During regular programs at Pike Lake State Park, Naturalist Matthew Minter frequently interjects all sorts of historical and cultural stories about the natural world.
This story is one about a simple plant that everyone probably has in their yard and the unusual tale of how it got there. The title of the story is “The White Man’s Footstep”. Matt also uses modern references and trivia questions to draw his audiences into the story.
So the story starts with his saying: “When Columbus discovered the new world, he brought many things back to Europe, but there were three things that attracted a lot of attention: One were some of the native people, who were quite a curiosity in the places where people saw them. The second was something that some of us cannot live without? Chocolate! And the third got the most attention (can you guess what it was?) Gold!
So the Spanish sent more men and ships to get more gold. Meanwhile up north in England, things were not so good. The excesses of Henry VIII had left the country quite poor. Queen Elizabeth was trying to revive the fortunes of England, and it just wasn’t fair that those Spanish were getting so filthy rich!
So the queen hired pirates, called privateers (or pirates for hire) to go out and raid the Spanish galleons and bring the gold back to England. The Queen gave them safe harbor and provisions, a share of the gold, and even sailors if needed. (If you remember in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” episode one, a British officer offers Jack Sparrow a commission as a privateer for the crown). The Queen even knighted a few, like Sir Walter Raleigh.
It didn’t take too long for the Spanish to get tired of the piracy, so they sent a huge Armada of ships to attack England. Now England didn’t have as many ships, and they weren’t as heavily armed as the invading Spanish Fleet, but they met them in battle as the Queen would not allow the Spanish on English soil. The battle was joined and ships on both sides were sunk, but the deciding factor was the weather as a storm swept in from the North Atlantic which spelled disaster for the Spanish.
After the storm only half the Spanish fleet made it back to Spain, and were so badly damaged, that most had to be junked. (A side note: Many of the surviving Spanish sailors washed up on the shores of England and Ireland, where they were hidden by other sailors. One, with the last name of Costello was the grandfather of my great-great grandmother who came to the United States in the 1850s. She was to have gone on to Australia as a “mail-order bride” but got as far as Chicago and stopped there when she met my great–great-grandfather Matkin.)
After the Spanish Armada, the queen decided that was too close and called off the Privateers (in the 3rd Pirates of the Caribbean movie, all pirates were outlawed). Meanwhile, back in Spain, the King realized that he had lost an entire fleet and left England alone and went back to getting gold from the new world.
But England still had a problem, they were still broke. Then King James decided to send ships of his own to the new world and find his own gold. (What movie was this? Pocohontas.)
In the movie, what was the first thing the men did when they landed? Dig for gold. Did they find any? No. So they thought the Native People had the gold and they fought with them, but still found no gold. So they had to go back to England and tell the King that there was no gold in Virginia.
So as time went on the English noticed some other people were trading with the natives up north and making a fortune on the fur trade. Who was that? The French.
So the English set up trading posts right along the Canadian border and tried to lure the native fur traders away from the French. They used to stand up a trade gun and the natives would pile Beaver pelts up to equal the height of the gun and then they would trade. The pelts were taken back to England or France and shaved with the fine hair used to make felt, a material used to make all those fancy hats that were in style in the mid eighteenth century.
So the French didn’t like the English taking their business and what do you think happened? That’s right, the French and Indian War. And who won? The English. Whose picture is on the Canadian money? The Queen.
So now the English had won Canada and the Fur trade, so they could get rich, but no, two things happened. The easily obtained furs were all trapped out, and the hats… they went out of style!
Then the English noticed that the colonists is America were making quite a good living in the new world. Your family was growing cotton in Virginia, your family had mills in New York, and your family was building ships in Maine. So the English started taxing goods coming into the colonies and taxing goods coming out of the colonies. Did we like that? No. So we threw his tea in the harbor and staged a protest.
But what started the American Revolution? When the English marched on Lexington and Concord to take our guns and powder from the armories. That’s what started the Revolution. The English came back in 1812 and tried it again, but we sent them back to England again.
Now, during this entire story, the English fought the Spanish, they fought the Natives, they fought the French, and they fought Us. And during all that fighting, more than a few English soldiers died.
And at that time in history, any English soldier killed in battle had to be buried under English soil. (This was a royal decree). Now, throughout history when England was fighting In Europe (usually with the French) if a soldier was killed, it was only 26 miles across the English Channel and you could bury him under English soil. But here, it was a long journey on a horse to the coast and then three months in the bottom of a ship back to England (which is called the hold for a good reason) before you could bury what was left.
So, English Commanders came up with a plan. Whenever a soldier was killed, after the battle, they would dig a grave, say a prayer, cover it over, and then the Commander would reach into his pack and pull out a little tin which contained English soil, which he would sprinkle over the grave, now it was legal, he was buried under English soil.
And whenever the Commander would visit his home in England he would hand the tin to his servant and tell him to fill it up. Now where could he find soil, already dug up and easy to get? The Garden. And one of the plants grown in English gardens as a potherb is Plantain. And you can guess what happened, whenever a soldier was killed, they dug a grave, said a prayer, covered it over, and sprinkled the English soil over the grave along with the seeds of the Plantain.
The Native People knew this was a different plant and that it followed the English wherever they went, so they called it “The White Man’s Footstep”.