American Indian Ethnography

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American Indian Ethnography

Between 1750 and 1829 Americans attempted to explain the Indian cultures they encountered as well as to identify Indian origins. Eyewitness and secondary accounts of Indian life or the lives of whites among the Indians became popular reading, and collections of Indian artifacts fascinated the American public. Observers of Indian societies—ministers, missionaries, government officials, Indian captives, explorers, traders, travelers—wittingly or unwittingly practiced ethnography, or the study and systematic recording of a culture. These records of Indian manners and customs reflect the authors' judgments against the backdrop of government policy regarding the Indians.

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase ushered in an era of expansion, and land and its use increasingly became the focus of debate on American-Indian relations. Land was precious to both groups, but the Americans had the advantage of the printed word on their side. Their writings applied descriptive and pejorative terms to Indians such as "wild," "savage," "primitive," and "heathen," rendering more persuasive the land claims of "civilized" Americans. Even sympathetic collectors and writers employed these stereotypes. The idea that the Indians were expendable took root.

ideas about indian origins

Throughout the period of Indian displacement and Indian wars, Americans pondered Indian origins. The Indian trader James Adair was likely the first to claim, based on his observation of taboos and eating habits, that the Indians were the Lost Tribe of Israel; others were to follow, such as Elias Boudinot, whose Star of the West (1816) portrayed Indians as strayed members of the Chosen People. The Scottish historian William Robertson thought Indians had migrated from Wales, calling them "exuberant Highlanders." Benjamin Smith Barton, in New Views of the Origins of the Tribes and Nations of America (1797), asserted that the Indians had originated in Persia and other parts of Asia.

ethnographic chronicles: positive and negative images

Prior to and during the French and Indian War (1756–1763), many positive images of Indians

emerged in the writings of observers and in records of transactions between Americans and Indians. In his memoirs (1753) Samuel Hopkins, a Congregational pastor in Springfield, Massachusetts, attached great significance to the introduction of Christianity to the Indians, whom he felt were ready to accept "civilization." In 1763 the interpreter Conrad Weiser detailed the Onondaga language and customs and the successful negotiations to establish a trading post in their nation. As Benjamin Franklin's printing of Indian treaties between 1736 and 1762 revealed, American officials learned that Indian councils followed strict protocol and rituals, such as using the wampum belt to seal agreements and the passing of the calumet to signify friendship, when engaging in land negotiations. Though a land speculator himself, Franklin decried aggression against innocent and friendly Indians. In 1764 he denounced the twenty-two massacres in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, incited by revenge for Pontiac's War of 1763. In his writings, the Quaker reformer John Woolman praised Indians as containing the "inner light" or knowledge of God. William Smith's An Historical Account of the Expedition Against the Ohio Indians, in the Year 1764 portrayed Indians as patriotic, independent, and lovers of liberty.

Captivity narratives depicting Indian societies fueled negative images of Indians. Mary Rowlandson's A Narrative of the Captivity, Sufferings, and Removes of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, first published in 1682 and reprinted many times, attests to the widely accepted notion of Indian cruelty. Other narratives also portrayed Indian brutality, such as Peter Williamson's French and Indian Cruelty (1757); William Walton's A Narrative of the Captivity and Sufferings of Benjamin Gilbert and His Family (1780); and Mary Kinnan's A True Narrative of the Sufferings of Mary Kinnan (1795). A somewhat milder version of Indian life was depicted in A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson (1796), by Suzanne Willard (Johnson) Hastings, who lived for four years among the Abenakis.

In the early nineteenth century, narratives and narrative novels began to portray Indian culture and people as having a sense of purpose. James E. Seaver recounted the praise of Indian people by Mary Jemison, who lived with the Delawares for seventy years, in his Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824). John Dunn Hunter's Memoir among the Indians of North America (1824) commended his captors, the Osages and Kansas Indians, for their intelligence, religiosity, and communalism.

Travelers and traders recorded scrupulously detailed accounts. Bernard Romans, in A Concise History of East and West Florida (1775), described Indians as unnatural and grotesque, whereas others took great care to observe and record indigenous cultures accurately. John Bartram, in Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals (1751), and his son, William Bartram, who wrote of his encounters with Indians of the Southeast in 1791, portrayed the Indians favorably. The trader James Adair, who lived with Cherokees and Chickasaws for forty years, wrote glowingly about Indian law, marriage, and religion in his History of the American Indians (1775). The Virginian Henry Timberlake, in his memoirs of 1765, characterized Cherokee culture as an improvement over British culture. The physician and reformer Benjamin Rush praised Indians for their wisdom in a 1789 essay on Indian medicine.

The expedition from 1804 to 1806 by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, commissioned by President Jefferson, and the publication in 1814 of Nicholas Biddle's history of the expedition, provided a wealth of information about Indians from the upper reaches of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition brought back Indian animal-skin maps, dress, and a host of other artifacts that Jefferson displayed in his Indian cabinet at Monticello. Encountering over fifty tribes, the explorers described Indians as simple savages, culturally inferior to whites and prone to stealing and sexual promiscuity.

the "vanishing" indian

One result of the Indians' encounter with Americans was the depletion of their populations. War, alcohol abuse, and disease took their toll. Travelers, government officials, Enlightenment philosophers, and missionaries put forth a theory of the vanishing Indian alongside notions of the noble and ignoble savage. Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on Virginia (1781–1782), called Mingo Chief Logan a doomed but, in the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's phrase, "noble savage." In his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Michel Guillaume St. Jean de Crevecoeur attributed the violence of the frontier as much to white settlers as to Indians, but other works, such as Hugh Henry Brackenridge's Indian Atrocities (1782), described the Indians as racially inferior to whites and of a wild and brutish nature. John Filson's The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke (1784) juxtaposed the heroism of Daniel Boone against the undisciplined, indecorous Indians.

Many works attested to the social harms of alcohol abuse among the Indians, citing it as the Indians' path to disappearance. Among them are Franklin's Autobiography (1784), Benjamin Smith Barton's Observation on Some Part of Natural History (1787), and Daniel Gookin's Historical Collection of the Indians of New England (1792), in which the Puritan missionary portrayed Indians as barbarians, decimated by disease.

"worthiness" of the indian: philosophy and literature

The founding of the American Philosophical Society in 1743, with Franklin as the first president and Jefferson as a leading member, fostered the pursuit of knowledge in the areas of ethnology and philology. The Moravian missionary John Heckewelder, who became a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1797, chronicled his experiences among the Leni-Lenape Delawares in History, Manners, and Customs of Indian Nations (1819). His commendation of Indian life, except for their refusal to abandon their "heathenism," became the focus of debates over Indian worthiness.

The writers Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper considered the attributes of Indians in their fiction and nonfiction works. In his 1813 essay, "Traits of Indian Character," Irving criticized the rapacious frontiersmen for breaking treaties and undermining Indian character; he also praised Indians for what he saw as their natural "wildness" stemming from long contact with nature. Cooper's novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826) extolled the Indian for having conquered the wilderness and passing it on to the white man. In 1829 John Augustus Stone's popular play Metamora, or The Last of the Wampanoags, based on the life of Metacomet (called King Philip by the colonists), reinforced American fascination with the vanishing "noble savage."

indian expendability and removal

In 1820 President James Monroe commissioned Jedidiah Morse to tour among the Indians and ascertain the "actual state" of Indian affairs. In Morse's 1822 Report to the Secretary of War of the United States on Indian Affairs, he pressed for immediate programs of "civilization." Policymakers agreed that the Indians were expendable, but they had serious doubts as to whether the Indians would accept acculturation programs. By 1829 the notion that Indians should be made peripheral to American society had become dominant.

Favoring a policy of Indian removal, Lewis Cass, the governor of Michigan Territory and later secretary of war to Andrew Jackson, dismissed Heckewelder's Indian history and Hunter's captivity memoir as presenting Indians in too favorable a light; he found The Last of the Mohicans superficial and romantic. Responding to the removalists, William Apess, a Pequot, admonished whites for driving Indians from their ancestral domains in his autobiography A Son of the Forest (1829). Jeremiah Evarts published essays against Indian removal in 1830 under the pseudonym William Penn, invoking the teachings of Penn as they correlated to Evarts's own beliefs about America's obligations, both legal and moral, to indigenous peoples.

Intellectualizing Indian existence failed to stop the push for Indian removal. The audience for printed materials and collected artifacts of Indian life lived along the East Coast, far removed from the Indians of the interior and the frontiersmen who came in contact with them. By 1829 the frontier voice was a deciding factor in the formation of a policy of Indian removal. Displacement and dispossession followed, and much of the literature by then accepted Indian expendability as a reality.

See alsoAmerican Philosophical Society; Autobiography and Memoir; Fiction; Louisiana Purchase; Racial Theory .


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——. A Narrative of the Late Massacres, in Lancaster County, of a Number of Indians, Friends of this Province, by Persons Unknown. Philadelphia: Anthony Armbruster, 1764.

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Rowena McClinton

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American Indian Ethnography

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American Indian Ethnography