America’s relationship to native peoples has been complex. Arguably, the British, French and Spanish treated first nations better than Americans did. George Washington occasionally behaved with cruelty towards Native Americans. During the Revolution, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign of 1779 earned George Washington the name “Town Destroyer” among the Iroquois. In the nineteenth century, the construct of “race” was developed, and this concept influenced both Abolitionists and pro-slavery factions. Did Abolitionists’ concern for African Americans extend to Native Americans as well? I will examine one Abolitionist family’s view of Native Americans across three generations, and use their writings to examine their changing views.
The Howe and Pepoon families, committed Abolitionists, left written records of their thoughts on almost every topic of interest to the nineteenth century mind. Eber Howe, 1798-1885, was a journalist and station-master on the Underground Railroad. In 1878 he published “The Autobiography and Recollections of a Pioneer Printer: Together with Sketches of the War of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier.” In this autobiography, he details his involvement in the Underground Railroad. He also describes encounters with Native Americans during the War of 1812. Eber Howe’s son, Edmund, 1829-1849, was also ardently anti-slavery. In 1847, he and his brother Orville attended Oberlin College, one of the first institutions to open its doors to African Americans. Edmund wrote essays for his classes and letters to his parents which were lovingly bound after his death. Edmund made occasional mention of America’s first nations. His writing remains unpublished. Edmund’s brother, Orville Howe, moved to Nebraska in 1871, residing on a farm he purchased in 1868. Orville Howe married Mary Pepoon, the daughter of Ohio Abolitionists. Orville Howe’s niece, Elsie Pepoon Sutton, 1872-1955, compiled memoirs in 1939. This collection, which she entitles “The Bunker Hill Neighborhood,” includes an essay she wrote in which she describes an 1877 encounter with a Native American.
For many Abolitionists, the abolition of slavery was one of many progressive causes. The Howe and Pepoon families advocated on issues from Greek independence to women’s rights to temperance. From today’s vantage point, it might seem probable that Abolitionists, champions for African American rights, would also strive to improve the deplorable treatment of Native Americans. This is not the case, since not all Abolitionists were free of race prejudice themselves. The Howes and Pepoons did believe in racial equality as well as Abolition, but their fair-mindedness didn’t always extend to Native Americans. Some Abolitionists made a link between the rights and treatment of African Americans and Native Americans. However, the fact that some have been singled out in this regard indicates that many, perhaps most, did not.
Some women’s rights advocates seem to have made this connection. Catharine Beecher, for instance, campaigned for women’s rights, against slavery, and against the Cherokee removal. A minor novelist, Lydia Marie Child, an Abolitionist, wrote “Hobomok” in 1824. This novel tells the story of a Puritan woman who married a Native American man. Critics universally labeled the book “revolting.” Historians note that Child never portrayed African Americans in the same sympathetic light as Native Americans. Wendell Phillips, 1811-1884, campaigned tirelessly against slavery as well as the mistreatment of Native Americans. His family sought to have him committed to an asylum. John Brown, one of America’s most complex heroes, was said to have treated Native Americans as equals, the same way he treated African Americans. But as Eric Foner writes, Brown was intelligent, and must have recognized that by settling in Kansas, he was taking land from America’s first nations.
Eber Howe’s bona fides as ardent Abolitionist are unquestionable. Both he and his wife, Sophia Hull Howe came from families that were committed to the anti-slavery movement. The Howe’s two homes in Ohio offered refuge to escaping slaves. Howe founded both the “Cleveland Herald” and “Painesville Telegraph.” When he left journalism, he employed runaway slaves in his woolen factory. So many were working there the place came to be known as “Nigger’s(sic) Hollow.” Eber Howe recognized African Americans as full equals. But Howe’s writings indicate that he held stereotypically nineteenth century views of Native Americans.
Eber Howe’s grandfather, Samuel Howe, was killed during the French and Indian (Seven Years) War, reportedly by Native Americans, in 1760. He wasn’t the first Howe to perish in a conflict with indigenous people. In 1680, Eber’s great-grandfather, John Howe, died during King Philip’s War. Eber and his brother fought with their father Samuel against the British during the War of 1812. In “Autobiography and Recollections of a Pioneer Printer: Together with Sketches of the War of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier,” published in 1878, Eber describes his first experience of war, and mentions “Indians.” “I discovered — about twenty men, stark naked and scalped, and many of them with the prints of the tomahawk driven into the skull. It seemed that a band of Indians after the battle was over had visited the ground to exercise their skill in that way” (Autobiography, pp. 6-7). Perhaps the majority of Native Americans, when forced to choose, fought for the British during both the Revolution and War of 1812. Eber assumes these posthumous desecrations were committed by Native Americans.
The next mention of Native Americans Eber makes is when he describes the Battle of Lewiston. Eber resorts to trite descriptions of tomahawks, and describes the fierceness of the “Indian allies” of the British. He describes the “Indian war-whoop” and “consternation that followed this sudden eruption of a savage foe” (Autobiography p. 9). He uses the word “savage” again speaking of the “savage appetite for plunder.” And again he uses the word when he writes of the “savage foe, with his uplifted tomahawk and bristling scalping-knife” (p. 9). Eber notes repeatedly that the “Indians” were allies of the British; nonetheless his vocabulary regarding native peoples seems harsher than in regards to the English. That said, Eber writes none too lovingly about the human race in general. Most people are fools, as far as he is concerned, or “scoundrels,” a term he uses repeatedly.
The third encounter Eber tells of Native Americans is more complicated if not more nuanced. Eber’s family, residing in Canada, sympathized with the Americans during the War of 1812. Not all the family did; Eber’s brother-in-law, a man with the surname Phillips, changed sympathies. An American by birth, Mr. Phillips swore allegiance to the king after residing in Canada six months. When the war broke out, Phillips changed loyalties again, and after fighting on the American side, “concluded that his best chance for life would be to remain with the Indians in as much privacy as possible” (Autobiography, p.10). The native peoples were unsure of this arrangement, since they became “clamorous for the sacrifice of a Yankee, in propitiation for some of their braves who had recently been killed.” For reasons that are unclear, British officers interceded on Mr. Phillips’ behalf. The chief spared him, and Phillips was assigned various tasks around the village. Eventually, “the chief proposed that he should marry a squaw, and even proposed his own daughter” (p.10). Phillips proceeds to tell the chief, after living with the tribe for many months, that he is already married. Mrs. Phillips, Eber’s sister, discovers the whereabouts of her husband, and ransoms him for “five gallons of whiskey and ten pounds of tobacco.”
Eber writes of Native Americans in the context of the War of 1812. The encounters are brief and many questions remain unanswered. His autobiography was written over 60 years later. In the first episode, how does Eber know the American soldiers were mutilated by first nations? Since the Boston Tea Party, it wasn’t uncommon for colonists to dress or behave like indigenous peoples. Eber was an insightful man, and was privileged with a good education. He doesn’t seem curious. Naturally the Native Americans would be angry with “Yankees” who had killed their own men. They were caught up in an untenable predicament. They had nothing to gain in the conflict between British and Americans, and much to lose. The British respected territory belonging to Native Americans: the Americans didn’t. Eber doesn’t broach the question of whose land it was in the first place. He operates from the prejudice of his day, which assumed that since Native Americans hadn’t “developed” the land sufficiently, they had no right to it. Eber is able to overcome nineteenth century constructs of race in regards to African Americans, but he is unable or unwilling to do the same for indigenous peoples.
Eber Howe’s son, Edmund Howe, was a gifted writer. Born in 1829, he died at age 19, in 1849. In 1847, Edmund and his brother Orville went to Oberlin College. Oberlin was an Abolitionist college, and had African American students. Edmund wrote five essays before his untimely death from malaria, known then as “Autumn” or “bilious fever.” Of these five essays, both the first and last are on America. These serve as bookends to his education, and reflect a profound disenchantment with the politics of slavery. His first essay, which has no title, is jaunty and youthful. It begins: “Perhaps there never existed a nation upon earth who stood in the position of America.” And later, “America must of necessity have been the asylum of the oppressed of every land.” It is a “perfect land” where everyone can enjoy the “liberty of thinking and acting as they pleased.” Everyone, that is, except African Americans, of whom he makes no mention, and Native Americans, who he does mention.
America is a country “where civilized man had never set his foot.” And, to make sure we understand him, Edmund derides the “savage and ignorant redman.” It is a great country for the “oppressed millions of Europe.” Edmund doesn’t challenge the predominant belief of his day regarding first nations. Apparently Native Americans don’t deserve the bounty of the land on which they had lived for eons. One nineteenth century justification for the confiscation of these lands is that Native Americans hadn’t developed it properly, and that their towns and camps had no grand architecture. It is surprising that neither Eber nor Edmund question this a priori assumption.
Eber Howe was many things, but he was neither stupid nor insensitive. He risked his life and property to shelter escaped slaves. He raised his children, only three of who survived into adulthood, to be Abolitionists. In his autobiography, Eber expresses remorse for once accepting ads for fugitive slaves: “I feel humbly to ask the forgiveness of mankind for the perpetration of so foolish and dastardly an act as to admit to its columns the advertisements of man-thieves” (p. 25). Like his father, Edmund, at times, displays remarkable sensitivity, both for his age and the period in which he lived.
Edmund, too, believes not only in Abolition, but in the equality of European and African Americans. In a letter to Henry Clay, December 24, 1847, who he calls “Brother,” Edmund complains: “As for antislavery it is in rather a latent state” at Oberlin College. These are harsh words for the only integrated college in the country at that time. Edmund is horrified when his fellow students discuss “the natural antipathy of the two races,” and the “impossibility of the two races becoming equal.” Edmund took the opportunity to tell a student who was advocating these beliefs that “his knowledge of history extended about as far as his knowledge of right and wrong” (letter of 12/24/1847).
By October of 1848, Edmund had contracted malaria, common in Ohio at the time. As there was no effective treatment, and since Edmund was an advocate of alternative medicine, his family sent him to Cleveland to stay at a spa and undergo the “water cure.” This consisted chiefly of alternating hot and cold baths. It didn’t help, and Edmund died in January of 1849. By the time of his death, Edmund had changed his views on America considerably. His last essay, called “Our Country” is a jeremiad predicting doom for a nation that tolerates slavery and embarks on the Mexican American War. He lambastes a “government prostituted to purposes the most tyrannical and oppressive.” He despises President Polk as a man “totaly(sic) reckless to all truth and justice, and ready to sacrifice to the bloody Moloch of slavery.” This hardly seems like it could be the writing of the same man who, a year earlier, had nothing but praise to lavish on his country. The final words Edmund wrote are these: “slavery which is now fostered like a viper in our bosom which is dragging in to inevitable destruction as certainly as God’s moral laws are absolute.” With prescience, Edmund predicts the “dissolution” of the nation, something that happened less than a dozen years after his death. It’s hard to believe the first patriotic essay was written just a year or so earlier than the last. In this final essay, Edmund’s penmanship appears feverish, and his last written words are a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
Just before the start of the Civil War, Eber Howe’s surviving son, Orville, moved from Ohio. One family account maintains that he was driven away because of his daring help for runaway slaves. He married Mary Pepoon, daughter of another prominent Abolitionist family in Painesville. In the late 1860’s, Orville and Mary Pepoon Howe, along with Mary’s brother, Joseph Pepoon, and Joseph’s Pepoon’s wife, Bessie, relocated to Nebraska. They bought farms in Pawnee County, in the southeast part of the state. The land was purchased from homesteaders. The Otoe-Missouria Indians, who previously lived in the area, had been moved to a reservation. The Otoe were forced to move to Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma, where the remnant of that nation still resides. Although the Pawnee were numerous in central Nebraska, Pawnee County is misnamed. The Otoe-Missouria inhabited the region. The Pawnee and the Otoe were both forced to leave the state and live on reservations in Indian Territory. Oklahoma was rife with malaria, and almost a third of the Pawnee nation perished within the first two years of being resettled in Oklahoma.
Elsie Pepoon Sutton, 1872-1955, daughter of Joseph and Bessie Pepoon, describes and encounter with a Native American that occurred in 1877. This would place it at roughly the same time that Eber wrote his autobiography. Joseph Pepoon, born in 1838, was roughly a contemporary of Edmund Howe’s. His family operated a station on the Underground Railroad near Painesville, and he recounts several harrowing accounts of when his family was almost caught helping slaves. Joseph left an autobiography, but makes no mention of Native Americans in his life’s tale. Before considering Elsie’s account, it’s important to consider changing attitudes towards first nations that took place in the period after the Civil War.
The official position of the United States, since the time when President Truman signed the Indian Claims Commission into law in 1946, is that, excluding Alaska and Hawaii, 90% of the nation’s land acquired from first nations was purchased, not stolen (see Daniel Overton, “Withholding Payment on Otoe-Missouria Reservation Lands,” in “Great Plains Research,” 2(2), pp. 263-280). Nonetheless, the payment was often well below market value, and in many cases the money was delayed or never claimed. Most tribal members did not want to leave, and the sale was made under duress. Until 1879, when Chief Standing Bear successfully sued the U.S., Native Americans had no legal standing or protection under the constitution. Chief Standing Bear was Ponca, and formerly lived in southeast Nebraska.
The Civil War had settled the question of slavery, although it didn’t end racism. For Native Americans in the Midwest, the period up to and following the war brought great change. The 1862 Homestead Act meant that Europeans would be living on lands near, and sometimes formerly belonging to Native Americans. Native Americans in that region had farms, but depended on buffalo hunts for nutrition and skins. The U.S. government believed that it would have more control over first nations if buffalo hunting ended, and began an extermination campaign. Plains bison were hunted almost to extinction by the 1880’s. This meant that Native Americans could no longer depend on buffalo meat for food and buffalo hide for shelter and clothing.
Another event that made life more difficult for Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century occurred just before the country’s centennial celebration. The Lakota, like most first nations, had been forced to live on reservations. In 1875, they defiantly disobeyed the law and left without permission. On June 25, 1876, General Custer, a Civil War hero, attempted to force the Lakota back on their Montana reservation. The battle, which came to be known as Custer’s Last Stand, was a humiliation for the United States, and contributed to anti-Indian hysteria among some European American settlers.
The final “battle” between Native Americans and whites in the country was fought in 1890. Native Americans, completely dispirited by their fate, began to practice a religious ritual known as the Ghost Dance. It was against the law for Native Americans to practice this religion on the reservation, and troops were dispatched. On December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, almost 300 Lakota Sioux were massacred for this religious expression.
Elsie Pepoon Sutton cannot be considered an Abolitionist herself, as the Civil War was long over by the time of her birth in Nebraska. In her 1939 memoir “The Bunker Hill Neighborhood,” Elsie recounts an incident from her childhood. Here is the episode, almost in its entirety. She is the first member of her family to write of Native Americans in a positive way. Her account is understated and powerful.
“The folks used to tell of Indians coming through the country once in a while — they were peaceful begging visits from the Indians from the reservation — . I remember one visit to our house which has seemed more and more remarkable as I think back over it. I was a small child, not more than five or six, for I was young enough to hold fast to my mother’s skirts. That would make it about 1877 — . We saw a man coming up across the lawn and as he came nearer saw he was an Indian wrapped in a blanket. I do not know the time of year, but it was warm and the doors stood open. He asked for a drink of water and when mother had given it to him asked if he might rest. Mother gave him a chair by the west door and sat down herself across the room by the east door and I stood behind her. He was an old man, eighty years old he told mother, a Pawnee who had come back from Oklahoma to visit the scenes of his earlier days. He was alone and on foot. Mother offered him food but he refused — . He spoke very slowly and brokenly, with long silences. Said he had hunted all over the prairies when a young man and wanted to see it again before he died. Not much left as he knew it. — He stayed a long time — . He said goodbye with great dignity — . He made a deep impression on my mother — . We watched him as he went slowly down across the lawn to the road — . He left an impression of profound sadness with my mother which as I grew in understanding has remained with me — [His] visit was a remembering and a farewell.”
Elsie Pepoon Sutton’s account of her encounter with the old man is both sad and sympathetic. Does Elsie feel guilty for the fact that her family has in some way forced Native Americans off their land? Unlike her older relatives, Eber and Edmund Howe, she doesn’t resort to a commonplace term like “savage” or “redman.” If this account occurred in 1877, as she believes, this was a year after the battle of Little Bighorn, when passions against first nations were inflamed. The account was recorded in 1939, from the perspective of a later period. Apparently visits from Indians weren’t unknown to the Pepoon family, Elsie describes other such encounters as “peaceful begging visits.”
Joseph Edwards, a neighbor of the Pepoons and Howes, wrote “Centennial History” of the county in 1876. His tone is different from Elsie’s. He writes “the settlers were more or less in constant fear of trouble from the Indians” (p.17). Elsie is only afraid because she is a young girl and a stranger in unusual dress arrives at the farm. Elsie, like Edwards, misidentifies the original inhabitants of the region, but her tone is as different from Edwards as it is from Eber and Edmund Howe’s. For the first time in three generations, Native Americans are portrayed in a sympathetic light.
Eber Howe and Elsie Pepoon Howe had encounters with Native Americans, Edmund Howe apparently didn’t. Eber may have had reason to fear some Iroquois: they fought with the British against the Americans. Eber doesn’t use epithets like “savage” about the British. Two generations later, the Native Americans, whether they were Otoe or Pawnee, had been displaced by European settlers. Elsie’s encounter with the elderly man is poignant, and she may have felt some guilt about the treatment of Native Americans. Unlike most writers during the American centennial, she expressed little fear of the man, other than the shyness a small girl might naturally feel.
It must be noted that both Eber Howe and Elsie Sutton wrote about their encounters with Native Americans sixty years after they happened. Eber’s encounters occurred during the War of 1812, and he wrote in 1878, during the hysteria of the Little Bighorn period. Elsie encountered the elderly “Pawnee” in 1877, and wrote about it in 1939.
Few Abolitionists extended their racial concerns towards Native Americans. The fact that certain Abolitionists did, and were mentioned for this, indicates this was the exception. Wendell Phillips cared about the welfare of Native Americans, and worked on their behalf after the Civil War. Some Abolitionist women writers, like Lydia Marie Child and Catherine Beecher extended racial tolerance to Native Americans. Eber Howe, noted Abolitionist, and his son, Edmund, did not. Eber’s written descriptions of first nations may have been influenced by the historical period he wrote them: after 1876, hostility towards Native Americans increased until after 1890. The second half of the nineteenth century in America was a time of forced removal of Native Americans, facilitated by the extermination of buffalo, bookended by the conflicts at Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee. Elsie Pepoon Sutton’s encounter with an elderly man, which happened in 1877, was not recorded until 1939. For the Howe/Pepoon family, it took three generations for attitudes towards Native Americans to change. Although they were committed Abolitionists, it was not until after the Civil War that ideas of racial equality extended to first nations.
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