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The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republicby John Demos
Synopses & Reviews
• CHAPTER SEVEN •
American Tragedy: Renascence and Removal
Removal” lies at the heart of the story we commonly tell about Indians in the nineteenth century. At first glance, removal and the grand project of “civilizing” heathen peoples appear to be opposites. Yet on the deepest level, they were joined—were, indeed, different expressions of the same impulse. For the civilizing process imposed a complete renunciation of traditional lifeways; as such, it was another form, a cultural form, of removal. In the case of Indians, it meant essentially this: Let them become farmers instead of hunters, Christians instead of pagans, cultured in the manner of white people instead of “savage.” Then maybe—just maybe—they can be absorbed into the national mainstream. However, by the 1820s and 1830s, many whites had already given up on that possibility—at best it seemed impractical; at worst, dangerous— and were coming to favor actual physical removal. Just drive them out, send them far away—across the Mississippi River at least—and leave them entirely to themselves. (And then let us have their land.)1
One way or another—through either kind of removal—the native presence would be finished; hence the increasingly prevalent trope of “the vanishing Indian.” To be sure, this supposed “vanishing” was cause for regret, even guilt, among a certain portion of whites, mostly “benevolent” reformers on or near the East Coast. Farther inland, and especially among those living close to the frontier, neither regret nor guilt would be much in evidence. There, the prevalent attitude could be reduced to
a single phrase: Be gone! That suggests another, much sharper term— drawn from our own twenty-first-century world—to replace the more neutral-sounding removal. In short, “ethnic cleansing.”2
Removal—in the straightforward sense of relocation—had been part of American history from the settlement years onward. In its earliest phase, it was irregular, haphazard, ad hoc, and closely tied to warfare. Thus, in seventeenth-century Virginia, sporadic outbursts of violence (especially in 1622 and 1644) between white settlers and the so-called Powhatan Confederacy led to a treaty confining local Indians to a small part of the territory previously theirs. Farther north, in New England, a similar outcome followed the conclusion of the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip’s War (1676). In Carolina, after defeat in a bloody conflict with colonists (1713), thousands of Tuscarora Indians migrated north to join the Iroquois Confederacy.3
As time passed, the transfer of lands and the movement of native peoples could also be accomplished peaceably, through a combination of formal purchase, negotiation, and government pressure. This was repeatedly the case, for example, in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, where Shawnees and Delawares ceded one large tract after another, by deed or treaty, before moving on to what is now eastern Ohio. In the 1740s and 1750s, the Ohio country itself became a scene of contest between colonists and native tribes—until the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768) secured major Indian land cessions and established a new “line of settlement” roughly following the course of the Ohio River. Here, the Delaware (or Lenapi, as they originally called themselves) were directly involved once again. Indeed, the story of this particular group, spreading across many generations, was especially remarkable for serial removals. After relocating from Pennsylvania to Ohio, the Delaware would go on to Indiana (Treaty of Greenville, 1795), to Missouri (several more treaties, 1818–26), to Kansas (1829), and finally to Oklahoma (1850s and 1860s). One might well say that removal became central to their very identity.4
At the start of the nineteenth century, the vast territory obtained through the Louisiana Purchase appeared to open new avenues for removal. And the process itself became more organized, more systematic, with governmental authorities—at both federal and state levels— increasingly in charge. Thomas Jefferson, as president and prime mover for the Purchase, was especially active this way. In 1804, Congress formally authorized him to negotiate with “Indian tribes owning lands on the east side of the Mississippi [to] exchange lands [for] property of the United States on the west side.”5
The results of such initiatives were profound. To the north, there began a complex process of relocating various tribes in the vicinity of the Great Lakes: Chippewa, Ottawa, Pottawattamie, Wyandotte, Menomenie, Winnebago, Sioux, Fox, Sac (among others). The overall direction of this movement was from the east side of the lakes (especially the Michigan Territory) to the west side (Wisconsin, which had also gained territorial status), and then to sites fully across the Mississippi. In the meantime, too, some native groups had moved to Wisconsin from much farther east—for example, Iroquois from upstate New York, and the Stockbridge (Massachusetts) Mahicans.6
But it was in the Southeast that removal would have its most dramatic enactments—and would most fully approximate ethnic cleansing. There, what were known as “the five civilized tribes”—Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee—remained relatively well entrenched into the early nineteenth century. However, a series of treaty-based land cessions, begun long before, had eaten away much of their territorial base. Then, in the 1830s, all five were subject to federally mandated relocation in the newly designated Indian Territory (what is today the state of Oklahoma). Some ten thousand Choctaws were forced from their homes in Mississippi between 1831 and 1833. The migration of the Chickasaw from southern Alabama was spread out over a longer period, roughly 1837–50. The Creek mounted a strong resistance, but even so they were driven out (also from Alabama) during a three-year stretch, starting in 1834. The Seminole fought removal with extreme tenacity, retreating from their original settlements along the coast of Florida to its swampy interior, from where they conducted sporadic guerilla warfare against federal troops, lasting well into the 1850s. Most were eventually put to flight or killed, but enough remained to support several reservations, which are part of Florida to the present day.7
And then, the Cherokees—the most famously removed group of all. Considered whole, theirs is a story of remarkable, but doomed, achievement. As such, it shadows, on a vastly grander scale, that of the Foreign Mission School—high hopes, valiant effort, leading to eventual tragic defeat.
Indeed, by 1825, the Cherokees were widely considered “the most civilized tribe in America.” This description included both a salute to
all they had accomplished and the seeds of their destruction. “Civilization” remained the official goal. But success with the goal might under-mine other interests crucially important to whites. Success would mean accepting them, on equal terms and with equal rights. Success would mean competing with them for valuable resources. Success would mean including them as partners on the route to America’s “manifest destiny.” Was the country at large ready for all that?
"Demos, a Yale historian and master of micro-history (Bancroft and Parkman Prize winner for Unredeemed Captive), turns his attention here to a well-intentioned 1820s effort to create a Connecticut school to Christianize 'heathens' (mostly Indians and Hawaiians) and send them forth to missionize. The sad, sometimes tragic, results could have been anticipated. Some of the young male students, two Cherokees foremost, became enamored of town daughters. The consequences, perhaps inevitably, were instances of racism, clerical fear, an overall public hubbub, leading to the school's collapse. But not before two long and apparently successful marriages between the Cherokees and the towngirls were conducted. Those Indians eventually became noted leaders during their tribe's searing dispossession and exile westward — of their 'ethnic cleansing' — wherein one of them was murdered by a fellow tribesman. Demos tells this tale with scarcely hidden feeling. His research is characteristically prodigious, his writing disarming, and his story captivating and of national resonance. However, his first-person usage (a recent minor fashion among historians) intrudes on that story, and strange typographical mannerisms (long passages in small typeface) blemish a marvelous story that needed no such embellishments." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
The astonishing story of a unique missionary project—and the America it embodied—from award-winning historian John Demos.
Near the start of the nineteenth century, as the newly established United States looked outward toward the wider world, a group of eminent Protestant ministers formed a grand scheme for gathering the rest of mankind into the redemptive fold of Christianity and “civilization.” Its core element was a special school for “heathen youth” drawn from all parts of the earth, including the Pacific Islands, China, India, and, increasingly, the native nations of North America. If all went well, graduates would return to join similar projects in their respective homelands. For some years, the school prospered, indeed became quite famous. However, when two Cherokee students courted and married local women, public resolve—and fundamental ideals—were put to a severe test.
The Heathen School follows the progress, and the demise, of this first true melting pot through the lives of individual students: among them, Henry Obookiah, a young Hawaiian who ran away from home and worked as a seaman in the China Trade before ending up in New England; John Ridge, son of a powerful Cherokee chief and subsequently a leader in the process of Indian “removal”; and Elias Boudinot, editor of the first newspaper published by and for Native Americans. From its birth as a beacon of hope for universal “salvation,” the heathen school descends into bitter controversy, as American racial attitudes harden and intensify. Instead of encouraging reconciliation, the school exposes the limits of tolerance and sets off a chain of events that will culminate tragically in the Trail of Tears.
In The Heathen School, John Demos marshals his deep empathy and feel for the textures of history to tell a moving story of families and communities—and to probe the very roots of American identity.
Nearly two decades in the writing, The Heathen School is the award-winning historian John Demos's vivid story of how a small New England school for "heathens" embodies the larger story of America.
In Cornwall, Connecticut, a picturesque village best known today for its antique covered bridge, there once was an old "heathen school" created to "civilize" children from around the world. There were boys and young men from Hawaii, India, and China, as well as some Jews from Europe and of course plenty of Native Americans; they were to be educated and sent back to their own lands to help their own peoples. The students soon became virtual celebrities at a moment when America was just starting to see itself as an international power. Yet when two Cherokee students fell in love with local girls, things turned out quite differently than planned, setting off crises that would ultimately shape the fate of the Cherokee Nation. The Heathen School is a moving story of families and communities, as well as a profound exploration of American identity.
About the Author
John Demos is the Samuel Knight Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University. His previous books includeThe Unredeemed Captive, which won the Francis Parkman Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Entertaining Satan, which won the Bancroft Prize. He lives in Tyringham, MA.
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