TV Documentary on the Legends of the Frontier

I must state that I believe that The History Channel has declined in quality over the years. When it started, the programming was of a higher quality. Then, the channel began to over emphasize the World War II period (not that this time is not important), specifically Nazi Germany, which earned it the nickname “The Hitler Channel”. Now, the programming has gone off the deep end, with shows like Monster Quest and The Universe, which is more in the realm of The Discovery Channel. It has led me to question, whether a new channel dedicated to history is needed to bring quality programming on history back. With that said, I would like write a bit about a great miniseries that was on The History Channel a few years ago and deals with the subject area of this site and is quite good. The show is known as Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest and it is one of two series, with the other series, Frontier: The Decisive Battles dealing with four important battles in the Old Northwest.

Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest focuses on four key figures of the history of the old Northwest. The first episode focuses on Robert Rogers and his rangers that battled the French and their Indian allies for the British during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The episode discusses Rogers’ early life, his service in the British army when he formed the rangers, and his later life. One of the pivotal events discussed in this episode is the attack on the Abenaki village at St. Francis in Canada in October of 1759, in which Rogers destroyed the village, killed many of the village inhabitants (accounts vary as to how many), and then trekking through the Vermont wilderness for days, struggling for food and survival. The episode provides a great amount of information about Rogers, his rangers, and links them to today’s ranger forces. This subject is a great start for this series.

The second episode deals with one of the pivotal events in the intervening years between the close of the French and Indian War and the start of the American Revolution, Pontiac’s Rebellion. Like the episode dealing with Rogers’ Rangers, Pontiac’s Rebellion examines the life of Pontiac, the Ottawa chief and his rebellion against the British in the Old Northwest in 1763. The rebellion began at Detroit and then spread to many other outposts in Michigan, and eventually to much of the old Northwest. The episode chronicles Pontiac’s life as well, including his death at the hands of fellow Indians.

The third episode chronicles the life and events surrounding one of the most important people in the old Northwest, at least from the American standpoint, George Rogers Clark. The episode, titled The Long Knives, examines the men behind Clark’s epic foray into the Illinois Country during the American Revolution. The episode discusses the training of Clark’s men in Kentucky and his easy captures of Kaskaskia and Cahokia in Illinois, as well as his initial capture of Vincennes, Indiana. The show chronicles Clark’s British opponent Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton, known as the Hairbuyer, for his trade in American scalps, very well. Clark leaves only a small force at Vincennes, which allows Hamilton to retake the town and its fort, named Fort Sackville. Clark then leads an epic expedition across the cold winter prairie of southern Illinois, which includes several days of marching through chest-deep, frigid waters and huddling on mounds of mud, as the Wabash River was swollen and little dry land existed. Clark and his men, exhausted to the point of collapse, then lay siege to the fort and force its surrender. Clark’s expedition paves the way for securing the old Northwest for the Americans.

The final episode of the series deals with the life of Tecumseh and his efforts at a pan-Indian confederacy to drive out the American settlers in the early 1800s. Included in this episode is Tecumseh’s early life, including his fighting during St. Clair’s defeat and the Battle of Fallen Timbers, his brother, later known as “the Prophet”, fight against the whites, including the Battle of Tippecanoe with William Henry Harrison, service and death with the British in the War of 1812. The episode provides great insight into his service in the War of 1812 with the British army and death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813.

Overall, all four episodes in this series are worth watching, as they focus on important people in frontier America and the events surrounding them. Though the programming on The History Channel has declined some over the years, Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest is one program that illustrates how historical programming on frontier America should be done.

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The Politically Correct Revolutionary War

I take children’s television programs dealing with historical events very seriously because not only are kids our future, but if they are given a bad education on history, I will end up attempting to fix the mistakes when they arrive at college (shudders). This leads me to examine a series, originally put out by PBS called Liberty’s Kids. The goal of the program is to educate kids age 7-12 about the American Revolution (God forbid that kids are encouraged to read books on the subject). This is certainly a noble effort, but the show falls short, choosing to present a politically correct story of our war for independence that ignores many historical facts. While you may be wondering why I would follow a kid’s show, I must state that I take such things seriously and want to make sure that history is presented correctly to kids, especially in today’s society where kids are not as likely to pick up books and seek out historical truth.

The main characters of the show report the events of the Revolutionary period while working for Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. While it is true that Franklin printed such a paper, a Google search is inconclusive for the time of the Revolution. However, two details of Franklin’s life support the idea that he was not publishing the paper during the Revolutionary period. First, he was serving in an ambassadorial role to England on several occasions from the mid 1750s until 1775, which meant being in London for years at a time, which would have prevented him from publishing the paper. Likewise, his service in France during much of the Revolution would have also prevented him from publishing the paper. While I certainly understand that the cartoon is somewhat fictitious, I also do not want children to get the wrong ideas about Benjamin Franklin and the Revolution. In addition to the child reporters of Dr. Franklin, is another character named Moses, a former slave who taught himself to read and purchased his freedom, who now works for Franklin. This is even more unlikely given the nature of society at the time with regard to slavery and the status of blacks in society.

The major problem I have with this show is the over emphasis on minority characters and the glossing over of the negative aspects of these characters for the sake of political correctness. For instance, African Americans are frequently highlighted in areas where they would have had little presence at the time, particularly in the Continental Army (less than ten percent of all Continental soldiers were black, but you would get the impression from the show that it was much higher). American Indians were also shown in favorable light, with characters such as the Shawnee Cornstalk used to give the impression that American Indians were at peace and harmony until the white man arrived, which contradicts mounds of evidence to the contrary.

In addition, several key battles are overlooked. For instance, George Rogers Clark’s expedition to liberate the Illinois Country was not covered by the series. Instead, the series focuses on two of the main characters traveling down the Mississippi River to meet Governor Galvez with a Continental officer. The series does not examine Quebec, which was an important early battle in the war, specifically because of the amazing journey through the Maine wilderness by Benedict Arnold and his men. Only one episode covers the entire Southern theater of battle, which has the important events of Camden, Gulliford Courthouse, and Cowpens. While I understand that covering everything in the war would be too much for young children, consider this, the series was made up of 40 episodes at roughly 30 minutes each, which is 20 hours of total time. In contrast, the groundbreaking series by A&E The American Revolution covers the entire war very well, including the events overlooked by Liberty’s Kids, in a little over eight hours (I watched The American Revolution when I was ten, which is the target age area for the PBS show).

To be fair, there are some aspects of the show that I like. The show does a wonderful job of portraying George Washington to be a wonderful man of character, which is somewhat lacking in today’s historical discourse. The portrayal of Benedict Arnold is quite good, and the battle sequence, though a little quirky, is done very well, so not to scare young kids, but give them a decent concept of the nature of the battles during the war. In addition, the show illustrates the trials of the Continental army at Valley Forge, their training by Baron von Steuben, and the attempts to seize power from Washington by other officers. The political and international relations aspects of the show are also very well done.

In closing, PBS’s attempt to present a politically correct American Revolution to kids fails this historian’s litmus test for the most part. While it is important to tell the stories of minority participants in history, the over emphasis of minority characters, as well as the neglect of several events in the Revolutionary War only serve to give kids a misguided idea about this critical time in our history. There are some good qualities to the show, but they are overshadowed by the problems noted. I encourage parents to watch the show, if available, and talk with your children and make sure they have access to books on the Revolution and the major players, so that they can gain a better education about this time in our nation’s past than through the tube. Kids, do not let your knowledge of American history be only what you watch on television, get out and read, as you will discover many wonderful things that TV will not provide.