Here in Potterville, Colorado, it’s the most beautiful two weeks of the year. The many crabapple, apple, plum, peach, and cherry trees are in full bloom, as are the tulips; if the forsythia holds on, just about every flowering tree and bush in my yard will be abloom at the same time.
What, you say? Historiann lives in the High Plains desert? What the hell is she doing with a veritable fruit orchard in her garden? Trees are integral to the history of (the pseudonymous) Potterville, which started out in 1870 as a Utopian experiment called the Union Colony, and was organized around the principles of teetotalism, anti-capitalist communitarianism, and bringing trees to the Great American Desert. Well, one of out three goals outlasted the first decade, and it makes for a spectacular show of blossoms in late April and early May.
According to Enduring Roots: Encounters with Trees, History, and the American Landscape by Gayle Brandow Samuels (1999), town founder Nathan Meeker spent the princely sum of $1,490.00 on bringing Eastern trees west–apple trees, maples, and evergreens–and in the first season, watched most of them wither and die (pp. 97-99). They were replaced by trees that were given much more water and attention, hence the odd landscape Potterville presents today: when you cross the town line and kick the tumbleweeds out of the front grille of your car, you’re greeted with flora that recall the Delaware and Ohio River valleys.
I’ve heard it suggested by local house museum docents that Meeker’s death was an indirect result of his sumptuous budget for trees. Before coming to Colorado, Meeker was the agricultural editor of the New York Tribune, and the newspaper’s publisher, Horace Greeley, encouraged him to ”go west, young man,” and provided a great deal of financial backing for the fledgling Union Colony. When Greeley died and his estate called in the loans, Meeker didn’t have the money, and legend suggests that it had gone to his profligate tree budget. (I can’t verify that yet, however.) So, in 1878 he took a job as an Indian agent on the Western slope at the White River Indian Agency, where he annoyed the Utes so much with his utopian reformist zeal (especially his insistence that they adopt his farming techniques) that the following year they rose up and killed him and took his wife Arvilla and youngest daughter Josephine captive, along with the other U.S. women and children in the settlement. Their captivity was short lived–only 23 days–but Josephine had time enough to stitch together a fitted, fashionable dress made of Indian blankets, which is on permanent display at the local museum. It was rumored that when released, she was pregnant by a Ute man, a rumor that gained credence when she was sent to Washington, D.C. to work for a Colorado congressman. However, she died of pneumonia shortly thereafter, before any putative child would have been born. (Source for the verified information in this paragraph is here.) Was Meeker doomed by his commitment to importing an Eastern landscape to the high plains desert?
Rumors of pregnancy resulting from captivity are an occasionally recurring theme in the history of North American Indian captivity. There was a suggestion that 170 years earlier and 2,400 miles away, Esther Wheelwright conceived a child in captivity. (I haven’t written about Wheelwright here for a while–to recap, she’s the topic of the book I’m writing now.) In The Unredeemed Captive(1994) on p. 92, John Demos quotes the one letter I’ve ever seen with that suggestion that “mr whellrites dafter is with child by an indian.” The letter, dated February 28, 1710, was written by former captive Esther Williams, who received the intelligence about “whellrites dafter” and other captives from another local ex-captive, John Arms, who returned home in the winter of 1710. I’ve never credited the report–because at the time, Esther was enrolled at the Ursuline convent school, and had been since January 1709. Moreover, she was a month shy of her fourteenth birthday in late February 1710, and far, far too young to have been considered sexually mature or marriageable in either Abenaki or colonial French society. And because the goal of both cultures was to include her in family life and persuade her to remain by gentle means, I think it’s highly unlikely that she was raped. Finally, there is no other evidence that corroborates this one account, suggesting to me that Esther Williams was either misinformed or she misreported information about another captive.
Last week, someone found their way to Historiann.com by googling the phrase “Esther Wheelwright pregnant by Abenaki.” If you’re still out there, the above paragraph is my two cents. As for the connections between crabapple trees and Esther Wheelwright–I dunno. Something about captives thriving in a new environment? The challenges of “going native” in a new environment? The perserverence of Esther Wheelwright, Josephine Meeker, and the flowering almond in my back garden that will not die?