Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Mystery of the White Indians

This is a version of an article published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette Magazine in 1994. 

depiction of sorrowful return of white captive to Fort Pitt by
Chauncy Ives, a statue now in Newark.  The white statue below
is also by Ives, of this same event. 

They were marched through the portals of Fort Pitt, the brick and stone symbol of civilization's spread into the western wilderness, an imposing structure built on the spot ordained by the young George Washington as the site of a new settlement sponsored by a group of London merchants and Virginians who formed the Ohio Company. They were early settlers of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, "ordinary men, women and children of yeoman stock..." writes historian James Axtell, "Protestant by faith, a variety of nationalities by birth, English by law, different from their countrymen only in their willingness to risk personal insecurity for the economic opportunities of the frontier."

But they did differ from their fellow settlers now, as they entered the fort escorted by English soldiers. Some of their bodies were painted with vermillion mixed with bear grease. The men and boys had shaved heads, the women long hair. Some of them wore feathers and wampum beads. Instead of English hard-heeled shoes and boots, they wore moccasins. And upon the order of the commanding officer, Colonel Henry Bouquet, the hands and feet of many of them were bound, particularly the children.

These were white captives of various western Pennsylvania Indian tribes, being returned to the English fort according to treaty. But these liberated settlers had to be restrained--not from attacking the Indians who had brought them here and stood weeping outside the gates. These former captives had to be prevented from returning with their former captors to their tribal homes. "Unless they are closely watched," Colonel Bouquet observed as the first group arrived, "they will certainly return to the Barbarians."

It was a scene of consternation, on both sides. Women cried and begged to go back, and some refused to eat for days afterwards. Some of the returnees promptly escaped. John McCullough, 14 years old, arrived with his legs tied to the horse he was riding and his arms bound behind his back with his white father's garter. Nevertheless, he slipped away during the night and made his way back to his Indian family.

Several women also fled through the darkness. One was the English wife of an Indian chief, who took her children with her. Hearing of her escape, Colonel Bouquet ordered that no one pursue her, "as she was happier with her Chief than she would be if restored to her home."

Most at Fort Pitt did not escape immediately, but as a contemporary witness observed, "Every captive left the Indians with regret."

But those soldiers and settlers who witnessed this strange homecoming must have also been confused. Why would these white men, women and children turn their backs on their own kith and kin, forgo the benefits of civilization to live among people the Europeans regarded as heathen savages?

Yet many here and elsewhere did. This was the mystery of the White Indians. The phenomenon of the White Indians--white captives who returned to the Indians who captured them or remained with them voluntarily-- was perhaps the most psychologically unsettling aspect of settlement. It called into question the values (as well as the veracity) of white institutions and culture. The settlers were heirs to centuries of progress -- great sailing ships and great cities, great governments, armies and global trading companies; the first great machines for casting iron, smelting steel, and manufacturing glass. Though the settlers farmed the same land as the Indians, they did so with iron tools, wearing at least some clothes of manufactured cloth.

Soon there would be a city here, radiating from the grounds of Fort Pitt at the Point. Already Philadelphia was known as a city ranking with the best in Europe. Meanwhile, great corporations organized the trade that was flourishing and the manufacturing that was beginning in western Pennsylvania. Here great churches spread their certainties as they were doing around the world... What did the Indians have that compared with this?

Hearts and Minds

The phenomenon of the white Indians was especially dramatic because it did not happen in reverse. Even before that first group was led forcibly into Fort Pitt in 1764, so many former captives had already left their white families and returned to the Indians that Benjamin Franklin remarked wonderingly in a letter, "When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho'...treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life...and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them."

The phenomenon of the white Indian was known throughout the centuries of white settlement of America, from the colonies of New England and Canada to the Far West. But in the years surrounding Pittsburgh's founding, it was a particular feature here--one not often mentioned in the history books.

This year [1994] Pittsburgh celebrates the 200th anniversary of its incorporation as a borough in 1794. But the battle that allowed Pittsburgh to grow peacefully in the eighteenth and nineteenth century occurred nearly thirty years before, and some thirty miles away, at Bushy Run in Westmoreland County. It was last major battle of Europeans and American Indians in western Pennsylvania.

At the time the first hundred or so Europeans first tried to settle Pittsburgh, the white and Indian worlds were in sharp conflict. There had been a brief peace in the region after the violent French and Indian war, but soon the increasing number of white settlers intruded on land ceded to the Indians by treaty.

Other points of tension developed where the two cultures met. Indians asserted (and some white observers agreed, including Colonel Bouquet) that fur traders took advantage of many Indians by getting them drunk on rum and cheating them. The Senecas complained that whites who murdered Indians were not punished, but if Indians retaliated, they were hung.

All along the frontier from western Pennsylvania to upper Michigan, various tribes were alarmed by British actions and arrogance. Fearing the English were going to try to exterminate them, they banded together to drive the settlers out.

Under the leadership of the Ottawa chief Pontiac, Indian war parties captured all the forts between Detroit and Pittsburgh, including Fort Venango and Fort Presque Isle in Erie. Their objective was to drive the English east, back over the Alleghenies.

Soon the Senecas and Delawares were threatening Fort Pitt itself. Though the English were well fortified and provisioned there, they came up with another stratagem. "Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?" General Amherst wrote to Colonel Bouquet, the local military leader. "You will do well to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race."

In June 1763, when the Indians saw that they had the fort surrounded, two of their leaders, Turtle Heart and Mamaltee, made a speech to the English from just beyond the walls. They said they had prevailed on the much larger forces of the Six Nations ( also called the Iroquois Confederacy, the first functioning democracy in North America) not to attack, so the soldiers and Pittsburgh families inside the fort would have time to withdraw.

The English declined the offer. That day in his journal, English Captain William Trent wrote, "Out of our regard to them we gave them two Blankets and a Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect."

painting of Bushy Run battle by Robert Griffings

In early August, English soldiers commanded by Colonel Henry Bouquet were rushing from Fort Ligonier to the aid of Fort Pitt. Camping for the night near present-day Jeannette, Bouquet's troops were surprised by a force of Senecas, Delawares and Shawnees, probably led by Mud Eater, a Seneca warrior skilled in military strategy. Huddling behind the sacks of flour they were carrying for the soldiers besieged at the Point, the English seemed doomed to defeat, even though they greatly outnumbered the Indians.

But the next day Bouquet tricked the Indians into believing he was retreating, then surrounded them and killed many. The survivors disappeared into the woods, and Bouquet's troops marched on to Pittsburgh.

When the Indians at the Point heard of Bouquet's victory, they lifted the siege of Fort Pitt. Although he did not realize it at the time, Bouquet had ended any organized threat by American Indians to the white settlers of western Pennsylvania.

Native Ground

Freed of danger, Pittsburgh quickly became the gateway for white immigrant expansion into the west. The town soon grew from a settlement of 149 people to a bustling trade and transportation center--the place where settlers bought supplies and boarded river boats to begin their westward trek. It seemed the white settlers' victory was complete.

The treaty of 1764 resulted from Bouquet's triumph, and as usual when dealing with the Indians, the English were not magnanimous. They had "reduced the Shawnee and Delawares etc. to the most Humiliating Terms of Peace," General Thomas Gage gloated. They obliged the Indians "to deliver up even their Own Children born of white women."

Finally defeated by the English in what was probably the most decisive battle in early Pittsburgh history, several Indian tribes signed the treaty. Over the next year, they returned about two hundred men, women and children to Fort Pitt. But instead of arriving with joyful relief, happy to be reunited with their families, most returned unwillingly, under heavy guard.

Many--especially children and young people who had been among the Indians since early childhood--responded only to their Indian names, spoke only in their tribal language, and preferred their Indian clothes. In White Indians of Colonial America (Ye Galleon Press, Washington) history professor James Axtell concludes that many of the returned settlers "in general regarded their white saviors as barbarians and their deliverance as captivity. Had they not been compelled to return to English society by militarily enforced peace treaties, the ranks of the white Indians would have been greatly enlarged."

Why would so many whites wish to return to what their fellow settlers regarded as a primitive way of life--especially after tasting civilization once more--or in the case of children, for the first time?

For some, the treatment they received in white society may have seemed less than civilized. Women who had been "among savages" were considered tainted, and those who had children with Indian fathers had the status of prostitutes, while their children faced a life of prejudice against "half-breeds."

They also didn't always confirm prejudices about Indian life. According to the conventional wisdom, Indians tortured their male captives and raped the women. But the accounts of former captives says otherwise. Though torture was sometimes reported, it seemed mostly to amount to ritual--either symbolic vengence for Indians killed by whites, or an initiation rite into the tribe. Two colonial men taken to an Indian village in Kittanning wrote that their ordeal consisted of "three blows each, on the back. They were, however, administered with great mercy."

If torture was rare, rape was nonexistent. According to the accounts of every returned white woman, nothing indecent or even improper had happened to them among the Indians. George Croghan, a famous western Pennsylvania trader with extensive experience among many local Indian tribes asserted that rape was "a Crime they Despise," punishable by death. Murderers were dealt with by the victim's family, but rape was the only capital crime punished by the tribe as an offense against everyone. In these tribes a white woman had to give her consent before being married to an Indian man.

On the whole, whites were not only not mistreated, but they could find an honorable place in tribal society. Each captive was taken in by an Indian families and treated as a relative--sometimes considered to literally replace a family member killed by whites. "Once the captives had earned the trust of their Indian families," Axtell writes, "nothing in Indian life was denied them."

Many became tribal members, earning wealth and status within the tribe, and some even became chiefs. Perhaps the most dramatic example was a Pennsylvanian named Carswell, captured by the Iroquois at the age of four. He was made a chief at an early age, and as each of his three sons reached manhood, they also became chiefs. Carswell lived a long life as a respected and valued leader among the Iroquois, finally known simply as Old White Chief. "In public office as in every sphere of Indian life, the English captives found that the color of their skin was unimportant;" Axtell observes, "only their talent and their inclination of heart mattered."

"...Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans," wrote St. John Crevecoeur in his 1782 classic, "Letters from an American Farmer." The question remains, what was so enticing?

Axtell and others (such as Annette Kolodny, dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Arizona) have analyzed the many accounts written or dictated by European captives. The first accounts, published in the eighteenth and early 19th century, portrayed the Indians as savages who treated captives cruelly, which conveniently helped to justify the policy of eradicating them as Europeans settled on more and more of their land. Sensational fictions (young white woman captive about to be scalped, rescued by the paleface hero) added to the image. But there was the embarrassing fact of the White Indians. There had to be something about Indian life that was so appealing.

Mary Jemison
 One of the first positive accounts to interest the public was that of frontiersman Daniel Boone. He told of his capture by the Shawnee and his eventual adoption as the chief's son. He clearly admired the Shawnee ways. An even more popular account was that was Mary Jemison, who was captured by the Seneca in 1755 at the age of twelve. It appeared in 1824 and outsold the works of James Fenimore Cooper for the rest of the decade. It seemed to have caused a sensation because she married a Delaware Indian man. "Strange as it may seem, I loved him!" she wrote.

Crevecour had observed, "There must be something in their social bond singularly captivating, and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us." Indeed, the reports of white Indians emphasized elements of the social bond: marriage, family, kinship, the treatment and education of children, and the flow among activities white society would rigidly classify as work, play and religious worship.

Speaking of the Seneca family who adopted her, Jemison said, "I was ever considered and a real sister, the same as though I had been born of their mother." She recalled "in the summer season, we planted, tended and harvested our corn, and generally had all our children with us; but had no master to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased."

"No people can live more happy than the Indians in time of peace," she concluded. Jemison dictated her story when she was in her 80s, still living on Seneca land in upstate New York, even though the Seneca were gone.

one of several depictions of William Penn meeting
Pennsylvania Indians 

Here in Pennsylvania, aspects of Indian cultures even impressed William Penn. "We sweat and toil to live," he wrote. "Their pleasure feeds them, I mean, their Hunting, Fishing and Fowling."

Though a bit misleading, Penn's observation has merit. In these "woodland epoch" cultures of western Pennsylvania, Indians farmed and lived in villages. They were not completely opposed to technology--in fact, some historians argue, their growing dependence on iron tools from the whites led them into fur trading, which led them into wars and cultural changes that weakened them. But even in colonial times, the Indians here retained strong ties to the hunter-gatherer culture, in which life closely adheres to the cycles, rhythms and characteristics of nature, and possessions are unimportant. Their social system was so highly attuned to the specific characteristics of their natural surroundings that they seemed to need to work less--partly because they were satisfied with what white settlers would consider less. They derived both pleasure and livelihood from the same sources.

Axtell and others also observe that some settlers were already nervous about increasing urbanization, and the loss of frontier freedoms being imposed by "overseers", such as large landowners, the trading companies or the first bosses of the fledgling industries. They suggest that some white Indians saw more freedom in the Indian way of life.

The Big House

figure on Big House

In these colonial times, a number of different tribes lived in western Pennsylvania, replacing the single dominant tribe that had recently and mysteriously disappeared. Known only as the Monogehela People, this tribe left behind remnants of an advanced culture in hundreds of local sites. One theory is that they were wiped out by diseases introduced by whites--people they never saw, but whose alien microbes (probably smallpox) were passed on by other Indians along the active trade routes from the east coast. If so, this would not be unusual: when Columbus landed, there were perhaps 100 million Native people who lived in the Americas from Argentina to Alaska. Nineteen out of twenty of them died from white-borne diseases. By the time settlers arrived in Pittsburgh, at least 3 out of 4 Indians in North America had perished.

The tribes that filled the gap in western Pennsylvania included the Shawnee (in Sewickley, for example), the Wynadots (below New Castle), Miamis, Creeks, and the Senecas (Aliquippa is named after Queen Aliquippa, head of a Seneca settlement) and other Iroquoian peoples. But the principal tribe in the region called themselves the Lenni Lanape; whites called them the Delaware. One of their principal settlements was in the present-day area of Lawrenceville.

White captives of the Delaware suggest other attractions of Indian life. In his account of his four and a half years among the Indians, John Bricknell wrote, "The Delawares are the best people to train up children I ever was with. Their leisure hours are, in great measure, spent in training up their chidren to observe what they believe to be right."

According to Paul Wallace in his landmark study, Indians in Pennsylvania, Delaware children were cherished; their parents did not hit them. They were taught woodcraft and gardening, a knowledge of plants and animals, and the tribal legends and traditions, and religious beliefs.

"The basic principle of Delaware religion was that spirit was the prime reality," Wallace writes. "All things had souls: not only man, but also animals, the air, water, trees, even rocks and stones." Another scholar observed that the Delaware "trod lightly through his natural environment, merging himself sympathetically into the world of living and non-living things."

The place of humans in the universe was dramatized in the chief annual ritual, the Big House Ceremony, held over twelve days and nights in October. A wooden structure of perhaps 50 by 30 feet, the Big House was as symbolic as it was solid: its floor was the earth, with the underworld below. Its four walls were the four directions; its ceiling the sky dome, with the home of the creator above. At the center of the house was a post, symbolizing the World Tree. Along the floor from the east door to the west was the winding White Path, along which the dancers danced, solemnly following the path of life with its twists and turns from birth to death, around the World Tree. (The last known Big House Ceremony was conducted in Oklahoma in 1924, but a Big House was recently reconstructed for an exhibition at the Philbrook Museum in Oklahoma.)

Within Delaware society, marriages were arranged but divorce was easily obtained if one or both parties wished it. Elders were revered and consulted for their wisdom. There was virtually no crime.

"As a nation they may be considered fit examples for many of us Christians to follow, "Bricknell wrote. "They certainly follow what they are taught to believe right more closely, and I might say more honestly, in general, than we Christians do the divine precepts of our Redeemer....I know I am influenced to good, even at this day, more from what I learned among them, than what I learned among people of my own color."

White settlers who came to America yearning for political democracy may have also been impressed by American Indian societies. In most tribes, and particularly among the Iroquoian people, decisions were made democratically by council, a forum at which everyone had an equal voice. If no consensus could be arrived at, the decision was simply postponed. Women also had a more prominent political role than in white society. These tribes formed the Five Nations, a powerful confederacy whose intricate democratic system was studied by the Founding Fathers, and some elements incorporated in the U.S. Constitution.

The Delaware almost became an equal partner in the American political experiment. They were the first tribe to make a treaty with the new United States government in 1778. Signed in Pittsburgh, it offered the Delaware nation admission to the union as part of a 14th state for American Indians. But the federal government failed to ratify this provision.

Despite numerous subsequent treaties, the Delaware were driven farther and farther west (except for some who fled to Canada, and maintain two small reserves in Ontario province). By the early 19th century, all the tribes were gone from western Pennsylvania.

Since the early days of white settlement and particularly since the western frontier was essentially closed in the late nineteenth century, Indians have been alternately romanticized and ignored by white Americans. Today, both Indians and whites are looking anew at the traditional beliefs and ways of life that existed in America for thousands of years before Columbus. From memory, records and those few who maintained traditions, they are re-discovering a culture deeply embedded in the land.

We may never know exactly what attracted so many whites in colonial times. "The great majority of white Indians left no explanation for their choice," Axtell writes. "Forgetting their original language and their past, they simply disappeared into their adopted society." But many of the same elements that now interest us may have also attracted white Europeans who actually experienced them, when the woods of western Pennsylvania embraced these American Indian cultures. Those who loved this landscape could not fail to notice that while white European society was busy clearing the woods, the Indians lived in them. Those of us who grew up with the shapes and colors of these hills and rivers imprinted in us, may not have much trouble imagining why the white Indians might want to live in them so fully.


White Indians of Colonial America by James Axtell. Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield WA 1991.
"Among the Indians: The Uses of Captivity" by Annette Kolodny, New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1993.
Indians in Pennsylvania by Paul A. W. Wallace, Revised Edition, PA Historical and Museum Commission, 1981.
Pittsburgh: The Story of An American City by Stephen Lorant.
"Delaware: Honoring the Past and Preparing for the Future" by Lydia L. Wyckoff and Curtis Zunigha, Native Peoples, Spring 1994.