“A Century of Progress”: The Portrayal of Indians in American History Textbooks

Most of us probably learned most of the “basics” of American History from the textbooks we used in school. Few of these textbooks could ever be considered great (or even good) literature. Many are frightfully dull. In attempting to cover the widest possible range of topics, most high school and college textbooks present only simplified overviews of historical events—nuance and complexity require too much space and pose intellectual challenges to readers that go beyond the scope of most introductory or survey courses. Nonetheless, these textbooks provide excellent overviews of whatever “grand narrative” of American History was generally accepted at the time of their publications.

American Indians rarely fare well in them.

If you want to listen to a classroom presentation on this topic as you read this essay, just click on this audio link.

One of the first best-selling college history texts, John Clark Ridpath’s History of the United States illustrates this. The subtitle of Ridpath’s “Century Edition” of this work (1899) makes clear the author’s dismissive attitude toward the roles played by Native people in American History. Not quite legible in this picture, it reads, “The Progress of Civilization in America from the Coming of the White Races to the ?????”.


Consider the implications of this subtitle:

  • History is something that arrived in the Americas only with Columbus—nothing before that time matters
  • “Civilization” presumably arrives at the same time
  • Cultures other than those falling under the narrow heading of Euro-American “civilization” are unimportant—and destined to be overwhelmed (and probably eliminated) in the name of “progress”
  • American History also, it seems, is solely a history of the “White Races”


As Ridpath tells it, American History was a story of “Civilization” and “Progress.” It was also a story of heroes—White heroes. This image of the heroic death of George Armstrong Custer in 1876, is one of the last in Ridpath’s text. Why do you think this is so? How does Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn fit into the “Progress of Civilization in America”?

For Ridpath and other writers, Custer’s defeat functioned as a sort of climax of American history. It was a moment where the “savages” temporarily checked the advance of civilization…but Custer’s actual defeat proved a moral victory. By the time Ridpath completed his “Century Edition,” the Indian wars had ended. The massacre at Wounded Knee had put an end to overt acts of Native American resistance and could be interpreted as “Civilization’s” revenge against the Lakotas. Custer had lost, but America had won. For Ridpath, that was America’s story—and civilization’s destiny.

But Ridpath’s textbook is an easy target. Few histories published over a century ago would measure up to today’s standards of cultural sensitivity. More recent textbooks must be better, right?

Read this paragraph from ?????’s ?????? (198?):

“For thousands of centuries—centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works. The human species was not born to the Western Hemisphere. It had to find it. And it did so in two great waves of immigration. The first from Asia, beginning between 25,000 and 40,000 years ago; the second from Europe and Africa beginning in the sixteenth century. For humans at least, the Americas were indeed what awestruck Europeans of 400 years ago called them: the New World.”


How different is this than Ridpath’s textbook from 90 years earlier?

???? describes American Indians as the first wave of immigrants. Would most Native Americans agree with this characterization of themselves and their origins? Is there not a fundamental difference between the arrival of Europeans and Africans 400 years ago and Paleoindians at least 20,000 years earlier? And perhaps 40,000 years earlier?

Why would this 198? Textbook present this sort of argument?

For ?????, the difference between a Paleoindian and my immigrant grandmother is largely a matter of timing. The United States is portrayed as a place of inclusion—a melting pot and a nation in which people from many cultures come together to create a new identity. In this version of American history, differences between human being are not portrayed as being insurmountable—and perhaps not even important. We all become Americans…eventually.

But what does this suggest about an individual’s racial, ethnic and cultural heritage? Are these things that should be cast off? Tribal sovereignty and cultural preservation are issues that generations Native people have struggled to maintain. Is there any indication of this in ?????’s introductory paragraph?

Continue with this Online Essay



   Department of Anthropology
   copyright © 2002 University of Illinois, All rights reserved.
Questions and Comments to Brenda Farnell