Friday, September 13, 2013

George Shannon on the Frontier

Nostalgia is a tricky thing.

It is natural enough to have a longing for what has gone before, what has been left behind, the people and the places we have lost. Too often nostalgia is the enterprise of those who find something repugnant, alien, or decaying in the present as they tend to over-sentimentalize the past.

The Romantic movement of the early 19th century was a good example of this happening on a grand social scale in Europe and America. Looking around, those inclined toward romanticizing the past were most disturbed at how cavalierly industrial capitalism was churning up nature into railroad tracks and smokestacks, contributing to a widescale displacement of people, and dedicated to a more rigid scheduling of human life punctuated by stop watches and bells.

America was to claim itself a continent during this Romantic period, when -- on the one hand, the imagination was going the way of steam power, turbines, machine guns and photography, and on the other hand -- simultaneously seeking wide open paces and abundant wilderness. It is not an accident that the idea of a "hike" and of public parks arrived around this time when land (and people's lives) were ever more constricted. The 19th century saw one of the largest migrations of peoples from farm to factory, rural outposts to urban jobs and services.

At the crack of the 19th century, that Romantic at the heart of America's fantasies of individuality and freedom, Thomas Jefferson, made one of the greatest decisions to impact our history when he bought the Louisiana Purchase from the French (they needed to pay off war debts). Not knowing for certain what he had bought exactly -- and not having yet informed the Native peoples living in these areas  -- Jefferson, the dreamer/scientist, created the Corps of Discovery with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at the command of an essentially military and exploratory expedition. Their goal was to map, describe, chronicle, and sample anything unique and of significance to that topography west of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. My fifth great-grandfather, George Shannon, was among the last --and the youngest-- man invited onto the mission.

A frontiersman from birth, George Shannon was born in the late 18th century on a farm in western Pennsylvania, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants who had homesteaded in this northern Appalachian/Allegheny hill country. Private Shannon signed up for the Corps in Wheeling (in what became West Virginia at the start of the Civil War). He was chosen for his scouting abilities and facility with Native languages and was both literate and familiar with the Indians; eventually he was assigned the task of helping to write up the journals of Lewis & Clark.

During the expedition, Shannon was notable for getting frequently lost and for having an excellent tenor voice. Representations of him show a youth dressed in buckskin holding rifle and shot. Shannon was also the one assigned to escort the Chief of the Mandan tribe back to Washington D.C. to meet the "Great White Father" who now "owned" their land;  Jefferson did not want to antagonize the Indians but wanted to assure them that he was a good and caring father, willing to cooperate as whites moved into western settlement. On the return trip, Shannon and the Mandans were ambushed by hostile Arikaras. As a result George Shannon lost his leg. Henceforth, he was called Peg Leg Shannon.

It took many years and legal filings for Shannon to ultimately receive the military pension from the U.S. government promised to members of the Corps. He became a lawyer and settled in Missouri, where there is a county named for him. He also acquired several slaves and I sometimes fantasize about having half-black distant cousins descended from his line (if, in fact, he mated with one of his female servants).

My point in recounting all of this is to illuminate something of the complexity in our desire or interest in reconnecting to the past. I romanticize the freedom and excitement of my ancestor's life, but I understand the larger picture of his involvement in a manifest destiny that denuded the prairie of Indians and contributed -- quite directly -- to the enslavement of an African minority.

I see, too, that my ancestor was a victim of America's greatest expansionist act. Shannon lost his leg while battling hostile Indians wanting to kill friendly Indians, and he had to fight his own government to gain his fair due as a veteran. How well the other surviving members of the Corps fared, I am uncertain, though one of them went on to discover Yellowstone and one of the leaders committed suicide.

The 19th century was a decade full of sentimental literature and the early Westerns that romanticized the movement west and the adventurers who made it possible. This period so shaped what is most strange in the American psyche: our mixed feelings that we have about race, gender and class which stand side-by-side with our nearly constant craving for heroes and beautiful celebrities which we worship with generous and voluntary tithings.

In so many ways, we seem incapable of saying the truth of who we are without getting choked up in cliches about loving freedom and forging our own identities while often leaving out the parts which embarrass us.