We are nearly halfway through Monroe County’s bicentennial year, yet little has been done to commemorate the occasion. Indeed, the pandemic has taken time and resources, but planning a year-long anniversary should have begun well before COVID-19 hit. The lack of preparation and programming is a significant failure of the Monroe County historian and the county executive. In an environment where history education is under assault from political forces on the right, these two public officials have missed a meaningful and relevant opportunity to educate residents about our rich, diverse, and fascinating history.
From the original Haudenosaunee occupants to the early settlements; from abolitionists and feminists to business titans; and from immigrants seeking opportunity to urban race riots, Monroe County, established in 1821, is built upon a network of incredible stories that intersect with the history of New York State and the broader United States.
New York has a unique infrastructure for promoting the study and appreciation of local history. Under the law, every municipality in the state must have a government-appointed historian. In addition to the region’s academic historians, the many talented county historians, historical sites, historical associations, history centers, and libraries focused on local history, we have the makings of an active and vibrant local history community.
New Yorkers are interested in their state’s history. Even if they know little about it, when they are exposed to it, they become enamored. This is why the failure of the county historian and executive to eagerly plan for the county’s bicentennial is so significant. Too many New Yorkers know too little about the history of their communities.
This sort of civic engagement and civic learning can occur when our friends and neighbors know who, what, and where they are. How did we get here? Why is our community the way it is? What is the source of the challenges we’ve faced as a community? How can we confront those challenges effectively, and what have we tried before? These questions are fundamentally historical.
And yet, the County Executive and the County Historian have done next to nothing. A couple of “Did You Know” Facebook posts on a page with 38 “likes.” A tree planting on Arbor Day. When the Republican Party has weaponized ignorance, declared war on the teaching of a critical and evidence-based history of this nation, and fomented racism through its bad faith assault on the specter of “Critical Race Theory,” historians need to speak up. The silence coming from the County Historian and the County Executive is deafening.
If you read the news, you know that many of us, regardless of political affiliation or whether we live in the city, suburbs, or rural areas, people feel disconnected, like outcasts. Yet, when we teach people about their history and their place in time, we teach them that their stories matter. It may not be enough to merely remember the past. There is a remedy if we can connect people with the evidence that they have a role in their community’s story, that they are themselves forces in history.
(A shorter version of the precedingappeared in the print edition of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle a week ago Sunday. Since they have yet to put this on their website, I have decided to go ahead and post it here.)
In January of 1846 Lewis Henry Morgan, soon to become the well-known ethnographer and a founding father of the field of anthropology, began a journey from his Rochester home south along the Genesee River. He visited friends along the way, collecting from them Indian “relicts” they had dug up to add to his already-considerable collection.
In the Genesee Valley town of Lima (pronounced like the bean, and not the Peruvian capital), Morgan stayed with William Brown, who told him about the three skeletons he recently had found on his farm, buried in a sitting posture, facing each other as if seated at the three corners of a triangle.
This bothered Morgan, for he had been told just eleven months before by the Onondaga sachem Captain Frost that Iroquois peoples never buried their dead in a seated posture. A contemporary of Morgan’s described Captain Frost as a man “of noble character, fervid eloquence, and unimpeachable integrity.” There was no one “as well-versed as he in the genius and policy of the ancient government and the conducting of good councils and in the practice and celebration of Indian rites.” Forced to choose between believing Captain Frost or William Brown, however, Morgan concluded that in this instance the Onondaga sachem must have been mistaken.
Morgan’s short travel account is fascinating. It shows us a man, interested in Indian “antiquities,” scooping up arrowheads, spear points, mortars, pipes, and human remains nearly everywhere he went in the aboriginal homeland of the Senecas. One could not disturb the soil, it seemed, without finding evidence that should have led to one obvious conclusion: that the part of New York where I live and work, the Genesee Valley, developed and grew into the Empire State only because of a systematic program of Haudenosaunee dispossession. White New Yorkers could not move a stone without uncovering reminders of the people from whom their own ancestors had taken the land.
IF YOU LIKE HORROR MOVIES, you are probably familiar with the old trope of the “Indian Burial Ground.” White people move into an area, treat the land and the human remains buried beneath it with disrespect, and bad things start to happen. In the movies there are frightening consequences. In real life, white Americans have built their towns, cities, and states on Indigenous homelands with nary a thought. They are interested in the Native American past only to the point where that history begins to cost them something. Americans have prospered precisely because they dispossessed Indigenous Americans. We think little of the soil beneath our feet. The sins we forget and the sins we ignore will never be forgiven.
I HAVE THOUGHT ABOUT THE BURDENS AND OBLIGATIONS of the past quite a bit during this horrifying year. For all sorts of bad reasons, it has been a “historic” year, of course. Developments in my own work, however, have forced me to think more than I have previously about how the past can impose upon us a responsibility to set things right. Early in this pandemic season I became aware of a planned solar development for the site of Canawaugus, the Seneca town where important leaders like Red Jacket, Cornplanter, and Handsome Lake were born. Canawaugus avoided destruction by the Continental soldiers George Washington sent on a scorched earth campaign against the Iroquois in 1779, and it remained in Seneca hands as a reservation after the disastrous Big Tree treaty of 1797. White farmers worked the lands surrounding Canawaugus. Nearby towns, like Avon, grew up along the Genesee. Canawaugus slipped from the Senecas’ hands finally in 1826 in a corrupt bargain that violated the laws of the United States and that never received the required Senate ratification.
Then came this past summer the Supreme Court’s surprising decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma. There is a lot going on in the Court’s decision. The key point, included in Justice Neal Gorsuch’s majority opinion, is that reservations remain Indian land until Congress acts explicitly to declare that they are not. The passage of time could not eliminate a reservation, nor could illegal seizures of reservation land. This seemed to offer a means to challenge the 1826 transaction that took from the Senecas Canawaugus, their other lands scattered about the Genesee Valley, and big chunks of their reservations at Tonawanda, Buffalo Creek, Allegany, and Cattaraugus. The McGirt decision could lead one to believe that that vast amounts of land in western New York remain Seneca reservation land.
When the legitimacy of the title to lands that non-Indigenous New Yorkers claim is called into question, what must non-native people do? When history shows that what white New Yorkers have gained has come at the considerable expense of the Senecas and their longhouse kin, and when it is obvious that white Americans did not bother to follow the rules they established to facilitate that dispossession and grant to it a veneer of legitimacy, is there an obligation to set things right? Morally? Ethically? Historically?
Maybe you are familiar with Ibram Kendi’s recent book, How To Be An Antiracist. Kendi points out that to claim that you are not a racist, that you “don’t have a racist bone in your body,” is simply not enough. Racism is structural and systemic. Defeating it requires action, engagement, and commitment. If you lament racism, but do nothing, you help the racists. Kendi’s book speaks clearly and undeniably to those who recoiled from the Black Lives Matter protests that took place in cities and towns across the country earlier this year as too disruptive. It addressed realities made plain after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But it speaks as well to the legacy of dispossession. You cannot claim your hands are clean when you live on stolen land.
My college has committed itself to becoming an antiracist institution. Discussions have begun on how to make that happen. The campus community has focused thus far on Black Lives Matter and police brutality. These are current events and our focus here is understandable, especially after the police killing of Daniel Prude in March in nearby Rochester. I am glad we are doing this. But what about the Senecas, and the peoples of the Longhouse generally? What are we called upon to do to set matters right?
I teach at a college, after all, that stands on Native American land, the site of the largest Indigenous town in all of what ultimately became New York State. The college itself is located in a town founded by a man heavily invested in the notorious Ogden Land Company, for whom no practice was too foul to effect the goal of acquiring the Seneca reservations that remained after Big Tree. The illegal transaction of 1826 was the handiwork of the Ogden Company, as was the disgraceful Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1838, arguably the most crooked treaty in the history of the United States. The town of Geneseo, meanwhile, is the seat of Livingston County, named after the patriot leader who signed the Declaration of Independence. Follow the Livingston family tree up its branches and down to its roots and you will find Iroquois dispossession. My point here is clear. Our college could not exist were it not for Iroquois dispossession. If we truly want to commit ourselves to anti-racism, what are we going to do in the face of that extraordinarily well-documented history?
I am skeptical that we are ready and willing to carry the burden of anti-racism when it comes to Indigenous peoples. We fly a Haudenosaunee flag in the Student Union in a hallway where the flags of all our foreign students fly. I pushed for this for two years, and was pleased when the flag finally went up. Most Haudenosaunee people see themselves as members of polities apart and separate from the United States, and they deserved a place here, I felt . Still, as time has passed it increasingly bothers me as an
entirely inadequate gesture, for Haudenosaunee peoples are hardly “foreign” to New York State. They were here from the very beginning. The Haudenosaunee flag also stands on the stage during commencement and at other campus events. The campus community voted to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day, but we’ve done it so very quietly it’s as if we do not want anyone to notice. We do a territorial acknowledgment, but we do so in rooms where almost no native peoples are present.
I have raised these issues in the past. I get sympathetic nods. People tell me they are thankful that I raised these important issues. Little action has taken place.
So what do we do? We could fly the Haudenosaunee flag on the college flagpole, at the college’s main entrance, announcing publicly that we recognize our college stands on Indigenous soil. Improvement in curricula of K-12 social studies is badly needed. We could push for these essential reforms. We could do more to make sure our own students learn about the Indigenous history of the region in which they live. These gestures would cost us little. We could build this into the campus orientation. We could do more to remind students of the events that happened around them, and how it is that we came to name buildings on our campus after Red Jacket and Mary Jemison, and the Wadsworth family as well. Maybe it is time to consider renaming Wadsworth Auditorium.
We need to do more. We could make tuition, room and board free for Haudenosaunee students. We could do that for the cost of some of the SUNY system’s Division I sports programs. To the folks who say Division I sports is a primary vehicle for recruiting students of color to SUNY, I say that our problems then are deeper than you think, our commitment to diversity and equity more ineffective than even I had supposed. We could hire faculty from Haudenosaunee communities. We are in the midst of a terrible economic crisis–on our campus and in terms of our state funding–but if it is important we could make it happen. At the end of the day it is a choice.
We are not alone in wrestling with these questions of enormous consequence. Numerous stories about the complicated connection between Indigenous dispossession across North America and the creation of the nation’s land-grant universities have provoked important and painful discussions. My friend Jon Parmenter at Cornell is doing important research on the Morrill Act and his university’s connection to nineteenth-century dispossession. On some campuses, like Cornell, the awareness of this past has led to concrete steps to set things right.
SUNY and the State of New York should join in these discussions. The state and the university system owns a lot of land. Perhaps we the people could take steps to return some of that land to those from whom it was taken. We should, at least, invite the members of Haudenosaunee communities to come to our campus, to engage in a dialogue, where we listen and learn from them what in their view it will take to set things right.
I teach a first year writing seminar at my college on the history of the
Carlisle Boarding School, I have spent a fair amount of time reckoning with the
words and deeds of Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, the Indian’s school’s founder
and chief propagandist.
school’s history fascinates me. In my
own research on the history of the Onondaga Nation, I have followed those who
attended the school through its records and reconstructed their lives as much
as the evidence permits. Like my
students, I make use of the digitized school records available at the Carlisle
Indian School Digital Resource Center.
thing I have not done is visit Yale’s Beinecke Library, where Pratt’s personal papers are housed. I have read his published writings, and in
them I find it difficult to detect any self-doubt, any questioning, of the
school’s fundamental premise: to best prepare Native American men and women for
citizenship and participation in the American body politic and economic system,
they must be removed from their homes and educated away from the
Pratt was quite explicit about
this. The attachments of home generated
a powerful pull. Even boarding schools located on reservations could not work,
Pratt believed, because the sights, sounds, and scents of home provided a
powerful distraction. Best to remove the
students entirely. Speaking to a gathering
of Baptist ministers, Pratt said that “In Indian Civilization, I am a Baptist,
because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get
them under holding them until they are thoroughly soaked.” Because of his tendency to make statements
like these, scholars and the interested public describe the boarding schools as
brutal institutions. Pratt, they say,
acted with genocidal intent. He said,
indeed, that he hoped to “kill the Indian,” and save the man.
There is no doubt that there was
cruelty, brutality and short-sightedness.
There was coldness and callousness and inattention. Some students resisted. One of my students is working on a paper I
very much look forward to reading on firestarters, girls who set fires at
Carlisle and were expelled. Yet the
graveyard at the school contains the bodies of students who died far from home,
the victims, in Calvin Luther Martin’s phrase, of “blundering goodwill.” Efforts are underway to repatriate some of
these children, to return their bodies to their homelands. There are stories at
Carlisle to melt a historian’s heart.
At the same time, we historians
generally find simple morality tales uninteresting, because the past is always
more complicated. For example, I
recently reviewed a book by a historian named Keith Burich about the Thomas Indian School in New York, located on the Seneca Nation’s
Cattaraugus Reservation. Thomas was open for a century, from the 1850s to the
1950s. There are people alive today who
attended Thomas. The consequences of the
school’s treatment of Iroquois children, Burich writes, were horrific. The school’s policies and its approach
created in the students “a state of dependency and perpetual childhood that
guaranteed the students’ inability to adjust to life outside the institution.” Arriving at Thomas from families broken by
the forces of colonialism, “the same ‘pathologies’ that landed them at
Thomas—poverty, divorce, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence—followed them
when they left, ensuring that there would be future generations of Thomas students.”
Yet the evidence that Burich provides
suggests that he may not be attuned enough to the school’s ambivalent legacy.
The Mohawk Andrew Herne, disappointed by the public school opportunities at
home, hitchhiked to Thomas to enroll.
Burich points out that for many of the children, “Thomas provided a far
better educational opportunity than the public schools on or near their
respective reservations.” The Seneca
Arthur Nephew remembered the school as the best part of his life. “We were taken care of, we had shelter, we
had food, we had medical care, we had all kinds of recreation, and all kind of
trades we could learn,” he wrote. Thus it appears that Burich’s claim that the
school left children “unable to survive outside an institutional setting where every
aspect of their lives was dictated and controlled by the institution” is an
oversimplification at best, that underestimates the resilience and toughness of
Iroquois families and children. His claim that the school left its students
shattered in self-esteem and “unable to adjust to life after Thomas” seems
inadequately supported and, indeed, contradicted by some of the evidence he
presents. There was suffering to be sure, as Iroquois people have pointed
out. But there was more to Thomas than
And Carlisle, too.
Pratt left Carlisle in 1904. Robert
Utley, who wrote the introduction to the University of Oklahoma Press edition
of Pratt’s From
Battlefield to Classroom
said that the school’s founder “retired.”
Technically that is correct. But Pratt left under duress, and a number
of powerful critics of the entire off-reservation boarding school enterprise
had emerged in the early twentieth century, most notably Francis Leupp, who served
as Teddy Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Utley said that Pratt retired to
Rochester, New York, where I live. Other sources say the same thing. The
Rochester Public Library has done an incredible job of digitizing its local
history resources, so I set off in search of the retired Colonel Pratt. His name does not appear in any of the
published city directories, nor does that of his wife or any
of his children. I asked friends for
help, and I followed some other leads, but still no luck. Where was Colonel
Pratt? I did not know, and I worried that Utley might have been wrong.
I am fairly certain that if I had
limitless time and limitless resources, and no family and no need to do things
other than history, I could have made the trip over to New Haven. I bet there are answers there about Pratt’s
time in Rochester. But I don’t, and I
couldn’t, so I didn’t, and the staff at Yale did not answer my email queries.
I poked around a bit more and I
found what I was looking for in the newspapers.
Pratt had daughters, and they married. It did not take long to figure
out that his son-in-law Edward M. Hawkins lived in Rochester, on Highland
Avenue, a five-minute bicycle ride from where I live (I know. I tried it).
I am not sure how much time Pratt
spent in town, but he was in Rochester often. In retirement he spoke out
against the Indian Bureau, and the “ethnologists” whose work informed the
critiques of Pratt’s program for Carlisle.
Long after off-reservation boarding schools had fallen out of favor, he
continued to champion the entire effort as worthwhile and significant. He was
proud of Carlisle, and he seems to have kept in touch with former students and
even attended a reunion of former Carlisle students in 1913 in Akron, New York,
near the Tonawanda Seneca Nation.
Just a couple of dozen Tonawandas attended Carlisle. More than three hundred went to Thomas. Of those who went to Carlisle their experiences seem to have mirrored those of other Haudenosaunee people who attended the boarding school. Some appreciated their time at the school and expressed their gratitude to Pratt and to his successors as superintendent. Daisie Doctor Snyder, for instance, in 1907 expressed her regret that she would not be able to return to Carlisle for that year’s commencement ceremony. She missed “Dear Old Carlisle,” and wrote that “I only hope this Commencement will surpass all others, and that the out going class are prepared to stand the hard knocks of the cold world and to fight a hard battle for the right and also to still uplift our race. Rosalie Doctor Poodry invited the administrators at Carlisle to visit her at her handsome, two-story frame house in Basom, New York, and said that she would love to send her children to Carlisle someday. She sent the superintendent a postcard,
with a photograph of the house. The baby, a little girl named Marion, had
died a few weeks before she mailed the card, and Rosalie understandably still
was broken up. As much as she looked
forward to reading the school newspapers that she received in the mail, she
asked that they not say anything about her dead child.
Doctor Poodry’s letter was intimate and revealing. Other Tonawandas told the
school what they were up to, but did not share too much more than that. Hiram Moses was farming forty-five acres of
reservation land, and working when needed on the state highway. He attended the Presbyterian church on the
reservation. Joseph Poodry lived in Buffalo. He worked at the Pierce Arrow plant there,
and managed the Seneca Indian baseball team.
said little about their time at the school, chose not to keep in touch, and did
not reply to the school’s questionnaires.
Many of them returned to the reservation and lived lives that would have
differed little from what they might have experienced had they never gone away
to school Some succeeded, and attributed
their successes to what they learned at Carlisle. Others did not do so well. Perhaps their hardships stemmed from the
dislocation caused by the years they spent away, or the difficulties they faced
in reintegrating themselves into the community after they returned.
despite the boarding school experience, the criticism of their culture they
routinely listened to there, and their years away from home, Tonawanda remained
an indigenous homeland. Despite the
efforts of the state to break up their lands and dispossess them, a story the
Tonawandas knew all too well, they remained native peoples. And they asserted this, publicly and
frequently, in ways that Pratt could not have missed.
Pratt is one of the villains in Native American history. He spoke of eliminating Native American
cultures, and carried out his policies, for a time, with the enthusiastic
support of American officials. But if he really believed the erasure of Indian
identity was an attainable goal, he could not have missed the reality that he
failed spectacularly. His legacy is
ambiguous, and defies easy categorization.
Every year, Tonawanda Senecas came into Rochester. I am pretty certain they were in town when Pratt was there, too. The Tonawandas went to Maplewood Park, one of the city’s popular gathering places. They set up a stage. They advertised their gathering in the papers, and the press attended and described what they saw. The Tonawandas routinely adopted and granted names to powerful white men, like Mayor Hiram Edgerton, in this photo housed in the collections of the Rochester Museum and Science Center. And as white Rochesterians gathered, and watched Indian
teams play baseball and demonstrate their lacrosse skills, and as they purchased the baskets and other items of craft produced by Tonawanda Seneca women, the Tonawandas danced.
The men wore ribbon shirts and their gustoweh. Women wore their calico dresses, their moccasins. They dressed in the traditional attire of Haudenosaunee people, with a few Plains-style feather headdresses thrown in for good measure. I like to think that Pratt, if he was in town, would have attended. He liked native peoples, after all, and liked to meet with former students. And in front of him, and white audiences who easily imagined that native peoples were part of the past, and who supported the allotment of their lands, the dissolution of aboriginal culture, and the erasure of their language, they gathered in the center of Rochester. They danced, and they proceeded to proclaim that they were still here, and that here they would remain. They were supposed to have been gone long before. If warfare or the dispossession of the nineteenth century didn’t get them, assuredly they would disappear as the century progressed. But here they were, in the middle of an important industrial city, announcing to all who cared to watch that anything the forces of colonialism might throw at them, they would survive as native peoples.
In Native America I spend quite a bit of time writing about the Dakotas in Minnesota, and on a handful of occasions, Fort Snelling enters the narrative. It is an important place in Dakota history. In part that is why the Minnesota Historical Society, one of the finest in the country, chose to rename the historic site as “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote,” a nod to the location’s indigenous place name. It was a shift, an important change, in that the State Historical Society used its power to name to acknowledge the sites indigenous name. What’s in a name? Quite a lot, in turns out.
Conservatives in the state complained about the name change. They cried foul. “History was being erased,” they said. Hutchinson Republican state senator Scott Newman said “the controversy revolves around whether or not the Historical Society is involved in revisionist history.” Newman said that he “did not agree with what the Historical Society is engaged in doing,” because he believed “it to be revisionist history.” When asked what was wrong with specifically adding the Dakota name for the site to Fort Snelling’s signage, State Senator Mary Kiffmeyer, the chair of the committee that oversees the state budgets, said, according to TwinCities.com, “Yes, we can add some of those additional pieces of information, but Fort Snelling is about military history, and we should be very careful to make sure that we keep that. It’s the only real military history in a very unifying way amongst all Minnesotans. It is our premiere entity for military history.” That is logic and grammar that is Trump-Like. In retaliation, Kiffmeyer and her party voted to slash the Minnesota Historical Society’s budget by nearly 20%, an action that would result in significant layoffs.
The power to name–whether we are speaking about battles or historic sites–belongs all too often to the victors. And Minnesota’s GOP state senators punished the MHS for, in essence, asking visitors to Fort Snelling to consider the region’s history anew. History often can be wielded to craft myths, to tell comforting tales, but also to justify the historic erasure of indigenous peoples as something without cause or moral responsibility. My grandmother who grew up not far from Fort Snelling, told me that she always had heard that German and Swedish settlers got along well with the Indians. It was a myth, something untrue, a comforting tale. If bad things happened, it wasn’t us. And by asking Minnesotans to consider that the state had a history before those settlers arrived, that lands within what became the state mattered to its native peoples, the Minnesota Historical Society has provoked a response that it is impossible to consider as anything other than racist.
Minnesota, historically, has done much to erase its native peoples, including the Dakotas, who welcomed the first emissaries who arrived from the United States. The Mdewakantons, for instance, one of a number of Dakota bands, provided the American explorer Zebulon Pike with one hundred thousand acres in exchange for a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of gifts, a deal which may well have appeared advantageous to them. Pike, after all, promised to establish a fort in their territory and to defend them from the attacks of their native enemies. “These posts,” he said, “are intended as a benefit to you.” He offered them military protection and a “to establish factories at those posts, in which the Indians may procure all their things at a cheaper and better rate than they do now, or that your traders can afford to sell them to you, as they are single men who come far in small boats.” The Americans could supply a greater quantity of trade goods for a lower price than could the British.
The Dakotas never played the role of pawn in the Anglo-British contest for control of the Great Lakes. They welcomed the Americans as trading partners and kin, and expected their new allies to live up to the promises made by Pike in 1805. When the Americans failed to provide the Santees with the goods they needed, some warriors joined with the British against the United States. They pursued a distinctly Sioux diplomacy, using the opportunities presented by the Anglo-American struggle in the early nineteenth century to pursue the interests of their communities. Though they freely shifted their allegiance from one power to another, however, the experience of these unsettling years made it abundantly clear that the Santees could survive only with great difficulty. They needed the weaponry that only Europeans could provide. They knew that regardless of the outcome of the war, they would have to live with the winners. As it became obvious to the Santees that the British would not prevail, they began to withdraw their support and make additional overtures towards the Americans.
The Dakotas welcomed Benjamin O’Fallon at the head of fifty American infantrymen because he promised American trade, his assistance in preventing intertribal warfare, and protection from the threat of starvation. Thus the establishment of Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in 1819, seen by the United States as a critical strategic move directed towards ousting the remaining British traders from American territory, preserving peace on the frontier by policing white settlers, and fostering the fur trade, the Dakotas viewed as a promise of assistance from the Americans. The United States would provide the Sioux with trade goods, and with the presents necessary to maintain and preserve kin connections. The Dakotas acquired supplies, food and trade goods from the fort, had their guns and tools repaired by the fort’s blacksmith, and received from the garrison at least some protection from the growing numbers of traders who entered their homeland. The establishment of Fort Snelling served both American and Santee interests.
Still, they found themselves living in an ever-tightening circle. Gary Clayton Anderson in his work has described this process in great and moving detail. The establishment of the American posts meant that traders occupied Dakota territory year round, and they sought to transform the fur trade into an economic rather than a kinship relationship. They placed pressure on hunters to bring them their best pelts, rewarding the hunters’ efforts through gifts and presents. Traders began to influence village politics, as hunters looked to the traders who controlled the supply of goods more directly than they did to village chiefs. Though much of their culture remained unchanged, and they still lived most of the year on buffalo, there was no masking the growing influence of outsiders on the conduct of Santee public life.
the 1820s, the surviving evidence suggests that the Dakotas
found it increasingly difficult to find adequate supplies of game. To feed their families, Dakota hunters
entered into those borderlands that lay between their homeland and those of
their enemies. Increased intertribal
warfare resulted, as market forces pushed the Dakotas,
in the words of Wanmdisapa, “into the jaws of our enemies.” Traders’ account
books show that the hunters returned each year with less deer, muskrat and
beaver. Unable to pay for the supplies
they purchased on credit, Dakota hunters found themselves indebted to the
officials recognized that they needed peace in the west, and they undertook
efforts to persuade the Dakotas to live on
less land and to begin farming more intensively on a European-American
model. But none of this could be
accomplished while the Dakotas remained at
war. In 1825 three hundred Dakotas attended the intertribal council sponsored by the
at Prairie du Chien, yet another gathering that from the Dakotas’
perspective promised to benefit them and the Americans. In order to promote peace between the Sioux
and their neighbors—the Ojibwe, Sacs and Foxes, Menominees, Iowas, Winnebagos, Ottawas and Potawatomis—and “to establish
boundaries among them and the other tribes . . . and thereby to remove all
causes of future difficulty,” the assembled tribal delegates agreed to “a firm
and perpetual peace.”
peace was neither firm nor lasting, and the Dakotas
faced repeated calls to cede their lands.
As the number of settlers encroaching upon their homeland steadily
increased, the amount of game correspondingly declined. The Dakotas’ federal agent, Lawrence
Taliaferro, called upon them to sell their remaining village on the east side
of the Mississippi, and told them that the annuities the tribe received for the
sale would ensure their survival.
Dakotas trusted Taliaferro. He had used his
own resources to purchase food and clothing for them in the past, and they
believed his promises to care for them. He
had acted as an ally, as kin. They
understood that a much larger annuity could provide them with the means to
acquire the material goods and support that they needed. Dakota leaders thus willingly accompanied
Taliaferro to Washington
to negotiate a treaty. There they ceded
all of their lands east of the Mississippi,
receiving in return an annuity in goods worth $25,000 for twenty years, and an
annuity in cash based on the interest accruing from a permanent trust fund of
$300,000. The government allocated an
additional sum of money to erase the debts Santees owed to individual American
The annuities helped in the short term. The payments reinforced the bonds of kinship between them and the government, and the agents who distributed thousands of dollars worth of supplies the Santees viewed as friends and allies. The population of the villages increased slightly, a fact that can be explained in part by the increased quantity of food available. The kin-based relationship the Santees sought with their ally seemed to be working. But the relief provided by the annuities only masked for a time the Santees’ dependence. As the supply of game continued to decline, the price for trade goods increased. The Dakotas found it increasingly difficult to remain free from indebtedness. Each year, more of their annuity funds went directly to the traders. By the end of the 1840s, most Santees were destitute. The number of white settlers in Minnesota, which became a territory in 1849, continued to increase. Hard-pressed and impoverished, the Dakotas, under the leadership of Little Crow, signed treaties in 1851 at Mendota and Traverse des Sioux in which they gave up their claims to all their lands in Minnesota save for reservations along both sides of the Minnesota River north of New Ulm, and extending upriver for 140 miles.
experiences on their Minnesota
reservations also showed early on that significant problems existed with the
concentration policy. The Santees signed a
treaty in 1851 after accepting federal assurances that the cession would
benefit them. They trusted their white
father. The sale would provide them with
the annuities they needed to purchase the necessities for survival.
officials viewed the treaty differently.
They hoped to civilize and Christianize the Santees,
to teach them the value of private property, and transform them into farmers on
the white model. By reducing the amount
of land they owned, and opening the ceded lands to white settlement,
Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea noted that the Dakotas
would now “be surrounded by a cordon of auspicious influences to render labor
respectable, to enlighten their ignorance, to conquer their prejudices.”
Reservation life would bring preservation to the Dakotas.
government established two federal agencies to oversee the civilization
program, the Lower Sioux Agency at Redwood, and the Upper Sioux or Yellow River
Agency. Some Dakotas
accepted the changes proposed by their agents.
Leaders like Wabasha, Wakute and Mankato cut their hair. Others encouraged their followers to begin
farming and living and dressing like their growing numbers of white neighbors. Yet these changes generated divisions.
According to Big Eagle, those who “took a sensible course and began to live
like white men” received special treatment from the agents. “The government built them houses, furnished
them tools . . . and taught them to farm.” The “Blanket Indians,” or the
“Long-Hairs” who rejected the benefits of American civilization, resented this
special treatment. They objected to the
pushiness and cultural arrogance of the agents and missionaries. As Big Eagle observed, “the whites were
always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like white men
. . . and the Indians did not know
how to do that, and did not want to anyway.” Too much change, Big Eagle said, called for in
too short a period of time. Big Eagle
and many other Dakotas resented the racism of
white men who “always seemed to say by their manner when they saw an Indian, ‘I
am much better than you,’” and he did not like that “some of the white men
abused the Indian women in a certain way and disgraced them.”
warriors assaulted the farming Indians. Some may have shot at and poisoned
Christian converts. Those who accepted the government program seemed to ignore
many of their obligations to their neighbors.
The houses built for farmer Indians had their own cellars that
encouraged the hoarding, rather than the sharing, of food. The acceptance of
Christianity signaled in part the abandonment of the teaching of Dakota
shamans. The refusal to join warriors at
the agent’s request signaled the declining authority of traditional
leaders. The civilization program
threatened in fundamental ways Dakota culture and community, and their world
was out of balance.
sources of tension gripped the Dakotas. The
white population of Minnesota
continued to grow as large numbers of Germans and Scandinavians settled near
the two agencies. Many Dakotas
learned to hate the emigrants, who not only took their land and ran off their game,
but refused to share what they had with hungry Indians. The Dakotas
viewed them as intruders.
settlers did not want Dakota hunters trooping across land that they felt was
theirs, but the conduct of federal authorities at the agencies left them with
little choice. Agents and other employees
used their positions all too often for personal enrichment. They overcharged the government for goods and
services that they provided to the Dakotas,
and they claimed for themselves a share of the Dakotas’
annuities. They held much of the rest of the annuity money for payment of debts
to traders. What’s more, in an effort to encourage Dakotas
to embrace the civilization program, the agents withheld annuity payments to
traditional Dakotas. Without food and money, the discontented left
to search for game. They viewed the
farmers and traders and agents as fundamental threats to their existence. They were very hungry. When Little Crow
complained about the behavior of the traders, Andrew Myrick, one of their number,
announced that “so far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass
or their own dung.” Astute observers
recognized how dangerous the situation had become. The Episcopal Bishop for Minnesota, Henry B. Whipple, solemnly warned
that “a nation which sowed robbery would reap a harvest of blood.” Nobody paid him much heed.
the summer of 1862, the annuities still had not been paid. Four Dakotas rummaging for food killed
several white settlers who confronted them near Acton, Minnesota. Rather than surrender the four warriors, the
traditional Indians at the Redwood Agency resolved upon war. Before they struck, however, they sought the
advice of Little Crow. He had
participated in the government’s civilization program. He told the warriors that “the white men are
like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You
may kill one—two—ten,” he said, “as many as the leaves in the forest yonder,
and their brothers will not miss them.” However many you kill, ten times more
will come to kill you. “Count your
fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster
than you can count.”
doubted that the Dakotas could prevail, but he
reluctantly joined in the assaults. He feared the consequences of the earlier attack
on the settlers, and he knew the demands for vengeance would be great. Best to take a stand now. On 18 August, 1862, the Dakotas
fell upon the Redwood Agency, killing two dozen agents and traders. The attacks
thereafter became more general. Nearly four hundred settlers died in the first
few days of fighting. The Dakotas then attacked Fort Ridgely
and New Ulm. The settlers drove back
both attacks and from late August the Dakotas
went on defense. Some called for opening
negotiations with the federal authorities for peace. Light Face, a Sisseton, said that “he lived
only by the white man and, for that reason, did not want to be an enemy of the
white man; that he did not want the treaties that had been made to be
destroyed.” Meanwhile, the federal
forces converged on the Dakotas. Led by
Colonel Henry Sibley, the American troops defeated a Dakota attack at Wood Lake
of the Dakotas fled. Sibley convened a military tribunal to
collect evidence against those who participated in the uprising. By November, he had condemned over three
hundred to death. As the condemned
marched downriver, they faced the insults and anger of the frontier
population. White settlers pelted the
prisoners as they moved towards the place of execution. A white woman, one observer noted, rushed “up
to one of the wagons and snatched a nursing babe from its mother’s breast and
dashed it violently upon the ground.” The child died several hours later. President Lincoln pardoned most of the
condemned, many of whom, along with their families, had converted to
Christianity while imprisoned. They had
found some hope in the new religion. The
President ordered them incarcerated at Davenport,
Iowa. Thirty-eight others, Lincoln concluded, did deserve to die. On the day after Christmas, they went to the
gallows. As they waited for the trap to
open, they sang their war songs and said their farewells to their
families. It was the largest mass
execution in American history. Little
Crow escaped, but only for a time. He fled west, but returned later to the Minnesota valley. On July 3rd, 1863, a settler gunned him down as he
picked berries near Hutchinson,
Minnesota. His scalp was placed on display.
The rest of the Santees faced the wrath of Minnesotans who no longer would tolerate an Indian presence within the state. In response to calls for the removal of the Santees, Congress appropriated funds for their relocation. No treaty, no opportunity for the Indians to offer their consent. After their defeat, the United States interned the surrendered Indians at Fort Snelling. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, hundreds of them died there from disease and exposure. From Fort Snelling, the survivors boarded steamboats and barges. Thirteen hundred in all, they headed towards Crow Creek, a location along the Missouri in South Dakota. Dry and desolate, lacking in timber and quality soil, the federal agent at Crow Creek said the entire region was “one wilderness of dry prairie for hundreds of miles around.” Food was in short supply and of poor quality, a product of federal corruption and incompetence. A congressional investigator, examining conditions at Crow Creek in 1865, found that “for six weeks after they arrived . . . they died at the average of three or four a day.” Over 80% of the Dakotas who moved to Crow Creek were women and children. The men had died in the uprising or sat in prison. The commander of Nebraska’s Second Volunteer Cavalry, Robert W. Fornas, described the Dakota women as “filthy hags whose ugliness was only equaled by their want of anything like modesty or virtue,” but his men raped those women and the trauma of the experience continues to haunt their ancestors. More than 250 had died by the end of 1864 when federal officials began moving the Dakotas to a new reservation, Santee, along the Niobrara River in Nebraska. On the newly-established Santee Reservation, the exiles suffered continuing population decline as infant mortality remained high and diseases periodically swept the reservation.
they attempted to adjust. They grew
wheat, built houses, made use of wagons and plows, and tended livestock. A
class of Santee craftsmen trained on the
reservation emerged at the Agency. By
1880, the residents of the Santee reservation
had purchased ten reapers and ten fanning mills, and began to produce more
crops each year.
Like other reservation communities,
the Santees made changes to their political system to help them adjust to their
new reality. In 1876, the Indians
submitted a petition asking that the reservation be divided into four districts
represented by two councilors serving for terms of two years. Leaders chosen
for their ability to interact with white society came to the fore. They also accepted
changes in how they held their lands.
Some Indians supported allotment so strongly that they left the
reservation, establishing homesteads in the vicinity of Flandreau, South Dakota. To prevent others from leaving, their agents,
the Quakers Samuel and Asa Janney, called for the allotment of the Santee
Reservation. By 1871, the Santees had
constructed nearly eighty houses, with the allotted lands held in trust for the
tribe by the federal government. In
1885, President Chester A. Arthur opened the unallotted lands, those not
distributed to Santee heads of households, to
white settlement, a move popular in Nebraska. The Santees
controlled more than 71,000 acres, along with 1300 reserved for the
agency. Arthur’s order opened up more
than 42,000 acres to white settlement, a large chunk of the reservation.
some of the Dakotas ended up at the Santee
Reservation, others avoided the initial relocation to Crow Creek. They had
lived a nomadic existence in the aftermath of the uprising, ultimately
returning to Minnesota
and settling at the Coteau des Prairies.
Delegates from the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands traveled to Washington in 1867 and
signed a treaty establishing two reservations.
Government officials recognized Gabriel Renville, a committed farmer but
also a traditionalist who opposed conversion to Christianity, as the leader of
the Sisseton Reservation.
history of the Sisseton Reservation parallels that of Santee
in important ways. Government agents
instructed the Indians on how to become economically self-sufficient, an effort
hampered by the sorts of natural disasters with which Midwestern farmers
contended in the late nineteenth century—drought and grasshoppers. Allotment came to Sisseton as a result of the
1867 treaty. By 1889, 1971 allotments
had been made. Of the original 900,000
acres on the Sisseton Reservation, allottees received a third, while a much
smaller parcel was reserved for the agency buildings. The remaining two-thirds of the reservation
was made available to white settlers, at the bargain-basement price of $2.50
per acre. The settlers did not want
Indian neighbors, but they sure wanted their lands, and the reservation, like Santee, took on a checkerboard appearance with white
homesteads interspersed in a crazy-quilt pattern with Indian allotments.
1867 Washington Treaty also led to the creation of the Devil’s Lake Reservation
in North Dakota (It was subsequently renamed Spirit Lake). The Sisston and
Wahpetons settled there made, one observer wrote, “comparatively rapid
progress, evincing considerable capacity in taking on the habits and customs of
civilized man.” Catholic missionaries ministered to those Dakotas who settled there. But allotment at Devil’s Lake
resulted in the same degree of dispossession that occurred at Santee
and Sisseton. By the late 1890s they were impoverished, and
they had “nothing from which they can obtain any revenue, and they cannot
depend upon the bounty of the government.”
Revisionist History. It is a phrase we hear a lot in the history business. Good historical work, we believe, should challenge old assumptions, ask new questions, explore new avenues of research. Occasionally this good work forces us to revise earlier interpretations. There is nothing dangerous, threatening, or necessarily political about “revisionist history.” We always are revising our understanding of the past.
But our understanding is not shared with conservatives who believe themselves experts in history. For them, “revisionist” is pejorative: revisionist historians, they say, are going out of their way to “erase the past” and produce “political correctness.” These arguments are, quite simply, the chicken-shit expressions of partisans, racists, and fools. What they won’t tell you is the truth: that they oppose a history that is more representative of a complex past, that explores the past from many different angles and from any different perspectives, and that challenges the comforting myths they cherish that assure them that if anything bad happened in the past, there is no need any longer to talk about it now.
That these people wield their political power like a cudgel, mewling about a lack of freedom of speech because of “political correctness” while they enact legislation designed to silence dissenting opinions and free inquiry is as dangerous as it is worthy of our strongest contempt. We are historians. And conservatives like Senators Newman and Kiffmeyer must be challenges and they must be confronted. Racism is an ideology for cowards, after all, even the sneaky and petulant sort practiced by the Minnesota GOP. Call them out. And hold them responsible.
law, New York requires every municipality to have an official historian. When
you do the math, that comes out to one historian for each of the five boroughs
of New York City, 12 Community Historians in Manhattan, 62 city historians, 932
town historians, and 544 village historians.
Add to that the 62 county historians, the scores of small historical
societies, and the dozens of small archives, collections, and history museums,
and you have the foundation for a vibrant local history community.
Some of these local historians are
more active than others. Some have more resources at their disposal. A huge
percentage of them serve as volunteers. Many of them are retirees, doing work
they love with great enthusiasm in the name of preserving their community’s
past. To varying degrees, they
coordinate their efforts, and meet together to discuss common interests and
concerns, like the meeting of the Government Appointed Historians of Western
New York (GAHWNY)
I attended last fall. It is a hodge-podge, with a thousand moving parts, but
the work they do is exciting and important.
And largely separate from the work
we do as academic historians. That
reality has become increasingly clear to me over the course of this past year,
as I began to survey the public history landscape in New York State. It is a
shame. The academic history community
has largely ignored local historians.
And as I began to meet local historians, and talk with them, it struck
me that we in the academy could be doing so much more, and that we had
overlooked an extraordinarily valuable community of historians doing
extraordinarily valuable work.
not, then, form a partnership between local historians and my college that
could benefit us all—students at our college interested in history or museum
studies, the public history community, and those in the general public with an
interest in history? Why not form a
center to encourage interest in state history at the local level? That’s what we are trying to do at Geneseo—a Center
for Local and Municipal History– and our first steps will take place on
Encouraging a partnership between
our college and the local history community will certainly benefit our
students. Teaching is not an attractive
career path for all of our students, and the withered state of the academic job
market makes it difficult for us to encourage even the most talented to pursue
graduate training in history. Our
students find work in a host of fields, and I believe firmly that history
students emerge from our college with the skills to prosper in a variety of
history itself, as a discipline, is changing.
Museum studies is a dynamic and creative field. The broad expanse of the “digital humanities”
is bringing innovation to historical research, publishing, archival work, and
public education. Thanks to the creative
teaching of my colleague Yvonne Seale (@YvonneSeale) and other members of the
Geneseo community, our students have the opportunity to learn these versatile
digital skills. Our students, I believe,
can provide important assistance to resource-starved local and municipal historians. Our students will benefit from the
opportunity to deploy their skills in a real-world setting and local historians
will benefit from the assistance our students can offer.
there is more to it than that.
York State K-12 Social Studies Framework places no emphasis on local
history. As a result, too many New Yorkers know too little about the history of
the communities in which they live. I
suspect that this problem is not unique to New York State. The American
Association of Colleges and Universities, which in part has funded
our local history initiative, argues that “in this turbulent and dynamic
century, our nation’s diverse democracy and interdependent global community
require a more informed, engaged, and socially responsible citizenry.” This
sort of civic engagement and civic learning, I would argue, can occur in a more
meaningful manner when our friends and neighbors know who and what and where
they are in terms of connection to a certain location in place and time. How did we get here? Why is our community the
way it is? What is the source of the challenges we face as members of
communities? How can we confront those
challenges effectively, and what have we tried before. These questions are fundamentally historical.
you read the news, and follow developments across the political spectrum, you
will note that many Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, or
whether they live in the inner city, the suburbs or in rural New York, feel
disconnected, like outcasts. Rootlessness. When we teach people about their own
history, their own place, we teach them, at least in part, that their stories
matter. It may not be enough for us any longer merely to remember the
past. We can and should do more. We can connect
people who feel disconnected when we present them with the evidence that they
have a role in their community’s story, that they are themselves forces in
historians are already doing much of this important work. They will do it with or without the support
of the academic history community. Just before Christmas, I met with Larry
Naukam, formerly with the Rochester Public Library, and a gentleman with a
mastery of the work being done by local historians and archivists in upstate
New York. We met at the Starbucks in
Brighton, at Twelve Corners, not far from my house. There, Larry showed me all sorts of fantastic
work. He showed me, for instance, the
digitized church and cemetery records on the Rochester Genealogical Society
webpage. Then the Rochester Churches Indexing Project (RCIP), started
some time ago by individual researchers affiliated with the RGS. The Cayuga
Heights History Project contains a wealth of information on Ithaca,
New York, as does the History Forge. Amie Alden, the County Historian in
Livingston County, where SUNY-Geneseo is located, has valuable information on
her department’s website,
including records relating to Civil War deserters and wills and other archival
sources. Historians in Wayne have assembled a useful collection of materials on
historic sites in that county. Small museums, like that belonging to
the Walworth Historical
Society, posts records and resources. Somehow, I had missed the Digital Public Library of America,
which houses many millions of images from across the country, many with a local
focus. The New York
Heritage Digital Collections page is also worth your time. The Fulton NY
Post Cards website is a crazy scene and clunky to use, but it
includes millions of pages of digitized New York newspapers.
this from one conversation, in one hour, in one coffee shop. There is so much material available to
reconstruct local histories. These
records allow those of us who study the past to tell the stories of the
ordinary people who spent their lives in the communities we now call home. Geneseo students, I hope, will join in our
efforts to recover, preserve, and present the documents containing these
stories to the public, and to convince our friends and neighbors that this
effort is worthwhile. In these collections we find people who appear nowhere
else in the historical record. They
appear fleetingly and incompletely in these documents. But tracking them down, as Arlette Farge put
it, is part of the “allure of the archives,” those “encounters with the
silhouettes of the past,” which possess “an obscure beauty in so many
existences, barely illuminated by words.” So many people appear in these
archives, and the stories of so many places.
“What,” Farge asks, “can be done with these countless individuals, their
tenuous plans, their many disjointed movemnts?”
Farge likened what she found to the shifting images one sees when gazing
into a kaleidoscope, dynamic always, appearing and disappearing, passing
quickly out of your field of view sometimes before you get a clear sense of
what you are looking at.
at Geneseo want to talk about these stories, and enlist our students in the
effort. Our first step is going to be a gathering on campus on February 16th,
to discuss what can be done to forge a strong and viable partnership between
different stakeholders and students. I expect
nearly 60 people to attend our meeting, including New York State Historian
Devin Lander and Professor Taylor Stoermer, who teaches in the Museum Studies
program at Johns Hopkins. Prior to
joining the Museum Studies faculty, Dr. Stoermer was Instructor of
Public History at Harvard University, Director of Historic Huguenot Street (a
National Historic Landmark District in New York), Chief Historian of Colonial
Williamsburg, Invited Research Scholar at Brown University. He has held
Fellowships at Yale University, the Huntington Library, the International
Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and the Virginia Historical
Society. He is an alumnus of Johns Hopkins, the Tulane University School of
Law, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, where he earned his Ph.D. in
History, specializing in colonial Virginia and the American
Revolution. Dr. Stoermer is also the author of Colonial
Williamsburg: The Official Guide (2014) and Public History: A
Field Guide (Forthcoming, 2019).
I am looking forward to a lively discussion
from which I hope to learn a great deal. Then, during the first summer session
in May, I will teach a course at Geneseo called “Local History Workshop.” Students who enroll in the course will work
in tandem with a local historian or historical society on projects that engage
the public. If the course is popular, I
will add it to my regular rotation. If
these steps succeed, we will begin to raise money for the establishment of a
center on campus. 1500 Local Historians,
and none of the SUNY campuses devotes much attention to them. We at Geneseo hope to lead the way. The local
historians with whom I have spoken are enthusiastic. They need the help. I expect we will find students willing and
ready to join in the effort. If you are
interested in joining us, please feel free to drop me a line. Local history matters, now more than ever.
A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History