Covid-19 and Writing History: The Stories We Tell

Covid-19 and Writing History: The Stories We Tell

What stories will we tell about this pandemic spring, and how will this time of dislocation, isolation and, in places, overwhelming grief, shape the stories we historians tell about those pasts we choose to investigate? The answers to these questions are always more connected than we care to admit.

There are of course the daily stories of the blundering incompetence of our most craven President, who fiddled while the virus burned up much of what seemed familiar and comfortable.  There are his brazen lies, his attempts to rewrite the past and erase his many denials of the magnitude of the health threat we all face, and his failure to deliver even a fraction of the testing kits he asserted would be ready by now.  Beside the stories of this president’s cowardice and malfeasance, there are the stories of heroic health care workers, doing battle against the virus often without the equipment that might allow them to do their work with less risk.  Of course there are the stories of those who have suffered and died, and those who grieve these deaths. There are many more of these stories yet to be written, I am afraid.  Anyone with the eyes to see knows this to be true. These stories can overwhelm if we let them.

            At home, I attempt to steal away moments here and there to work on the book project that has kept me busy for many years now.  It may be my last book.  Sometimes I feel that way when I consider the scope and scale of the project. The project gets bigger while my world, in a sense, becomes smaller. I work from home. I no longer encounter my students face-to-face, bump into colleagues, or visit libraries and archives. I keep my distance from others to keep myself safe. The world seems limited and constrained.

            When I attempt to look at this project in all its breadth, I find myself distracted, restless and anxious. Working on a project this broad requires me to think of the future, to make plans and set goals. I feel strange doing that now. It is only when I step back and slow down, and when I take a look at the small stories, that I am able to focus and devote some energy to my research.  I look at the smallest pieces of the puzzle, the most interesting pebbles on a beach of enormous expanse.

In January of 1907, Harrison Hill, a teenager from Onondaga shot and killed his brother-in-law Elijah Peters on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, located about halfway between Rochester and Buffalo in western New York.  Hill had attended the Thomas Indian School on the Senecas’ Cattaraugus reservation beginning when he was eight years old.  I have not been able to reconstruct all his movements. He left Thomas after four years.  A half decade later he got himself into some kind of trouble, and ended up at the state industrial school in Rochester.  The school’s records are housed at the Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester, but the archives are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.  All I know for sure is that once he got free or escaped or finished his term, he made his way to Tonawanda to live with his sister and her husband.  His mother joined him there shortly thereafter. 

            It is not clear to me exactly what happened next. I am certain that after some sort of confrontation that involved Hill asking Peters for money, Peters asked Hill to leave his house.  Some time later, Hill shot Peters as he exited the house, delivering to his brother-in-law the fatal wound.

            In every account Hill is described as educated and stunningly good looking. But sullen, and angry, as well.  After the shooting, he ran for it. Neither his sister nor his mother claimed to know where he had gone, but the police never believed them. They thought that he could be hiding in Syracuse, or on the Onondaga Nation territory, where he still had relatives. The police offered a reward for his capture, and two days later a sheriff captured him near the farm of a guy named Byron Gardner in Wyoming County.  According to the report in the Buffalo Courier, Hill “was walking in the road when he met the officer, armed with a loaded revolver from which two cartridges had been fired, and the sheriff believes that had the prisoner known him he would have had difficulty capturing him.”  Hill did not know that Peters had died.  The Courier reporter wrote that

 Hill is nineteen years of age, bright and intelligent looking, neat in appearance and speaks good English. He at one time attended the Carlisle Indian School and wore several pins on his coat, one of which was a fraternity pin from Carlisle. On arriving at the jail, he made a complete confession of the crime.

There is no evidence that Hill ever attended Carlisle.  It is hard to say where he got these pins, but undoubtedly he had family members who had spent time in Pennsylvania.  The description of Hill’s confession paints a vibrant, if incomplete picture, of a young man who found himself in a great deal of trouble:

He says that on the morning of the day of the shooting Peters turned him out of the house and he has a very quick temper it made him very mad and he determined to get revenge by shooting him.  He says he went to Peters’ house in the evening and concealed himself behind a clump of bushes near the rear of the house and that when he saw Peters coming from the barn he took aim and fired the bullet.  He says he fired but once and then ran, and after going to his room at Johnson’s and getting a package he walked that night to Oakfield and Batavia, and then to LeRoy and south to Pavilion.  He says that Tuesday and Wednesday nights he slept in barns and finally reached Gardner’s farm where he found a job cutting wood.  He stayed at Gardner’s Thursday night.  When asked if he was sorry for what he had done he said he was not; that he did not care much. He takes his arrest cooly and does not appear to be at all concerned over his fate.”

Many Onondagas attended boarding school.  Some went to Thomas, the state-run institution that remained open into the 1950s. Others went to the infamous Carlisle School in Pennsylvania.  A small number went to schools elsewhere—Lincoln, in Philadelphia, or the Haskell Institute in Kansas, and some others that I cannot think of. Some of them struggled when they came home. Some put their skills to use and did well for themselves.  For many, attending Carlisle was a badge of honor—even Harrison Hill who never went there wore Carlisle pins on his jacket. 

            I do not know how Simeon George felt about his time at the boarding school  He arrived at Carlisle in 1893. His student record is sparse, little more than a couple of information cards.  He attended sporadically, going home at his parents’ request between each May and October. After May of 1896, he never returned to the school. As a 22-year old, he was too old to attend the school any longer.

            I have not been able to find out much about George and his life at Onondaga.  He doesn’t show up in the newspapers. I cannot travel to the Nation territory to talk to people there about him until the pandemic subsides.

            What I do know for sure that is on April 21 1907, while Harrison Hill sat in jail awaiting trial on charges of murder, George was in his home on the reservation, eating supper. A knock at the door. George answered It was a sheriff’s deputy from Madison County, Michael Mooney.

            Deputy Mooney told George to finish his supper, but to come outside when he was done. Mooney told him he would wait.  George finished his meal quickly, and grabbed his coat.  He placed a loaded revolver in his pocket. When the deputy put his hand on George’s shoulder, he pulled out the gun and fired, wounding Mooney in the shoulder. As Mooney fell, George fired again, hitting him in the back.

            George ran into the house, leaving Deputy Mooney for dead.  He told his nineteen-year-old wife Lydia Billings, who he had married ten months before, that he was going to kill himself.  He ran from the house and headed toward an expanse of woods to the south.  “It was believed at the reservation yesterday that George had carried out his threat,” the Syracuse Post Standard reported.  That is what Lydia believed. She told police that one of George’s brothers had committed suicide four years earlier.

            But where was his body?  Police searched the woods for a couple of days.  People from the community, I imagine, must have helped out. They found nothing. By the 26th, police began to suspect that George was alive, that his announcement of his intent to kill himself was an attempt to throw the police off his tail.  Keep them busy, looking for his body, while he fled from the reservation.  A mail carrier in East Hamilton, about 45 miles east of the reservation, reported seeing an Indian who matched George’s description going door-to-door begging for whatever the residents might spare.

            The mail carrier, it turned out, had spotted someone who was neither George nor an Indian.  On the 29th, as Detective Mooney slowly recovered from his wounds, officers found George’s body, a bullet wound in his head, his revolver by his side.  They found him in the wounds a short distance from his house where he said he would go.

            Whatever his own demons, whatever he had done, Simeon George was loved.  His funeral took place at the reservation Wesleyan Methodist Church.  200 people attended, “the little church crowded to the doors.”  The entire twenty-one members of the Onondaga Indian band performed in his honor.  They performed a dirge entitled “Forest Home,” composed in 1898, and another piece called “Religioso.”  His life, about which it is so difficult to learn much at all, mattered immensely to those people at Onondaga who knew him.

Harrison Hill’s trial began three weeks after George’s funeral at the United States District Court. His attorney argued that Hill shot Peters in self-defense and never intended to hurt him.  Hill had gone to Peters’ house to ask for some money to help his brother, Moses Hill, who was incarcerated in the Onondaga County Jail on charges of grand larceny. Peters went after Hill, who fired the gun in an effort to frighten him. Hill took the stand in his own defense, and was “subjected to a sharp cross-examination on the part of the people, but in the main struck to the story given in his direct examination.” 

            The judge overseeing the trial, in his instructions to the jury, told them that Hill was entitled to a fair and impartial trial, “but that you must not be influenced by sympathy for his youth and must not consider it in your deliberations. There should be no prejudice against his race or color,” the judge said, “and nothing about his manner of testifying should influence you. You know,” he continued, “the nature of the Indian is stoical and any hesitations in answering questions should not militate against him.”

            I have not had a chance to try to find the trial record. The jury believed Hill. He was acquitted on all charges. I do not know what happened to him after that.  But I did find this story in the Rochester  Democrat and Chronicle seventeen months later: 

Robert Hill, 20 years old, an Onondaga Indian, was brought to jail last night by Railroad Detective Elliott. Hill was arrested on Thursday morning by Constable Charles Platt, of Gates, who arraigned him before Justice of the Peace Leddy on charges of burglary and larceny.  Hill was caught after he had broken into a freight car in the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburg yards in Lincoln Park.  …..Hill is a bad Indian.  Despite his years he has seen a good deal of the country. Some nine months ago he shot and killed his brother and law in an Indian settlement near Batavia. He was tried, but was acquitted. Next he was accused of having stabbed a brakeman in Salamanca.  He got away, and at Wyoming took off his coat and flagged a train. He rode into Rochester where he was arrested by Detective Spillings and railroad Detective Elliott. He wasn’t held long, as it was impossible to prove that he had done the stabbing.  Thursday morning Constable Platt found the red man industriously breaking open packages in a freight car in the Lincoln Park yards. When he started to place the Indian under arrest the latter drew a revolver. Platt didn’t wait for him to use it, but laid his flat on the Indian’s nose. The blow was so straight and so effective that Hill surrendered without further ceremony.  Director Whaley caused Hill to be photographed yesterday. He thinks the Indian is wanted in some Western state.

The details do not match up completely, but you have to admit that there are some similarities between the story of Robert Hill, a 20-year old from Onondaga arrested in October of 1908, and Harrison Hill, a 19-year old arrested in 1907.  It is a question I have not been able to investigate. Lydia Billings, Simeon George’s young wife, left the reservation after his suicide and found work at the Columbia Hotel in Niagara Falls as a domestic.  When the upper floors of the hotel caught fire in January of 1909, she jumped from the fourth floor to save her life.  According to the Buffalo Evening News, she “sustained a broken rib on the right side, a fracture of her right wrist and a fracture of the left ankle.”  I have many more unanswered questions, but for now, the trail has grown cold.

There has been in our profession a flourishing “microhistorical turn” over the span of the past decade or so.  I expect more of us will be drawn to these small stories if the suffering caused by the coronavirus continues and increases, as every informed person says it will.

The historical record left from these years will surely highlight the incompetence of the executive branch in the face of a global crisis and the grotesque self-dealing of the arrogant bunglers.  We will have numbers and charts and data, telling the story of the pandemic’s spread, and the damage it did as it slashed its way around the world. What might not show up easily in the archives of the future will be the brutal but quiet reality that this pandemic will have been the most important event in the lives of millions of Americans. It was this virus that took from them their lives and their loved ones, or led them to lose their jobs, their homes, or their businesses.  Dreams shatter.  The cord breaks in the spring of 2020, and nothing for these many people will ever be the same again.

            We historians look for the significance in the events that we write about. We do not simply recount the past. We identify and explain why it mattered.  We might find significance in a battle, an election, and act of Congress or an act of God.  Perhaps with this pandemic more of us will recognize that the events that make us who we are can be as small as a death in the family.

            In Native American history, we have become more attuned to historical trauma as a force shaping indigenous communities. Often we tie this to a history of violence, dispossession and disease.  In my own attempts to understand the history of the Onondagas, an indigenous community that would have disappeared long ago if their white neighbors had their way, I find immense meaning in these small stories, a way of knowing and seeing this history not often available in the conventional sources, conventionally read. If the coronavirus pandemic continues to inflict trauma as some people fear it might, these small stories will not only offer an essential means to view the history of this country during this ear, but an important means for speaking truth to power. There are those like this President and his craven supporters, for instance, who will attempt to distance themselves from the destruction their incompetence has wrought. These millions of small stories will stand as witness against them.  Perhaps it is true what one of the very wise Geneseo students who accompanied me to Oxford last year had to say: the bigger the issue, the smaller you write.

2 thoughts on “Covid-19 and Writing History: The Stories We Tell

  1. I am working on similar research and am at Tonawanda. Can you tell me anything you found about Elija’s surviving children if any?

    1. Keilka,
      Thanks for your note, and I would love to hear more about your research. Maybe I can offer some help. Unfortunately, I do not know anything about Elijah’s children. Feel free to email me if you would like to talk more about this. Your work sounds important and interesting.

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