Joe Walker, the Myth of the American West and Its Modern Consequences

Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker
Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker

Last week I finished reading an engaging historical work titled Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker by Bil Gilbert.

I came to know of this book during my adventures in genealogy, which I undertook in October whilst resting in Alabama after returning from my year in China.  In the course of my research I found the location of my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s land, in modern-day Zack, Virginia.  Archibald Rhea was my first paternal ancestor to come to America, and his story is wound up with that of all the original Scotch-Irish migrants to America.  He came over in the late 1720s, settled first in Pennsylvania (around what I believe is now Norristown or Eagleville) and eventually went south and west through the Appalachian Valley to settle that land.  He was a founding trustee of New Providence Presbyterian Church in Raphine, only a few miles from the site of his home.  His family had to flee the area, along with most of its residents, after the threat from Native Americans intensified during the French and Indian War in 1755.

I learned all of this while also preparing to move up to my current residence in Washington, DC.  It so happened that I would be traveling, in reverse, the path my paternal ancestors took from that first foothold down into what is now Etowah County, Alabama.  After seeing the site of my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s land and grave in what is now Happy Valley, TN, I continued up the Great Valley alone and drove near the site of his father’s land in Wythe County, VA.  The next day I came to Zack, where the only thing I knew for identification was the bit about founding the church and that the “Kennedy-McCray” mill is on the site of what was once Archibald’s land.  I happened to meet a man named McCray there, who said he currently owns the land, and he talked to me for a while about the history of the area and I told him what I knew from my research.  He told me that the creek on which my ancestor’s land stood is called Walker’s Creek, named after the first white man to settle this far west in the Colonies, John Walker.  His reconstructed cabin was just a couple of miles down the stream.

John’s grandson Joseph Walker was an even more ambitious mountain man, being the first to lead a white party of significant size to California over the Sierra Nevada.  Joe is the subject of the book that Mr. McCray strongly recommended to me, Westering Man.  Mr. McCray mentioned that the book’s early pages delved into the social and economic reasons for the Scotch-Irish migration to Appalachia, before focusing on the Walker family.

Two things struck me about this book before I was halfway through reading it: Joseph Walker and his family were at once superlative characters, and yet exemplary of the white pioneers who made the white American journey west the singular cultural remembrance in American society.  That story – “How the West was ‘Won’” – is very different than the one I was told in school.

Gilbert leaves no stone unturned in his literary quest to animate this amazing man.  He masterfully segues each paragraph into the next, and progressively fleshes out the details in a highly informative and fascinating way. I stole any five-minute interval I could to read this amazing work, which combines the history of the Scotch-Irish in Appalachia, the economic and social realities of life on the “old frontier” before the American Revolutionary War, and the circumstances of an extraordinary man whose legacy sheds a new light on the things we consider “American” to this day.

The most poignant character contrast is that of Walker with his contemporary and sometime employer, “The Pathfinder” John C. Frémont. Frémont (or the stories Frémont tells about himself) characterizes the common archetype of the of the Western frontiersman: an ambitious white man running roughshod over unseen lands, then standing nobly atop high peaks and declaring the glory of the Republic and Manifest Destiny, all interspersed with violent episodes with the native peoples. He was (mostly) the total opposite of Walker, who held a deep fascination with exploring but not “civilizing” new lands and had a real respect and camaraderie with Native Americans. Walker was generally kind to those he guided, heavily favored diplomacy over guns, and made it a point to not tell tall tales about himself.

This book, though a historical work, makes me ponder the kinds of imagery and justifications our leaders today take when they authorize gunship diplomacy, unilateral intervention and a conflict-based “survival of the fittest” mantra. What Gilbert makes clear through Walker’s pioneering and leading of the Westering movement is that violence did not win the West. Of course, neither was the process completed via some kind of idealistic peace-waging with the natives.  Nevertheless, Joe Walker was a man the likes of which we miss in our characters today; a respectful, understanding, and eager explorer, not a conqueror.

My Kind of Politics

US President Obama talked to House Republicans on Friday, at their invitation, during a retreat they were holding in Baltimore.  Plenty has been said of it elsewhere, but I particularly liked watching the videos of the actual exchange when he answered questions for over an hour.  During that session, he was like the lone player on the dodgeball team catching everything they lobbed at him and then, one by one, tagging out each policy point and clearly putting the Republicans in the harsh spotlight of rhetoric exposure.

Hardball with Chris Matthews with choice excerpts from the session:

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Full Q&A, courtesy of MSNBC:

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I liked it not only because his intelligence took center stage (for once in the last twelve months), but also because it could be a very positive development if this kind of exchange occurs regularly.  There are many advantages to such public meetings, not in the least due to the transparency of testing policy points against different branches of government in the public view.  The process won’t be perfect, but I expect that weaker policy points would get dropped, ones that didn’t get dropped would be refined through the questioning process, and the strong ones would gain more supporters.

Some people may say that a regular (monthly?) meeting of the President with different factions in the legislature would be against the spirit of the separation of powers.  I do not think so.  The separation of powers lies in each branch’s ability to formulate and execute its Constitutionally-derived powers, and whether or not the President has a British-style “Question Time” with the legislature would neither change his ability to use his veto nor reduce the ability of Congress to draft legislation.  I think of the intelligence agency situation prior to the September 11th attacks.  Due to their compartmentalization, separation, and even bitter rivalry (even though they serve the same god!) was a significant obstacle to preventing those attacks from happening.  There are reasons why different functional areas should be separated in different agencies, but a healthy network and knowledge exchange among those different agencies could only produce a more capable intelligence community, in which everyone knows their role at the same time as knowing more pertinent information about their areas of focus and to whom information should be delivered in a time of crisis.

The same ought to be true of the government itself, for so long as we have to have one.  Building those rich inter-branch connections and regularly putting policy through the gauntlet can only mean a legislative branch and executive branch which can (more readily) agree that they are on the same team.

If this kind of exchange does occur more regularly, it would turn my interest somewhat more towards getting involved in the political process.  I cannot stand the inane “that’s just the way it is” attitude and reality of the institution, but with more opportunities like what went down on Friday, I would find participation to be much more valuable.

The Turner Experience

On Wednesday morning, Arcadiy and I started out in Atlanta, Georgia, after eating lunch with Ben James and Willy B. We crossed the entire country in his white stallion. Last night we arrived in San Jose, CA, at the house of former LCP of AIESEC SJSU, Colin. He has continued on to Seattle; I am staying for two amazing weeks in the Bay Area.

Here is our entire trip that we just took:

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Each night, except for in Salt Lake City, we managed to stay with AIESEC friends and have a great time. Also we hiked up to Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park on Saturday (we would have continued up the trail to Emerald Lake but it was too snow-packed) and stopped off at the Sierra Trading Post in Cheyenne, WY.

This trip has been an intense experience for me. I have been to San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Oxford before, but (with the exception of Oxford) it was always via airplane. Driving across the country, inch by inch and foot by foot and mile by mile, watching every blade of grass bleed into every forest and give way to the flat green plains of Kansas to grow into the rising highlands of eastern Colorado, abruptly interrupted by the titanic Rockies and moving on up north to pass over the moonscape that is Wyoming, through the unfamiliar Western terrain of Utah’s salt flats and Nevada’s heavy mountainous deserts finally giving way to Tahoe’s majestically beautiful summits rolling down to the Pacific coast has been a surreal and powerful accomplishment. I have come to understand and appreciate just how very vast and diverse this country is, and everywhere we passed by I thought of different histories, of 40 acres and a mule, of outlaws on the frontier, of buffalo massacres and Native American tribes, of Mormons crossing such an incredible distance to found Deseret and of the true end of the frontier coming from the western end as well. It has blown my mind and it has also been the very appropriate beginning to what I expect will be a wonderful few weeks enjoying freedom before I ship out to Asia (wherever in that even more vast land I choose to go).

Tomorrow Kelsey arrives and then we will go camping in Big Sur, we will stay with my cousin in Berkeley to hit up San Francisco, and we will go camping in Napa before Get Golden. I am ecstatic to be able to spend two great weeks in paradise.

More to come soon hopefully. I’m taking some pretty good pictures.

The Week and the Day: The System Failed

The first week back of school has ramped up slowly but surely. Although my classes this semester won’t be as debilitatingly difficult as Spring ’08 or as rigamarole-esque (forgive me for that one) as Summer & Fall ’08, it will be a pretty hefty offering with a good bit of homework. However, not being LCP is going to factor favorably into the success equation.

This past weekend was AIESEC GT’s Leadership Team Retreat, and it was a really good one! There were no major incidences although some good solid constructive conversation was had, and best of all we finally finished the LC constitution we’ve been knocking around for three years! We even got a good bit of headway done on taking all the disparate “common-law” style LTR notes from the past three years and organizing them into a single living bylaws document. Both nights were packed with fun, fire, the stars on the lake, and Saturday night was host to an intense conversation on religion, human nature, the Gaza conflict, and other related items of import. It was a conversation of the type I haven’t had for a long time, and the last time I had one was definitely while not in the USA – probably that Nordic circle from ITC in Romania in April ’07. It was refreshing and empowering – a reminder of why AIESEC is so cool.

Monday was difficult, as all Mondays will be. I have a gigantic wall of classes followed immediately by our LCM. I’m trying to get back into running in the morning and, since I don’t have any labs (except when senior design picks up) that keep me at school way late I think I’ll be able to actually keep it up.

Today was really especially cool though. My old German mate from the language school in Gandia, Nikolai, was in Atlanta on layover for about eight hours and so we got to have a pretty cool day today. I freaked out yesterday because I saw the headlines about the new Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) which went into effect yesterday: if a national of one of the countries in the Visa Waiver Program (Germany included) vists the USA, the I-94 form has been replaced by having to enter your data online at least three days before your date of entry. By the time I read the article Nikolai had less than 24 hours before his bald head would be stepping out of the plane at Hartsfield-Jackson International. I texted him and tried to call him and sent him a facebook message about the issue, imploring him to at lesat try by entering his data. He managed to do so, and somewhat unsurprisingly, this morning at customs the customs man told him that almost every traveler was blindsided by the requirements and so since no one had their data they were just letting people through like normal. I was relieved to hear his voice on the phone when he said he was on MARTA on his way up to Midtown station just before 0800. We enjoyed a good Southern breakfast at West Egg, and then he wanted to see the World of Coke, so we parked at GT and we walked through Centennial Olympic Park and went there. It was sort of interesting, but not nearly on the level of the Georgia Aquarium, and unsurprisingly we drank too many soft drinks. He also had a hankering for a really good burger so we went back to my place and walked to the old standby, the Highlander, where he also had a Sweetwater 420 and said the burger was “the best he had had in ten years” – it having been a decade since his last presence in the US. We walked through Piedmont for a bit and then I took him back to the station. It was great to see him again.

Now I’m off to bed before another hard Wednesday.

The Continuing American Revolution

Today is Independence Day for the United States of America. 232 years ago, representatives from each of 13 colonies approved an extremely radical statement that asserted independence, ended the hereditary monarchy over a subject people with suppressed rights, and set up a truly representative form of government who answered only to an ideal, not to a king or a god.

There was a bloody Revolution there, and the homeland and its ideals were well-fought for. I recognize that I am descended from men who fought for independence in that war, and defended it in future ones. It gives me some DNA connection to those events, but I also strongly believe that sort of thing is not what America is about – just a devotion to an idea.

It has been going abroad, both to Spain and through AIESEC, which has made me recognize what America is, why I like what America is at the very core, and especially that I am extremely American. I respect what I am, and so I respect that. At our core is the ideal of independence itself, the ability to live and enjoy one’s life on one’s own terms. Clearly I do not disdain society or association, but I do respect someone who can live their life on their own terms, someone who is one’s own god and king. America does not need to press that on the world, we simply need to make it a part of the global melting pot, just as each society has its good ways.

The Revolution is not over, and it has never been over. Our state has gone through bloodshed, alienation, and a lot of soul-searching to ensure safe health standards, the feedom and enfranchisement of all people, labor rights, environmental cooperation and consideration, and many more accomplishments, and even failures. There is a much farther way to go, and it may never be over. I read an interesting article this morning at breakfast in Creative Loafing about the problems homosexuals still face in the military. That is only one place where the Revolution is not finished. We require people to show ID for domestic flights. People are persecuted over a war on drugs, not helped out of addiction. We still have a state.

I will probably dedicate a large part of my life to continue fighting that Revolution.

I did a part of it today.