Tag Archives: Native Americans

Re-organizing the paper

Readers will note that I’ve been working on shaping up a conference paper I delivered last January at the American Society for Church History conference for submission to journals.  (See the abstract here.) The writing group with whom I am working this semester has been extremely helpful in keeping my ear to the ground for making adjustments to my piece.  Below is a current proposed “re-organization” model for the paper.  We’ll see how closely I hold to it in these final weeks prior to submission.

Outline draft, Nicholas Aieta, “Listen to Your Father’s above”

1. Purpose of paper
2. Intro to missionaries under discussion – Merrill, Allis (more background here?)
3. Geographic/topographic discussion of Nebraska (human and physical)
A. White historical
B. Physical nature of plains
C. Native inhabitants – Pawnees, Otoe-missouria (extend sourcing here? Difficult given limited quality secondary source accounts on these tribes)
4. Introduction of white-native interactions
A. Traders
B. Gov’t sources (agents, military, treaties, etc)
C. Missionaries – connection with work of gov’t
5. Moses and Eliza Merrill
A. Personal background
B. First Nebraska arrival
C. Work among Otoe-Missouria
6. Samuel and Emmeline Allis
A. Personal background – should be extended?
B. Interactions with Merrill family
C. Work among Pawnees
7. Historians’ debates regarding the work of missionaries (move?)
A. Tinker
B. Fisher
C. Rollings (some comparisons with Osages and work done by Merrill and Allis – move?)
8. Regard for natives held by Merrill and Allis
A. Does this contradict or reinforce historians’ debates about missionary work?
B. Conclusion regarding this study and work of Merrill and Allis (Tinker & Axtell discussed)

Self-Assessment – paper needs significant revision and tightening; if purpose is to use the Merrill and Allis missionary work as an example that fits within larger conversation about historians’ analysis of missionaries among natives, then the purpose section needs reworking; current section 7 should be elevated to earlier in the paper? Background on Nebraska and the native people in general might be lifted or restructured? Make connections between Coleman’s call for more individual missionary studies and what I am proposing here more obvious? Tie the observations about Merrill and Allis to historians like Tinker, Rollings, Fisher,  etc.


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Abstract for ASCH paper re-write

Today’s post is an exercise engaged with the writing process I am following this semester based on a campus writing group and Wendy Laura Belcher’s workbook on creating journal articles.  Submission of the full-length version of this paper is one of my projects for the semester.  Below is a draft of an abstract based on this paper (originally presented at the American Society for Church History conference in January 2014) .  Writing and revising the abstract was an exercise for this week.  What I am posting is abstract 8.0, and I’m  certain it needs some additional revision but hopefully readers can get the gist of the paper from this piece.

“‘Listen to the words of your Father above.’ Ministering the Natives of Nebraska in the early 19th Century”

Christian missionary efforts among Native Americans have both a long history and historiography.  Christian priests, ministers, and missionaries have attempted to convert native people in North America to Christianity for centuries and during the last 50 years or so, historians have increasingly attempted to understand the relationship between such missionary efforts and their impact on native life.  Nearly fifty years ago, Robert Berkhofer demonstrated that missionaries had a tremendous impact on native life and culture, arguably because the main goal of missionaries was to alter that very life and culture.  Thirty years later, pastor and historian George Tinker took this view to an extremely harsh interpretation, stating that missionaries were nothing less than partners in “cultural genocide.”

For native people as a whole, one must wonder, what was the appeal of Christianity or American civilization at all?  How might access to this new faith and/or new products enhance people’s lives in any way? Would, as historian Willard Rollings describes, “individualism” hold a torch of progress aloft for Native Americans and how might one define “progress” in the first place?  In the last thirty-five years, historians Michael Coleman, James Ronda, and James Axtell have all called for fresh examinations of mission history – the former encouraging critical case studies of individual missions and missionary societies.  The latter two, along with Tinker, see missions as culturally revolutionary and seek to focus attention on native responses to such intrusions.  This study seeks to ask questions  about the experience of specific missionaries in the period of the Early Republic and whether these particular missionary experiences fit the model of “cultural genocide” as enunciated by Tinker.

Around 1819 at Fort Atkinson, one of the first Christian sermons was delivered in what would become the territory, and later state of Nebraska. By the 1830s, missionaries such as Baptist Moses Merrill, and Presbyterian Samuel Allis were preaching their message among the Otoe-Missourias, Omahas, and Pawnees. In preparation for his journey, Merrill spoke of his desire to have the Lord’s help in preparing for service, “among these benighted Indians. May we be the honored instruments of turning many from darkness to light.”

Allis arrived in Bellevue after the Merrill family did in 1834 and then moved farther west and served as missionary to the Pawnees until 1845.  After 1845, Allis built and briefly ran a boarding school for natives before returning to the Bellevue area in 1851.  Also in the 1830s, the Belgian Catholic priest Father Pierre-Jean De Smet conducted services and baptisms in the area, chiefly among fur traders, those of French descent, and certain natives who had taken on the Catholic faith.

Men like Merrill, Allis, and De Smet thrust themselves into largely ‘foreign’ environments within the boundaries of property owned by the United States but contested by various native people.  These frontier missions were both probes into native space and extensions of white American culture that differed from trading posts and military encampments.  The missions, and those who ran them, sought to both build relations with native people and, in most instances, challenged and changed native culture. To that end, Allis went so far as to suggest that missionaries who committed to marrying into native tribes would have greater success.  Despite this somewhat ‘radical’ thought, Allis also subscribed to at least one traditional approach. Conversion for natives was more likely to be successful once people like the Pawnees shed aspects of their lifestyles and came to mimic white farmers.

Other missionaries believed that conversion had to come first in order to lead natives to civilization.  Ultimately, disagreements over conversion efforts (style, sect, speed, etc.) led to debates and discussion as to the purpose and intent of white men such as Allis living among the Pawnees and other native people.  In many ways, debates between some of the Christian missionaries and other Americans were more lively than any discussion between native people and missionaries in general.

This is not to suggest that there was not some level of respect for native culture. Allis in particular was an admirer of the Pawnees and their ways of life, even suggesting that native people like the Pawnees had a lot more positive to be said about them then the white settlers who displaced them. Allis pointed out after two winters and one summer among the Pawnees that he had learned aspects of their language and culture in his time living among these native people, but also much about their character as fellow human beings.

Allis and Merrill can be described as both sympathetic to their native neighbors and conversion targets, and still judging from their own world view.  My reading of the experience of these two particular missionaries in Nebraska does not reveal a concerted effort at “cultural genocide” as Tinker might conclude.  To successfully judge the Pawnees, Otoe-Missourias, and New England missionaries by their own standards, as should be done according to James Axtell, is difficult because we are examining a clash of two societies.  This study focuses on the perspective of Allis and Merrill – the views of Otoe-Missourias and Pawnees living near the missionaries are only presented through the lens of their American neighbors.  Here is where Tinker has a point – Allis and Merrill may have been well-intentioned, but their actions still, in the end, could be viewed as causing harm and perhaps, due to conversion efforts and cultural interchange, limit our ability to achieve Axtell’s vision of interpreting native society by its own standards.

I would like to thank a number of people who have aided this project – panel chair Lindford F., panelists Joshua R., Brian F., and the audience at the ASCH session who all provided valuable resources and feedback to the original paper; writing group members Chalet S., Brian C., Cindy G., and Stephanie G. who all pointed out that the “lede” was buried!  Thanks to writing group members Hillary S. and Joe C. as well for help with another matter on the native imagery project!

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Sabbatical research continued

For the second time in one week I was fortunate to spend several hours at the New-York Historical Society working in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.  On this visit I was chiefly concerned with utilizing a digital camera to document a number of the images I had discovered on the previous Tuesday.  I had enough time to take over 170 pictures, while also working my way through four books and three additional boxes of archival material before the doors closed.

While most of the pictures covered images from the Bella C. Landauer collection, I was also able to snap a few from the Gosman family papers.  These two collections offered me a broad spectrum of materials that presented a variety of views of Native Americans from the 1840s through the early 1940s.  Landauer was chiefly concerned with the advertising world and as a result, the bulk of images I’ll be analyzing from her group included pamphlets and broadsides related to so-called Indian patent medicines.  The Gosman collection, as I mentioned the other day, was a completely unexpected piece.

The Gosman family’s papers reach back to the eighteenth century but the contributions from a teenaged Richard Gosman are thus far the only pertinent pieces.  Gosman was heavily influenced by publications like Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.  Below, a comparison between an actual Leslie’s publication and a cover for Gosman should give readers a sense of what I am seeing when working with the material.








Gosman clearly consumed and understood the manner in which these papers operated as well as their intended audience.  Much of his written text as well as the general content for his versions of the press contain stories that mirror the style one would see in the time period in question.  Gosman’s pieces were brought to my attention largely because of the large number of Native Americans included throughout his newspapers.  Gosman’s images reflect a general nineteenth century American sensibility about what Native Americans “should” look like.  Despite the fact that the young boy grew up in a state with a strong Native American presence, (the Iroquois Confederacy), Gosman only seemed to envision natives as ensconced in fringed leggings, eagle feather headdresses, and, typically, involved in conflict with white Americans.  If indeed Gosman had seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at Madison Square Garden (as is implied in one edition), it is no wonder that his understanding of Native Americans would prove so limited.  Another comparison is apt so I’ll include another sample from a Leslie publication (one aimed at younger boys and girls) and a piece from Gosman.







There is much more to be done with Gosman’s pieces and I have a number of examples to more thoroughly analyze.  I’m also convinced that if similar collections to Gosman can be discovered, there will be value in pursuing a separate project that explores how children and young people co-opt elements of the adult world in creative ways.  Between Gosman and the Landauer collection though, I believe I have extended the possibilities of the study.  The day before I returned to the archives, I determined that a database would prove necessary in terms of keeping track of the types of images, region of origin, purported Native American tribes represented, scenes depicted, media, etc.  I’m hopeful that building a catalog of the examples I find will allow myself and other researchers to more thoroughly understand the choices made by individuals in representing native people as well perhaps shed some light on why this problem continues.

Although I will explore Landauer in more detail separately, a few brief words and an example of this collection is worth remark.  The bulk of the collection I examined focused on medicine companies from the late nineteenth-century, many of which were located in the northeastern United States, yet that laid claim to close connections with Native American medicines and “spiritual” solutions to physical ailments.  In particular, the Kickapoo Medicine Company of New Haven, CT took great liberties with the history of the Kickapoos in general, presenting an invented “sagwa” liquid as a cure all for many an ailment.  In large, lavishly illustrated pamphlets, the company presented the “history” of the Kickapoos and the arguments for why their medicines were of great benefit to the general public.  A cursory level of research on my part reveals zero connection between the founders of this company and the Kickapoos themselves.  Like Gosman, the founders of the company chose to illustrate native life on their own terms.  While I’m not surprised by my initial findings, I am curious to see where the pursuit of additional ephemera takes me.



*Gosman and Landauer Collection images from the NY-Historical Society


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Sabbatical synopsis

This fall, I am embarking on the first sabbatical of my academic career. I began teaching twenty years ago in January 1994 as an adjunct at Northeastern University; other than a brief break when I was a non-teaching assistant in graduate school, I have been working. Part of my sabbatical plan for this fall is to engage with historical research and writing in a more regular manner than I have since about 2009. I have been fortunate in engaging with teaching a subject I truly enjoy – the methodology of teaching history – but that coursework, and advising future secondary school history/social studies teachers, has occupied the majority of my time over the past five years.

My application was relatively simple: “I am requesting a sabbatical in Fall 2014 in order to complete research and begin analysis of the ways in which visual culture represent Native Americans in the nineteenth century.” In addition I pointed out that this particular project stemmed from some rudimentary work I did in relation to the National Endowment for the Humanities program in summer 2012 (see blog posts from July 2012).

I have had the great fortune of finding a campus-sponsored writing group this semester as well. A group of fellow faculty and myself are all working through Wendy Belcher’s text on writing articles for publication. I have set the goals of editing a paper I presented in January 2014 on missionaries in Nebraska in the early nineteenth century as well as completing a book proposal based on my research into frontier community development in Nebraska. In addition, I hope to get a draft worked through of this research on how Native Americans are represented in visual culture.

This past Tuesday I re-visited the NY-Historical Society and was delighted to discover a number of sources that will aid me in research and perhaps even inspire a few additional avenues of writing. The bulk of today’s post is focused on writing up what I found on Tuesday, with a few thoughts on the steps I might take from here.

Several pieces from the manuscript side struck me as useful for courses I teach such as Native American History or the United States history surveys.  I quickly made notes on a few items referenced below that would likely require return visits and perhaps photographs.  In some instances, I wrote down quotes that I believe might prove useful as exercises with students in future classes – perhaps providing the students with the quote and some historical context and then working through quick analysis schemes.

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 1

  • 22 August 1710 – brother we are told that the great queen of great brittain had sent a considerable Number of People with your excellency..to Setle upon the Land Called Skokere?, which wasa great Surprise to us and we were much Dissatisfied at the news, in regard the land belongs to us as your excellency has seen yesterday by the instructions which were given by the late Lieutenant Governor John Nansan to Hendrick…dated the 19th of May 1699…
  • June 21 1842 – letter from Quakers referring to Indians invoking the “present evil and destroyer of the human race is whiskey” you cannot prosper in any undertaking without refusing to taste, touch, or handle this unclean thing.  Your white brethren are so well convinced of this truth that a great change has come over them in this respect.  It is considered among them to be unmanly and disgraceful to use firewater…

Years ago I completed a long bit of research on factionalism in the Cherokee Nation from the 1830s through the Civil War period.  I had originally intended to return to this field for my Ph.D. research and then I wrote on other topics but I am always interested in finding new materials – in this case I was able to hold in my hand an original letter written by Principal Chief John Ross!

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 2

  • February 15 1864 letter from John Ross regarding the suffering Cherokees
  • September 26, 1871, office of US Agent for the Cherokees

I was curious about these comptroller records that seemed to indicate how land sales were conducted in lieu of the residents (natives) paying some form of tax.  It’s not a project in which I’m engaged, but it interested me from the perspective of providing some different types of documents for students to work with in class.  The second item had a number of “animal totems” for signatures to represent assent on a treaty agreement by Delawares.  The particular images fell outside the purview of my study in both chronology and type (I’m trying to discern why people outside native culture choose to portray natives in a certain way) but I found the animals intriguing and discovered them on another document.

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 3

  • Comptroller, New York State lands sold in 1843 includes reference to Buffalo Creek Reservation for paying of tax? Total is $26.24
  • Reduced facsimile removed from Charles Heartman auction catalog book? June 11, 1932; treaty from 13 July 1765 featuring animal signatures for a variety of Delawares – deer female?, turkey, porcupine, wolf?, turtle?, possom, buck, fox or wolf?, beaver

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 4

  • Treaty/petition to the legislature of New York 12 January 1788 mixture of names and animal signatures, turtle, fox?, bear? Hendrick Onaghtoron…

My first find in the manuscripts side of the NY-Historical Society came only five folders into the process and immediately at the front of said folder.  It was the type of image I was not surprised to find, being an ad for tobacco products and featuring an image that uses regalia as well as a pose reminiscent of late 16th and early 17th century European perceptions of native people.

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 5

  • West Jersey Press, Wednesday June 23, 1869 ad for JP Grant manufacturer and dealer in cigars, tobacco, wholesale and retail, no 3 market street Camden NJ, ALL goods sold at Philadelphia prices native male leans on barrel and sack, loin cloth and breech clouts, leggings, tobacco Clay pipe on left hand smoking, musket in right, roach atop scalp, necklace of some type with shells?, plug of tobacco at his feet
  • Very interesting translation of Indian interpreter extract from book of town records Salem county New Jersey



The translations of certain dialects I found fascinating as well and certainly the material from folder 6 I plan on revisiting for a separate project related to missionaries among native people.

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 6

  • Translations of prayers Abenaki, Penobscot

The alleged portrait of Black Hawk was one of the few items I expected to find in this collection and for awhile I thought it might have gone missing from the box.  The sketch is purported to be the work of Dr. Samuel DeCamp, a military surgeon who served in the U.S. Army from at least the 1830s through his retirement in 1862.  The portrait is different from others of Black Hawk (a Sauk chief) I have seen, including a famous George Catlin piece.  The side profile is one such notable issue as is the pronounced nose – whether the work is therefore that of an untrained artist and any less “accurate” a portrayal I can’t say.  I’m curious to dig into this piece more and DeCamp’s background to see whether the claim in the file can be supported.

American Indian Collection, box 1, folder 7

  • Sketch supposedly of Black Hawk by Dr. Samuel DeCamp



The following collection was a great example of the kind of unexpected stuff that happens when you walk into an archive.  As soon as I explained my project to Tammy K. she immediately suggested I look at the Gosman papers.  It’s the kind of collection I never would have stumbled on with my own efforts, yet because she was paying attention at some point to these documents, they came to my attention.  Young Richard Gosman was between the ages of 11 and 13 when he produced what, in Tammy’s words, were in effect ‘zines of the nineteenth century.  He wrote articles, created the names of the papers, illustrated them, and drew up his own ads for each as well as kept track of volume numbers, etc.  If you peruse my rough notes below, you can see some of the cool observations one can make out of this type of primary source.  As my artist/actor friend Tony W. pointed out – something must be done about these papers!

What’s fascinating to me is the level of work and creativity Gosman placed into his creations – the recipes are likely from his own family kitchen in Long Island City, the most common add is for eggs from the RHG company (him), and there are great stories about seeing a variety of shows at Madison Square Garden.  The images Gosman creates of natives are exclusively those representing native people from the Great Plains, and, arguably, are largely Lakotas.  The young boys and older men are almost exclusively in fringed leggings and shirts and on horseback, often adorned with complex feather headdresses.  As some of Gosman’s drawings appear to be real people, one has to wonder whether he saw their images in programs from Wild West shows or in actual newspapers, etc.  Regardless, this particular collection opens up a lot of possibilities – there is ample material with which to work on the question of visually interpreting native people, but there is also much to consider in terms of the entire project.  Are there other such examples?  I feel as though there are multiple directions for this particular resource.

MS 257, Gosman papers 1747-1932

  • Richard Gosman school composition books
  • Gosman has created these interesting newspaper/club journals that reflect some interests of his (stories, fables, graphic representation) and he also populates his journals with ads, often for an egg producer who bears his own initials!
  • People’s paper January 1887 – article on how to get to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show from Blissville Long Island City to Madison Square Garden: gleasons car for three that would five cents, then the 34th street boat for 8 cents, then the 4th avenue cars for 38 cents if it is two persons and a child
  • Image in back “the Wild West soon to be managed by RHG – two plains Indians on horseback riding in saddles with reins, war paint is applied, fringed leggings and shirts, one native holds aloft a spear and has a long eagle headdress; the other no discernible weapon but feathers in hair;
  • March has recipe for queen muffins – quart of. Milk, 3/4 cup yeast, 2tbs white sugar, 1 tbs butter or lard, 1 tsp salt, flour to make a batter, 2 eggs; set batter leaving eggs out, to rise overnight, beat eggs very light stir into batter, bake on muffin rings on a quick oven twenty minutes; natives on back named Cut Meat, Rocky Bear, Sun Eagle; Rocky is “chief of the souixs” hand drawing a bow, Indian horseback saddle blanket and reins, spear, fringed leggings and shirt, one feather; natives on bottom have necklace, earring, two feathers minimum except rocky bear who has larger eagle feather headdress
  • Reference to PT Barnum show and John L. Sullivan, the boxing elephant? (from a rival circus show run by Adam Forepaugh?), as well as the skeleton of Jumbo
  • July 1887 Sioux boys breaking ponies image no saddles but reins; leggings with fringe at least one feather
  • April 1887 Flies Above and Red Bear; scene at bottom with trooper getting shot by native with pistol; one native down, several on horseback
  • August 1887 Indian fight ad in reference to circus
  • September 1887 how we brought the mail to Cisco features tale told by older man and illustrated with natives firing arrows at stage
  • December 1887 includes Father Christmas modeled after Nast? Long wolf with eagle headdress and earring; Indians running with fringe etc
  • January 1888 – Tim Tooley dying as struck by an arrow; native shot with pistol  one feather fringed sleeves, arrow, “fell like a log from his horse”
  • February 1888 native running no shirt, two feathers fringed leggings
  • Illustrated monthly no date native with eagle headdress on horseback no saddle, reins, fringed leggings, fringed shirt; hunting scene natives watching white hunter they are in background and have larger headdresses; native on back rides away from pistol bearing other
  • Harpers young people 1885 – several illustrations some native people with dogs, etc

Much of the Patriotic Envelope collection has been digitized and you can see some of that collection via a Library of Congress digital exhibit that the NY-Historical Society put together with funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

PR 117 Patriotic Envelope Collection Box 7

  • AJ89017 – the school of The Indiana zouve – union soldier zouve but in buckskins, fringed, moccasin, musket, powder horn, dead deer at feet
  • AJ90010 – USA published by car bell hartford, ct – Indian bare chested, breech clout, gun, blanket, necklace with bear claws, feathers overlooking waterfall and pine trees
  • Death to traitors envelope
  • AJ92004 – interesting sunny south our country babe (Hercules?) strangling snake of abolition and holding confederate flag
  • Admiral William T. Sampson image and native above him holding the American flag,  native has necklace and blanket, etc


PR 117 Patriotic Envelope Collection Album 4

  • Sailor next to native dressed in red blanket leggings, moccasins, holding hatchet, gold arm band, feathers in headband, background has natives in dugout canoes but they are spearing a deer????
  • America? Reclining against shield and with eagle roman type toga and headdress with feathers
  • Wigfall on his promised descent to Washington breech clout, leggings, fringe, tomahawk in hand (reference to Texan secessionist Louis T. Wigfall)
  • Envelope featuring Washington holding a musket and looking on a portrait of himself dressed as roman, Columbia or liberty is with him and there are two natives  one with scalp lock feathersm blanket, breech clout, and other with longer hair, feathers, spear and blanket

PR 117 Patriotic Envelope Collection Box 8

  • Maybe in the future look at folder five as it has some interesting language choices in terms of calling for a “greater” United States Spanish American war era

PR 301 Decorative Envelope Collection Box 1

  • Nothing really in here though there are a few firsts that could be interesting to some people with Olympics envelopes and a series from the White House that lists presidential dates?

As in manuscripts, I was aided in the print collection by some folks who, once they heard what I was looking for, made some suggestions.  The Bella Landauer collection was something I had a vague recollection of from my visit in 2012, but I hadn’t read the finding aid online as yet.  This collection clearly exhibits characteristics of a needed deep read because in two folders alone from one box I found quite a few examples that will prove useful.

PR 031 Bella C. Landauer Collection Series II, Ephemera Box 37

  • Folder miscellaneous – need to examine some dates but this one is worth a deep return visit as it includes numerous illustrations as well as a fantastic pamphlet from Edwin Eastman “captured and branded by the Camanche Indians in the year 1860” which includes a long listing of medicines Eastman learned about while captured; several pieces in German which is useful, and a Cherokee medicines and rejuvenating elixir pamphlet from Dr. Merwin and Company
  • Folder Kickapoo – “the Indians as a race, represent the embodiment of perfect health.  From the time the pilgrim fathers…”

All in all, it was a profitable visit and one I am likely to soon repeat so I can take more time with the collection.  Along with looking at these objects directly, I’ve been reading a variety of secondary sources to help contextualize the images I’m looking at in this archive and others I hope to visit this fall.  Meantime, you can find me on occasion near 79th and Central Park West, hanging with Frederick Douglass or perhaps Abe Lincoln.






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NEH recap part one, The Constitution and Expansion of the United States

This spring, I applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for College and University Teachers program that promised to present a comprehensive examination of westward expansion and the Constitution in the early American republic. The expressed purpose was to focus on the role of government and constitutional limits in the United States in a time period when it was aggressively extended its borders. I was excited to work with the staff including co-directors Paul Gilje and Kevin Butterfield, along with scholars in residence like Fay Yarbrough, Andrew Cayton, and Amy Greenberg among others.

During the first week we looked at the colonial period, taking the story through the American Revolution and the establishment of the Constitution with help from our directors as well as Peter Onuf and legal scholar Lindsay Robertson. and then explore how Americans interpreted that Constitution in the first half of the nineteenth century as the nation reached across a continent.

Among other issues discussed as they relate to American expansion, the institute presented readings and lessons on the treatment of Native Americans and the institution of chattel slavery. We ended with a discussion of the Mexican-American War. Another purpose of the institute was to explain the origins of the ideas of Manifest Destiny and “[portray] American expansion as a halting, debated, and contingent set of experiences that included crucial questions central to citizenship, race, ethnicity, and, of course, the Constitution.”

Opening remarks
Kevin Butterfield teaches in a relatively new constitutional program at University of Oklahoma housed in a department of classics and letters. This department is staffed currently by historians and Butterfield co-directs with a scholar of the Roman republic, Kyle Harper.

It was presented to us that the physical space of Oklahoma is relevant for discussing the issue of westward expansion – clearly from a geographic perspective there is a utility in our location, but also the historical reality of Indian removal has an impact on this state. The organizers purposefully stopped the discussion in 1848 as there are enough constitutional questions up through this period to consider.

After introductions from the group, we began with a presentation from historian Peter Onuf on colonial antecedents as they relate to empire and expansion. Onuf introduced the point that American expansion antedates the American Revolution and also grew out of the process of English colonization.

Early in the discussion, Onuf asked us “how seriously do we as Americans take the Declaration of Independence as both a document AND a historical moment?”  By beginning the conversation with the framing and founding of independence as well as the creation of the Constitution, Onuf encouraged participants to think about the document in a collective manner.

Arguably, the Constitution enables the continuation of a process of colonization.  It helps the United States to protect the expansion of racialized slavery – SC and GA won’t join the union without these guarantees for the peculiar institution.  With this idea, Onuf asked us whether we examine the constitution as part of discontinuity rather than continuity?  Was it, therefore, the civil war that tremendously altered the fundamental principles of government rather than the American Revolution?  Such a question is at odds with other historians’ interpretations as to the importance of the American Revolution, but both Professors Onuf and Cayton helped participants see the value of at least considering the idea of continuity as a driving force in shaping American history.

Important Questions
As befits the opening day of an institute considering some particularly challenging readings and new paradigms of historical interpretation, the organizers and guest lecturers often peppered the talks with a variety of rhetorical questions along with queries meant to inspire discussion or, in some cases, get a rise out of us.  Some inspired samples of these lines of inquiry follow and on occasion, participants and lecturers were able to return to these themes.

  • Are the American people a self-invented people? We are subjects but after July 1776 have we truly broken the chains?
  • Does the environment lead us to barbarism or instead does it lead to freedom?
  • What can drive the Americans is a desire to have rights?
  • Sovereignty questions were and remain key – how do we resolve them? Were ideas driving the revolution or was it a tax revolt or both? Was it ideas of freedom and liberty that make a bigger difference? Or was there a concern based on money?
  • Idea of sovereignty is a radical abstraction-  why?
  • Is America a failed British state?
  • Was there trauma in breaking away from Britain?  If so, were colonial elites aware of the painful decision they had reached?
  • Can you discern nature’s laws as they relate to humanity and rule?
  • How does one sustain continuity when creating a new government?

Onuf made the case that we can now clearly see, through changing our view of the past regimes, some answers to these questions.  For example, though the Europeans would argue that Creoles (those of European descent, born in the Americas) are degenerating because they have left behind the world of refinement, American colonists want continuity of a sort with the life available in Europe.  In some instances, American elites who were worrying about these questions were at a distance from the civic and social connections available in portions of Europe, but were still highly cognizant of these connections.  Such provincial elites believed their rights and privileges as citizens of Europe were in danger.  Arguably, the revolutionary elite in what becomes the United States sought to continue these sets of rights and privileges above all else.

For years, Europeans had known that their future lay to the west – their justification for expansionest actions were often tied to the spread of liberty, civility, and more.  As a result of this connection, American patriots, it can be argued, are imperialists though, a very specific kind.  In many instances, Americans defend rights and concerns on a regional level (parochial), particularly focusing on the issues of governing themselves.  In addition to concerns over debt, American colonists aimed  concern at issues of property (slave, land owners, etc).1

Those concerns about property protection were, arguably, continuations from the period when we were under British rule.  American colonial elites made reference to the 1772 Somerset decision and the question as to whether an enslaved person could be sold into slavery from Britain to West Indies.  These same elites recognized this pre-revolutionary decision as a slippery slope and arguably wrote the Constitution in such a way as to expand protections of and concepts of ownership, though again, in the context of continuity.  Because corporate integrity of the colonies was important, it can be extrapolated that both sustaining and expanding the British empire was a key belief of the elite in Europe and among the colonies.

During/after the Revolution

When the colonial elites make the decision to engage with revolution, there is, a level of trauma that emerges.  Americans perhaps love our monarchs and then kill the king rhetorically but it was a painful process.  Americans invoked nature’s god to an extraordinary length as it related to rule, property, rights, etc.  When the colonial elites form their “Continental Congress” it is a term designed to signify the difference between the British of the isle versus the British of North America.  Onuf and others asked us to consider whether the word continent were a signifier of something greater? Did these colonial elites see the future of expansion and perhaps the potential of empire?  An interesting idea was presented regarding whether Americans desire empire (along the British model – one that preserves property and rights and provides security) yet are willing to risk anarchy.  Personally, I found this notion to be a particularly interesting idea.  Lying at the heart of the notion is the fundamental problem of how to maintain that union of empire, security, expansion, and preservation of rights.  Was it possible that the Constitution itself could sustain stability across the violence of the revolution?

It was argued that nature can be anything you accept as a given and that these givens change all the time, so perhaps it was possible to make war and a nation if you have continuity – Massachusetts for example maintained the second charter as its Constitution until 1780.  In wrapping up this discussion, Onuf considered the question as to whether an imperial constitution were a concept fundamentally in opposition to Parliament.  As the king was embedded in Parliament, that entity should have sovereignty – yet can that be so in the case of empire?  The Declaration, it could be argued, was suggesting that the king’s actions (or inaction in relation to actions taken by Parliament) had reduced colonial elites from one level to the next of the debased and enslaved – we had to strike out on our own in order to preserve the continuity of the protections, rights, and property, etc that the empire had previously provided.

In closing, Onuf observed that the British at home were, in some cases, ambivalent about the future of the colonial elites.  Scottish philosopher Adam Smith  argued in favor of letting the colonies go free so they can carry the overhead costs of running a government.  Smith suggested that the American colonial elite would still see their economy based on the metropolis centered in Britain so what would truly be the difference?  In addition to being a waste of money, the desire to keep control of the Americans was a violation of “the most sacred rights of mankind.”  Finally, Onuf asked an important question for students of the United States to consider – are we as Americans in denial about the traditions of continuity and expansion that exist within our U.S. Constitution?  Have we based our government on republican values in arguably an ostentatious way but also continued  the ideas of the imperial system in the form of protecting property, rights, security, etc?

Lindsay Robertson on land, law, and Indian Policy in the Colonial and Revolutionary era
Shifting gears to a more practical series of examples of expansion, Pr. Robertson spoke to participants about the study of law and practices by which land was acquired, purchased, and sold and how Indian titles to the land were extinguished by treaty, purchase, and by conquest.

Pr. Robertson offered us a useful exercise on teaching students about Spanish policy after Columbus’ arrival – instructors might have their students ask, what, were “we” (the Spanish), wanting in relation to this territory?  Ultimately, the Spanish created the encomienda system because they cannot pay the native people for the land.  All residents were forced to stay on the land and work for the Spanish officials in charge of the land.  Could students foresee such a system in their own responses, or perhaps a version of it?

Robertson asked another interesting question about why some Europeans began to question their purpose in the Americas as it related to legally acquiring land.  In Spanish territories, after 1513, the requiremento, an example of which can be seen here, was to be read on arrival explaining the legal right to land.  This tradition leaves the expanding modern world of the sixteenth century with virtually all countries where Spanish military conquest exists and a ruling class that is highly race conscious.  French Canada has some similar logic and the French also appealed to the pope to allow French merchants and explorers to bring Christianity to the Algonquian speaking people of the northern stretches of North America.

These two histories beg the question – why was the English experience different? As English expansion too place post reformation (largely after the 1530s) there remained a religious imperative, yet this reason was not the main motivating factor in extending English territory, property, rights, etc.  Arguably there was a more commercial enterprise dominating the experience, and the English entered into treaty systems in large numbers – different from the Spanish.  A typical treaty included boundaries, rules for peace, trade, criminal jurisdiction, etc.  Students might make use of the treaty of middle plantation in 1670s as an example.  Robertson emphasized that the colonial government of the English settlements was largely hypothetical – settlers were filing deeds willy nilly, so restrictions on land purchase (and therefore restrictions on liberty???) were placed into effect.  To extend our earlier conversation about concepts of continuity after the creation of the United States, this tradition became part of Federal law as well.

We closed our fascinating (and full) first day with discussions about continuity and discontinuity when it came to dealing with the Proclamation of 1763.  The question of land rights acquisition was, argued Robertson,  “future forward” interpreted based on Johnson v. McIntosh (or check out this 2 minute summary on youtube).  While the latter issue is focused on questions of “discovery doctrine,” the former restricted the ability (right? security?) of American colonial elites at extending their property.  Colonial governors were not permitted to grant land and people could not buy land on their own as per the proclamation by the king.

Getting land properly – with a warrant for fixed number of acres, locating the land through examination of public records, marking the boundaries with your initials, bringing  back description to the public record, hiring a licensed surveyor who then tries to find it based on your description – was a time consuming process that resulted in your being awarded a patent on the land.  After 1763, governors could not issue these patents – in theory, the proclamation prevented the “riff raft” from getting the land ahead of the elites.  These elites could locate and mark the land ahead of time awaiting the repeal of the proclamation – if one were to figure out the dates of issuance for license for a particular survey and did a mileage study, one could figure who might have filed claims a bit early.

Robertson described how this “legal” expansion worked for PA wealthy folks – the efforts of Camden and Yorke to change the laws (1757) were related to issues in gaining land title for the British East India Co. in India.  An individual named William Murray (1772) discovered that by slightly editing the document which had changed requirement to have the king’s signature for India lands, you could apply it to lands west of the Appalachians thanks to an accident of Columbian nomenclature (see Jack Sosin’s book on White Hall and the Wilderness for more and the original text of the 1757 document compared to the altered version would be a good classroom exercise).  Essentially, Murray bought land from the Illini near Kaskaskia for trade goods and wanted to sell the land to Pennsylvanians.  British military leaders point out this idea seems weird but ok, admonishing, “remember, you can’t live here.”  For their part, General Thomas Gage and Lord Dartmouth, among others, are confused – is this true?  Robertson told participants a wonderful tidbit about how Gage’s letter on this topic wonders about the repeal of the proclamation and contains a postscript about “some guys in Boston dressed like Mohawks.”  Ultimately, once the revolutionary war starts, the Illinois and Wabash land company tried to get the Continental Congress to legitimize the claims on these lands from before the war.

Because speculation was key to making money, 18th century rich individuals pushed to make money more so through land investment and in so doing, called for extension of British rules of empire – was this the continuity for which Pr. Onuf argued passionately earlier in the day? Perhaps.  At any rate, a long day’s introduction in to expanding the borders of the United States and considering the role of law in that process had come to a close.

1.It is important to note that British debt at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 was significant; 14,3000,000 pounds is worth more per capita than the current debt here in the United States (2014). In addition, resolving these financial issues were key to concepts of centralizing the British military state.

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Crossing over…

Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Students in my classrooms quickly learn that I enjoy working historical fiction and other non-traditional sources into my courses. There are any number of reasons for this strategy, but chief among them is to give students a different type of experience with history story-telling. Yes, some students get this type of story from watching history films, but my point is I would like students to get this type of narrative through reading.

Geraldine Brooks gives readers ample opportunity to explore story telling of the type that I believe can resonate with students of many ages. Not only is her narrative clear, but on several occasions, the visuals are so brilliantly crafted that you can “see” and sense the kind of colonial community she is attempting to bring to life. A fine example of this skill appears early in the text:

The labor was such that father trembled all over afterward….So it is, out here on this island, where we dwell with our faces to the sea and our backs to the wilderness. Like Adam’s family before the fall, we have all things to do. We must be fettler, baker, apothecary, grave digger. Whatever the task, we must do it, or else do without (5).

There are some who might not enjoy certain stylistic choices made by Brooks. Written in first person narrative, Caleb’s Crossing also makes an attempt at capturing the rhythms and alternative word choices of 1600s era New England. Not unlike watching a film in which English is the language, but the dialect or accents is quite foreign at first, the words and patterns become steadily more familiar. Still, this style seems a big stilted in some sections.

The last is but a minor complaint however. I found the book equally effective for creating a picture of the time period portrayed as M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and stronger than Caroline Cooney’s The Ransom of Mercy Carter, both of which I have used in the classroom. For younger students, some of Caleb’s Crossing
may explore themes that are difficult (eg, miscarriage, implied accusation of rape etc), yet the book’s value far outweighs any potential controversy.

Brooks provides the reader with a helpful afterward discussing the actual historical figures who inspired her writing, as well as commenting on a variety of sources and research. The inclusion of strong female and native characters are welcome as both Bethia and Caleb reflect more truly than most interpretations, the varieties of people extant in New England. We meet real historical figures along the way and indeed Caleb himself is based on a real person.

In addition to exploring the daily life of English settlers and native people, Caleb’s Crossing effectively reveals thoughts on the spiritual world of these “accidental” neighbors. Brooks lets readers better understand this particular past through descriptive narrative, creating characters we want to know more about, and by making language and words an important part of the story. Brooks clearly grasps that culture is embedded within language, and we can see that as Bethia and Caleb come to know each other and through the important use of Wampanoag words. It is a novel well worth reading, and should be considered a useful source to give students a readable and accurate portrayal of the time period.

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NEH Summer Institute 2012

This summer, I’ve been accepted into a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer institute hosted at the Graduate Center at City University of New York.  We’re discussing the visual culture of the American Civil War era with a host of experts and principal faculty members include Joshua Brown, executive director of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning and professor of history at CUNY, Sarah Burns, the Ruth N. Halls Professor of the History of Art at Indiana University, Gregory Downs, assistant professor of history at CUNY, and David Jaffee, professor and director of new media at the Bard Graduate Center.

My intent is to conduct research on how native people are represented through visual culture in the Civil War era.  The main focus would fall on representations of Dakota Sioux during the uprising of 1862, as well as how native soldiers in both armies were captured/represented in art, photography, etc..  An important component of the research would also be on how to take archival material and make it accessible in classrooms at both the secondary and higher education level.

I’m settling into New York a bit this morning and will be updating material and trying to post some writing every evening on my experiences.  Finally, this blog may get some more regular use!

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