A Cavalier Disregard for Historical Documentation

Map of South America showing the meridian dividing the new world in Pope Alexander VI’s papal bull.

The University of Virginia in recent years has devoted considerable resources to an excavation of unpleasant aspects of its past, from slavery and Jim Crow to the dispossession of land from the Monacan Indians. Other than the controversy over Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, the scholarly findings have rarely been disputed. Perhaps this scholarship warrants a closer look.

Steve Adkins, an amateur historian who claims 25,000 hours of independent study, alleges several factual errors in the Encyclopedia Virginia maintained by UVa as well as UVa professor Jeffrey Hantman’s book, “Monacan Millennium.” In the narrative below, he describes the failure of Hantman, the University of Virginia Press, and university authorities to correct them. His account delves into historical minutiae that may enthrall only antiquarians. But his charge that UVa humanities and social sciences are afflicted with “an arrogant facts-be-damned, circle-the-wagons culture” may be of interest to a wider audience. — JAB

The loss of academic freedom on American campuses has been accompanied by the erosion of academic rigor. I offer this outsider’s glimpse.

My father was a Northern Virginia land developer. In the early 1990s, during the course of litigation involving one of his properties (the Cherokee Ski Resort near Front Royal, so named owing to a family legend of Cherokee ancestry), the possibility of historic Shawnee ownership arose as a secondary matter. I began researching the transfer of Indian title in Virginia, and, intrigued by the subject as the ultimate title examination, I continued after the litigation concluded.

Several years of intermittent study convinced me that the Monacan Confederacy of the piedmont had never been officially divested of most of its territory, and that its title survived with the Monacan Indian Nation, at that time a state-recognized tribe. In October 1997, together with a top-of-his-class Harvard lawyer, I approached the Monacans and proposed a land-claim action. They declined our proposal, and instead focused on federal recognition, which they would attain in 2018.

Undeterred by the rebuff, I continued researching. Upon the 1999 publication by Harvard University of Anthony F.C. Wallace’s “Jefferson and the Indians,” I contacted University of Virginia anthropology professor Jeffrey Hantman and advised that Wallace, citing the professor as his principal source, had made a hash of the first documented English contact with Indians of the confederacy.  Mr. Hantman did not reply.

My initial Monacan contact was Karenne Wood. Ms. Wood went on to earn a doctorate in linguistic anthropology from UVA, in 2016, and prior to her July 21, 2019, death, she was the Virginia Humanities director of Virginia Indian Programs. Virginia Humanities, which publishes the online Encyclopedia Virginia, has a “special relationship” with UVA.

Through the years I have transcribed relevant documents and accounts (all as near primary as practicable) into a compilation. It begins with the two papal bulls of May 3, 1493 (Inter Caetera and Eximiae Devotionis), and the one of May 4, 1493 (Inter Caetera), by which Pope Alexander VI divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. Under the title “Inter caetera by Pope Alexander VI (May 4, 1493),” Encyclopedia Virginia presents the bull in which “Pope Alexander VI decrees that all newly discovered lands west of an imaginary line of longitude running through the easterly part of present-day Brazil belonged to Spain, and everything east to Portugal.” The “Transcription from Original,” however, is from the May 3 bull Inter Caetera, as it was translated on pages 61-63 of Frances Gardiner Davenport’s “European Treaties” (1917). There is a big difference — the May 4 bull Inter Caetera is the one that specifies the demarcation line. Davenport provides its translation on pages 75-78. Davenport also provides context for all three bulls — there is no excuse for confusion.

On July 15, 2017, in view of Ms. Wood’s position at Virginia Humanities, I emailed her regarding the mistake. She did not reply.

I opened an April 27, 2018, letter to Mr. Hantman with a reference to EV’s erroneous posting. In closing the April 27 letter, I wrote that I was eagerly awaiting his forthcoming book “Monacan Millennium.” He did not reply. 

When the University of Virginia Press published the book that October, I made a list of issues and errors that stood out at first reading, and November 13, 2018, I mailed him a copy. Among the errors: On page 1, the Lost Colony of 1587 is dated as 1588. A casual reader of pages 31-34 could conclude that the Lost Colony was that of 1585, and on page 109 that is positively stated. On page 47, a total mess is made of the fate of the Sea Venture. On page 130, the phrasing gives the impression that Chief Powhatan died in 1622. On page 134, Christopher Newport is identified as governor of the Jamestown colony; while the redoubtable Newport took charge whenever he was in the colony during its first charter, he never held that title. And on page 143, the well-known Farrer map is credited to Edward Bland.

Mr. Hantman did warn that “in this book I am concerned with moving beyond the limits of colonial and scientific or historic texts.” But that does not excuse the clear factual errors, and given that most of today’s published history relies on secondary sources, even when primary sources are readily available (“Monacan Millennium” being a serial offender), such mistakes are especially unfortunate when printed under UVA’s imprimatur.

As for peer review: Susan McKinnon, then chair of UVa Anthropology, “read and commented” on the manuscript. “Two anonymous reviewers,” apparently UVA Press staff, similarly helped.

Post publication: by October 14, 2019, emails, I would express my concerns to five scholars (of William and Mary, Mary Washington, Brown, St. Olaf, and Virginia Tech) who had given very favorable blurbs and reviews. My suggestion that their reputations were “somewhat tied” to the book does not appear to have bothered anyone, as there were no responses.

Mr. Hantman had not replied to my November 13 mailing, so December 1, 2018, I sent a copy to UVA Press director Mark Saunders. He likewise did not reply, so by letter of August 16, 2019, I alerted UVA president James Ryan. He forwarded a copy to UVa Press, triggering an August 22, 2019,  response from Eric Bland, editor in chief. He advised that “if the author approves, we will make every effort to make those corrections when we reprint additional copies of the book.” I translated that as “no action will be taken,” and so notified him by letter dated August 29, 2019. I sent a copy to Mr. Ryan.  Neither answered.

By individual letters dated January 21, 2020, I sent a follow-up to Mr. Ryan and a summary to the Press’ new director, Suzanne Moomaw. She replied in a February 10, 2020, email, “President Ryan received your letter and ask[ed] that we be the primary point of contact.  Please give me a week or so to sort through how we might best respond.” She did not further respond, and she did not reply to my subsequent email of March 9, 2020. When the book was reprinted as a paperback in February, 2021, it was without correction.

Returning to the papal bulls: Encyclopedia Virginia has a protocol for reporting mistakes, which I purposefully did not follow, with the intention of determining if anyone in the UVa academic community had enough institutional pride to see the posting corrected. I brought an error — and that’s understating it; imprecise transcriptions of a word or three may be unavoidable, but this is the transcription of the wrong document — to the attention of a Virginia Humanities section director; to a UVA anthropology department program head; to UVA Press executives; and to UVA’s president himself.  The post appears to have been refreshed December 7, 2020, but the wrong text remains, the date at the end of Davenport’s translation, “the third day of May,” continuing to escape EV’s notice; the attitude in Charlottesville being, “Forget it, Jake, it’s only a historical text.”

Steve Adkins is a resident of Fairfax County.