Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The First Americans

I noticed today on the front cover of U.S. News and World Report the title "The First Americans" with a painting of John Smith (or something, I think) on the front. The first thought that came to mind was "what about the natives? Weren't they first?"

To address this, I considered definitions. What defines American? After all, in defense of the title, the natives did not call themselves Americans. In fact, they didn't have the concept of America that we have, or even John Smith had. Our concept of America is a continent West of Europe and the "Old World." John Smith was amongst the first residents in America to have this sort of concept.

Though this may be so, what really defines an American? Like any culture, for that culture to exist, the culture must have a self-concept. The Greeks weren't Greeks till they called themselves Greeks, and all the Greeks identified with one another as Greeks despite their political division. Did John Smith call himself an American? Probably not--although having the modern concept of America in mind, he probably did not think of himself as an American, as it is also unlikely that any of his piers did either.

This brings up another question--who were the first Americans? When did people begin to self-identify as Americans? Without further research, I can at best speculate regarding this. There is a few generations of divide, a gradient separating those who considered themselves "English, happening to live in America" and those who considered themselves "American." Most of the first generation migrants here considered themselves "English" still, or whatever culture they were from, regardless of economic status. Following this, the decendants of those who had retained some wealth or ties to England probably continued to call themselves English, while those with lesser ties considered themselves something different, although a concept of "American" didn't exist at that point. The concept more than likely spread after the French/Indian War, where groups of native-born settlers fought without substantial English aide. Only after the revolution could those with foreign ties call themselves Americans, for the concept was mainstream and acceptable at that point. This is, of course, unreinforced speculation; I'll have to do more research to find solid points of transition, though the gradient will remain the same.

Nevertheless, America is a cultural concept. It took time to develop, and the first folks who stuck their feet on the ground ought not recieve the title just for doing so; it is more complex than a foot race.


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