I just finished Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Harvard Univ. Press, 2001) by Daniel Richter, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. This fine book (a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer in history) tells early American history from an entirely different perspective, that of Native Americans looking east as scattered groups of Europeans make visits, then trade, then settle, fight, and spread along the Atlantic seaboard and beyond. More than just being good history, Facing East also helps the LDS reader appreciate the religious and cultural lens through which early Mormons, like other early Americans, viewed North American Indians. Below are comments on some of the more interesting examples of this I found in the book.
The material in Chapter One about the two-year rampage of DeSoto and his 600 Spaniards from 1540 to 1542 reminds us how much destruction was visited on Indian communities and culture decades before the first permanent English settlers arrived at Jamestown and Plymouth. The leading Tascaloosa city of Mabila, with a population in the thousands, was completely destroyed by De Soto. Everywhere he and his Spaniards went, disease and famine (from confiscating scarce food stores or wrecking crops) followed. DeSoto treated venerated chiefs with disdain, which undoubtedly clouded the faith locals put in their own cultural and religious beliefs. The status of local chiefs declined, another blow to native culture and society.
So disease, depopulation, and cultural decline penetrated the interior centuries before Americans crossed the Appalachians in the 18th century. Legends of Moundbuilders arose not just in ignorance of ancient American inhabitants but also in ignorance of even the recent history of local Indians.
Chapter Four recounts the stories of those few early Indians who converted to Christianity. Missionaries who worked with Indians in New England didn’t have much luck, but they were the vanguard of a centuries-long effort of preaching to the Indians. See if anything jumps out at you in this excerpt from the conversion story related by an Indian named Monequassun (recorded and obviously colored by an English scribe, but still a valuable account).
I confess my sins before the Lord, and before men this day. … I played the hypocrite, and my heart was full of sin. I learned some things, but did not do what God commanded. …But afterward I feared because of my sins, and feared punishment for my sins. …
I asked a question at the [missionary’s] lecture, which was this, “How I should get wisdom?” … But afterward I heard the Word, “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask it of God, who giveth liberally to all that ask, and upbraideth none.” But then I did fear God’s anger, because of all my sins, because they were great.”
That was printed in a book of native conversion stories entitled Tears of Repentence, first published in 1653 but regularly reprinted right up to the 19th century — the edition cited in the footnotes was dated 1834. There’s no basis for thinking that Joseph Smith drew his inspiration from Monequassan’s story, but the parallels do suggest that missionaries and preachers from the 17th through the 19th centuries drew on the same body of sermons and scriptures, passed down from missionary to missionary, to move and inspire their hearers. In other words, Joseph and Monequassan might very well have heard substantially the same sermons preached by local or travelling preachers citing, among other scriptures, James 1:5.
Chapter Six gives several accounts of the “praying Indian” communities in New England and their sad fate. Those Indians who converted often gathered to their own small communities and made cultural changes as directed by missionaries, such as adopting European dress and taking up settled agriculture. However, not all the Euro-Americans were pleased with this development, especially during open conflict between Indians and settlers when tension soared. As related by Richter (who is quoting a contemporary observer), the Paxton Boys in Pennsylvania added a religious aspect to their racial animosity, believing that
the Indians were the Canaanites, who by God’s commandments were to be destroyed; and that this not having been done by them at that time, the present war [the Seven Years’ War] might be considered as a just punishment from God for their disobedience.
The Paxton Boys went on to massacre six Indians at Conestoga, then headed for Philadepelphia to do the same to a group of about a hundred Moravian Indians living there whose crimes, according to Richter, “seem to have been simply that they were Indians and that they lived prosperously within the province’s boundaries.” A delegation from Philadelphia, including Benjamin Franklin, met these 18th-century ethnic cleansers outside the city and convinced them to abandon their design (in return for publishing their grievances and presenting them to the provincial assembly). Nevertheless, “Indian-hating continued to thrive among the Pennsylvanians.” Once the restraining British officials were out of the way, the Indians fared even worse. In a particularly gruesome episode in 1782, a group of Pennsylvania militia convinced a group of 97 Indians descended from the earlier Philadelphia group to relocate for their own protection, but after the Indians gave up their weapons they were informed they would all be killed. “The Indians spent the night praying and singing hymns.” In the morning, they were herded into two houses and systematically slaughtered.
Funny how we never stop hearing about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the implication that present-day Mormons should admit and shoulder a measure of guilt for that atrocity. None of the other massacres that litter American history are viewed this way. Do present-day Pennsylvanians feel any responsibility or guilt over this Moravian Massacre? Do Americans? Protestants? What makes the Moravian Massacre of 1782 so forgivable, other than the fact that it was Indians being massacred rather than Euro-Americans?
I’ve just cherry-picked a few interesting examples. If you haven’t read Facing East, it is well worth it to find a copy and do so.