Tough Ancestors

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One of my favorite stories from American folklore involves a guide in the Colorado Rockies. He took a party of hunters into the mountains, where they were trapped by a blizzard. Only the guide survived.

When the spring thaw came, it was learned that the guide had survived by killing and eating his companions. He was arrested, tried for murder and convicted.

When he appeared for sentencing before a Republican judge, he asked the judge for mercy.

"Mercy, hell," the judge snorted. "There were only 10 Republicans in the whole county, and you ate five of them."

I tell you this story because while we have become an oh-so-sensitive and politically correct society, our American ancestors were frankly a rough-and-ready lot. Had they not been, we would not today have this wonderful country of ours. Our ancestors took this country from the British, the French, the Spaniards, the Mexicans and the Native Americans — at gunpoint.

The North American continent in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was a hard land, and only hard people survived it. It’s easy today to conjure up a great deal of sympathy for the Native Americans, who had many noble qualities. But, on the other hand, we have never had to fight them. We’ve never had to come home to find our families massacred and mutilated. America in 2004 is not the America of 1804.

Some years ago, Robert Redford made an excellent movie, Jeremiah Johnson, based loosely on the life of a mountain man by that name. In the movie, Johnson’s family is murdered by the Crow Indians, and he begins a long feud with that tribe. The real Jeremiah Johnson was known as "Liver-Eating Johnson." He not only killed the Crow, but he ate their livers. In the movie, the Crow pursued Johnson. The real Johnson hunted down the Crow. The real Johnson was a great deal scarier and more sinister than Redford.

Benjamin Franklin wrote some interesting things about the Native Americans. He said, for example, that he had never known of an Indian who successfully adopted and adapted to the ways of the whites. On the other hand, some whites took easily to the Indian ways.

He told the story of a man who was taken by the Shawnee at an early age. Some years later, he was "rescued" in an exchange of prisoners. By now, he was grown, and when he came home, he discovered that his father had created a hugely successful plantation. As the oldest son, it was all his. He found himself a wealthy man.

Franklin said that after only two weeks, the man deeded everything to his younger brother and, taking only his rifle and blanket, returned to the wilderness to live with the Shawnee. I have in my own family tree a great-etc. uncle who married a Cherokee and lived the rest of his life as a member of the tribe, including going on the Trail of Tears. It was said of him — whose name was Charlie, by the way — that he had grown bored after the Revolution because there were no more British or Tories to kill.

The point of all of this is that there is, in my book, no more disgusting and disgraceful behavior than the person who enjoys the fruits of sin while condemning the sinner. We are the beneficiaries of our ancestors’ sins. The blood they shed — their own and others — has given us about the best piece of real estate on the planet.

Unless you are willing to give up this country, I would keep your political correctness under control. Every human deserves sympathy, for the story of the human race is essentially a tragedy. But the Americans who have gone before us don’t deserve condemnation. They did what they had to do in the circumstances of their own time.

The question for us is, are we tough enough to keep and preserve the gift our hard-nosed ancestors provided us? There are some days when I strongly doubt it.

Charley Reese has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.

© 2004 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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