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A Woodsplint Basket

 
An everyday object reveals the history of New England’s “disappearing” Indians

Displayed in the "Hall of the North American Indian" at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, the basket looks like many others made in New England in the early nineteenth century. It is a lidded storage basket, woven from ash splints that have been swabbed with dye, then stamped on alternate wefts with simple designs cut from a potato or the top of a cork. The surprise is inside. Firmly pasted to the inner contours of the lid and across the bottom and up the sides of the body are overlapping pages from the Rutland (Vermont) Herald for the fall and winter of 1821–1822. A name scrawled on the newspaper in the lid identifies the subscriber as "M Goodrich." If he was the Moses Goodrich listed in the 1820 census for Poultney, a town near Rutland, he was a typical Vermonter—a man passing through from one place to another. Unlisted in the census of 1810, he was gone by 1830, leaving his and his wife’s names on an infant’s gravestone but no other evidence of his identity.

This article is excerpted from the book The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Copyright © 2001 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc.

See also: Turning History’s Page

The basket, too, may have been a migrant. Its dominant characteristics—alternating wide and narrow splints and regularly spaced stamping—are typical of those made by Mahican and Schagticoke families along the borders between Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The construction of the basket measures the distance Algonkian weavers traveled from the twined textiles of the early colonial period. Woodsplint basketry developed after wars and disease forced remnant groups to find new ways of making a living. Already skilled in using forest products, they adapted to an emerging market for inexpensive and lightweight containers. By the early nineteenth century, an "Indian" basket was almost by definition a woodsplint basket. This one could have arrived in Vermont with the maker or an early owner—perhaps Moses Goodrich or someone close to him.

inside view of basket cover shows newspaper lining
The lidded storage basket, woven from ash splints, was carefully decorated to appear "Indian" to its buyer.
Photograph by Jim Harrison.

Photographs of basket copyright © 2002, President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Woodsplints are silken on the outside, but on the reverse can be as rough in spots as a farmer’s hands. The lining protected the contents against dust, insects, and subtle abrasion. Smaller than a trunk but larger than a workbox, a lidded basket was a convenient repository for extra clothing, papers, bonnets, or other personal possessions. Displayed beside a worktable or on top of a chest, it would have added decorative interest to a simple room. The person who lined this basket may or may not have read the newspapers she used, but if she did, she discovered a darker underside of New England life. On the reverse of one of the papers in the lid is a story about the murder in Massachusetts of a woman described as "the last of the Natick tribe of Indians," a respected healer shoved into the kitchen fire by her own grandson.

Our basket attests to the artistry and industry of New England’s Indians and the neatness of an early owner. The newspapers that line it provide unexpected links to the mythology of "disappearing" Indians.

 

For many years, historians assumed that Vermont was empty of human inhabitants before the white man came, and that during the colonial period the few Indians found there were in transit from French Canada. Scholars now tell us that when the English arrived in North America, the people known as the western Abenaki inhabited a region bounded on the west by Lake Champlain, on the east by the White Mountains, and extending from southern Quebec to the present border with Massachusetts. Archaeological evidence reveals continuous occupation in the Champlain Valley for more than 11,000 years. After King Philip’s War, refugees from southern New England, including Mahicans from the Hudson River Valley and Pocumtucks from western Massachusetts, quietly joined the Abenaki.

During the colonial wars, Vermont Indians, like those in northern New Hampshire and Maine, developed religious and cultural links to French Canada, but the 176o defeat that ended the French occupation of Canada cut off trade goods and military supplies from the north and threatened the Abenaki homeland by breaking the dike of migration from southern New England. Settlers from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire swarmed into areas that had once seemed hostile to white habitation. In 1761 alone, 60 townships were granted along the Connecticut River Valley in what is now Vermont. Soon there were colonial towns on the western side of the Green Mountains as well.

By the time English authorities got around to granting Vermont’s supposedly unoccupied land to New York in 1764, the government of New Hampshire had already assigned three million acres, nearly half of the present state, to land speculators and settlers, a situation that led to armed conflict between "Yorkers" and "Green Mountain Boys." Vermont fought two revolutions, one against the British and another against its neighbors. In 1777 it declared itself a republic. The white settlers who poured into the region from southern New England deplored tenancy, demanded popular government, and championed religious liberty, but they had little interest in the Abenaki whose ancient homeland they were claiming.

Vermont’s war against New York soon became a movement to occupy fertile lands around Missisquoi, near the northern tip of Lake Champlain. The Onion River Land Company, founded by Revolutionary heroes Ira and Ethan Allen and their friend Remember Baker, fought rival claimants in court. In one suit Ira Allen challenged both New York grants and the rights of the Abenaki, insisting that the Indians had abandoned their land during the war "& have made no Claims by themselves or assigns till Lately." But as Yankee settlers moved onto their land, the Abenaki did make claims, appearing unexpectedly at homesteads or newly cleared fields protesting that the land was theirs, and sometimes claiming "rent" in food and hay. Allen claimed that they also destroyed fences and threatened to burn barns or kill cattle, and he blamed the machinations of other white men for the disturbance.

Although scattered groups continued to protest the white presence, there was little they could do. The Abenaki who remained in Vermont either dispersed into small family bands or learned to live on the edges of white communities, working as farmhands, lumberjacks, tanners, or household servants, invisible unless ill fortune or local whimsy exposed them.

inside view of basket cover shows newspaper lining
The newspaper lining, added by the basket’s owner, provides an unexpected and chilling insight into New England’s "disappearing" native peoples.
Photograph by Jim Harrison.

American Indians could fade into the crowd or flaunt difference. Basket-selling offered [an] opportunity to assert an Indian identity. A town history from the eastern part of Vermont describes small groups of Abenaki coming down the Connecticut River "in birchbark canoes in summer." The men spent their time in fishing and hunting while the women "sold their wares from house to house." A more colorful story appeared in 1835 in the Green Mountain Democrat. A family group, identified as "part of the tribe of the Missisiques, who live a wandering life on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain," had camped near Windsor, where they subsisted by making and selling "Indian articles."

Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing what sort of "articles" these families were selling, nor is there any record of similar groups camping near Rutland. There are no known woodsplint baskets made in Vermont in the early nineteenth century, unless we assume that a woodsplint basket lined with a Vermont newspaper was made there. Certainly there were materials for making such a basket at hand. The basket could also have come from the old Mahican territory along the Hudson River corridor. Although Mahicans at Scaticoke and Stockbridge ostensibly went west after the Revolution, some may have remained.

Although its precise origin is unknown, the basket itself is full of information about its design and construction. To say that it is a "woodsplint" basket is to gloss over the hard work involved in preparing materials for weaving. The initial step was finding the right kind of tree, usually a sapling six to nine inches in diameter. Women and men both did this work. Experienced basket makers knew how to identify straight, unknotted trunks that were likely to produce good splints. Cutting the logs in convenient lengths, they carried them out of the woods on their shoulders, then began the hard work of making splints. White oak had to be worked green; ash was more forgiving. Using a sharp ax, the splint maker split each log, then used a crooked knife to cut and shape long sticks of equal size. Pounding the sticks along their length caused them to break apart along the annual growth rings, the individual splints opening out like a fan, ready to be separated and stacked for weaving. Pounding out splints took both skill and strength.

Using the same technique, Yankee basket makers produced plain but sturdy baskets. Well-documented Indian baskets are almost always decorated, suggesting that customers liked buying baskets that to their eyes appeared "Indian."

Decoration began with the preparation of stains and dyes. Early twentieth-century accounts emphasized the use of natural dyes—wild berries, bloodroot, onion skins, spruce root, goldthread, and barks. Experiments done at the American Indian Archaeological Institute in Connecticut determined that plant dyes of that sort produced only pale washes, not the strong colors that most surviving baskets display. When analyzed, the sources of basketry colors in their sample turned out to be no different from those used in contemporary signboard, furniture, or house painting. The pigments came in a cake and were diluted with water and "size," a glue made from animal skins. The most popular pigment was indigo. Our basket is different. The bluish black that creates its checkered surface is not indigo, as in so many others, but a "flame carbon," a pigment made by burning some sort of fuel and collecting the sooty residue produced in the smoke. (Holding a table knife above a burning candle imitates the process.) Flame carbons could be made from oil, but the pigment in our basket seems to have been made from wood. The ancestors of this basket maker had presumably been making black paint of this sort for centuries. The second color in the basket, a rusty red, has almost disappeared from the outer surface. The scientist who analyzed a tiny sample taken from an exposed spot on the underside of the lid could determine only that it was "organic in nature" and that its color was not produced by common dyestuffs used in European and American textiles.

Our basket illustrates three different methods of applying color. The reddish splints were dyed, like fabric, by immersion in some sort of bath. The black wefts were swabbed after weaving, leaving color on the exposed surface alone. The geometric designs were stamped. The technique is quite simple. Oral histories of later basket makers tell us that the stamps were homemade, carved out of corks, potatoes, or turnips. Stamping was one way to create multiple designs with small effort. The bottom row on the front of this basket shows the progression of stamping from right to left. The motif on the far right is smudged; the ink got lighter with each application.

artisans at work
Making ash splints at the Passamaquoddy Basket Co-op, Point Pleasant Reservation (top), and Lawrence Shay, a Penobscot, building a fancy basket over a block.
Courtesy Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, Maine

The imperfect stamping reflects the circumstances in which baskets like these were made. To survive, a basket maker needed to make attractive baskets, but she also needed to work quickly and perhaps engage less skilled persons in the work. This basket displays both artistry and haste. It has a definite back-front divide, with the stamping extending around only three sides, as though the back of the basket was supposed to stand against a wall. The part of the body that fits under the rim of the lid is also undecorated. But the overall design of the basket is both thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing. The weaver obviously saw the lid as an integral part of the design. Extending the alternating bands of dark and light onto the rim, she added a new rhythm by stamping the lighter wefts, creating a triangular line from body to rim that closes and completes the design. The effect was even stronger when the basket was new. The vertical pieces visible on the three decorated sides of the basket are actually supplemental warps, beige now but once red. They are purely decorative and were inserted after the weaving was completed. On the lid itself, stamped rings alternating with sunbursts march across the top, but again the weaver added complexity to her design. Slipping thin strips of red through every other weft, she reinforced the diagonal march of the circles. Although current scholarship downplays "tribal" characteristics in early-nineteenth-century baskets, looking instead at family traditions and individual styles, the use of red and black links this basket to known Mahican work. Market demand was surely one factor in its production, but artistry was another.

The newspapers were added by the person who purchased the basket. That practice was common. When this basket came to the Peabody Museum in 1913, the newspapers were in fragile condition. Many years later, when it was slated for exhibition, a conservator went to work, using careful methods that not only improved the appearance of the interior of the basket but added years to its life [see "Turning History’s Page"].

 

Page two of the Rutland Herald for December 26, 1821, is no longer visible in the basket, but other extant copies of the same issue expose its gruesome story:

In Natick, on the evening of the 6th inst. Hannah Dexter, a celebrated Indian doctress, was murdered in her own home, by her grandson, Joseph Purchase. The circumstances of her death are as follows—It seems from the evidence in the case that some Indians had met at her house for the purpose of a frolic, which terminated in drunkedness and fighting; that she reproved her grandson, for his misconduct, and was, in consequence, threatened by him with death. Also, that he drove his sister and brother-in-law from the house, and put his threat in execution, by knocking her into the fire, and burning her to death, while they were gone to alarm the neighbors. She was between 75 and 80 years of age, and maintained an unblemished character. She was the last of the Natick tribe of Indians. Her murderer was secured, tried and committed to the jail in this town to await the sentence of the law.

The story plays on the horror of a disrupted household order. Everything seems topsy-turvy. There is a man attacking his own grandmother, a sister and brother-in-law fleeing the house for help, and the terrible image of an old woman being knocked into her own fire. This is a story about drinking and violence, but it is also a story about Indians. Hannah Dexter was a person of "unblemished character," though curiously, even though she had two grandchildren in her house, the writer described her as "the last of the Natick tribe of Indians." The unspoken assumption is that the grandchildren were the product of a mixed racial alliance—perhaps, as was commonly the case, between an Indian and an African American.

The theme of the disappearing Indian is laced through early-nineteenth-century literature. Its presence in this 1821 newspaper predates by five years the publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Ironically, the maker of our basket may have been a Mahican, but unlike Cooper’s savvy woodsmen, she or he lived by peddling baskets on the margins of settled towns. That was the common occupation of the "last Indians" in New England local history. Massachusetts and Connecticut town chronicles tell about Molly Hatchet, the presumed last of the Paugussets; "Old Betty," the last of the Wangums; Mercy Nonsuch Mathews, the last of the Western Nehantic; and Tamer Sebastion and Eunice Mauwee, both of whom are described in various places as the last of the Pequots. Granny Sprague, who bottomed chairs in Natick, was ostensibly the last of the Nipmucks. Darkis Onerable earned a similar distinction on Nantucket. Like most of the others, she was both memorialized and consigned to the margins of her town. Though considered a "noble woman of her Tribe," she lived out her life as a servant to a white family and died in the town asylum. Although these basket makers often had English names and worshiped in mainstream churches, they were marked by lineage and occupation as Indians.

The stories white writers told about Indian basket makers reflect both the racist assumptions of the tellers and the real-life circumstances of men and women forced to eke out a living outside the dominant culture. The persons who told these stories were often sympathetic to their subjects, who seemed to them both degraded and curiously attractive. They described basket makers who were often drunk, yet just as often endowed with a wit that endeared them to their neighbors. They wore outlandish costumes and behaved in outlandish ways, yet retained an innate pride in their own worth. They were wanderers who neverthless had an almost instinctual attachment to place. They were unambitious, yet trudged through Yankee towns carrying on their backs huge quantities of brooms and baskets and sometimes their children as well. They entertained as well as outraged their neighbors.

Stories about Indian basket makers describe women who defied white notions of appropriate gender behavior. They were towering figures, outsized in manner if not in body, and impossible to ignore. Molly Hatchet was six feet tall. Lydia Francis carried a large butcher’s knife under her shawl and always traveled with "a big brindle dog, as ugly as his mistress." Tuggie Bannocks, who "was as much negro as Indian and was reputed to be a witch," had a "full set of double teeth all the way round, and an absolute refusal ever to sit on a chair, sofa, stool, or anything that was intended to be sat upon." In white eyes, these women often possessed male attributes.

Sarah Boston, reputed to be "the last lineal descendant of King Philip," weighed nearly 300 pounds and could work "in the fields like a man, taking her pay in cider." She loved to frighten troublesome boys. "One night a party of young men, out on a good time, were passing the old cemetery in Grafton. Their ideas of wit, somewhat confused by liquor, suggested their knocking loudly on the wooden gate, and calling out: ‘Arise, ye dead, and come to judgment.’ Slowly from one of the graves the immense form of Sarah Bostons stretched itself up. Saying, ‘Yes, Lord; I am coming,’ she started in their direction. The young men, well-nigh paralyzed with fear, stumbled into their wagon, and, lashing their horse into a furious run, did not look behind them until safe in their own homes." But Sarah had a softer side. When asked why she cut down a productive cherry tree in her yard, she said it shaded the house so that she couldn’t see to read her Bible. Her biographer concluded, "At the dawning of the judgment day she may be among the first to answer, ‘Yes, Lord; I am coming.’"

Indian basket makers not only behaved in wild and unexpected ways, they lived in wild and hard-to-find places. In West Barnstable, folks remembered old Hagar at Hagar’s Spring and old Mookis who lived on one of the trails beween Scorton and the ponds. Joseph Aron, a veteran of the Revolution, lived alone in a swamp near Westborough, "weaving baskets, wandering into the houses and barns of his white neighbors, and quoting scraps of Scripture, right, or oftener wrong." They were fleeting characters, men and women whose dwellings were destined to disappear, leaving only an impression in the ground or a bed of tangled tansy.

They were also given to intemperance. Andrew Brown, like other Indians, made baskets, then drank up the profits from the sale of them. His wife was no better. Locals joked about the day she pointed to her husband lying under a tree and slurred, "Poor old Indian got dhrunk on schwamp water." Connecticut’s Molly Hatchet also had an "overfondness for ‘uncupe’ as she and earlier Indians called rum." Sarah Boston spoke for many when she said, "The more I drink, the drier I am."

In these moralistic stories by white writers, drink and the uncertain support acquired through basketry led to Indian poverty and sometimes violence. Fights between Simon Gigger and his wife, Bets Hendricks, were legendary. "One time she got more than even with him by striking him with a scythe and cutting his thumb so that it fell over into his hand. But this quarrel, like all the others, was readily healed, and the cut thumb was cured by a generous application of balm of Gilead." Despite the violence, there was poetry in these lives. When Gigger left home, Bets usually followed a few steps behind, "she carrying a load of baskets, which they sold at the farm-houses, he, the violin. They often found work in rebottoming the chairs, and when the work was done, and the bread and cider disposed of, Gigger or Bets would delight the children by getting what music they could from the old fiddle." Their end came on a winter night, when they returned home drunk and lost their way in a snowstorm. The next day people found a bit of calico sticking up in the snow that proved to be a part of Bets’s dress. "Farther on—as usual, a little ahead of his wife—they found Gigger’s body,—both frozen to death within sight of their home."

Most writers attributed such behavior to atavistic impulses that kept Indians from taking steady work. There was, for example, the curious case of Deb Browner, who lived a respectable and prosaic life most of the year, but in the autumn wrapped herself in a blanket, let her hair flow free, and headed north, "bearing by a metomp of bark around her forehead a heavy burden in a basket." There were others who worked in taverns or did odd jobs around the town in winter, but in late summer "seized with the spirit of their fathers or the influence of their early lives…wandered off for weeks and months, sometimes selling brooms and baskets, sometimes reseating chairs, oftener working not, simply tramping trustfully, sure of food whenever they asked for it."

The Connecticut writer Lydia Sigourney thought that Mohegan women were "more easily initiated into the habits of civilized life" than their men. Yet even for them, "the distaff, the needle, and the loom were less congenial to their inclinations, than the manufacture of brooms, mats, and baskets." Wearing "a little round bonnet of blue cloth, in a shape peculiar to themselves," they wandered around the county, peddling their wares door to door. If they found no market, they begged "a morsel of bread for the infant at their back." When employed in the families of whites, repairing worn chairs or doing other work, they were "uniformly industrious, and grateful for any trifling favour." The same could not be said for their men, who retained the warlike spirit of their ancestors.

In such a setting, men like John Cooper, who through hard labor had acquired oxen, cows, swine, and "riches heretofore unknown among the unambitious sons of Mohegan," became objects of disdain. His brothers regarded him with suspicion, not out of envy, but because his manners "approximated too closely to the habits of white men….They conceived poverty to be less degrading than daily toil, and thought he could not be a true Indian, who would not prefer the privations of one, to the slavery of the other."

Although most writers acknowledged the achievements of men like Samson Occom, the legendary Mohegan missionary, and recognized the existence of industrious Indians like Cooper, most doubted the power of education to transform what were increasingly seen as racial defects. They imagined Indians as in many ways superior to Africans, but lacking their steadiness and resilience. When a Massachusetts official asked a Natick man why so many of his race reverted to intemperate habits when removed from the influence of white masters or guardians, he replied, "Ducks will be ducks, notwithstanding they are hatched by the hen," or in the writer’s rendition of the man’s dialect, "Tucks will be tucks for all ole hen he hatch um."

Yet the keepers of local memory remembered Indians not only as walkabouts and ne’er-do-wells but as objects of mystery and yearning. In Stowe, Vermont, settlers recalled the mysterious brook where Indian Joe and no one else could find nuggets of gold. In Rhode Island, people said the Narragansett witch Tuggie Bannocks could raise from the dead every person who had ever slept in the tumbledown tavern where she lived. Men and women who were the "last of" their people not only left memories but subtle marks on the landscape. In Marshfield, Vermont, when the waterfall named for Indian Molly roared from heavy rains, people imagined her descending it in her canoe.

Most people believed that in spite of Yankee efforts to convert them, reform them, and govern them, Indians were destined to disappear. Some did. Intermarrying with non-Indians, white or black, many of the descendants of New England’s earliest people gradually ceased to register in their neighbors’ consciousness as "Indian." Hence the reference to Hannah Dexter, who had many descendants, as the last of the Naticks. Some scholars use the term acculturation to describe this process. Ann McMullen prefers the term conversion, because it suggests that disappearance was in some sense a choice. By restricting the use of identifying symbols, people forced to live in a hostile environment avoided recognition and appeared "superficially, to be like non-natives." As the Natick tribal historian Thomas Doughton has observed, the native peoples of central New England "were not, all of them, creatures of white imagination: intemperate, immoral, drunken, or childlike. On the contrary, many were rooted in area towns, stable residents, some of them property owners, woven into the region’s social fabric." They were "farmers, plumbers, washerwomen, mariners, chair bottomers or chair caners, ‘Indian herb doctors,’ barbers, shoemakers, domestic servants, baggage masters, itinerant entertainers, day laborers, railroad engineers, mill operatives, specialty bakers, broom and basket makers, housewives, and stage coach drivers." On Cape Cod and the islands, they were whalemen. Everywhere they were veterans of wars.

If basket makers are more visible in fiction, memoirs, and town histories than others, it is in part because their work required them to remain visible. To earn a living without giving profits to a middleman, peddlers of brooms and baskets needed to travel, and some of them liked to. Furthermore, since basket-making stood outside both the agricultural and the new manufacturing economy, it offered a kind of independence not available to wage laborers. Successful basket makers learned to exploit Yankee prejudices, reinforcing the qualities that others saw in them. Read in this way, the stories about Sarah Boston rising up in the graveyard at Westborough or Deb Browner taking her annual journeys with a backpack take on new significance. The "quaintness" noted in town histories was also a mark of cultural survival.

Native folklore captures the spirit of defiance behind some basket makers’ refusal to conform to white expectations. One tale transforms a besotted Indian into a trickster, celebrating cleverness rather than addiction. When the old man went to a Yankee house begging cider, the owner told him he could have as much as he could carry in his basket. Fortunately, it was a very cold day. The Indian went to the brook and dipped his basket in the water, taking it out and letting it freeze, then repeated the process again and again until it was lined with a thin coating of ice. Then he went back for the cider and carried it home. This story not only turned a drunk into a trickster, it transformed a basket into a pail. In older times, of course, such a trick would not have been necessary since weavers could produce twined vessels tight enough to hold water.

A more powerful set of stories preserves outrage at the violence of English conquest. A Pequot legend identifies the red centers of rhododendrons that grow in a swamp in eastern Connecticut with the blood of ancestors massacred in 1639. A story told by Gladys Tantaguidgeon recalled a later period when the killer was poverty rather than war. On a cold winter day an Indian woman and her baby "sought shelter for herself and child with the settlers. The white folks treated the Indians very badly so they refused to take her in." Spurned, she walked on until she came to a stream that was too deep to wade through and the ice too thin to cross. She and her baby were both found dead by its side the next day. Before this corn had always grown in a nearby field; afterward it would never grow again. Such stories counter sentimental references to the Indian presence in the landscape.

Peddling baskets allowed a person to live close to the land, to draw sustenance from the things around her, and to move freely with the seasons. But in the emerging world of market production, basket-making was a tenuous mode of subsistence that exposed those dependent on it to poverty and despair. Trudie Lamb Richmond captures both of those elements in her discussion of basket-making on the Schagticoke reservation in western Connecticut. Memories of gathering plants with her own grandmother helped her recover the spirituality associated with basket-making, but interviews with old-timers reminded her of the cultural costs of marginality. One longtime resident remembered how a basket maker named Jim Pan enticed children to help him by promising candy. At the end of the week, he would gather up a load of baskets to sell in the town and at nearby farms. "We would wait all day for his return thinking about the sweets we were going to get and listening for the sounds of his horse. But if we heard the horse coming back slowly and Jim singing at the top of his lungs, our chins would sink to our chest, knowing full well there was no candy that day. Jim had spent it all on firewater."

In this story, the only loss was candy. In other households, drinking could take away the spiritual and physical food that sustained life. The early-nineteenth-century writer William Apess (also spelled Apes) recalled with bitterness his grandmother’s drinking. Born in Colrain, Massachusetts, in 1798 to parents of mixed African-Pequot descent, Apess lived for a time in Colchester, Connecticut, near the Mohegan reservation, but when he was three his parents separated, and he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents.

At a certain time, when my grandmother had been out among the whites, with her baskets and brooms, and had fomented herself with the fiery waters of the earth, so that she had lost her reason and judgment and, in this fit of intoxication, raged most bitterly and in the meantime fell to beating me most cruelly;…until my poor little body was mangled and my little arm broken into three pieces, and in this horrible situation left for awhile. And had it not been for an uncle of mine, who lived in the other part of the old hut, I think that she would have finished my days; but through the goodness of God, I was snatched from an untimely grave.

Apess knew that in publishing his story he would reinforce the stereotype of "the poor degraded Indians." He confronted the issue directly, blaming his suffering not only on his grandmother but on the white men who "brought spirituous liquors first among my people." He believed that whites brought something more dangerous than alcohol—"the burning curse and demon of despair."

inside view of basket cover shows newspaper lining

Apess helps us to understand that the myth of the disappearing Indian covered a darker truth, that to make way for white farms, Indians had to disappear. In the seventeenth century, people believed that God brought illness to make way for his chosen remnant. In the early republic, writers more often appealed to the logic of the new political economy. The author of an 1801 Massachusetts report on the old praying town of Mashpee concluded that despite years of effort by Christian pastors and government officials, the inhabitants "have become neither a religious nor a virtuous people, nor have they been made happy." With "a hundredth part of the pains which have been bestowed on these savages" the state could have built a town with four times as many white inhabitants, all of whom would have enjoyed the benefits of civilization and contributed "by their industry to the welfare of the state, and by the taxes, which they pay, to the support of government." Mashpee had become a drain on the public coffers and an object lesson in bad management.

As if the point weren’t clear enough, the author felt compelled to offer a parable:

This plantation may be compared to a pasture, which is capable of feeding fifteen or sixteen hundred sheep; but into which several good-natured and visionary gentlemen have put three or four hundred wolves, foxes, and skunks, by way of experiment, with the hope that they might in time be tamed. A shepherd has been placed over them at high wages; and as the animals have been found to decrease, other wolves, foxes, and skunks have been allured to the pasture, to keep up their number. But the attempt has been in vain; the wild animals have worried the shepherd; have howled, and yelped, and cast other indignities upon the gentlemen, who from time to time have visited them, for the sake of observing how the experiment went on; and have almost died with hunger, though they have been fed at an enormous expense.

Even though Indians were the racial equivalent of wild animals, "the pious and benevolent" should continue in their efforts, "however hopeless," to turn them into "good men and christians."

William Apess was surely aware of such attitudes. In five volumes published between 1829 and 1833, he confronted white racism. In an essay entitled "An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man," he asked his readers to imagine that people of all colors stood before God with their nation’s sins written on their skins; "which skin do you think would have the greatest?" Surely the Indian could not be charged with robbing a nation of its land, murdering its women and children, and "then depriving the remainder of their lawful rights, that nature and God require them to have"? Nor could they be charged with enslaving another nation "to till their grounds and welter out their days under the lash with hunger and fatigue." In short, Apess was asking his white neighbors to measure their own behavior against the democratic values and Christian ethic they ostensibly embraced.

Soon after the publication of this essay, Apess turned rhetoric into action by helping to organize and lead a revolt at Mashpee. Working with the Wampanoag pastor Blind Joe Amos, he established a temperance association, then participated in the writing of an "Indian Declaration of Independence" submitted to the governor and council of Massachusetts. It proclaimed that after July 1, 1833, "we, as a tribe, will rule ourselves, and have the right to do so; for all men are born free and equal, says the Constitution of the country." To put their belief into practice, the Mashpee declared that from thenceforth no white man could take wood or cut hay on their land without permission. The effort to enforce that prohibition cost Apess and others 30 days in jail for "riot, assault, and trespass," but the publicity helped to rouse support for a petition to the legislature that eventually returned to the citizens of Mashpee the rights of town governance they had fought for in the years before the American Revolution.

Apess’s looking glass used American ideas to reveal American behavior. At Mashpee he invoked the resounding phrases of the Declaration of Independence (phrases that he like many others thought were in the Constitution) to challenge white hegemony. In his account of the religious conversion of basket maker Anne Wampy, he used dominant religious ideas to counter the stereotype of the unchangeable Indian. Each spring Wampy tramped 20 or 30 miles through the countryside carrying a load of baskets so large she was almost hidden from view and a burden of bitterness that few could see, but in Apess’s narrative the wandering basket maker became a Christian heroine. Responding to the ministrations of converts among her own people, she passed through the terror of sinfulness to the joy of redemption, overcoming her craving for rum and acquiring a love for everyone around her. With tears "streaming down her furrowed cheeks" and "glory beaming in her countenance," she told Apess she felt so light she wanted to fly.

inside view of basket cover shows newspaper lining

Christianity offered solace to Anne Wampy but it did not alter the economic values expressed in the 1801 report. Americans had long imagined a world in which sheep replaced wolves, skunks, and forests. Nowhere did this transformation occur more rapidly than in the area served by the Rutland Herald. The quaint illustrations that embellish notices for "Estray Sheep" in the papers lining our basket give little hint of the ecological and social changes that in a few decades transformed the old Abenaki homeland. The human population of Vermont almost doubled between 1800 and 1830, but the sheep population grew even faster. Thanks in part to duties on imported woolens passed in response to the "Report on Manufactures" advertised on a page in the lid of our basket, New England’s nascent woolen industry took off after 1822. By the late 1830s most Vermont towns had a thousand sheep, some as many as 5,000. In Rutland County there were 300 sheep per square mile, 10 for every inhabitant. Addison County, on the shores of Lake Champlain, had even more. In less than 20 years Vermont had changed from an area of subsistence farms into the largest wool producer in the nation in proportion either to population or territory. But in 1821, when the Rutland Herald published its story about the murder of Hannah Dexter, "the last of the Natick tribe of Indians," this process had barely begun.

 

In his celebration of the "age of homespun," Horace Bushnell marveled that Yankee farmers could create farms in the granite cold of New England. "Their producing process took everything at a disadvantage," he wrote, "for they had no capital, no machinery, no distribution of labour, nothing but wild forest and rock." In his view, strength of character allowed early settlers to overcome the defects of geography. "They sucked honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock." New England’s inhospitable landscape appears as well in a poem printed on one of the newspapers curving across the bottom and up the sides of the woodsplint basket:

Thou art the firm,
unshaken rock

      On which we rest;

And rising from the
hardy stock,

Thy sons the tyrant’s

frown shall mock,

And slavery’s galling

chains unlock,

      And free the
      oppress’d.

Linking the American Revolution with the newer struggle over the expansion of slavery into the western territories, the poet ignored the two centuries of war with the Abenaki that preceded Yankee settlement in Vermont.

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Turning History’s Page

In Vermont, as elsewhere in the new republic, ideals of freedom coexisted with indifference to indigenous claims. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Vermonters cleared lands, fenced fields, sowed flax, and carried wool from their sheep to newly constructed carding mills, believing that as they did so they were creating both a virtuous and an industrious republic. Meanwhile, in the green land along their borders, Indian basket makers struggled to preserve their own kind of liberty.

[not shown] Cornelius Kreighoff’s The Basket Seller, circa 1850, displays both polychrome woodsplint baskets and their sale by a wandering peddler.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Phillips professor of early American history and Harvard College Professor, is director of the Warren Center for Studies in American History. Her 1991 book, A Midwife’s Tale, won the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes. She wrote "Harvard’s Womanless History," this magazine’s November-December 1999 cover story.