Search Results for "wheelwright"

28th 2008
Potterville in the spring, and a girl’s thoughts turn to books. And pregnancy in captivity.

Posted under American history & local news

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 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? 


7th 2008
Friday doll blogging, 18th-century “action figure” edition

Posted under American history & captivity & Dolls


Here’s another photo of my Seven Years’ War lead soldiers and captives, which were a very cool recent birthday present.  I’m considering using them on the cover of my next book–they’re much cooler, more ambigous, and more mysterious than the portrait of Esther Wheelwright that hangs in the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS, for short).  And, a portrait is what you would already expect in a biography cover, right?  Esther commissioned a portrait shortly after she became Mother Superior, and then sent it to relatives in Massachusetts as a remembrance.  According to the curator of paintings I consulted with at the MHS in 2001, Anne Bentley, the painting is probably singular in their collection because it’s a portrait of a woman that wasn’t commissioned by her father or husband.  It’s pretty good for an amateur portrait–I wish I could show it to you, but I don’t yet have a digital copy, and the MHS doesn’t have all of their paintings on-line.  It was likely painted by an artist in the convent, as the Ursulines were known for their artistic excellence in producing elaborately embroidered altarcloths and giltwork items for churches, as well as humbler embroidered objects for the tourist trade. 

The MHS has done a wonderful job digitizing a bunch of other documents and images and organizing them into web displays.  For example, you can find this most excellent bit of military intelligence there, along with other Seven Years’ War-era maps.  Other rich web installations are African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts, and a featured “Object of the Month.”


1st 2008
Colonial history: yes indeed Ari, lots of massacres!

Posted under American history & captivity & unhappy endings

abenaki-western.jpgSo, yesterday I was working away in the library on my next impressive tome, and this link came in over the bloggy transom, Colonial History:  Nothing but Massacres?, in commemoration of the raid by French-allied Indians (Wabanaki, Hurons, and Mohawks) on Deerfield, Massachusetts on the night of February 28-29, 1704.  It was posted by Ari Kelman at The Edge of the American West at the very moment I was re-reading the neglected but bloody finale to Colonel Benjamin Church’s Indian-killing career as recounted in his Entertaining passages relating to Philip’s War which began in the month of June, 1675 (1716).  (Barbies in the morning, barbarism all afternoon–such is Historiann’s eccentric intellectual life!)  Contrary to the title, the book documents his successive Indian fighting expeditions through 1704, when at the age of 65 he proposed leading a murderous raid on the Wabanaki and French Acadians living around the Gulf of Maine in retaliation for the Deerfield attack.  Never mind that few if any Acadians or Maine Wabanaki were involved in the Deerfield raid–Church was probably looking for a pretext to attack in Maine and Acadia.  (He had attempted a similar raid in 1696 during King William’s War, when he succeeded in killing mostly livestock rather than French or Indian people.)

What does it mean when we frame colonial history (in Ari Kelman’s prankishly exaggerated term) as “nothing but massacres,” rather than as Anglo-American agricultural villages (“peaceable kingdoms”) that through the organic experience of small government developed the concept of “popular sovereignty” and Republicanism?  Well, for one, we get a colonial history that merges seamlessly with the history of the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (“Manifest Destiny,” the Frontier Army, and U.S. imperialism from Cuba and the Phillipines to Iraq).  We also get a more inclusive picture of colonial America, which included Indian and African peoples as well as Europeans and Euro-Americans, as well as a colonial history that has more continuities rather than differences with the colonial histories of Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, and central and South America.  Therefore, the “nothing but massacres” frame is something that seriously challenges claims to American Exceptionalism.

One of the problems colonial historians have in writing these more inclusive histories is that we have lengthy, detailed accounts of attacks on English towns and families written by the champlains-1607-gulf-of-maine.jpgsurvivors, but we have no comparable documentation of English attacks on Indian villages and families, and Native oral histories can’t entirely compensate.  Col. Church is so proud of his efforts to imprison and kill Wabanaki and French people that his neglected post-King Philip’s War career can fill in some of these gaps.  Church reports that his charge from Governor Joseph Dudley gives him free reign between the Piscataqua and St. Croix Rivers, and over to Mount Desert and Acadia (Nova Scotia), to “use all possible Methods for the burning and destroying of the Enemies Housing, and breaking the Dams of their Corn grounds in the said several places, and make what other Spoils you can upon them, and bring away the Prisoners.”  After they “kill’d and took every one both French & Indians, not knowing that any one did escape in all Penobscot,” they proceeded to “Passamequedo” up the St. Croix River, where Church was involved in a confusing skirmish with the scattered locals, “never asking whether they were French or Indians; they being all Enemies alike to me.”  Church and his men then proceeded to Acadia to sack and burn the French Acadian town of Menis (Minas), and to take “as many Prisoners as they could desire” from another Acadian town, but declined to attack Port Royal, and so returned to the mainland to seek out Wabanaki settlements in the Penobscot and Kennebec River valleys, especially the Catholic mission town at Norridgewock.

Church was unsuccessful in routing Norridgewock–he reports that when the Wabanaki there had heard that the English had “swept” Penobscot of its “Inhabitants, as if it had been swept with a Broom,” they cleared out of Norridgewock so quickly they left their “Ruff houshold-stuff and Corn behind them.”  (This was only one of many failed English expeditions to destroy Norridgewock and its French Jesuit missionaries–a feat they wouldn’t accomplish for another twenty years.)  The Norridgewock Wabanaki were mobile and had long-established connections with the mission Indians at St. Francis, near Quebec, but they probably didn’t all head North that summer of 1704–at least some of them remained to counter-attack English towns, especially Wells, Maine, where on August 10 they took dozens of captives, including Esther Wheelwright.  Church’s attacks were deadly, but they didn’t dissuade French and Wabanaki people from attacking English towns, as Church had hoped–his attacks probably only fueled their determination to drive the English out of Maine, and that’s a lesson that few in political and military leadership have ever seemed to learn in American history.


19th 2008
Black Herstory Month

Posted under American history & captivity & women's history

margaret-garner-marker.jpgDiary of an Anxious Black Woman is doing a great Black Herstory Month series–be sure to check it out.  She’s doing a spectacular job of telling stories of women far beyond the usual suspects, including nineteenth- and twentieth-century women in the arts like Katherine Dunham, Edmonia Lewis, and Octavia Butler.  In an post on Margaret Garner, she brings us word of an epoynymous opera with a libretto by Toni Morrison, whose Beloved was a fictionalized version of Garner’s life.  (The photo on the right is of the historical marker that stands in a central square in Covington, Kentucky to commemorate Garner’s escape and tragic choices.)  Anxious Black Woman believes that Margaret Garner the opera is far superior to the film version of Beloved:  “Unlike the film adaptation, which reduced the pain and the trauma of the story to histrionics and horror-film grotesqueries, the opera magnifies the despair and the sadness that her story is supposed to represent.”  Also, see Clio Bluestocking Tales for some brilliant posts about the woman known as Harriet Bailey Adams or Ruth Cox Adams, whom Frederick Douglass called his “sister.”  (Clio B. is contemplating a biography of Douglass through the lives of the women he was closest to.)    

I’ve been doing some African American history in the service of my current project, a book on the life and times of Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780), a child from Maine who was taken captive by the Abenaki in 1704 during Queen Anne’s War.  She lived with (and was almost certainly adopted by) the Abenaki until the age of 12, when she went to Quebec and entered the Ursuline convent there, living the rest of her long life as a nun.  Esther Wheelwright came from a slaveowning family, which it turns out was not as unusual as I would have expected in Wells, Maine at the turn of the eighteenth century.  Her paternal grandfather, father, and mother all wrote wills (in 1700, 1739, and 1750, respectively) that deeded enslaved people to other family members upon their deaths, so it’s very likely that Esther grew up in a household that included enslaved Africans or African Americans.

Imagine the isolation of the lives of enslaved people living on the frontiers of New England, living and working in isolation from a black community of any size.  Northern slavery in colonial Anglo-America may have offered relatively better food, clothing, and working conditions than slavery in the Caribbean or the southern mainland colonies, but it was just as arbitrary and cruel.  The only evidence I’ve found that speaks directly to the experiences of enslaved African American women in southern Maine around 1700 so far is the case of women identified only as Rachel, who was beaten regularly and then finally murdered by her master, Nathaniel Keene, in 1694.  Keene (or Caine) was initially accused in court of “Murdering a Negro Woman,” but in the end the jury found him guilty only of “cruelty to his Negro woman by Cruell Beating and hard usage.”  The penalty exacted of him was a five-pound fine-which was suspended-and  five pounds, ten shillings in court costs.  In order to put this punishment into perspective, people convicted of fornication or of bearing a child out of wedlock in 1694 and 1695 were regularly fined between twenty shillings and five pounds, substantial but not crippling sums.  This is how Rachel’s hard life and wretched death were commemorated by her community.

Sorry to end on such a down note–it’s times like this that I’m envious of modern historians.  They get to tell stories of liberation and triumph over oppression.  Me, I’m left with stories that, more often than not, don’t have endings that satisfy the reader’s need for retribution against evildoers and redress for the victims. 


« Prev