[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-AmIndian]: Feller on Snyder, 'Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Tue Jan 16 18:15:55 MST 2018

Best regards,
Andrew Stewart 

Begin forwarded message:

> From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
> Date: January 16, 2018 at 5:31:19 PM EST
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-AmIndian]:  Feller on Snyder, 'Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson'
> Reply-To: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
> Christina Snyder.  Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in
> the Age of Jackson.  New York  Oxford University Press Inc, 2017.
> 416 pp.  $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-939906-2.
> Reviewed by Daniel Feller (University of Tennessee)
> Published on H-AmIndian (January, 2018)
> Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe
> Noble dream or grand delusion?  The tale of Choctaw Academy
> Some stories are too incredible not to be true. The tale of Richard
> Mentor Johnson and his Choctaw Academy would tax the imagination of a
> novelist. Imagine a rough-and-tumble frontier politician who vaults
> to national fame in the early republic as the slayer in single combat
> of a legendary Indian warrior--and then uses that fame to establish a
> school at his home for Indian youths that becomes the spearhead of a
> national movement. The politician goes on to become vice-president of
> the United States and a credible aspirant for the presidency itself,
> all while cohabiting openly with a slave woman and raising their two
> daughters to marry and assimilate into white society. The Indian
> academy becomes a triracial mixing ground and finally a cauldron,
> where all of Jacksonian America's complexities and contradictions of
> race, class, and gender play out in public view. And what should be
> the name of this place--this microcosm of an entire nation's grand
> aspirations and crippling flaws, this exemplary crossroads in its
> racial and social trajectory? Why, Great Crossings, of course.
> The story is true, and Christina Snyder's _Great Crossings_ tells it
> exquisitely. She sets her stage at a public exhibition at Johnson's
> Choctaw Academy at his home at Great Crossings, Kentucky, in 1827.
> The idea of education as a vehicle for elevating, "civilizing," and
> assimilating Indians was in full youthful flower, and a host of
> illustrious and curious visitors--parents and chiefs, ministers,
> politicians, dignitaries, military men--gathered to watch Johnson's
> pupils perform their exercises. Slave servants, under the watchful
> eye of Johnson's bedmate and site manager, Julia Chinn, tended to the
> guests. Choctaw Academy was right to attract attention, for it
> embodied a number of important firsts: the first federally funded
> school outside of West Point; the first Indian academy under secular
> control; and the first to serve a pan-Indian clientele (though
> Choctaws took the lead in its establishment, the school eventually
> served students of seventeen Indian nations). Like Robert Owen's New
> Harmony community in southern Indiana, established in the same year
> of 1825, it embodied the hope of an almost infinitely malleable
> future, the promise that here in the still-crystallizing society of
> the American West, solutions could be found to the country's, and the
> world's, most vexing problems--problems of race and class, of
> economy, of social organization.
> Google "Choctaw Academy" today, and stories come up about despairing
> efforts to save the last crumbling structures at a forsaken and
> nearly forgotten site. Great Crossings as a distinct community no
> longer exists. What went wrong?
> Snyder's search for answers takes us into the heart of the academy
> experience. The school was founded on what appeared a happy
> conjunction of motives. Choctaw leaders had embraced education as
> their way for the future, and had secured funds for it in a federal
> treaty. Previous experience with overbearing missionaries had soured
> them on religious schools. Richard M. Johnson was a well-connected
> Kentucky senator of enlarged social views, famous not only for
> slaying Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 but for
> championing the abolition of imprisonment for debt. While Johnson
> steered clear of antislavery politics, his racial egalitarianism was
> also advanced for the time. His long-standing liaison with Julia
> Chinn was to appearances both a genuine love match and an efficient
> practical partnership, a companionate marriage in all but name. One
> benefit for Johnson of siting an academy at Great Crossings was the
> chance to educate their two teenaged daughters on the side.
> For a time, all seemed to go well at Choctaw Academy. The student
> population, which included some local whites, ballooned in ten years
> from twenty-one to nearly two hundred, as cohorts of Indian youths
> from across the continent, Dakotas and Ojibwes as well as Creeks and
> Seminoles, arrived to join the Choctaws. The school became a model
> and a showcase, attracting laudatory press coverage and drawing large
> crowds to its annual student exhibition. But beneath the surface,
> fissures opened. Johnson's constant cost-scrimping undercut his own
> ambitious goals for the school and fostered complaints about
> inadequate instruction and poor living conditions. His authority came
> under challenge as both local whites and rebellious students
> contested the privileged position of Julia Chinn and her daughters
> Imogene and Adaline. Many Indian students came from wealthy elite
> tribal families, some of them slaveholding; and whatever whites might
> think, they did not consider the black menials who worked at the
> academy to be their equals. Physical intimacy between staff and
> students produced some boundary-crossing fraternization, some sex and
> even romance, but also incidents of confrontation and violence. An
> episode in 1835 exposed the tangled relations of race and class at
> Great Crossings to public view. Two young Indian men, a student and a
> teacher, and two of Julia Chinn's slave nieces escaped from the
> school and fled toward Canada, pursued by a posse dispatched by
> Johnson. The posse's leader, a white man, was the brother of
> Imogene's husband. One of the escapees, Imogene's cousin, had become
> Richard M. Johnson's mistress after Julia's death in 1833. She was
> recaptured, whipped, and sold south. The others got away.
> Meanwhile, in the world outside the school, racial lines were
> hardening. Richard M. Johnson's cohabitation habits, tolerated if not
> approved by his fellows in the 1820s, came under growing anathema in
> the decade following, the object of both jest and vitriol. President
> Andrew Jackson's policy of Indian dispossession and expulsion crushed
> Choctaw and other tribal aspirations to use economic development and
> self-improvement, including education, to cement their place within
> American society. Instead, Indians were stigmatized as savages and
> thrust out, forced to start over in a new and inhospitable country;
> and youths who had been dispatched to Choctaw Academy to train as
> leaders in assimilation returned to find their families broken, their
> people displaced, and their mission in question. Within the federal
> government and in particular the War Department, which administered
> Indian affairs, commitment to the experiment in higher education for
> Indians faltered. A debate broke out over introducing manual training
> into the curriculum at Choctaw Academy. Some thought it would be
> useful, others degrading. Johnson pushed for it as a way to show the
> school's utility--and to cut costs.
> By the end of the 1830s, Choctaw Academy was under increasing fire
> from both within and without. The school's management deteriorated,
> and Indian students and faculty protested against degraded standards
> and conditions. Frictions between students and white locals
> multiplied. Indian leaders complained that youths returned from the
> academy with ruined morals rather than improved minds. For different
> reasons, multiple parties came to question the value of Johnson's
> experiment. Some whites gave up on the assimilationist program as
> hopeless, while tribal governments came to think that federal
> education annuities, which they had been funneling into Choctaw
> Academy, would be better spent on schools within their own nations,
> run by their own people for their own purposes.
> Paralleling the academy's decline was Johnson's descent from warrior
> hero to buffoon. He had once been a genuine popular champion in the
> Jackson vein, renowned not only for killing Tecumseh but for
> spearheading the abolition of imprisonment for debt and defending the
> separation of church and state against the Sabbatarian onslaught. But
> as Johnson's finances deteriorated and his political prospects
> dimmed, he came to treat Choctaw Academy less as a model enterprise
> than as a personal cash cow. After Julia Chinn's death, he also
> replaced her in his bed with a series of slave mistresses. These
> developments took the shine off his motives. Johnson now appeared to
> be governed less by philanthropic aspiration than by greed, nepotism,
> and lechery. He had become a tawdry embarrassment and something of a
> joke.
> In 1841, a new Whig administration in Washington in effect
> commandeered the school, appointing Peter Pitchlynn, a leading
> Choctaw and onetime academy student, as its new superintendent.
> Pitchlynn's frank aim was to dissolve the school. After a round of
> campus riots and protests, students began fleeing in groups, and the
> Choctaw Nation, intent on establishing its own school system,
> withdrew its students and its patronage. Other Indian nations
> followed suit. The school staggered on with declining enrollments and
> finally closed in 1848, its demise seemingly lamented by no one
> except Richard Mentor Johnson, who desperately needed the money.
> Snyder relates this fascinating tale with sensitivity and insight, in
> a narrative alive with personality and vignette. She wisely resists
> the temptation to typecast heroes and villains, or to frame the story
> in simple declensionist terms. Despite the academy's sorry end, many
> alumni went on to distinguished careers, while the Choctaws built on
> its experience to erect a pathbreaking comprehensive school system of
> their own. Indian nations modernized and adapted, but in their own
> way, with education playing a central role. Still, the final note is
> somber. Snyder's closing chapters trace the multiple legacies and
> lessons of Choctaw Academy down through the generations. She
> concludes fairly that its aspirations and failure reflected and
> exemplified the Jacksonian era, "when the adolescent empire coalesced
> around principles of intolerance, exclusion, and racial
> injustice"--failings which Americans still struggle to recognize and
> to rectify (p. 317).
> Over the last half century or so, we have all come to appreciate that
> American history cannot be rightly comprehended without according
> central place to Indian dispossession and slavery. What fine books
> like _Great Crossings_ are now teaching us is that neither of those
> two stories can be told separately, outside the context of the other.
> They were not distinct, but twinned and intertwining. And together
> they helped make us what we are today.
> Citation: Daniel Feller. Review of Snyder, Christina, _Great
> Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson_.
> H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews. January, 2018.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49811
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
> License.
> --

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