Facing East

By November 15, 2008

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.


  1. My senior year in high school, I was required to write a paper on what can be done to make write the fact that we destroyed Native American civilization to build our civilization? What should be done about the modern state of indian reservations? Didn’t know then, don’t know now.

    Comment by matt w. — November 15, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

  2. Dave,

    I enjoy Richter’s book as well. It has been criticized by some historians for the imaginative liberties it takes in trying to re-envision American history from the perspective of those who were already there. Nevertheless, I enjoy the literary flourishes and the excellence of his writing as a way of giving a voice if only imagined, to the indigenous population–many of which would die from the diseases the Europeans carried.

    I think Richter’s most brilliant observations emerge in the ways he treat Native American conversion stories. He examines white and Indian conversion stories side by side. Although these Native American testimonials had been interpreted and transcribed by the missionaries trying to teach them and thus were subject to these white missionaries’ biases, the differences in the indigenous narratives from traditional white accounts probably constitute the true voices of the Indian converts. Even though this methodology creates some problems because such differences might have been constituted based on stereotypes, this methodological approach represents one of the most imaginative ways of thinking through sources that I have ever seen.

    I highly recommend Richter’s book even though it doesn’t really have much to say about Mormon history. It represents a great literary experience as well as a great historical experience.

    Comment by Joel — November 16, 2008 @ 12:44 am

  3. Thanks for this, Dave. I’ve been meaning to pick up Richter’s book for some time now. Based on your review (and Joel’s subsequent endorsement), I’ll make it a point not to delay much longer. I’ve recently become quite interested in the racial and gendered aspects of conversion narratives in early America, and wasn’t aware that Richter treated the subject. Thanks for highlighting that aspect of the book.

    Regarding the questions you pose about the Moravian Massacre and the Mountain Meadows Massacre … it seems to me that MMM receives and deserves attention (and demands, to some degree, guilt and apology) at least in part because it is an isolated incident.

    While Pennsylvanians may have offered no formal apology for the massacre you discuss here, many Americans, Protestants, etc. have expressed regret, felt shame and guilt, and tried to rectify to some small degree the multitude of massacres perpetrated by their forefathers against the collective Native American population.

    Comment by Christopher — November 17, 2008 @ 1:10 am

  4. Thanks for the review, Dave.

    Why does there seem to be a double standard between the contemporary debates over guilt for Mountain Meadows vs. American Indian massacres? That’s a very complex question, and the answer only partly stems from “the fact that it was Indians being massacred rather than Euro-Americans.” Because whites have historically devalued and dehumanized Native American lives, there hasn’t been much outcry over such massacres. On the other hand, whites killing whites is seen as a big deal, and it feeds into suspicions of radical religion turning violent.

    Native Americans have hardly forgiven the massacres and violence perpetrated against them, and much of the last half century has been spent trying to get redress or at least recognition that these massacres even happened. For example, the Bear River Massacre, where the U.S. army slaughtered 300-500 Shoshones in northern Utah in 1863, was classified as a “battle” until the 1980s, when whites began recognizing it as a “massacre.” Native American activists have been working for several decades to get interpretive markers on the sites of massacres that reflect an American Indian viewpoint, and they’ve had only partial success. But these attempts don’t attact the same type of media attention as Mountain Meadows, in part I think because of how anti-Mormons use MM as a weapon against the church but also because of the fact that American Indian issues are all but invisible to many whites.

    Comment by David G. — November 17, 2008 @ 9:40 am

  5. Do present-day Pennsylvanians feel any responsibility or guilt over this Moravian Massacre?

    I didn’t know anything about it until I read your post. I doubt any of my neighbors who are actually native to this area know anything about it.

    Most of my neighbors have no idea that the nearby highway follows an old Lenni Lenape trail. I don’t imagine that if they are not interested in why the highway winds and twists and follows the top of the ridges, that they would be interested in a long-ago massacre, let alone feel the need to resurrect any guilt over it.

    I imagine if I said anything to them, they would say, “Huh!” and then promptly forget about it. To be honest, the fate of the Phillies and Eagles is a much more present concern.

    Part of the reason for the lack of connection, probably, is that few of the Lenape (Delaware) Indians live in this region anymore since they were moved to reservations in the Midwest. Out of sight, out of mind.

    Also, as far as I understand it, the perpetrators of these massacres didn’t belong to any powerful non-governmental entity such as the Mormon Church, so there is no easy scapegoat. Are you going to go track down the descendants of Lazarus Stewart and make them apologize for the actions of the Paxton Boys over 230 years ago?

    Comment by Researcher — November 17, 2008 @ 10:17 am

  6. Your bit about Canaanites reminded me of a section in Michael P. Gueno, “Baptism and Humanity: Native American-Jesuit Relationships in New France” (M.A. thesis, Florida State University, 2004), 29?49, which discusses similar ideas in the Great Lakes regions:

    Father Le Jenne reflected on the primitive practices of Indian societies and hypothesized that Native Americans are ?descended from Cain.? (49) Effectually this served to blur the distinction between the Indian and the sin by locating primeval sin within Indian heredity. Sin became embodied in Native American society and physical anatomy giving a quasi-racial status to the antagonistic orientation. In 1634-35, Father Julïen Perrault, of the Society of Jesus, wrote a letter to his Provincial, in France in which he described the bodies of the Indians near the Island of Cape Breton:

    As to the people, there is nothing anomalous in their physical appearance; you see well-formed men, good-looking, of fine figures, strong and powerful. Their skin is naturally white, for the little children show it thus; but the heat of the Sun, and the rubbing with Seal oil and Moose fat, make them very swarthy, the more so as they grow older. (50)


    49. Jesuit Relations, 11:24.
    50. Ibid., 8: 210.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 17, 2008 @ 10:52 am


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