For those of us who live on the mainland, islands are something we tend to think of as destinations. As places to visit, perhaps, to take a break from our ordinary lives. And then to leave again. They’re places on the periphery — and that’s borne out not only in the way we draw our maps, but also in the way we write our history.
On this episode, we make the peripheral central. From the Caribbean, through the Great Lakes, to the San Francisco Bay and beyond, it’s an hour all about islands in American history.
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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh. You’ve probably heard of Ellis Island, where America once welcomed millions of European immigrants. You probably haven’t heard of Angel Island, the port of entryfor tens of thousands of East Asians. But these migrants didn’t exactly arrive to open arms. And while they waited to learn their fate, they documented their journeys the only way they could.
FEMALE SPEAKER: I could still make out the impressions of Chinese words all over the walls. And I knew that these were poems.
BRIAN: Today on BackStory, we journey to some of America’s islands and bring back the hidden, the forgotten, and the downright ambitious.
MALE SPEAKER: If you were going to go and establish a new Mormon kingdom, islands kind of have this sense that they are autonomous.
BRIAN: Cruise with us to the edges of American history– “Islands,” today on BackStory. We’ll be right back.
ED: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with The American Backstory hosts.
ED: Welcome to the show. I’m Ed Ayers, here with Peter Onuf.
PETER: Hey Ed.
ED: And Brian Balogh.
BRIAN: Hey Ed.
ED: When Noelani Arista was growing up in Hawaii in the 1970s and 1980s, the Hawaiian language was something that was spoken mostly by old people.
NOELANI ARISTA: I mean, you know, you heard stories from your parents– his grandmother would always speak in Hawaiian when she didn’t want us to understand what she was saying.
ED: Arista’s grandmother spent the last few months of her life receiving care at home.
NOELANI ARISTA: There were days when she couldn’t remember English, but she could remember Hawaiian. So that’s when I realized, wow. In my own family, if I learn Hawaiian, there’s going to be a continuous chain of people who spoke Hawaiian– [LAUGH] practically.
PETER: When Arista was in college in the 1980s, she decided to learn her family’s native language. Until then, the opportunities for formal instruction in Hawaiian had been limited. Since 1896, the language had been marginalized in the public schools, and only now was it experiencing something of a rebirth. Arista would go on to study history,and her language skills would give her a whole new perspective on her island’s past.
ED: As a kid, Arista had learned a verse of Hawaiian history that’s basically the same as mainland American kids learn, if they learn one at all.
NOELANI ARISTA: So you learn about the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778, followed by the unification of the kingdom, the archipelago under Kamehameha I, then the arrival of the missionaries in 1820. And then there’s this sort of like, gray portion that happens until sometime around 1893. The kingdom is overthrown.
PETER: It may be gray, Arista says, but its shape is unmistakable– that of a steady and relatively unchallenged march toward annexation by the United States. Arista refers to it as a progress narrative. NOELANI ARISTA: The progress narrative seems to depend upon kanaka maolipeople, native people, and sort of going with the flow, agreeing to everything that looks progressive.
ED: That version of Hawaiian history started to unravel for Arista whenshe was in graduate school. There she was working on a project translating Hawaiian language newspapers for other scholars to use.
NOELANI ARISTA: I would go every Saturday from 9:00 AM to 12:00along with a bunch of other graduate students and several native speakers. And we would read Hawaiian language newspapers every weekend, and we would summarize each article. Some of the articles were advertisements, some were chantes. Some were [HAWAIIAN], or histories.
PETER: What Arista found in those newspapers ran counter to the idea that Hawai’s annexation by America was inevitable, and that native Hawaiians welcomed the political change taking place. In the papers from 1845, for instance, she discovered a series of petitions addressed to Kamehameha III, urging him to fight against the growing influence of the missionaries and their descendants. NOELANI ARISTA: There are all these petitions from [? Machinanina ?], from Hawaiian citizens, asking the king not to allow so many foreigners to swear the oath of office. And the words that they use are, uh, [HAWAIIAN], or they shall become– Hawaiian nationals is what I can imagine. But [HAWAIIAN] sounds like or they shall become Hawaiians, like in our place. So there’s a high degree of suspicion among the native population for foreign officers serving in government.
ED: The people’s suspicions were well-founded. American missionaries and businessmen came to dominate the Hawaiian House of Nobles and the King’s cabinet. They used their legislative power to redistribute native lands and to control the economy. And their descendants became the driving force behind the deposition of Queen Kamehameha I, and the annexation of Hawaii to the United States at the end of the 19th century.But for more than 150 years, all that has been missing from the historical record. NOELANI ARISTA: You know the entire petition drive? It’s not in any narrative, you know, and for every other kind of moment in Hawaiian history. I imagine there’s going to be moments like this that we have yet to uncover. This is what’s so amazing.
ED: Today, Noelani Arista is a professor of history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. And surprisingly, she is the first and only member of the university’s history department who is a fluent reader and speaker of Hawaiian.
Arista hopes that distinction will be a short-lived one. She is energetically training her own graduate students to read Hawaiian. Thanks to their translation projects, hundreds of thousands of formally missing pages of Hawaiian history written by the native Hawaiians who lived it are coming to light. Those pages are reshaping the history that future generations of children will learn about their islands.
For those of us who live on the mainland, islands are something we often tend to think about as destinations– as places to visit, perhaps to take a break from our ordinary lives, and then to leave again. They’re places on the periphery, and that’s borne out not only in the way we draw our maps, but also in the way we write our history.
PETER: For the rest of the hour, we’re taking the peripheral and we’re making it central– it’s a BackStory episode all about islands in American history. In the spirit of Noelani Arista’s work in the Hawaiian language archives, we set out in search of stories that tend to slip through the cracks of American history. And we have a few of those stories for you today.
BRIAN: You’ll hear about a man who took over an island in Michigan and declared himself king, and about Chinese immigrants held in a kind of island purgatory after crossing the Pacific. We’ll also consider the islands that appear on some of the earliest maps of America, but are nowhere to be found today.
But first we’re going to turn from Hawaii to another island territory, with more than three and a half million American citizens who, nonetheless, have no voting representatives in Congress, and no say in presidential elections– the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
PETER: In the late 1940s, Puerto Rico was at a crossroads. For almost 50 years, it has been a colony of the US. But with colonial subjects in Asia and Africa throwing off their European rulers, many Puerto Ricans we’re looking forward to a new status for there island as well– some wanted statehood, others more autonomy. Some demanded outright independence.
Now, we know how this debate played out. What isn’t as well-known here on the mainland is the turmoil that preceded Puerto Rico’s transition to commonwealth status.
BRIAN: Throughout the 1930s, the radical wing of the independence faction, known as the Nationalist Party, violently clashed with the colonial regime in Puerto Rico. In 1936, that party’s leader, a man named Pedro Albizu Campos was imprisoned by American authorities for sedition. Our next story picks up 10 years later, when Albizu Campos was released and his followers saw one last chance to shape Puerto Rico’s future. Here is BackStory producer Nina Earnest with that story. NINA EARNEST: When Pedro Albizu Campos was released from prison in 1947, he picked up right where he had left off– giving fiery speeches in support of.Independence.
PEDRO ALBIZU CAMPOS (ON RECORDING): [SPEAKING SPANISH]
NINA EARNEST: But Puerto Rico had changed in his 10-year absence.When he first rose to prominence in the ’20s and ’30s, support for independence was at an all time high. Now many political leaders were turning toward a new model– one then that meant more autonomy for Puerto Rico with continued oversight by the United States. It was a path favored by a savvy politician named Luis Munoz Marin, who recognized that Puerto Rico’s contributions to the Allied war effort had given itleverage to negotiating more favorable status with the US. He was, at that very moment, on the verge of becoming the island’s first democratically elected governor. And in the summer of 1950, the US Congress did pass a law allowing Puerto Ricans to vote on a new constitution– one that would eventually cement the new commonwealth status.
HARRY FRANQUI-RIVERA: There’s no way Puerto Ricans are not going to move [? to ?] ratifying the constitution that is going to be presented to Congress.
NINA EARNEST: This is Harry Franqui-Rivera, a historian at Hunter College in New York. He says Albizu Campos regarded the Constitutionas another form of colonialism, but also realized that the political winds had turned against him.
HARRY FRANQUI-RIVERA: He realized that he wasn’t a relevant figure anymore, politically. So he had to, if he wanted to determine the future of Puerto Rico– which is something that he wanted. He wanted to determine the future of Puerto Rico. He had to do something drastic.
NINA EARNEST: His desperation was fueled by a repressive gag law that had gone into effect months after he had returned from prison. Many scholars believe it was created to keep the nationalists in line. It prohibited writing, discussing, even singing about an independent Puerto Rico, or from displaying a Puerto Rican flag. Albizu Campos decided that the only way to win Puerto Rico’s independence was to fight for it. He and the nationalists planned a revolt.
Nelson Denis is the author of a forthcoming book about this rebellion.NELSON DENIS: What they planed to do was to have an island-wide set of actions where they assaulted the police precincts to hopefully getsome weapons– which they didn’t have many of– and then they would retreat to the central town of Utuado, which was nestled in a ring of mountains, pretty much in the center of Puerto Rico. And they were hoping to hold out for about two weeks. NINA EARNEST: Now, the hope here wasn’t to win a military victory. The Nationalists were a small force, and they knew it. NELSON DENIS: It’s important to emphasize that Albizu Campos and the Nationalists knew that, militarily, it was ridiculous to attempt to confront the United States. They are the most powerful country in the world. What they needed to do, and they needed to do it with some urgency, was to get world attention, and specifically the UN Decolonization Committee, to focus on what they considered the colonial situation in Puerto Rico.
NINA EARNEST: In this era of decolonisation, the newly formed United Nations had a special committee to help that process along. The Nationalists wanted their help. And so on October 30, 1950, Nationalistsassaulted police precincts in seven towns. They stormed Governor Munoz Marin’s mansion, La Fortaleza, in San Juan. In one town, Jayuya, Nationalists even managed to lift the Puerto Rican flag in defiance of the gag law and declare for the free republic of Puerto Rico.
The counter measures are swift. President Harry Truman declared martial law. Munoz Marin called in the US-trained Puerto Rican National Guard.And most striking of all, those National Guardsmen bombed the towns of Jayuya and Uduado. It was the only time, says Nelson Denis, that the US Military carried out a bombing campaign against its own citizens.
NELSON DENIS: So that’s how the United States dealt with it very quickly– 5,000 National Guardsmen, a bombing of two towns, and a clamp down on any media attention to it. President Truman tried to dismiss everything, the revolution that happened in 1950, as, quote, unquote, an incident between Puerto Ricans. But that didn’t seem all that credible when two of those Puerto Ricans showed up in Blair House and tried to assassinate him. REPORTER: Outside Blair House, the president’s temporary Washington home, extreme fanatics of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party try to force their way in, guns blazing, to assassinate the President of the United States. When the three-minute shooting is over, assassin Griselio Torresola, lies dead on the Blair House lawn. And White House policeman Leslie Coffelt is dying a few feet away.NINA EARNEST: The assassination attempt took place on November 1.By the following day, Puerto Rican forces had the revolt under control. In the end, 28 people had been killed– most of them Nationalists. Between 1,00 and 2,000 Puerto Ricans were arrested, including Pedro Albizu Campos. And once again, the revolutionary went back to prison. He would spend yet another decade of his life there.
A few months after the revolt, 76% of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of drafting a new constitution that would grant them some autonomy under the Commonwealth status. Since Puerto Rico was soon to be ostensibly in Puerto Rican hands, the United Nations would no longer consider the island a colony that demanded its attention.
NELSON DENIS: At that point, it was like, game, set, match. It’s like, hey.The game’s over, everybody. Take your balls and go home. There’s nothing more to say.
NINA EARNEST: Despite his failure in 1950, Pedro Albizu Campos has not been forgotten. To the contrary, he is still widely revered. Nelson Denis is among many, especially in the Puerto Rican diaspora, who admire him for standing up to the US when the odds were stacked against him. NELSON DENIS: Even though he didn’t win that military battle, he won, in my view, the moral victory, the moral battle of showing the world what is right and what should be.
NINA EARNEST: Harry Franqui Rivera is less laudatory. He sees Albizu Campos as something of a conservative, cultish figure whose scholars had a nostalgic vision of a Puerto Rican nation that hearkened back to a time before US rule. HARRY FRANQUI-RIVERA: They were completelydefeated and discredited philosophically. Munoz Marin is offering a peaceful path towards modernity, to create a new Puerto Rico, a new Puerto Rican. And what the Nationalists are offiering is going back in the past.
NINA EARNEST: As for the legacy of the 1950 revolt, Franqui-Rivera says the territorial government’s swift response to it showed Congress that Puerto Ricans could govern themselves. And it demonstrated to Puerto Rican voters that Munoz Marin was an effective leader.
So perhaps Albizu Campos did help shape the future of Puerto Rico– just not in the way he would have liked.
BRIAN: Nina Earnest is one of our producers. Helping her tell that story was Harry Franqui-Rivera, from the Center of Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, and Nelson Denis. He’s the author of the forthcoming book, War Against All Puerto Ricans– Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.
We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re casting off in search of islands with stories to tell about the American past. In the first part of our show, we heard about two island territories that came to be governed under the US flag. We’re going to rewind now to a time well before that flag existed, to a time when a small island to our east held dominion over a significant portion of the globe.
PETER: After word reached Europe of a new world, cartographers immediately begin to map it. And those very first maps reflected, in many ways, the wishful thinking of those who made them.
At least from the late 15th century onwards, there had been hopes of finding islands that could perhaps bring riches to the merchants and sailors that were exploring out there.
ED: This is James Horn, a historian of early English colonization in the new world. He says that those early explorers had their sights set not on the Americas, but on the Far East and India, and so imagined the lands they encountered in the Atlantic as waste stations to those eastern riches.
This fantasy, says Horn, is reflected in those early maps. Like the dragon’s and sea creatures you can see on them, many of the islands they depict are based on legends that dated back centuries.
JAMES HORN: I think this is where it’s interesting how myth gets translated into reality. Islands that are placed on maps– maybe map-makers have more to do with exploration than purely recordingexplorations. They’re actually predicting it– where these islands are placed on maps. Antilia would be another one, which, when Columbus does discover the West Indies, the West Indies become be called the Antillies in direct reference to this imaginary island out there in the mid-Atlantic. The Isle of Brasil would be another one– so a whole number of these mythical islands that you see in these early maps of the Atlantic.ED: Well, one of the things that’s clear from the study of maps and European geography is that it’s not quite clear what a continent is at first.We were talking about land masses. And what they were looking for for a long time after they became aware of the land mass of North Americawas a northwest passage– a way through it. JAMES HORN: Well, that’s right. And these ideas were based on the map from 1529, the Vespucci map, which shows a great arm of the Pacific Ocean way into the land mass that, whereby the Chesapeake region, the mid-Atlantic region, pretty much becomes an isthmus. So talking about islands, the– [LAUGH] the other theme here is the appeal of the isthmus, where you’re on a land bridge between two oceanic systems.
ED: So, Jim, you’re saying that the English didn’t want to discover a great continent? They wanted a bunch of convenient islands, because they were really looking further to the east, or the west. JAMES HORN: Yeah. I think so. And I think, initially, at least, from the point of view of taking advantage of fishing, of whaling, maybe trading with local peoples– islands were ideal for that purpose. It comes as, I think, a little bit of a blow to many Americans to realize that America was, of course, a barrierto where the Europeans really wanted to go, which was beyond the islands to the Far East. But on the way, there was profitable trade from those islands.
ED: So, Jim, when does the continent of North America, that great land mass, being to loom large in the calculations of the English Crown and colonizers?
JAMES HORN: I think early on there certainly isn’t awareness of a large land mass. And there certainly is a great excitement about the potential riches that that promises. But I think the continental viewpoint, both from a strategic and from a profit point of view, is really a vision of the 18th century. And I think that there is a desire to– in the same way that early colonizers used an island as a base. So Britain becomes the base, an island base, for a vast commercial empire.
PETER: So in 1776, Thomas Paine writes Common Sense and makes the famous argument that an island should not give rule to a continent. That must have– it would have sounded strange to the ears of Englishmen in the 17th century, and even Britain’s in the 18th century. JAMES HORN: I think it would have sounded ridiculous, actually [LAUGH]– maybe to Englishmen in the 19th or the earliest 20th century, too.
PETER: [LAUGH] Right. Exactly. Interesting that the Americans of the revolutionary era called themselves continental– the Continental Congress, and the Continental Army. And that was a direct comparison to Britain, the island.
JAMES HORN: Well, curiously, even today English people, British people distinguish themselves from Europe, and sometimes refer to Europeans as Continentals.
JAMES HORN: [LAUGH] So we still have slight wear in us of Continentals.
PETER: Well, Americans overcame their disappointment with not having easy access to the Pacific Ocean, though that took a long time, since that was still a dream in the 19th century, and to decided that they had a great empire of their own on the land. JAMES HORN: Yeah. It’s maybe a little bit unclear as to what point they thought to themselves that having a great territorial mass would be an advantage. When you think about the extent of Europe and into Asia, these are, if you like, continents of countries. They’re not single, continental-wide nations. PETER: Yes.
JAMES HORN: So there needed to be, in the 18th and early 19th century, a shift in thinking that could embrace a continental-sized nation.
PETER: James Horn is the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. He is also the author of books on the colonies of Jamestownand Roanoke Island.
ED: In 1844, the founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith, was killed in Nauvoo, Illinois. Schisms quickly formed among his followers. Brigham Young and Sydney Rigdon, apostles to Smith, represented one rivalry.Young led his followers to Utah, now home to millions of devotees.Rigdon led his followers to found a branch of the church in Pennsylvania.
BRIAN: But there was a third would-be leader who emerged, and his name was James Strang. He was a publisher and the lawyer who claimed that, like Smith, he was a prophet receiving messages directly from God.Many Mormons who had flocked to Smith because of his powers of divination now turned to Strang.
Mormons at this time were being expelled from their communities in both Illinois and Missouri. So Strang took a few hundred of his followers and struck out. But he didn’t go east. He didn’t go west. In fact, he went north. Their destination– a patch of land in Lake Michigan called Beaver Island.
BackStory producer Andrew Parsons has that story. ANDREW PARSONS: NO one really knows why James Strang shose Beaver Island in particular. But one thing was sure.
SANDRA BIRDSALL: Beaver Island had a lot of lumber, and the fishing was really, really, good.
BRIAN: This is Sandra Birdsall.
SANDRA BIRDSALL: And I live on Beaver Island.
BRIAN: Birdsall is an officer at the Beaver Island Historical Society and is putting together an exhibit on James Strang. We reached her on vacation in South Carolina on– you guessed it– an island.
She says the government had surveyed the nearly 56 square-mile Beaver Island in the late 1840s and put cheap land for sale. It’s lush, remote, and beautiful– advantageous to industrious pioneers. In 1848, James Strang and a few hundred of his followers bought some land and quickly set up a colony on the scenic shores. SANDRA BIRDSALL: The Mormons had been thrown out of everywhere else in the US that they were, and they came to Beaver Island thinking it would be secluded and safe. And the island was financially very successful. It was a very industrious group of people that came.
BRIAN: John Hamer, editor of a book about schisms in the Church of Latter-day Saints and a Mormon himself, says that secluded and safe was important after years of persecution.
JOHN HAMER: If you were going to go and establish a new Mormonkingdom, islands kind of have the sense that they are autonomous.
BRIAN: But Beaver Island wasn’t entirely autonomous. There were other people– a small trading outpost was there as well as a large fishing community on nearby Mackinac Island. And it’s not like Strang didn’t recognize that. He thought that apart from farming and fishing, Mormons could trade, which would help build a prosperous community. The new neighbors, however, weren’t having any of it. They had been eyeing the good fishing on Beaver Island after overfishing the shores of Mackinac.JOHN HAMER: There were conflicts right away. So the non-Mormons did not like the influx of Mormons. BRIAN: The Strangites were often assaulted by Mackinac islanders, and at times fought back.
SANDRA BIRDSALL: There was one early conflict with a Mormon and a shopkeeper that ended up with a man being shot. And I think that was the very first, and sort of endemic then to what the attitude was between the two groups.
BRIAN: Newspapers picked up on this conflict, and started publishing exaggerated stories about Mormon mischief– theft, piracy, and violence.Soon a newspaper war was started– Strangites shot back in the pages of their own daily, The Northern Islander. In one case, they called a reporterfrom the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mr. Plain Liar, Junior.
MALE SPEAKER: We will assure him a good horse-whippingadministered according to Mormon law in the presence of a multitude of witnesses. SANDRA BIRDSALL: Now, early on, Strang wasn’t even on Beaver Island as the tensions mounted. In 1849, he took a long trip east to recruit people to the settlement. But when he came back the following year, things escalated a bit more. Now, this man who claimed to be prophet was crowning himself king.
JOHN HAMER: People reported it fairly quickly, and so that was well-known. And that was a subject of both disdain and also ridicule fairly early on. Although technically he’s not king of the island, he’s king of the Kingdom of God on Earth. But, you know, it was easy for the outsiders to say, you know, he’s king of Beaver Island. [LAUGH]
BRIAN: Strang began issuing edicts to the rest of the island. Most were about living piously– no gambling, alcohol, coffee, or tea. But eventually he ordered everyone on the island to convert to his church or else be jailed.
And that’s when Washington got involved. The situation landed on the desk of President Millard Fillmore. He ordered a federal prosecutor to do something about Strang.
JOHN HAMER: It’s able to go up the flag pole pretty fast, and so they decide that one of the ways that they maybe will be able to stop the settlement up there is by simply arresting Strang himself, and then trying him for all kinds of different things, like tampering with the mail and illegal trespass on federal lands. BRIAN: The government’s case quickly got bogged down in details of frontier law and unreliable witnesses. But Strang was prepared. He had a much clearer defense– religious freedom.
JOHN HAMER: Strang was actually very eloquent in the trial– kind of showed all of his prosecutors to be persecutors. And so essentially, ultimately they had to acquit him and release him, which made it really hard to prosecute him after that.
BRIAN: Not only did Strang survive the charges, the trial propelled him to greater influence in the region. Many newspapers now gave him favorable press, and he even got elected state senator, representing 26 Michigan counties– twice. SANDRA BIRDSALL: And there were people talking about him in the press as possibly running for governor. BRIAN: For a few years, it looked look like Strang had pulled it off. His settlement was economically prosperous, and statewide, he was respected. But back on Beaver Island, he earned his share of enemies. His edicts created dissenters among his followers, including requiring women to wear bloomers and punishments that included flogging. JOHN HAMER: And so essentially a group of dissenters– ultimately they had no capacity to arrest him and have any of the charges stick. And so they formed a conspiracy to assassinate him.
BRIAN: On June 16, 1856, a warship named the USS Michigan pulled up to Beaver Island, and the captain asked to meet with Strang.
SANDRA BIRDSALL: And Strang shows up on the dock and the two assassins are waiting for him.
BRIAN: He was shot in the back by two disgruntled followers. In events that Birdsall says implicate the federal government, the shooters boarded the USS Michigan and were carted off to the mainland, where they faceda small fine by a local judge.
Strang was rushed to the Mormon city of Voree, Wisconsin, and died there a few weeks later. An unruly mob destroyed the settlement and forced all of the Mormons left on Beaver Island onto boats.
JOHN HAMER: They were then dropped off all around the edges of Lake Michigan– in Wisconsin and Michigan and Illinois and Indiana– in small groups so that they wouldn’t be able to regather easily. And so they’re total refugees, they’re destitute, and they aren’t connected to each other,and just separated and leaderless.
BRIAN: Now, this episode on Beaver Island might sound like a quirky hidden piece of American history. Honestly, it was for BackStory staff when we first found it. But–
DAVID AUGUST: For us, it was a tragedy.
BRIAN: This is David August.
DAVID AUGUST: I’m a member of the remnant Strangite Church.
BRIAN: August says there are only about 100 fully practicing Strangites in the United States today. Most people, even other Mormons, assume the sect was extinguished when they were forced off Beaver Island. But August says that most people miss a lot of context when telling the story of James Strang. First, this was the American frontier, where many religions and utopian communities were started.
Second, the church is largely built around his teachings about social justice. And he says, even Strang’s corination has precedent. Both Joseph Smith and leader Brigham Young did the same. DAVID AUGUST: In all those cases, it’s not a king like it displaces the government of the United States and establishes a kingdom that way. It’s a spiritual affiliation to someone who is a prophet, is also king. It’s not an uncommon thing. If you look at the Old Testament, David was a king.Solomon was a king. Christ was a king.
But it’s much easier and more fun to just say, eh, he was a crazy guy. He thought he was king, you know?
BRIAN: John Hamer says many in the press, even scholars, don’t feel an obligation to take Strang seriously. And that, he sees, as something of a double standard.
JOHN HAMER: There’s a lot of ways with which, let’s say, the Joseph Smith’s story itself, the idea that there was an ancient record buried on gold plates, and angels , and all that kind of thing, and people believing that very literally. But historians of religion and religious studies don’t go in and talk to people in Utah as if all of this stuff is ridiculous. They talk to them respectfully. They take their beliefs seriously. And that just hasn’t been the case largely for historians dealing with the Strangites– possibly because there’s so few of them or people maybe think that they’re extinct.
BRIAN: Maybe the story of James Strang is a little strange. But in the vast seas of American history, it’s certainly not an island unto itself.
ED: Andrew Parsons is a producer on our show.
PETER: hosts, that story of James Strang and the Mormon diasporamoving to this island, Beaver Island, was a fascinating story. And it evokes for me– well, fantasies and memories that go back to early childhood. Islands were the most exciting and romantic place that I could imagine. Of course, we read books like Treasure Island. But the idea of a space that was delimited and could be your own. ED: Yeah. I remember seeing Swiss Family Robinson, the Disney movie, in the theater, and fighting off the pirates with the rolling logs and all that. BRIAN: Yeah. I remember that scene.
ED: I don’t think I’d ever felt so vicariously invested in a movie. And there’s something about being able to defend the boundaries of who you were, and, of course, the family.
PETER: Yeah. [INAUDIBLE].
ED: So, yeah. Apparently Disney knows how to tap the psyche.
PETER: That’s right. And that point you make, Ed, about defense I think is really crucial in the story of James Strang. Mormons had, as you know, suffered tremendous persecution and abuse in New York and Ohio and ultimately in Illinois and Missouri, and trying to find a safe place so that they could practice their religion. And of course it was not just going to church on Sunday for Mormons. It was a whole way of life. They desperately needed an island. And you could say that, in some ways, the successful Mormon experiment in Salt Lake was a virtual island in the midst of the Great American Desert.
ED: Yeah. They use land as the ocean, right? PETER: Yeah, exactly.
ED: You go so far away that nobody, unless they were really determined to persecute you, could get there. PETER: Yeah. Yeah.
ED: But it sounds like Strang wasn’t quite so fortunate– that, in a time when an island’s basically vulnerable to anybody with a boat. PETER: But I think that’s the point, because islands are simultaneously these defensible points. But I think more important than that is that islands in the early modern period into the present day are nodes, or points of connection, with the larger world. This is, I think, the paradox. On the one hand, an island is a place you get away to an island. And in fact, that’s the lure in tourism. BRIAN: On the other hand, you’re saying, Peter, islands used to be kind of way stations– crucial ones, right– and in international trade. PETER: That’s absolutely right. So the advantage of an island is its openness, is the fact that it can connect many places. It’s a way of linking to the world and exploiting the world– and that is through commerce and trade. ED: Yeah. And the interesting thing– if you think about the way that you would control the seas, it’s basically making man-made islands in the forms of ships. A ship is a portable island– self-contained, isolated, defensible, but the point here is that you can actuallytake it from one place to another with all the guns and food that you need. PETER: Yeah.
ED: And you think about Herman Melville and the great whaling voyages.I think they actually saw the ship as islands. So in a watery world– which the world was until the middle of the 19th century– PETER: Yes it was, indeed. ED: –I think islands had a role that we can’t really quite imagine today in which now they just same places that you can fly to to get away in a very transitory, kind of shallow, so to speak, sort of way.
BRIAN: And Ed, don’t stop with the 19th century, because as America became a global military power in the 20th century, islands were crucial.They were called fueling stations. PETER: Right. Yeah.
BRIAN: And then after World War II, they became bases for aircrafts. So the American presence, well into the 20th century, on Guam and the Philippines and all of these islands is very much a linked to the kind of interconnectedness that Peter was talking about– in this case, a flat-out military interconnectedness. PETER: Yeah.
ED: Yeah. As much as the United States enjoyed its status as a citadel isolated from any other real power, it needed to expose itself by establishing the coaling station there in Hawaii. And it both gave it an enormous advantage in participating in the Pacific trade, but at the same time, that makes it vulnerable.
BRIAN: And you mentioned vulnerable, Ed, and we’re talking about independence, autonomy, and interdependence. And think about how America entered World War II. It was the bombing of Pearl Harbor, whichwas intended to make America militarily strong, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of entry into a World War– the ultimate independence. PETER: Yeah. I think what all this suggests, guys, is that islands are part of the whole world of everywhere, yet islands remain in kind of our deep memories, in our psyches, as places of escape, of where you can fulfill your own individual destiny, where you won’t be subject to the influence of others. I think that’s beautifully epitomized by Thomas More’s Utopia, published in Latin in 1516, in which he imagines an ideal society– utopia means no place. And, in fact, he’s reimagining the worldby projecting this ideal society onto an island which is a world unto itself.
BRIAN: It’s time for another break, but stay with us. When we get back, we’ll hear the stories of East Asian migrants yearning to breathe free, but stuck on an island in San Francisco Bay.
ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re reflecting on stories from the American past that take place on islands.
ED: Our next story is set on Angel Island, a small island in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay, not too far from its more famous cousin, Alcatraz. But Angel Island is more often compared to an island on the other coast– Ellis Island. That’s because from of 1910 to 1940, it was the sight of a US immigration station that processed more than a million travelers crossing the Pacific.
ED: Now, throughout this period, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was still the law of the land. That act made it illegal for Chinese laborers to enter the country, but did include a few exceptions– teachers, diplomats, some merchants, and the families of US citizens.
And that last category, Families of citizens, resulted in an elaborate cat and mouse game with young would-be migrants– most of them men– attempting to bluff their way past immigration officials on Angel Island by claiming kinship with Chinese Americans in the US. ED: Immigration officials did their best to ferret out these so-called paper sons, subjecting Chinese immigrants to extensive interrogations and checking to make sure all their claims held up. And while they did, the [? markers ?] were held captive in a kind of purgatory.
Whereas the average immigrant on Ellis Island spent about five hours being processed, Chinese immigrants passing through Angel Island often found themselves detained in crowded wooden barracks for days, weeks, and months on end.
ED: Judy Young is a historian in Santa Cruz whose father was among those processed at Angel Island. A few years ago, she co-authored a book about the immigrant experience there that included some remarkable documents– poems written on the walls of those wooden barracks by the Chinese men who waited there for processing. JUDY YOUNG: Immigration officials– they saw this as graffiti. They then painted over the writing. And after they started painting over, then the Chinese would brush the characters onto the wall. And then they would carve the outline of the characters and scoop out the wood so that youwill have these impressions of the characters. And when you paint over them, then you could still see the words.
I remember making my first trip to Angel Island to see these poems. It was dark, it was dingy, it was smelly. There was trash all over the grounds. I could still make out the impressions of Chinese words all over the walls. I could even read some of the words.
MALE SPEAKER: This place is called an island of immortals, when, in fact, this mountain wilderness is a prison. Once you see the open net, why throw yourself in? It is only because of empty pockets. I can do nothing else.
JUDY YOUNG: They’re locked up on this lonely island in the wooden building, waiting to be admitted into the country, seeing the skyline, the buildings, across the bay, knowing that Oakland or San Francisco, whichever way they were facing, was that close, and yet not being able to reach there, and not knowing how long it would be before they might beadmitted, or, heavens forbid, that they may be turned back and deported in the end. MALE SPEAKER: I used to admire the land of America as a country of abundance. Now, on an extended sojourn in jail, I am subject to the ordeals of prison life. I look up and see Oakland so close by. I wish to go back to my motherland to carry the farmer’s ho. Discontent fills my belly, and it is difficult for me to sleep. I just write these few lines to express what is on my mind. MALE SPEAKER: It is noisy because of the many countryfolk. And there are watchmen guarding during the night. I gaze to the south at the hospital and look to the west at the Army camp.What happiness is there in this?
JUDY YOUNG: A lot of poems also complained about the mistreatment that they felt, the harsh laws, the discrimination, the physical exam and the whole interrogation process, and the feeling of being treated as criminals– that you had to prove that you are innocent rather than the other way around.
MALE SPEAKER: America has power, but not justice. In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty, given no opportunity to explain. It was really brutal. I bow my head in reflection, but there is nothing I can do.
JUDY YOUNG: They understood that because China was a weak country and did not have good diplomatic relations with US, that they were unable to stop the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, that that was the reason why they were being subjected to the discriminatory harsher treatment at Angel Island.
MALE SPEAKER: How was I to know that the Western barbarians hadlost their hearts and reason? With 100 kinds of oppressive laws, they mistreat us Chinese. It is still not enough. After being interrogated and investigated several times, we also have to have our chests examined while naked. Our countrymen suffer this treatment all because our country’s power cannot yet expand. If there comes a day when China will be united, I will surely cut out the heart and bowels of the Western barbarian.
MALE SPEAKER: The ocean encircles a lone peak. Rough terrain surround its prison. There are few birds flying over the cold hills. The wild goose messenger cannot find its way. I have been detained by obstacles that have been put in my way for half a year. Melancholy and hate gather on my face. Now that I must return to my country, I have toiled, like the Jingwei bird, in vain. JUDY YOUNG: I think if it wasn’t for the poems and the discovery of the poems, this history about immigration through AngelIsland would be lost. I say this because if the buildings had been destroyed, the poetry had been lost, we would have no record of what happened at Angel Island and what people felt about that experience.
MALE SPEAKER: Over 100 poems are on the walls. Looking at them, they are all pining at the delayed progress. What can one sad person say to another? Unfortunate travelers everywhere wish to commiserate. Gain or lose, how is one to know what is pre-destined? Rich or poor, who is to say it is not the will of heaven? Why should one complain if he is detained and imprisoned here? From ancient times, heroes often were the first ones to face adversity.
ED: Judy Young is Professor Emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, and author of Island– Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island.Today, the immigration station is a national historic landmark open to visitors. You can still see the poetry of Chinese detainees on the walls.
BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. Today on the show, we’ve been island-hopping across American history. For our final story today, we’re going to answer a question that’s been bugging me for years. Here it is. Why is Thousand Island dressing called Thousand Island dressing? ED: Oh, man. Thats heavy. [LAUGH] Now, the one thing that everybody seems to agree on is that this particular BackStory took placein the early 1900s and has something to do with the Thousand Islands region of the Saint Lawrence River, between New York State and OntarioCanada, as you know. But beyond that, the stories diverge.
Here’s one theory. A guy named Oscar Tschirky, the Maitre’d of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, whipped up the dressing while working on his boss’s yacht. Tschirky and his boss, a guy named George Bold, were vacationing the Thousand Islands, and Tschirky apparently through some mayo in with some chopped up tomatoes, and voila, Thousand Island dressing was born.
PETER: Another theory has it that the inventor was actually a woman named Sophie LaLonde, the wife of a charter fishing captain who concocted the dressing not for salad, but rather for the fish that her husband’s clients had caught that day.
And, according to a third story, Thousand Island dressing was invented by an actress named May Irwin, famous for performing the first ever on-screen kiss in a 47-second Thomas Edison short. Several years after the kiss, she gave the recipe to a chef at Chicago’s Flagstone Hotel, where she was performing. Both of them had spent time at hotels in the Thousand Islands, and so named it after their favorite vacation spot.BRIAN: To figure out which of these theories is most credible, we called in someone who knows his way around food and history. Ben Davison is a historian here at the University of Virginia and a chef. Ben, thanks a lot for joining us. BEN DAVISON: Good to be here.
BRIAN: So what do you think? Which theory do you put your money on?BEN DAVISON: You know, if I had to make a guess, I think they’re probably all true in their own way.
BEN DAVISON: No, no, no. It’s not a cop out. But if anything, I think the key factor is that this all involves people who are frequenting upstate New York hotels and resorts. And this is a time when upstate New York was the resort capital. 100 years ago, travel was still a real undertaking.PETER: Yeah.
BEN DAVISON: You couldn’t just get on a plane and go to Hawaii. So the wealthy would just go to really this kind of bucolic place in upstate New York, and places that were earmarked as sort of really being a place where you can get healthy, get out of the city air, really commune with nature. And it was a really popular place to go.
BRIAN: OK. Well, let’s drill down into the this question a little more and try to throw out some possibilities. So salads or fish? BEN DAVISON: My guess would be salads.
BRIAN: Why? BEN DAVISON: For a long time, really thought the 19th century, Americans ate terribly. It was impossible, really, in major cities to get vegetables. By the time they got to the market in New York, they’d be wilted, crushed. For a lot of wealthy Americans, being able to afford salad greens that were still intact– that was a big deal.
So if you were entertaining people on a private yacht, like Boldt was, when supposedly his chef came up with this recipe, the first thing you do– because these would all be local elites, your friends, wealthy people.You’d serve a salad. It’s summer. And this was really sort of the height of sophistication.
BRIAN: OK. So I’m going with salad over fish. I buy that. Why dressings in the first place?
BEN DAVISON: You know, we’re kind of spoiled now that we can go to the store and get these like kind of sweet, supple mesclun and spring mix, arugula. You couldn’t do that 100 years ago.
BRIAN: Yeah. Pre-washed. BEN DAVISON: Right. The greens you’re buying– they’re bitter. They are just like, what can really be grown? Like, New York doesn’t really take to spring mix. It takes to endives and chicories, real tough watercress.
BRIAN: So you have this delicacy that’s so untasty that you need to come up with a dressing? BEN DAVISON: Kind of, yeah. And there’s really no way around it.
BRIAN: Oh boy, this is the lives of rich and famous.
BEN DAVISON: But remember, it’s all about style and sophistication. It’s really about showing off that you can afford this thing that isn’t really that good to begin with.
BRIAN: OK. So you’re cruising on Boldt’s yacht through the Thousand islands on the Canadian border. And the chef– how does he present this Thousand Island dressing?
BEN DAVISON: My honest guess is– and this is just someone who used to cook for a living. He probably got a pile of greens from some farmer nearby, and he had this stuff. And he’s like, all right. Taste it. Oh, god.This is horribly bitter.
BEN DAVISON: I guarantee this is how it went down. And, you know, mayonnaise is a great masking agent for bitterness. The fat, the salt, the acid really helps tame those kind of wild bitter kind of dense greens.
BEN DAVISON: But mayonnaise, by itself, at that point, was already becoming passe as a salad dressing.
BRIAN: So plain mayonnaise wasn’t cutting it anymore.
BEN DAVISON: Right. So you needed to kind of gussy that up. And that’s where the ketchup comes in, or this tomato condiment. And the funny thing about ketchup is that 100 years ago, you said ketchup, people would ask you what kind. Because ketchup for a long time really referred to a style sauces that was more like a chutney.
BRIAN: I see.
BEN DAVISON: The most popular ketchup in America, in, say, 1900 would have been mushroom ketchup or walnut ketchup.
BRIAN: Wow. BEN DAVISON: If you think about other really common salad dressings at the time– they’ll mix mayonnaise with walnut ketchup and they’ll dress that on some ungodly combinations. A really popular salad mixed cottage cheese, chives, and bananas. He probably just thought, all right. Well, this is how I have always sort of treated these things. The tomatoes is sweet, the mayonnaise– it brings out a lot of good flavors. I mean, we still like Thousand Island dressing, because it’s good.
BRIAN: Well, speaking of that — and I don’t want to be too classist, here.But it seems like Thousand Island dressings has come down a couple of notches in terms of class status. How did that go down?
BEN DAVISON: My guess is at the time, 100 years ago, when this was really coming out, this was something that really was on elite tables.
BEN DAVISON: It slowly diffused, like a lot of things. It has a lot to do with the ways that– especially after the Second World War, Americansstarted eating the way the wealthy ate, but in a very particular way. They started really going after ingredients cooking styles that were associatedwith comfort and affluence. Some nutritionists have argued that one of the reasons why the working class of 100 years ago had such a short lifespan was their diet was effectively some combination of lard and cornmeal. BRIAN: Yeah. Do you think that when Thousand Island dressing became a bit declasse, or, a nicer word is diffused, as you put it,do you think part of that was that it sounded so exotic, that people thought they were actually eating something quite special? BEN DAVISON: Absolutely. The Thousand Islands for a lot of Americans,resonated with this idea of relaxation, comfort. You’re travelling somewhere in a place that had, for the better part of the latter half the 19th century, been a designated special resort location. BRIAN: Right.Right.
BEN DAVISON: And then as all these ingredients become more available and certain tastes become sort of stratified and ossified. [INAUDIBLE], oh, it’s just Thousand Island dressing.
BRIAN: Well, Ben, thanks for a-dressing this incredibly important issue here on BackStory today.
BEN DAVISON: My pleasure. [MUSIC HARRY BELAFONTE, “ISLAND IN THE SUN”]
BRIAN: Ben Davison is a historian at the University of Virginia. He’s currently working on a history of supermarkets in America.
PETER: And that is going to do it for us today. But if you’ve still got island fever, drop in at our website, where we’ve got a whole lot more about island history. And while you’re there, take a minute to weigh in on our upcoming show about speed. What counted as fast when you were a kid,and how has that changed in your lifetime?
We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStoryRadio.Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from Coli Elhi.BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Special thanks this week to our readers– Charles [? Longlan, ?] James Wang, James Scales,and [? Ling Wei Xung. ?]
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund,called Vetting Fresh Ideas in the Arts, the Humanities and Environment, and by History Channel– history made every day. FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
BRIAN: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.