Category Archives: democracy

Back at Yale, 1966

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 190-191:

The visual difference from the pre-war Yale of 1963 was more in the variety of clothing and in the variety of long hair-styles, and in how the beholder was supposed to respond, rather than in the amount of facial hair—especially in the desired response, these guys didn’t want to look interchangeable, like infantry soldiers or the Kingston Trio. They wanted to tell you something when you looked at them.

So you had the common “I love the workers” style or the basic Bob Dylan clone—the Pendleton-shirted, anorexic lumberjack look. And, to show identity with the people—but with the Russian people—you had the Fiddler on the Roof or Russian peasant type.

Many students were angry—really, really angry—so you had the never-smiling, stubble-faced, T-shirt, and torn jeans “yes, I sleep in my clothes; fuck you” appearance.

Some kids were sensitive—they felt the cruel pain of life and war so terribly intensely—so they wore tattered Sears work clothes and sported a stick-thin, crazy-eyed, greasy-filthy look that proclaimed: “I have suffered a nervous breakdown over this terrible world; I weep for the little people so much; please share the love.”

But the preppy, Shetland sweater and chinos look was still popular; I didn’t have to ditch my clothes….

What you didn’t have, beneath the surface, was much of a change in the social background of the students. A smaller percent came from private schools. There were more Jewish guys from public schools. But, public school or private school, Yale in 1966 was still overwhelmingly a place for white, middleclass, suburban boys.

Compared with the army, blacks were still almost invisible at Yale in 1966, despite the brand-new, fervid, vocal desire of so many at Yale to raise, liberate, or merely improve the lot of black Americans.

That the army was already doing these things for hundreds of thousands of typical young blacks was simply beyond the comprehension of these white suburban Yalies—who didn’t know any black Americans.

It would be many years before Yale had a sizable, representative cross-section of intelligent black American students, as opposed to a small, self-segregated cadre of handpicked, cosseted, and atypical blacks.

Whites and blacks also mingled far less at Yale than they had in the army. But at least they didn’t fight with each other.

In contrast with the army, I witnessed no overtly gay behavior back at Yale. Probably I didn’t know where to look.

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Aftermath of Caporetto, 1918

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 229-230, 232-233:

Caporetto transformed rather than terminated Italy’s war. The tensest period was late October, when sbandati [“disbanded” soldiers] and civilian refugees swarmed over the Tagliamento bridges. By the 31st the main Italian forces were over the river, but four days later the Central Powers crossed it and Cadorna ordered a retreat to the Piave. By 10 November the Italians held the new position and assaults immediately began against it, at the same time as Conrad, belatedly and with much weaker forces, attacked in the Trentino. A further month of fighting followed until the Central Powers, having failed to make significant gains in either sector, wound the campaign down.

The campaign failed, therefore, to knock Italy out, but it was even more successful than the attackers had anticipated. The Italians no longer menaced Trieste, and would launch no further major offensive until October 1918. They withdrew by up to 150 kilometres, and an area normally inhabited by 1.15 million people fell under occupation. The Italians lost 294,000 prisoners (thousands of whom perished), 12,000 battle dead, and 30,000 wounded, as well as half their artillery. Given that over 350,000 became ‘disbanded’, only half the field army remained operational. In comparison, German and Austrian killed, wounded, and missing totalled some 70,000, of whom about 15,000 were German. Even so, Hindenburg felt ‘a sense of dissatisfaction’: the triumph was incomplete.

The new team at the top in Rome would make a difference only gradually, and even the French and British divisions, though doubtless a morale booster, came too late to decide the battle of the Piave. The major part in halting the invasion came from Italian soldiers, whom opponents such as Rommel now found were fighting harder. Orlando told Diaz it was ‘absolutely vital for the national interest’ to hold the new front, which was 170 kilometres shorter than the old one, from which change the Italians benefited. In addition, the collapse had largely been confined to the Second Army, whereas the Third and Fourth held the Piave line, and the sbandati were reintegrated into new units. The government also called up the 1899 conscript cohort, so that before the year ended the army was almost back to pre-Caporetto numbers, while by the spring it would largely recoup its equipment losses. To be sure, British and French deliveries assisted, especially British gas masks, but Italian industry accomplished most of the task. Psychological recovery was harder,  as over the winter food supplies remained critical and in several regions the civilian mood was fragile. The army sat out the cold in improvised positions and the military authorities, who continued monitoring troop morale, were nervous. The first two wartime prime ministers, Salandra and Boselli, were among many politicians who now doubted whether it had been right to enter the conflict. None the less, with the Germans gone the Austrians were again on their own, and from now on conditions on their home front and among their troops deteriorated while those of the Italians improved. 1918 would see less fighting than in 1917, much of the action being confined to the unsuccessful Austrian attack on the Piave line in June and the final Italian advance at the battle of Vittorio Veneto. This was a transformed front, and one that became the Austro-Hungarian army’s major commitment. Yet although Caporetto in the short term had spectacularly fulfilled the Central Powers’ objectives, in a curious way it weakened them in the longer, as Tenth and Eleventh Isonzo had weakened the Italians. Italy’s political unity and military morale improved in the aftermath and it received more Allied aid. But in the longer term still, among the consequences were the strengthening of ultra-nationalism and the PSI’s move towards extremism, paving the way for the rise of Fascism.

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Effects of Petrograd Soviet Order No. 1

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 112-114:

The [Petrograd] Soviet’s newspaper, Isvestia, published Order No. 1 on 2/15 [Julian/Gregorian] March. It provided for elected soldiers’ committees in all units above company level, which should send representatives to the Soviet; for the committee to control each unit’s weapons and not issue them to officers; for military units to be subordinated to the Soviet in all political actions; and for them to obey orders from the Duma’s Military Commission only if such orders did not contradict the Soviet’s. Order No. 1 was drafted independently of the Soviet/Temporary Committee agreement about the formation of the Provisional Government, which the order fundamentally modified. And although it supposedly applied to the Petrograd garrison, it circulated rapidly and soldiers’ committees were soon elected across much of the army. Officers remained unelected, but their authority increasingly rested on cooperation with the committees. Although most of the army stayed in place and violence against officers was rare, military authority had been compromised and Russia’s ability to keep fighting and launch a spring offensive would now depend substantially on ordinary soldiers. To judge from the petitions submitted after the revolution to the Provisional Government and the Soviet, opinions were divided. Working-class petitions most frequently supported a democratic republic and constituent assembly, and better pay and conditions, especially an eight-hour day. Foreign policy comments were rarer, and divided between support for a defensive war and support for a peace without annexations and indemnities. Peasant petitions called for a democratic republic but also for an early and equitable peace (and the countryside was where most soldiers lived). Soldiers’ petitions were less pacifist and their main demand was to end officers’ disciplinary powers, although garrisons in the rear were more likely to demand peace negotiations and others inclined towards peace because they feared that officers hoped through war to restore control. The petitions bear out the evidence from the February Days that although lower-class Russians were rarely unconditionally pacifist they were less warlike than were the military, business, and parliamentary elites, and they resented the discipline in the factories and armed forces that underpinned the war effort. During February and March, however, war aims and strategy were not yet central to Russian politics. During April and May they became so, with the consequences of a late and unsuccessful offensive and the rise of the intransigently anti-war and social revolutionary Left. Whereas the Russian elites hoped through the February Revolution to find an honourable exit from the conflict by more effective participation in the Chantilly II offensives, much of the country remained unconvinced and would be drawn increasingly to the Bolsheviks’ advocacy of a more direct escape route, by transmuting the imperialist war into a civil war or by withdrawing unilaterally from the conflict. While the internal struggle proceeded, the revolution proved a delayed action mechanism that might or might not lead to Russia’s withdrawal before America’s involvement became effective. On this issue’s resolution, Europe’s future turned.

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Russia’s Military Manpower in 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 98-99:

The war’s economic effects had caused the food supply crisis. Its impact on the army lay behind the mutiny. Although Russia had boosted military spending between 1909 and 1914, during the previous decade spending had stagnated. The 1914 army in some ways resembled the British rather than the French or German as, although composed of conscripts (in contrast to the British), it was relatively small and well equipped. The reverse of the coin was that barely a third of each age cohort had done service, so when casualties proved far higher than expected Russia ran out of trained men. Despite its bigger population than France or Germany, it called up similar numbers of conscripts: during the war it mobilized only 5 per cent of its population for active duty, against France’s 16 per cent and Germany’s 12 per cent. By 1917 14.6 million men had enlisted and over 5.5 million become casualties, 2.4 million of them as prisoners. At least 1 million returned to service after being wounded, and fatalities may have totalled 1.6–1.85 million. In 1914 the government sent to war the standing army and those who had served between 1904 and 1910. Subsequently it called up all the trained men of the 1896–1910 cohorts and many untrained members of the 1914–18 cohorts, but by 1916 it was recruiting men who were not only untrained but also in their forties, with jobs and families, and resistance mounted, leading in Central Asia to open revolt against being enlisted in labour corps. Even so, during the Brusilov offensive and its follow-on attacks Russian casualties may have reached another 2 million, of whom 1 million lost their lives. From the autumn the army was calling up its last reserve, including previously exempted sole breadwinners. Recruiting them led to riots in the villages and to wives mobbing induction points, and to mass protests in Petrograd.

Military censors read the soldiers’ letters, whose mood was ugly. By 1916 they betrayed deep hatred of the war and despair about winning it, condoned fraternization and mass surrender, and were desperate for a speedy peace, the Brusilov offensive exacerbating the discontent. Repeated defeats and superior enemy weaponry had dashed any early confidence, and the authorities were held to have betrayed their men. By the autumn, moreover, the army ate less and poorer-quality food. Daily bread rations were cut by a third or even two-thirds, or replaced by unpalatable lentils. Brusilov complained that on his South-Western Front the miserably inadequate provisions demoralized his troops, and between October and December over twenty mutinies broke out, including refusals to attack or to move up. Troops called out to quell a disturbance at Kremenchug refused to shoot, and the French ambassador learned to his dismay that during a strike in Petrograd soldiers had fired on the police. The authorities no longer placed their most reliable units in the cities, whose garrisons included the middle-aged and convalescents. Since 1916, moreover, strikers had been conscripted. Yet although the Petrograd commanders knew some men held revolutionary views, they had no plans to replace them.

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U.S. Economic Boom, 1910s

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 38-39:

In 1910 out of a US population of 92 million, 2.5 million were German-born and 5.8 million of the native-born had one or both German-born parents. Although Wilson believed 90 per cent of America’s people were strongly pro-Allied, he had grounds to fear that rival allegiances would breed civil strife.

The traditional corollary to political abstention was unimpeded commerce. Exporting to belligerents was unobjectionable, the more so as America was in recession and the fighting expected to be brief. But demands for artillery, munitions, steel, machine tools, chemicals, and food and raw materials rose far higher than anticipated, fuelling one of the strongest upsurges in US history. In the winter of 1914–15 German-Americans backed a proposal in Congress to embargo arms exports, but Wilson prevented the move as ‘a foolish one, as it would restrict our plants’. Commerce secretary, William Cox Redfield, and the Treasury secretary, William Gibbs McAdoo, urged the boom must be sustained, Redfield advising that exports were at record levels, and McAdoo using the extra revenue to pay off debt. Between 1915 and 1917 exports to Britain, Canada, France, Italy, and Russia grew from $3,445 million to $9,796 million (184 per cent); those of wheat by 683 per cent; and of copper by 277 per cent; but whereas pre-war trade with the Central Powers had been one-fifth of that with the Allies, now it shrank to 1 per cent. The Allies could find the shipping to transport their purchases and the cash or credit to pay for them; the Central Powers could find neither, so whatever stance America took would benefit one side. Britain had the world’s biggest merchant navy in 1914 (43 per cent of world tonnage—and the Allies in total 59 per cent, against the Central Powers’ 15 per cent). As the Allies converted to military production, however, they had less to export, and were less able to pay. The Wall Street banking giant, J. P. Morgan & Co., became the British government’s purchasing and financial agent and permitted it a growing overdraft, and in the summer of 1915 it advised the Allies to attempt a bond flotation. Following convention, Wilson had prohibited loans to belligerent governments. But McAdoo warned that ‘to maintain our prosperity we must finance it. Otherwise it may stop, and that would be disastrous.’ Finally Wilson approved the bond issue, and even if the primary motive was to sustain the boom and the yield proved disappointing, American policy had clearly altered to the Allies’ advantage. In 1915, 75 per cent of US exports went to the Allies or to countries that had broken relations with Germany and between 1913 and 1916 America’s percentage of French imports rose from 10 to 30. By 1916 bottlenecks on the railroads into New York stretched back for miles.

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Fates of Mexican Revolutionaries

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 325-327:

THE LEADERS of the Mexican Revolution all died violent deaths. Venustiano Carranza assumed the presidency in mid-March of 1917 and returned to Mexico City. Emiliano Zapata, who had carried on his fight for agrarian reform in nearby Morelos, had continued to taunt Carranza, writing insulting letters to him that were published in the daily newspapers. In an intricate plot, Carranza succeeded in having Zapata and his bodyguards assassinated on April 10, 1919.

The relationship between Carranza and Álvaro Obregón grew strained as the presidential elections of 1920 drew near. Obregón, who had done more than anyone else to ensure Carranza’s triumph, expected Carranza to step aside so that he could become president. But Carranza was reluctant to give up power, especially to a military man like Obregón. The Mexican Constitution banned the reelection of the president so Don Venustiano, unable to run again, did the next best thing and threw his support to Ignacio Bonillas, a minor politician whom he thought he could control. In response, Obregón’s home state of Sonora declared that Carranza was no longer Mexico’s legitimate president and named Adolfo de la Huerta, the Sonoran governor, as the interim leader. Other leaders throughout Mexico joined the revolt.

Carranza, realizing his time had come, decided to leave Mexico City. But first he systematically looted the government treasury, exhibiting the “quiet, tireless sleepless greed” that Edith O’Shaughnessy had once spoken of. (During his tenure, theft was so common that a new verb, carrancear, was coined.) Onto a long train, he loaded millions of dollars in gold and silver, priceless antiques, presses and ink used to print paper money, and even disassembled airplanes. As the train chugged toward Veracruz, it was attacked by insurgents and smashed by a locomotive loaded with dynamite. High in the mountains, the presidential entourage was finally halted at a point where the tracks had been torn up. Carranza proceeded on horseback, carrying what he could on pack mules and leaving millions in gold and silver behind. In the remote village of Tlaxcalantongo, he took refuge in an earthen hut. He ate with his usual deliberateness and then retired for the evening. At four o’clock on the morning of May 21, 1920, he awoke to the sound of gunfire and the cries “Viva Obregón!” and “Muera a Carranza!” He screamed at his guards to save themselves as multiple bullets slammed into his chest, killing him. He was sixty years old.

The Mexican legislature appointed Adolfo de la Huerta to serve as interim president until the elections could be held. An urbane and friendly man, de la Huerta wanted to heal the wounds of the revolution and granted amnesty to numerous revolutionaries. To Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, de la Huerta seemed like “a virgin lost in a crowd of rabid and shrewd old hags who think they can become young again by rubbing against her.”

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Pancho Villa’s Boxcars

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 47-48:

Villa used long trains to transport his soldiers from city to city. On top of the boxcars rode pigs, chickens, children, and soldaderas—wives, daughters, and even grandmothers who served as helpmates and nurses and fellow fighters. His pride and joy was his hospital train, which consisted of forty enameled boxcars staffed with Mexican and U.S. physicians and supplied with the latest surgical appliances. With its bright blue crosses and the words Servicio Sanitario stenciled on the sides, the hospital train followed Villa’s troops into battle and transported the most severely wounded back to hospitals in the cities. He had a boxcar for correspondents, a boxcar for moving-picture men, a boxcar for his cannons and extra railroad ties, and a caboose, which he used for his headquarters. Painted gray and decorated with chintz window curtains, the caboose was big enough for a couple of bunks and a partitioned area for his cook. In the early days, Villa would sit in his caboose in his blue underwear while as many as fifteen generals lounged at his feet to argue and plot strategy for their next campaign. Hanging on the walls above them were pictures of Villa on one of his frothing horses; the querulous Don Venustiano; and Rodolfo Fierro, Villa’s handsome and ruthless friend, who was christened el carnicero—the butcher—after he had made a sport of shooting three hundred prisoners as they tried to escape over a corral wall.

If Fierro represented the dark side of Pancho Villa’s nature, then the aristocratic and exquisitely mannered Felipe Ángeles represented the good. Ángeles, the army general who had been detained along with Madero and his vice president, had been educated at the Colegio Militar and excelled at mathematics and artillery science. He was in the federal army when the revolution broke out and offered to fight against the revolutionaries. But he soon became personal friends with Madero during the latter’s brief presidency. After Madero was killed, Ángeles joined Don Venustiano’s counterrevolution. Disgusted by Carranza’s opulent lifestyle and the preening sycophants who surrounded him, Ángeles eventually aligned himself with Pancho Villa’s División del Norte. Villa revered Ángeles’s intellectual and military capabilities and his rigorous honesty. While he considered himself far too ignorant and uneducated to govern a turbulent country like Mexico, Villa often thought Ángeles could be the next president.

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Mexico Before Its Revolution

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 21-23:

By the end of Díaz’s reign, Mexico had a population of fifteen million. The majority were mestizo—individuals of mixed blood—but one-third were of pure Indian stock. Chihuahua and Sonora, two of the northern states that lay along the U.S. border, were home to the Tarahumara and the Yaquis. The Cora, Huichol, and Tarascans lived along the Pacific coast and in the hills and valleys west of Mexico City. The Mazahua, Nahuatl, and Otomí had settled in the central highlands. The Gulf state of Veracruz was home to the Huastec and Totonac. The Zapotecs, Mixes, Zoque, Huave, and Mixtec, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Chontal, and Tzotzil lived in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And in the Yucatán peninsula, remnants of the ancient Maya had survived.

In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlán, the great center of the Aztec civilization and the site of what was to become Mexico City. For the next three centuries, Mexico lived under Spain’s rule, which could be harsh, benign, or indifferent, depending upon the financial needs of the mother country and the temperament of the monarch who happened to be in power at the time. When Mexico finally gained its independence, in 1821, political chaos, internal revolts, and repeated clashes with foreign powers ensued. Texas was lost in 1836 to English-speaking colonizers who had been encouraged by Spain to settle the far reaches of its empire. A decade later, following a war with the United States, Mexico lost another huge chunk of territory to its hungry neighbor—millions of acres that one day would become New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Exhausted and humiliated, struggling under a huge debt load, Mexico found itself in 1863 once again under the yoke of a European power. This time it was France and Napoleon III, who installed Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg and his wife, Carlota, as emperor and empress of Mexico. The monarchy survived less than five years, defeated by an army led by Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian. Afterward, Maximilian was executed, Carlota went insane, the republic was restored, and Juárez was elected president. Juárez died of a heart attack in 1872, after winning a new term in office, and was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Four years later, Porfirio Díaz toppled Lerdo from power and began a thirty-year authoritarian regime known as the Porfiriato.

In order to bring Mexico into the twentieth century, Díaz had opened the doors of his country to foreign investors and through them came the Guggenheims, Hearsts, and Rockefellers, Standard Oil and Phelps Dodge, and hundreds of other, smaller land speculators, wildcatters, miners, ranchers, and farmers. The Americans built railroads and sank mine shafts, the Spaniards opened small retail shops, and the French established factories and banks. Vast cattle ranches emerged along the northern tier of states, and huge farms devoted to single crops such as sugar, cacao, coffee, and rubber were carved from the tropical lowlands. For his efforts, Díaz garnered admiration from industrialists, politicians, and even great literary figures, such as Leo Tolstoy.

His popularity was greatest in Mexico City, where wealthy foreigners and daughters and wives of native hacendados lived in walled compounds fragrant with roses, bougainvillea, and hibiscus. The melancholy cries of tamale women and scissors grinders dropped like birdsong into the somnolent quiet of late afternoons, and in the distant recesses of the lovely old homes, legions of cooks and nannies and cleaning girls worked soundlessly, faceless and nameless to the lady of the house. With its colonial languor and lingering Victorian mannerisms, Mexico City seemed like a metropolis enclosed in a shining glass bubble, drifting in its own time. Wearing Paris gowns, London-made tuxedos, or hand-sewn lace, the wealthy shuttled to luncheons and teas and dinner parties in horse-drawn carriages and chauffeur-driven cars. They went horseback riding in Chapultepec Park, organized group outings to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, and in the evenings flocked to the opera.

Pouring through their salon windows was a golden sunlight that made everything seem like a dream. So dreaming, the wealthy foreigners and their Mexican friends failed to see the horrors in their midst: the women crouching behind the waiting carriages picking undigested corn kernels from horse manure; the press gangs who snatched husbands and sons and young girls off the street, the men destined for the army and the women for gunpowder factories; the tubercular Indians who clogged the charity wards and were fodder for medical experiments; the political victims of the firing squads, who spun on their heels in the liquid light, the bullets turning them round and round until they collapsed in front of adobe walls stained dark with old blood.

The modernization and prosperity that Díaz had presided over caused grave dislocation among the country’s peasants, factory workers, and even Mexico’s elite ruling class. By the time the Mexican Revolution erupted, foreigners controlled most of the country’s vast natural resources, its railroads and businesses.

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Tsarist Russian Officer Corps

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 383, 392:

The Japanese officer provided the essential link between the men and their Emperor. The majority of junior officers were of peasant origin and had been educated in the tradition of the samurai and the school of Bushido. With very few exceptions, the Russian officer did not enjoy such empathy with his men because the men were of lowly origin. That in itself is no reason why, as Britain’s armed forces proved in the twentieth century, they should not fight as an effective and harmonious whole. One reason why Russia’s officer corps lacked the common standards and professionalism enjoyed by the Japanese officer corps was noted by a military observer: ‘… the remarkable number of Guards officers, who were either promoted to commands, or else were appointed to the staff. A few were good men in the field but family influence was usually the deciding factor, and the officers of the line – and Russia – suffered accordingly.’ Another reason was the advanced years of many commanders, effectively blocking the progress of energetic, younger officers with new ideas.

In 1914, the Russian First and Second Armies were commanded by Rennenkampf and Samsonov, the former sparring partners at Mukden station in 1905. Colonel Max Hoffman had been one of the German observers during the Russo-Japanese War and used the possibility of a breakdown in communication and co-operation between the two Russian generals to offer Ludendorff and Hindenburg a plan to divide the two Russian armies. When German signals intercept units picked up the Russian future intentions being sent in clear and not coded, Hoffman was able to persuade his doubting commanders that this was not a deception plan but rather sheer, unsurprising incompetence.

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First American Mountain Men, 1820s

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 358-359:

WILLIAM ASHLEY, AN ASTUTE ENTREPRENEUR, gunpowder salesman and later politician based out of St. Louis, changed the fur trade forever in the Pacific Northwest and set in motion events that would change its politics as well. In the spring of 1823, Ashley and his partner Andrew Henry organized a band of one hundred ragged and unruly ramblers—some wastrels, some thugs, some adventurous youths from the east, and quite a few former Nor’Westers disgruntled after the amalgamation with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. Ashley’s small band, based out of the ramshackle tavern town of St. Louis, poled their unwieldy flat-bottomed barges upriver along the mud-coloured Missouri River and into the mountains. From there they filtered into the valleys and gulches of western Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado to set traps for unwary beaver. They were the first American “Mountain Men,” and during the 1820s and 1830s they expanded their operations westward toward the Pacific, nibbling at the fringes of McLoughlin’s domain and encroaching on the traditional lands of the Indigenous peoples.

Ashley’s “One Hundred Men” were not hauling into the wilderness back-breaking burdens of trade goods to exchange with the Indians for their furs. Instead they were laden with beaver traps and personal supplies. They had no intention of constructing a trading fort in the mountains. Ashley’s scheme was to have his men do the actual trapping—a role in the fur trade that had previously been the exclusive domain of Indigenous peoples, particularly in the north.

Not surprisingly, the invasion of traditional territories did not help relations between the two peoples. The various tribes didn’t appreciate hundreds of foreigners wandering around their territory trapping all the beaver. Within a few years, a more or less constant low-level war existed between the new trappers and the natives. Both the Mountain Men and the Indigenous warriors proudly displayed the scalps of their vanquished foes, sometimes wearing strings of the shrivelled flesh and hair as accoutrements to their outfits. The American senator Thomas Benton suggested that nearly five hundred American trappers perished in combat with the Rocky Mountain peoples by the close of the 1820s. He made no estimate of the Indigenous peoples that they had killed. The life expectancy of a “free trapper” could be short, and so for mutual protection as they invaded the traditional lands of proud and sometimes militant nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Snake (Shoshoni) or Nez Perce, the free trappers travelled in brigades, or companies, of twenty men or more. Two of the greatest of these brigades were the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and the Missouri Fur Company, although both were later absorbed by the American Fur Company as John Jacob Astor tightened his grip on the American fur trade in the 1830s. Astor rapidly increased the trade along the upper Missouri River with the use of steam-powered ships. By the time the demand for fur had petered out by the 1840s, Astor had sold his interests in the fur trade, and the industry slipped into decline—the age of the Mountain Men was between 1822 and 1840. But the American Fur Company continued to flourish in the decades to follow, beginning the lucrative trade in bison hides that eventually drove the thundering herds to near extinction later in the century.

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