Teach American History Blog

Disasters in Human History

All of the destructive storms this spring got me thinking about how disasters can affect human history. The Tennessee State Library and Archives has a whole special section of their website devoted to how natural (like a tornado or an earthquake) and man-made (like a riot or a coal mine explosion) disasters have influenced our state's history.

The final two mini-institutes for this first grant year - the one on the Columbian Exchange and Beyond and the one on Reconstruction - brought this home to me as well as I was reading through some of the material from those sessions. Collin Calloway, in New Worlds For All, talks about the devastating effect of disease on the Indian population:

"Recurring epidemics allowed Indian populations no opportunity to bounce back from earlier losses. They cut down economic productivity, generating hunger and famine, which rendered those who survived one disease more vulnerable to affliction by the next. New diseases combined with falling birth rates, escalating warfare, alcoholism, and general social upheaval to turn Indian America into a graveyard" (37).

It is not enough to just focus on the number of those killed, however; the historian must also note the side effects of such deaths, including the loss of traditional knowledge and culture with oral-based learning societies. As Calloway also points out, "one [Indian] survivor lamented that all the elders who had taught and guided the people were dead, 'and their wisdome is buried with them'" (38).

As disease forced Indians to adapt to new circumstances, the death and destruction of the Civil War did for Americans in both North and South. David Blight writes in Race and Reunion:

"There were millions of individual stories unfolding at the end of this transforming war that gave real-life meaning to all the metaphors of death and rebirth. In all the material and human wreckage, in shattered families and psyches, new life was to take form. . . . Americans on both sides had experienced an authentic tragedy of individual and collective proportions. How people of both sections and races would come to define and commemorate that tragedy, where they would find heroism and villainy, and how they would decide what was lost and what was won, would have a great deal to do with determining the character of the new society that they were to build" (19).

How do you, as a teacher, handle the "disaster" aspect of history? Are there creative ways to examine these kind of topics that avoids turning it into a freakshow, or dwelling so much on the gruesome aspects that the more sensitive student becomes terrified?

Posted by Jason Mead - Thursday, 05/26/2011, 11:07 AM - Comments -