, and they were shortly followed by soldiers (see: Custer), miners (see: Deadwood), cattle farmers and homesteaders (see: Dust Bowl).
following Wounded Knee, the Lakota were confined primarily to reservations, including the Pine Ridge Reservation which shares oversight of the Stronghold Unit of Badlands National Park. during the Second World War, the U.S. Government took possession of more than 300,000 acres of the Reservation to use the land as a gunnery range. accuracy wasn’t always great and several buildings in the town of Interior (just south of the North Unit of the park) were damaged. nearby farmers often had to take cover to save themselves from falling or misdirected ordinance. among the many informational PDFs available on the Park website is one on the history of the gunnery range that includes information on identifying and avoiding unexploded ordinance (UXO).
the site was authorized to become a National Monument in 1929 but didn’t become one until a decade later. it was redisignated a National Park in 1978 and in 1999 took over supervision of the nearby Minuteman Missile National Historical Site.