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‘Battle over America’s Origin Story’ brings skepticism to history

What’s the motivation behind ‘alternative origin stories’?

In recent years various news stories have appeared reporting that the United States is now more divided than it’s been since the Civil War. Issues related to politics, public school curricula, and policing are just some of the topics that seem to have split the nation in two. But as historian of science Brian Regal of Kean University demonstrates in his new book, The Battle over America’s Origin Story: Legends, Amateurs, and Professional Historiographers, this fracturing of the American national psyche extends all the way to ideas about our nation’s very beginnings.

Though mainstream historians as far back as the 18th century have agreed that the first people to arrive in what is today the U.S. were the ancestors of modern Native Americans, this consensus has not prevented a wide variety of people from offering alternative origin stories, ranging from Welsh princes, Viking outlaws, Biblical giants, Chinese admirals, African kings, and, most famous of all, the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, as the true discoverers of the New World. And while historians may dismiss such claims as myths, legends, and exaggerations, The Battle over America’s Origin Story shows that many believe these stories are fact, or at least compelling alternatives to academic history.

'Battle over America's Origin Story' brings skepticism to history

Statue of Christopher Columbus, Boston

As alternative American origin stories have gained increased traction in recent years, a number of books have been published addressing these ideas, including Jason Colavito’s The Mound Builder Myth and Gordon Campbell’s Norse America. While these works only focus on one proposed alternative each, The Battle over America’s Origin Story purports to cast a wider net by looking at multiple different stories over the course of 12 chapters.

Regal’s work is meticulously well-researched and thoroughly readable, but it’s still not quite the encyclopedic exploration of alternative American origin stories those of us interested in this topic might have hoped for. The bulk of Battle over America’s Origin Story discusses the well-know “Viking Theory,” which dominates chapters 6, 7, 11, and half of 9.

This is partly because it’s the only one for which there’s any empirical evidence, and partly because Regal is clearly enamored with Eben Norton Horsford, the late 19th century Boston baking powder magnate who became the champion of the idea that Icelandic outlaws had established a settlement in New England. In fact, while the rest of the book is presented in an expository style, the chapters dealing with the Norse are written in a biographical style, with Horsford and his devoted daughter as the stars.

All other alternative American origin stories either get a single chapter – as with Columbus and the Mound Builders – or are forced to share chapters. Regal’s selectiveness does have its advantages, though. Not being a scholar of religious studies, he wisely sidesteps the Mormon claims about prehistoric America, a topic which imperiled Colavito’s otherwise credible scholarship on the Mound Builders.

One topic I wish Regal had explored is the issue of pseudohistorical claims made by Native Americans, such as Sioux creationist Vine Deloria’s Red Earth, White Lies (1995). While Regal’s desire – shared by Colavito and Campbell – to validate the claim that it was the ancestors of the Native Americans who first arrived here is laudable, it should probably be noted that indigenous authors are just as capable of spouting pseudoscience as anyone else, and indeed a number have.

Even though The Battle over America’s Origin Story isn’t exhaustive in scope, Regal’s excellent analysis still makes the book a must-have. He makes it clear that no single explanation can account for the proliferation of alternative American origin stories, but a major one is historian Henry Steele Commager’s idea of a “usable past.” Simply put, most people care little for history unless they see it as somehow “useful” to themselves or their community, be that ethnic, racial, or religious.

For some African-Americans, a history in which they’re the perpetual victims of systemic racism is not as “usable” as one in which they’re the descendants of secret South American kings. Likewise, white Americans might find a history in which their ancestors were brave Viking explorers more “usable” than one which paints them as the perpetuators of a genocidal campaign against indigenous peoples.

Considering all this, it’s not surprising that narratives based around the idea of a usable past are often rooted in ethnic and/or religious pride, nativism, and racial bigotry. Champions of alternative origin stories in which America’s discovers are Welsh, Norse, or African tend to be Welsh, Scandinavian, or African-American. The biggest backers of the myth of Columbus are Italian Catholics, just as Columbus was, while the biggest detractors are English Protestants.

The glaring exception to this, explored in chapters 8 and 9 of The Battle over America’s Origin Story, are the proponents of Chinese and Middle Eastern American origin stories. The most famous example of this is undoubtedly Gavin Menzies’ bestselling book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (2002), which argues that the Chinese Admiral Zheng visited the Americas prior to Columbus. Menzies is not Chinese or even American, but British, so the idea that such an alternative history is in any way usable for him falls flat.

Rather, Regal argues that Menzies is a classic example of what he calls “outsider scholars” — enthusiastic amateur researchers with no formal training or institutional affiliation, but who nevertheless set themselves up as self-appointed experts in opposition to mainstream academics. This “amateur vs. professional” dynamic is one which Regal previously employed in his study of cryptozoology, Searching for Sasquatch (2011), and which appears equally applicable to this topic.

The Battle over America’s Origin Story develops this idea most fully in chapter 10, discussing how reality TV documentaries like America Unearthed and Ancient Apocalypse have provided “outsider scholars” like Scott Wolter and Graham Hancock with huge platforms allowing them to reach millions of viewers. According to Regal, networks like History and streaming services like Netflix produce pseudoscience documentaries because they’re more entertaining than conventional history. And Americans tune in to such programs because of their strong distrust of experts, who are viewed as elites and thus exist at odds with the populist notion of America as a nation of common, working-class people.

'Battle over America's Origin Story' brings skepticism to history

Statue of Leif Erikson, also in Boston. Both inscriptions purport to depict the discoverer of America.

The Battle over America’s Origin Story, while by no means the final word on the subject, is a great starting point for anyone interested in alternative American origin stories, especially college professors looking for a textbook to use in the classroom. As Regal notes, this may be the fringe topic most worthy of academic attention, as it reveals a great deal about the American mindset.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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