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Historical Background



From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it is not easy to reconstruct the mindset of English settlers when they first encountered the native peoples on the American continent. Separated by several months, an ocean, and much travail, from all that was familiar, the new arrivals struggled to create a context in which to understand these foreign people who looked, spoke, and behaved so differently from the comrades they’d left behind in England.

Quaker William Penn, arriving in the New World in 1682, was a bit awestruck, wondering if perhaps the native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel, (a theory that has persisted into modern day.[i]) But Quakers were not the first Englishman to struggle with both the question of the origins of the “Indians”, and with the related enigma of the best way to respond to the presence of these peoples. As early as the 1580s, artist John White’s explorations of Roanoke Island resulted in dozens of paintings (reproduced by Belgian engraver Theodor de Bry, and widely circulated in Europe), which wordlessly interrogated the visages, habits, habitats, and resources of America’s southeastern natives. Though many English settlers all along the east coast understood that there was much to be learned from the natives—especially about survival in this strange land with its inscrutable flora and fauna—most of the newcomers soon concluded that their objective should be to transform the natives: to make them as much like English Christians as possible. For many decades, this objective would form the enduring basis for most of the interactions between English and American Indian peoples.

Some three decades before Penn’s arrival, guided by Parliament’s 1649 "Act for the Promoting and Propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England" missionary John Eliot, who had lived among the Massachusett Indians, and learned the vocabulary and structure of their Natick dialect, translated parts of the Bible into this Native American tongue, and used this to convert more than 1,000 local Natick Indians.

But as European immigrants became ever-more-numerous, the issue of how to co-exist on lands about which Europeans and American Indians had very different notions of “use” and “ownership” became ever-more-critical. William Penn’s intention to treat Indians fairly in land “sharing,” was soon over-ridden by the land-hunger of Europeans—including some Quakers. The infamous “Walking Purchase” (1737) by which William Penn’s sons authorized defrauding the Lenape and Allegany Indians of millions of acres of land , betrayed William Penn’s vision, and contributed to the tensions that led to the Seven Years’ War. This sequence of events also had the effect of inspiring Israel Pemberton and other Friends in the Philadelphia area to establish the “Friendly Association for Regaining and Preserving Peace with the Indians by Pacific Measures,” with the goal of restoring the ethical American Indian-white relations which Penn had envisioned. Indeed, Penn's vision lived on- and continues to live on- in the memory and policies of a community of Quakers who have maintained- and continuously updated- their commitment to American Indians.

So began a tradition of consistent and persistent advocacy(although shaped by its time and place) by some Quaker individuals and yearly meetings, which earned Friends as a group the reputation of sympathy toward American Indian rights. By 1795, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) had institutionalized the “Friendly Association,’ renaming it the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Indian Committee, which worked closely with the New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) Indian Affairs Committee, which began at approximately the same time. In dedicated, but sometimes ambivalent and ambiguous ways, these groups aimed to befriend and assist the region’s Native Americans. Modern historians such as Michael Goode, Daniel Richter, Karim Tiro, and Jean Soderlund argue that Quakers’ involvement in Indian affairs, during and after the Seven Years War, was complex, multifaceted, and not yet fully understood.[ii]

In the 1790s, a group of five Quaker men-—Henry Simmons, Halliday Jackson, Joel Swayne, John Pierce, and Joshua Sharpless-—formed a Quaker mission, with the aim of introducing English Quaker culture into Seneca communities. Over succeeding decades other missionaries followed. Their diaries and reports, as well as early Indian Committee records, including correspondence and institutional records invite research, chronicle their hopes and their struggles to understand American Indian languages, and offer glimpses of both the successes and the challenges of their efforts. These materials also invite research into the nature of the Quaker and American Indian relationship.

Thus, by 1819, when Congress instituted the “Civilization Fund Act,” which awarded grants to establish schools to convert American Indians to Christianity, the English language, and English culture, Quaker organizations had already established a track record with many of the regions’ Native American individuals and groups. Within a few decades, Indian schools, such as one established at Tunesassa, New York, had arisen under the auspices of Quaker philanthropy. Though widely deplored, in modern times, for their forced seperation of American Indian children from their families and native cultures, such schools aimed to enable native peoples to survive in the Europeanized world that was a-borning.. Along with other Christian denominations, Quakers also headed for the western frontier, where, by the 1860s, Enoch Hoag came to the attention of President Ullyses S. Grant, who placed Hoag in charge of his Indian “Peace Policy” in Kansas and the Indian Territory of the Shawnee, Osage, and several other Indian nations. The goal was to distribute supplies and to establish schools that would “Americanize” and “civilize” American Indians, pursuant to granting them citizenship.

Grant’s controversial policy, which resulted in a decade of frustration for Hoag, inspired another Quaker, Helen Hunt Jackson, to write A Century of Dishonor, (1881), an embittered history of U.S.-Indian relations. Inspired by Jackson’s work, and by Congress’ passage of the Dawes Severalty Act, which sought to force American Indians to give up their communal traditions and to adapt to individual farming, New York Quaker Albert K. Smiley convened the Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian and Other Dependent Peoples, which convened annually, for more than a half-century, to consider strategies for managing U.S/American Indian relations. Like the Indian Committees, the Mohonk Conferences had idealistic goals, aiming to support schools and other projects to teach American Indians the skills to survive in modern, capitalist society. Even as commentators struggle to assess the complexity of the Mohonk Conferences strategies and perspectives, and the problematic ethics of trying to change American Indian culture, modern Quaker individuals and groups continue to understand and to advocate for American Indians' rights. [iii]

--Emma Lapsansky-Werner, Emeritus Professor of History and Emeritus Curator of the Quaker Collection