Water Closet for 9-13-13 Looking East

Long-time friend of the Middleton Stream Team John “Red” Caulfield loaned us a remarkable book he’d read that has some of us hardwired-Manifest-Destiny-Americans turning west to east.  In Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America1 author Daniel K. Richter tries valiantly to relate the Indian view of a flood of incorrectly called “Old Worlders” rolling on westward over North America.  To the Indians, also misnamed, those coming were from a new world.  And what to them did a name like Americus Vespucci have to with anything?  It isn’t easy for a historian to look east.  The newcomers looking west had written languages, guns, work animals, and resistance to the diseases they brought.  Their propaganda about a sparsely populated “wilderness” with “savages” dominated American history books for four centuries.  There were few to tell the Indians’ side.  In the early days much of what they said suffered in translation and from the biases of the translators.  Richter looked long and hard and found stories, and the words of 18th century part-Indian William Apess.

Richter’s writing while smooth in style is not easy going.  His arguments are dense with evidence and supporting historical detail.  His long bibliography is impressive.  He tries his damndest to sift truth from accounts in French and English of meetings and unending skirmishes and minor wars from the late 1500s to mid-1800s on the continent east of the Mississippi.  A vast land of a hundred native nations that were dissolving, moving, and coalescing after the colonists came. Their members were dying disproportionately.  There was no stability for them as the aggressive whites steadily increased in number.  For a long time the nations in the north were with the French for diplomatic purposes and reasons of trade.  When the British took over after the French and Indian War they superficially allied themselves with the English.  Alas, most soon found themselves on the wrong side of the American Revolution.  The British had provided them some protection from the revolutionaries who wanted their land.  In this short review the interactions and unending broken treaties on all sides can’t be properly summarized.  The Indian nations from the Creeks in now Georgia to the Iroquois in the north were almost constantly wheeling and dealing, playing neighboring tribes against one another in order to remain alive among the new imperial powers.  The shenanigans of all remind us somewhat of the present day Middle East.  The out-gunned and out-provisioned Indians with ever less land were struggling for survival.  “Accommodation” is word Richter often uses.

As we all know the whites from the east across the ocean kept coming as the natives kept dying or moving on.  Once populous lands2, much hunted and trapped on and only partially cultivated, were fast becoming staked out farms. The bounds set and walls built were not done by Indians.

Of the many villains from the point of view of those looking east a few stand out.  First and perhaps foremost were the Pilgrims who Apess condemned in rich hyperbole.  Richter is even harder on America’s great hero Andrew Jackson, who was brilliant in his illegal conniving and cruelty again all Indians, allies and enemies alike.  Jackson wanted the land for the white settlers.  He became popular even while championing squatters on Indian lands.  “Old Hickory” allowed atrocities and participated in a few himself.

An old Closeteer’s late Uncle Jimmy, a student of history, had evidently bought into all the stories in his school history books and in a couple fawning Jackson biographies.  Late in Uncle’s long good life as a doctor, his nephew who had read about the “Trail of Tears”3 had the temerity to criticize President Jackson.  The doctor’s response was harsh and unbending.  United States propaganda in our history classes, books, and B-movies had been successful.  Finally, last century, a few revisionist histories and sympathetic movies appeared.  “Dancing with Wolves” starring Kevin Costner is one popular example.

Richter in an interesting epilogue features a couple other charismatic men, one, who like Costner, was also an actor.  Daniel Webster’s stage was the Senate floor.  Richter quotes the Massachusetts Senator’s over the top praise of the Pilgrims written in the mid-19th century.  Like Apess, Webster incorrectly lumped all white colonists together as Pilgrims.  Their descendants spread out across the land from “sea to shining sea” improving it wherever they went.  “This land was their land and now it’s our land” to change a Woody Guthrie pronoun or two.  The people they pushed aside were not mentioned by Webster.  Here is a little of what he wrote in praise of the whites, all, of course, imbued with Pilgrim spirit, as they moved west under the blessings of Manifest Destiny and God.

“Two thousand miles west from the rock where their fathers landed, may now be found the sons of the Pilgrims, cultivating smiling fields, rearing towns and villages, and cherishing, we trust, the patrimonial blessing of wise institutions, of liberty, and religions. The world has seen nothing like this.  Regions large enough to be empires, and which, a half century ago, were known only as remote and unexplored wildernesses, are now teeming with population, and prosperous in all the great concerns of life; in good governments, the means of subsistence, and social happiness.”4

Such hogwash continues; Webster could wash a crowd for hours.

A few years before Webster wrote the above, relatively unknown Apess, with Pequot blood, spoke about his hero King Philip, and of the  Pilgrims, sources to him of all evil, in a long Eulogy on “King Philip”, proper name Metacom.  Wampanoag Chief Metacom was a political and military genius according to Apess.  Fed up with the Pilgrims and Puritans, in 1675 he united several tribes to rise up and attempt to get rid of the whites.  That confused and terrible time here was dubbed Kings Philip’s War.*   Apess almost two centuries later proclaimed Metacom the Indians’ George Washington.  Here are a few sentences from his long eulogy about the fateful day the Pilgrims first came ashore at what became Plymouth.

“Let the children of the Pilgrims blush, while the son of the forest drops

a tear, and groans over the fate of his murdered and departed fathers.  He

would say to the sons of the pilgrims, . . ., let the day be dark,the 22nd

       of December, 1620; let it be forgotten in your celebration, in your speeches,

and by the burying of the Rock that your fathers first put foot upon.

For be it remembered, although the gospel is said to be glad tidings to all

people, yet we poor Indians never have found those who brought it as

messengers of mercy, but contrawise.  We say therefore let every man of

color wrap  himself in mourning, for the 22nd of December and the 4th of

July are days of mourning not of joy.”5

Webster looked west.  We old timers were taught as children to look there too, to follow bold Lewis and Clark.  William Apess sadly looked east; now enlightened others like Richter would have us look there too.  It is too late for the Indians.


*Notes:  Like all who write about Indians we have trouble with descriptive words and names.  Richter often uses the word “whites” for those from the east as opposed to “reds” who he calls Indians.

If you haven’t read Charles Philbrick’s very readable history Mayflower (2006) please do so.  Widely acclaimed, it is the best book we’ve found about Indian-colonist relations here in the 17th century.

1  Richter, Daniel K., Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America

(HarvardU. Press, Cambridge 2001)

2  Mann, Charles, 1491: New Revelations before Columbus (Knoph, 2005)  The WC recommends all                                                read this eye opener in which Mann argues there were far more people in the “New World” than originally estimated.

3  The Trail of Tears was the name given the forced movement west of the Cherokees and other Indians  during President Jackson’s administration.

4  Ibid.  Richter 243-244 as taken from The Works of  Daniel Webster, vol. 1

5  Apess, William, Eulogy on King Philip, as Pronounced at the Odeon, in Federal Street, Boston and published by the author in 1836 [The quote above is from Richter p. 242-243.]


THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584