Great White Father Knows Best

“Who knows what Columbus would have discovered if America hadn’t got in the way.” –Stanislaw J. Lec

“History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” –Edward Gibbon

“As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities.” –Voltaire

“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us.” –Malcolm X

It must be such a comfort to be absolutely sure you have all the truth, and your ways are always best. I’ll never know.


< What U.S. Learned From 'Heathen School' Wasn't Part Of The Lesson Plan
March 18, 2014 11:00 AM
This is FRESH AIR. John Demos is a distinguished historian whose books – among them "Unredeemed Captive" and "Entertaining Satan" – have won some of the highest awards in the field. He stumbled on the subject of his new book, "The Heathen School," when he visited an old friend who lives in a small town in Connecticut, and the friend told him a strange story about a long-vanished local school. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Picture this: You're a young girl, living in a remote town in Connecticut in 1825. You've taken refuge in a neighbor's house and, as night falls, you peek out a window to see your friends and family members assembling outdoors around two crude paintings. One is of a young white woman, you. The other painting is of a man, a Native American.
As church bells begin to toll, some of the townspeople carry forward fake bodies meant to represent you and the man in the painting. Someone else ignites a barrel of tar, and the effigies begin burning – an image of looming eternal damnation. You get the message: Stick with your own kind, or else.
This fantastical tableau sounds like something out of an early American version of "The Hunger Games," but it really took place. That frightened young girl, whose name was Harriet Gold, recollected that night in a letter which historian John Demos quotes in his engrossing new book, "The Heathen School."
The good townspeople of Cornwall, Connecticut carried out the ritual at a turning point moment when collective panic trumped piety. A few years earlier, in 1816, Cornwall had competed for the honor of hosting a cosmopolitan institution that would become a tourist attraction famous throughout early 19th century America.
Known familiarly as the Heathen School, it brought together young men from Hawaii, China, India and the Native American nations for the purpose of converting them to Christianity, and then sending them back as missionaries to their home countries. Of course, problems quickly arose with this early 19th century utopian scheme to evangelize the world. Some students found English too difficult to master and quit. Other students converted, returned home, and promptly went native again.
But the biggest problem with the venture – the one that really riled up the Cornwall community and doomed the Heathen School – was the perceived threat of race-mixing. In 1824, a young white woman named Sarah Northrup, who hailed from one of the most prominent families in town, married a student named John Ridge and moved with him to the Cherokee Nation in the state of Georgia.
Newspapers throughout Connecticut denounced Sarah as a squaw, and speculated in paranoid fashion that the Heathen School scholars aimed to make our daughters become nursing mothers to a race of mulattoes. The effigy burning ritual I just described was a response to news that Harriet Gold intended to marry a Cherokee student named Elias Boudinot. The bonfire and other threats didn't deter them. They married in 1826.
When John Demos came upon the story of the Heathen School it was presented to him as mere local lore. But, seasoned historian Demos recognized that there was a lot going on in that little schoolhouse. It gave him both a window into the early 19th century evangelical movement, as well as into shifting American attitudes toward racial mixing.
In one of the most intriguing sections of his book, Demos illuminates a more tolerant attitude toward intimate unions between whites and Native Americans – so-called, noble savages – in the earliest years of European colonization. For instance, he quotes an early historian of Virginia, who quipped that if colonists had tried intermarriage on a large scale the Indians would have been converted by this kind method. Those types of jokes would no longer be funny by the early 19th century.
Demos also intersperses his lively historical narrative with short, personal essays of on-the-road reportage, in which he travels to Hawaii, where some of the school's most famous students hailed from, as well as to the Cherokee Nation home sites of the Boudinot and Ridge families. The home of John Ridge, his wife Sarah and their mixed-race children was a plantation. Ridge was a slave owner.
In the end, everyone was removed by the U.S. government and forced to embark on the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The racial ironies keep multiplying. "The Heathen School" is a provocative addition to recent narrative histories that explore how racial categories and attitudes have changed over time in America.
I'm thinking especially of a book like Linda Gordon's "The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction," which also reminds us that race is what people and institutions wish to make of it, and that what they make of it involves a hierarchy of power and privilege that some choose to challenge, and others choose to abide.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Heathen School," by John Demos. You can read an excerpt on our website.
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About l. l. frederick

I'm pretty ordinary, so I find any number of things in the world interesting, among them: books, music, flowers, food, social justice, politics and (sometimes!) people. As for my writing, I've decided that I can be subtle and tasteful when our only problems are esthetic ones. Or when I'm dead, whichever comes first. In the meantime, read at your own risk.
This entry was posted in Civil Rights, Education, Family & Children, Justice, Literature, Media, News and politics, Religion, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Great White Father Knows Best

  1. The Americans always were and are the most ruthless colonizers. When they have their eyes on a piece of real estate, they show no mercy in grinding the original occupiers into the ground.

    • Stuart, Thanks for your comment, and it does feel like that. I don’t know if we Americans are really the worst ever. The devilish system we know IS bad enough. What is often most galling for me is our unabashed hypocrisy — our attitude that we are somehow god’s gift to the planet. – Linda

  2. Jeff Nguyen says:

    I’ve long wondered what might have happened if the Arawaks would have just wasted Columbus. History could have looked a lot different.

    • Jeff, Yes, that’s a tempting “what-if” exercise. If European exploration had been delayed until the Quakers were up and running, for example, would the culture clash have been a bit less brutal? You do wonder. But the technology gap and European diseases would still have led to a similar outcome , in all probability. Killing Magellan didn’t help much, or James Cook either. Now if Europeans had encountered something they had no resistance to, with a death rate for them comparable to pneumonic plague, THAT might have changed the deal. For better or worse? It’s so hard to see past what has happened to imagine how much worse anything might have been. Thanks for your comment . – Linda

  3. tubularsock says:

    Now that is what I call a fun bit of knowledge …….. “The Heathen School” what a great name. All Tubularsock can say is that white people are just funny in their thinking!

    And stuartbramhall, Tubularsock would add the French and English to the list of ruthless colonizers. And some native tribes were not exactly sweethearts to other native tribes. Domination over seems to be a nasty human trait. Tubularsock has even heard of Men dominating Women but that is only if you follow the Bible. Amen.

    And Jeff, Tubularsock is afraid that if Columbus had been bumped off that some other guy would have shipped out to find the riches. And if the Arawaks had had a pipeline of some sort drones would have been invented much earlier.

    Tubularsock feels that Voltaire said it at the top of the page, “As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities”.

    Thanks, Linda ……….

    • But Tubularsock, be reasonable! We love believing absurdities. I kind of think we like committing atrocities too, but I am sure about the absurdities. Any time it looks as if our faith in one silly notion might be wavering, somebody comes up with new ones! As we’ve been forced to concede how little attention the universe is paying to us, we’ve over-compensated. Good mormons will get to rule their own planets. We have epidemics of UFO sightings and alien abductions. People believe Survivor is real. Kids are propagating pictures of themselves, and imparting their profound ‘thoughts’ all over social media. Who says we’re insignificant blobs of protoplasm? That can’t be right!

      I still have some hope that, if we ever truly grasp what a small planet we’re on, and how much DNA we share with bananas and fruit flies, we just MIGHT decide we need to learn to get along with all the neighbors. But only hate and stupidity seem to catch on quickly, if humility and understanding ever happen, they will take time. And we’re so arrogant and destructive … we may not HAVE! enough time left.

      Tune in again next week for the ongoing advventures of that curious, infuriating homo sapiens species! Will we survive our own weaknesses? As Zhou Enlai might say, it’s too soon to tell. Thanks for your comment, and for letting me add another rant here. – Linda

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