THH Episode 28: Giving Voice: Chris Newell

Transcript of Giving Voice: Chris Newell

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Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice, from Talking Hoosier History.

Today on Giving Voice, I talk with Chris Newall, co-founder and Director of Education for the Akomawt Educational Initiative. In our last full episode, we covered roughly the first half of the life of Tenskwatawa, or The Prophet. Throughout the episode, we talked about danger of relying on sources produced in large by white colonizers to tell Native history, and how IHB and other history organizations are learning to broaden our ideas of what a source can be to include more Native voices in Native history.

To give you some more information on this topic and some context about why it’s so important, we knew we wanted to speak with someone who is working to bring these issues to light every day, and Chris Newall and the Akomawt Educational Initiative are doing just that.

And now, Giving Voice.

[Talking Hoosier History Theme Music]

Beckley: We’re here today with Chris Newell from the Akomawt Educational Initiative and I’m gonna let you go ahead and introduce yourself, Chris.

Newell: Hi, Lindsey, hi everybody! My name’s Chris Newell and I’m a cofounder – one of three cofounders – of the Akomawt Educational Initiative. We’re located in the southeast corner of Connecticut, based out of Ledyard, Connecticut but we have roots all over Indian Country. I am originally Passamaquoddy from [place name], which is known as the Indian Township Preservation in Maine and live in Mashantucket and work at the Pequot Museum and do a lot of work – a lot of the focus of what we do is working with the Indigenous histories, helping with places that want to teach them in a culturally competent fashion to do so and hopefully create some resources, change some thinking in the future and make sure that when we talk about Indigenous histories that we include the voice of Indigenous people. So that’s the focus of what we do at Akomawt.

And just a little background – Akomawt is a Passamaquoddy word. It comes from my language. It translates in English to the snowshoe path. It’s the symbol of our mission. Essentially, in the winter time, up in my territory, the snow shoe path was how you got out to where you needed to do work. When you needed to get back home, you found it again and traversed back on it. The more you used it, the easier it becomes to use and every season it renews. So that’s what we think about when we think about the educational initiative that we have brought forth here, is creating new learning paths for people to engage with Native content in a way that will be impactful as well as culturally competent, you know, trying to erase some of the old habits of Indigenous history in colonial spaces that have crept up and are still pervasive to this day.

Beckley: That’s great. And I know that we really admire your work. I know that one of the people here at the Historical Bureau saw you at the National Council on Public History and came back and we had a lot of really good conversations from that so, thank you for the work you’re doing and you continue to do and thank you for being here, of course.

Newell: Oh yea, absolutely love being here.

Beckley: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those old habits you had mentioned. What are some of the habits that you were seeing and still see that you want to address with your initiative?

Newell:  So, when it comes to museums, you know, essentially museums are places that were created by the colonization of America so when it comes to Indigenous histories told in museums, museums are essentially really colonial artifacts. Places of public history are oftentimes colonial artifacts and oftentimes tell the history of Indigenous people through that lens. American anthropology has a long history from the time it was founded of doing things like collecting human body parts, collecting material culture, and portraying a myth of saving the idea of the vanishing Indian, back in the early days of anthropology. Thoughts have changed over time but, you know, that’s kind of the basis of how these spaces were created in the first place and how a lot of these earlier books were created. And, so, there are some things that – some habits that were created back then. A lot of times, the use of generalized terminology – so Native, Native American, American Indian – to kind of put all Native peoples under one umbrella oftentimes appears and it’s not clear enough to a lot of people that there are literally, in existence right now in America, 573 separate, sovereign Native communities recognized by the government and over 1000 Native communities just in general in America – we’re not talking Canada and other places.

So there’s a really complex – there’s a serious complexity when it comes to Indigenous histories and when it comes to Indigenous contemporary issues and things of the sort. And unfortunately, museums generally still give the kind of general impression that we can put everything under the box of American Indian or Native American. If you visit a fine arts museum that has collections of fine art from around the world, literally all the Americans – the art of Americas – are usually places in one small room. So all of these 1000 different communities being represented in one small room. You know, it’s just – it give the general idea that we can put everything in one box and everything fits there when in fact there is no box that can contain the complexity of Native existence as well as our history and our arts and our cultural ways. So those old habits still exit today. We see changes happening when we see places like the MET have gotten rid of their Native American collection and have incorporated their Native American find art into their American wing. That was a big move there from a major museum of kind of rethinking how we present Native art as simply art, rather than cultural artifacts.

Also, the idea at a lot of public historical places, of presenting Native peoples as only existing in the past. That’s another old habit that is kind of pervasive today. I work at a major Native museum, and it’s not uncommon for a 4th grader to come into our museum, have a Native educator in front of them, and the first question they ask is, innocently, “When the Natives were alive …” and that’s how they begin their question. So there is literally a section – a significant portion of the population – that sees us as all dead and gone and vanished. And it’s largely due to the way public history is taught and the way it approaches Native Histories as if we are still having to be saved from being vanished, rather than incorporating the very vibrant ways that we have found ways to exist in the modern times and kept our culture alive and been very dynamic through history. And also, involved with all of American history.

That’s another thing with the story of America is that Native people are often so left out. And yet, the American Revolution was largely aided by Native peoples. All the way from that time – the industrial revolution was largely aided by work efforts in Native communities and things of that sort. And military times – you know, Native people have participated in the military in higher numbers per-capita than any other ethnicity in the United states and as a result, Native cultures were actually used in military structure and strategy to overcome things such as the code talkers from about 33 different tribes during World War II, which was a big part of the success of America in that war. So, in the story of America, Native people are, unfortunately, often let out as if we are a separate part of something else. And those are things that we at Akomawt are looking to address and looking to bring all together, so when we’re talking about the history of this land, we don’t just start at the time of colonization and think of it as only 400 or so years old. But rather, we think about people living on this land back 13,000 years at least, which includes Indigenous history as well and not erase that part of the history of this land here. Because Native people did exist here and thrive and subsist in a sustained fashion well – for millennia prior to any colonization. So, the idea that colonization saved Native people in some form is also something that we look to address as well. You know, so we really want to give Native perspective to a lot of these things. And that includes bringing Native voices and changing the framework by which Native history is taught inside of these colonial artifacts of public history such as museums to present them in a different framework that would expand the thinking outside of that box that we are constantly put inside of.

Beckley: That’s great. I know that we at the Historical Bureau have been  thinking a lot about that and trying to come to terms with what we’ve done in the past and how we can improve ourselves going forward. And I think one of the major, I wouldn’t say blocks, but one of our – something that intimidates us about going forward is that, as public historians, we’ve gone through school. We’ve gone through, you know, some of us up to PhD level and all of it is learning how to use primary sources and how to read primary sources. And when we think of primary sources, we primarily think of written materials, weather that be documents or newspapers – things like that. Obviously, a lot of Native history isn’t written down in the same way European history was. And if it is, it was probably written by a European person. What are some of the sources that you turn to, to look at Native history?

Newell: Ok, so, the sources that I look forward to are really those conversations that I have in Native communities talking to people that have history there through multiple multiple multiple generations. And oftentimes, there are a lot of stories – a lot of oral histories that you can delve into that can really teach you a lot, especially when it comes to Native perspectives. So things like the name of the land, prior to colonization. Prior to the renaming of it. How did Native people name different aspect of land or the land that they live on? What was the lens that they viewed land through? So language is an important tool – so important for the view into the Native perspective. Native languages are so different from the English language. And that’s one of the things that I’ve delved into the most. So that requires from people that are language speakers and people that have that frame of mind of thinking through and Indigenous lens though language. And those are oftentimes elders, but not always, so sometimes you’ve got to spend some time and you’ve got to search out who is the respected person and who has these stories. Have conversations and just kind of let things come out as naturally as they would.

So oral histories for me are a bit part of what drives me because a lot of what they tell is not written down and what writing it down would do is kind of photograph it and freeze it in time because the stories do change over time, but that’s also part of the history. Viewing how to stories do change over time as well. So there is a way to view oral history that you can gain knowledge from that can be factual. But there is a method for viewing oral history that really takes some experience. You really need to be able to talk to a lot of people that have these histories and kind of get a sense of what a broad swath of how they’re viewing things, rather than just talking to one single person, which is the same as looking at one single primary – a piece of paper – a primary source document. It’s really the perspective of one person. So it’s kind of a failure of a primary document is that it does give an accurate photograph of that person’s view at that time. But it’s only that person and we’re not getting the swath of information across a broad perspective of people. So that’s why for me oral histories are one of the ways that I go and also I pay attention to the particular language. And just to give you a window into how different that is – the English language, when it was introduced to this land when the English arrived – has the blueprint of England. The ideas of land improvement – and I’m gonna put quotes around that word improvement – in 17th century English knowledge meant cutting down trees, planning crops, raising cows, chickens, and pigs – which are very different from the 13,000 years of sustainable farming and hunting practices and fishing practices that Native people had done for millennia. And would actually destroy the environment, upset the natural balance of things. And we’re currently still living under that and so that’s not sustainable here. You know, we’re seeing America return to Indigenous ways of knowing. So the Indigenous language has words that – of viewing land as property, and even viewing people as property. In the Algonquin language, at least in my language, land is not considered something that we can possess as an object. In fact, when we pick up a handful of dirt, the way we translate what would be the English equivalent of dirt really translates to “the molecules of our ancestors,” which shows Indigenous knowledge of the cycle of life and the science of all of that. And under that framework, with that translation, we see land as literally life. So if you pick up a handful of what would be in English dirt and you let that to fall out of your hand, that’s literally in our viewpoint, the molecules of your ancestors falling to the earth or literally life falling out of your hand and back to the earth. Therefore, how can you own life – if your framework, you cannot. And the land sustains everybody, not just people, but all animals, all life, is sustained by the land. Therefore, in our viewpoint, it cannot be owned. A lot of Native languages have similar kinds of concepts in them in that land is oftentimes considered in some shape or form alive. Or a version of substance. So elders, oral history, and language especially. Very very important to pay attention to the language of the people that lived on that land for thousands of years and have an intimate knowledge of it and developed a language around the way the land required them to live – to really have a knowledge of that history there. So please be sure you include knowledge of language and language keepers when talking about Native history there because of the importance of the framework.

Beckley: That is incredibly interesting. I have, of course, heard through my traditional education all about “Native people didn’t believe in land ownership,” but I never heard anybody, I don’t think, explain why they didn’t believe that. It’s always kind of a given of “of course they didn’t believe that. We believed that and they were different so that’s why.” Thank you for explaining that. That’s incredibly interesting to me.

Newell: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. Absolutely.

 Beckley: I wanted to ask if you think that our current methods of historiography are adequate for doing Native history. They’re just so based in a Eurocentric worldview and they’re roots are in Europe. So I want to know if you think that we just need to rethink the very foundations of how we’re doing history or is there a way to make our methods fit in with doing Native history?

Newell: Yea, so we really do need some radical thinking amongst historiographers and the way that we retell histories. And sometimes, in historical tellings we really try to achieve objectivity, which has its own merit and is valuable in its own right. However, there is something to be said for the subjective history. So to tell a story from a Native perspective completely is going to have a completely different ring to it than the primary source document history that was likely written by early Americans or people of European ancestry. And so, that’s one of the ways that we can rethink the way that we do these things. And technology is really affording us ways to bring back or to rethink how we do things. Some of these old things – one of the things that would often happen is that a lot of these things that were kept in collections were actually kept in the collection and you had to have special access to get to a collection to get that knowledge. And guess what? Some of that knowledge that was recorded by Europeans and early Americans is actually really factually and very valuable to Native communities who, through colonization, have in some way shape or form maybe have been forced to lose that knowledge. And by keeping it from native communities, you’re actually putting a block in front of them from getting a sense of sovereignty for themselves. Which includes not just self-governance, but also sovereignty in the way they tell their history.

For them to be able to look at those documents and then for them to be able to frame that information through their lens now allows historiographers who are largely translating it from one point of view, to see an opposing point of view, and when it comes to objectivity – that’s how we’re going to get to a more objective route there is by hearing both sides, which sometimes are opposed to one another. Which is totally find because not all things in history are very clear cut and we should discuss and debate. But we should also make sure that we are including all perspectives while we’re doing so and be aware when we’re not. So those are all things to consider for going forward there. And also creating long term relationships with tribal communities. For these colonial spaces of public history telling, that is such an important thing as well because when you bring a Native perspective into your museum, you can – there are ways to re frame the work essentially, decolonizing your museum. I know we use that term a lot these days, “decolonizing,” that’s really a way of re framing things back to an Indigenous perspective. My preferred word, when it’s applicable in actually re-indiginizing. So, what we’re doing is we’re taking a colonial space telling a story from a colonial perspective, and we’re going to take that history and then re-indiginize it because prior to colonization, this is the way the history was told was through an Indigenous lens, just not in a museum. So we’re taking that history and we’re re-indiginizing it through that fashion.

Beckley:  So, for our last question, I think it might be a little bit redundant, but I keep on – I hear you talk about the importance of community engagement and including Native perspectives. Can you just elaborate on why it is so important to do these things and why it’s important for everybody who’s listening to be thinking about some of these questions?

Newell: Absolutely, So, in native communities, there is a lot of knowledge that gets passed down through the generations, and these types of things – that type of knowledge being passed down – doesn’t get a degree passed with it. There’s not a piece of paper that goes with that knowledge and these people become respected knowledge keepers in their communities. And when we approach these communities and we find these knowledge keepers and we’re going to bring them into these academic or public history spaces – the common thing is, if we were to bring in another academic, we would pay them for their service of research or knowledge in helping that institution to accumulate – we should also think of Native knowledge keepers who don’t have a master’s degree of a PhD to be on the same level of knowledge as somebody with a masters or PhD. It’s just that they have that level of knowledge on their own community and therefore, we should compensate them appropriately when we do involve their knowledge. Too often, one of the old habits of old anthropologists was to go into a Native community, extract knowledge, not give any compensation to the people they extracted the knowledge from, and then leave the community, write books, and develop careers based on what they have extracted from that community. And that really needs to change. There really needs to be some collaboration. Some equity. If we go back to the presentation that we did for NCPH, there really needs to be some equity in the collaboration and these colonial spaces really need to recognize Native knowledge keepers on the same level as the PhD’s that they have in their institutions and make sure that we treat their knowledge equally as well as compensate them properly because in this modern day world, unfortunately we cannot live necessarily off the lands we used to, and therefore, the use of money to get food and things – that’s what we all live under these days. Therefore, we should consider these traditional people with that compensation or, possibly maybe doing something for the community if they would choose not to have money because some of these people don’t want money. So when that happens, there should be some sort of give and take going with the community as well to acknowledge what is that, to make sure we’re lifting it up and putting it on the same level as those that would write about it that come from outside the communities.

Beckley: Thank you. I think, Chris, I think we’re running up against our time limit here but I wanted to give you an opportunity to say anything that you wanted to say that I’ve left out – address any concerns that you have, or just promote yourself or your institute.

Newell: So, yes, once again we are the Akomawt Educational Initiative. You can find our website at www.akomawt.org. That’s the Passamaquoddy spelling. I know that the “k” sounds like a “g,” so that Akomawt, but it is a “k” in there. So, you can find out more information about what we’re doing and what we’re up to. We’re also on social media at Akomawt, on twitter at Akomawt as well as on Facebook, and those are the places that you can really see an up-to-date of what we’re up to in real time. And we have some other things that are coming up in the near future so follow our social media and keep an eye on our efforts – one of the things that we’re looking to do in the very near future is provide a database for Native American mascots for people who want to have conversations about that and to see the data about those schools and which ones have changed and all of the information. And in the future, possibly, a Native sourced website on treaties. So, once again, a very subjective history – we’re going to let tribes tell their own view of how treaties were historically signed with the U.S. government or with British government history. So, get a different side of the story as well. So that’s things you can look forward to from Akomawt. We look forward to this work – this is really something we’re all impassioned about, endawnis, Jason and I feel very strongly about this work and thank you so much for having us here to bring our voice to your podcast.

Once again, I want to thank Chris for taking the time to talk with us for this segment. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, or Native history in general, we will include a link to a great reading list compiled by Akomawt in our show notes, which you can find by going to blog.history.in.gov and clicking on Talking Hoosier History at the top.

We’ll be back next month with another episode of Talking Hoosier History. In the meantime, follow IHB on Facebook and twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Chris Newell:

Learn more about the Akomawt Educational Initiative at their website: akomawt.org.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, or Native history in general, Akomawt has put together a phenomenal resource list, including websites, books and more. Find it here.

In the episode, Chris mentioned a database for Native American mascots that Akomawt was working on. In the intervening time since we spoke, that database has gone live and is a greats resource to learn about the history surrounding Native American Mascots, the conversations going on about the topic and ways to approach conversations on the topic. You can see that here.

Democracy for Some: Defining the Indiana Landscape through the Rectangular Survey System

“Drawing of George Washington as Surveyor” in Andrew G. Gardner, “How Did Washington Make His Millions?” Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Winter 2013) accessed http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter13/washington.cfm

A small group of men made their way through the thick southern Indiana forest dragging chains in their wake. Once in a while, they stopped to score a tree, plant a post, and record their progress. For those residents of the Indiana Territory who witnessed this bizarre parade in the fall of 1804, this group represented vastly different futures. For Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of the young United States, this group of men sent to survey the Indiana Territory represented the spread of democracy. For the indigenous people who first called this land home, the marks cut and burned into the trees represented the impending and permanent loss of that home. Despite their disparate perspectives, both would soon see the redefinition and reorganization of the landscape by the rectangular survey system.

Indiana Historical Bureau, “Indiana Territory,” The Indiana Historian (March 1999), 4, accessed in.gov/history.

After the American Revolutionary War and via the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the British surrendered their claim to the thirteen colonies and ceded a vast amount of western and southern territory to the young United States. In order to grow the republic and repay war debt, the new government needed a system of organizing this land for sale. In response to these needs, the Continental Congress created a committee chaired by Thomas Jefferson to create a system for surveying the new territory.

Jefferson passionately believed that the system had to make small plots of land available to the individual farmer (as opposed to large plots available only to the wealthy, to speculators, or to large companies) in order to spread democracy throughout the territory. In 1785, Jefferson wrote:

We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation. Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it’s [sic] liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.

“Jefferson” engraving by William Holl, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The committee’s answer was the Land Ordinance of 1784 which attempted to define and standardize surveying methods to create a grid of small plots of land across the territories. These surveyed squares could then be subdivided, numbered, and recorded for sale. In this manner, the landscape could be divided and sold to settlers unseen — that is, without the surveyor having to physically walk the entire area, mapping the land in the old system of metes and bounds (which used natural markers like trees and rivers to define property). This older system was time consuming, required the surveyor’s physical presence in a sometimes dangerous landscape, and often led to land disputes as natural markers were altered or disappeared. While the 1784 Ordinance did not become law, it did define the rectangular system and laid out the principles that would measure and divide the landscape into what it is today.

“Surveyor’s Compass” in Andrew G. Gardner, “How Did Washington Make His Millions?” Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Winter 2013) accessed http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter13/washington.cfm

On May 20, 1785, Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785, a revised version of the 1784 plan which further described the system and codified a detailed survey plan which used mathematics and standardized chains for measuring. The ordinance stated that surveying would begin on the Ohio River, at a point that shall be found to be due north from the termination of a line which has been run as the southern boundary of the state of Pennsylvania.” According to historian Matthew Dennis, this rectangular survey system allowed the leaders of the young government to apply  their “nationalistic, scientific, and engineering mentality in transforming the continental landscape of North America, reconceptualizing its space, subduing and organizing it, and distributing it to white yeoman farmers in the interest of national expansion, and, they believed, democracy.”

Committee of Congress. Draft Report of Northwest Ordinance, March 1784. Broadside with emendations by Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The removal of the native tribes living in the territories was the first step of the survey process.  Both the proposed 1784 Land Ordinance and the adopted 1785 Land Ordinance called for American Indian removal. The United States government worked towards this end through both military action, economic pressure, and treaties in order to make space for white male settlers to farm the land. On July 13, 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, an act which created the Northwest Territory (an area that would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) and provided a system for settling the area to create new states.

Map of the Northwest Territory, Indiana Historical Bureau, “Indiana Territory,” The Indiana Historian (March 1999), 4, accessed in.gov/history.

The U.S. government viewed conflict with indigenous populations in the area as the greatest obstacle to the expansion and settlement of white Americans in the territory. According to historian Eric Hemenway of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians:

Between 1774 and 1794, Indian villages in New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio were constantly attacked by the American army and militias. The Shawnee, Delaware, Iroquois, Miami, Odawa, Wyandot and Mingo saw unspeakable violence committed against their villages during this time period. Over 100 Indian villages were burned and destroyed, leaving an unknown number of civilian casualties.

“Battle of Fallen Timbers,” engraving, 1846, in John Frost. Pictorial History of the United States, accessed http://ushistoryimages.com/sources.shtm#F

The U.S. government applied military, economic, and diplomatic pressure on native peoples to cede land and create a peace, no matter how tenuous. The military pressure was applied by President George Washington’s assignment of General Anthony Wayne to battle a confederacy led by Miami, Shawnee, and Lenape (Delaware) chiefs. After suffering major losses at the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, many tribes living in the Northwest Territory were resigned to settling for peace. This resulted in the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, in which some tribal leaders ceded large sections of land in Ohio and Indiana to the United States and opened much of the area to white settlement. Many Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Miami, Eel River, Wea, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Piankashaw, and Kaskaskia lost large portions of their homeland. Still other native leaders resisted and contested this and subsequent treaties, and would later fight to regain their land under the leadership of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa.

Detail of “Painting of Indian Treaty of Greenville,” oil on canvas, 1795, Chicago History Museum, accessed http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16029coll3/id/1660

While the U.S. government offered payment in goods for signing the treaty, some Native Americans became dependent on these annuities as the land on which they made their living was taken from them. In some cases, they fell into debt and lost even more land as a result. This situation was often exploited by the United States government. For example, in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wrote William Henry Harrison:

We shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among [Great Lakes Indians] run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.

After the Treaty of Greenville provided prospective colonists the security of peaceful settlement, Congress passed the Land Act of 1796. This legislation provided for the sale of land in the Northwest Territory. It reiterated that surveys would be conducted in areas “in which the titles of the Indian tribes have been extinguished.” It also appointed a Surveyor General directed to employ deputy surveyors.

Jared Mansfield, Essays, mathematical and physical : containing new theories and illustrations of some very important and difficult subjects of the sciences, New-Haven : Printed by William W. Morse, [1801], accessed HathiTrust.
General Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War veteran and an organizer of the Ohio Company, became the country’s first Surveyor General in 1796. Jefferson, however, became unhappy with Putnam’s irregular results and soon began to seek a more mathematically minded candidate who could factor in the curvature of the earth among other issues. Jared Mansfield (1759-1830) came to the attention of President Jefferson in 1801 upon the publication of his book Essays, Mathematical and Physical, one of the earliest works of original mathematics by an American. On May 21, 1803, Jefferson wrote to Mansfield, and conveyed his disappointment with Putnam for errors in “laying off the townships, not having been able to run parallel East & West Lines.” Jefferson expressed his confidence in Mansfield: “I am happy in possessing satisfactory proof of your being entirely master of this subject, and therefore in proposing to you to undertake the office.” Mansfield began his work as Surveyor General in the fall of 1803 as Congress and other U.S. government officials worked to open up the territories to settlement.

“Roger Woodfill, Greenville & Grouseland Treaty Lines,” accessed Virtual Museum of Surveying.

The land which would become Indiana was difficult to survey because much of it had yet to be acquired through treaty. The Vincennes Tract, an area ceded by local tribal authorities to French settlers in 1742, provided another unique obstacle. This area ran along the Wabash River and thus had been surveyed at an angle, and French settlers acquired titles to the land based upon this survey. Since 1787, the inhabitants of the Vincennes Tract regularly petitioned Congress to validate their titles. In May 1802, Congress determined that the territory should be surveyed by the rectangular method except where it had been previously surveyed. In other words, the Vincennes Tract would sit like an oddly angled puzzle piece within the rest of the rectangular pieces. The lines forming the rectangles would stop at the edge of the Vincennes Tract and then continue after it on all sides. According to survey historian Bill Hubbard, since the purpose of the rectangular survey was to organize the land for sale, there was no need to resurvey the tract.

Map of the Northwest Territory, Indiana Historical Bureau, “Indiana Territory,” The Indiana Historian (March 1999), 4, accessed in.gov/history.

Meanwhile, in March 1803, Ohio attained statehood, which left the rest of the former Northwest Territory as the Indiana Territory. Congress wanted the Indiana Territory surveyed in full in preparation for American colonization. In June 1803, the Vincennes Tract’s boundaries were confirmed through Indian treaties and the edges surveyed. Surveying the Indiana Territory around the irregular tract became Mansfield’s first challenge as Surveyor General. U.S. government officials assumed it was a matter of time before the rest of the territory would be acquired from the Native Americans, and thus Mansfield needed to develop a technique for surveying this vast landscape that did not include the time-consuming and even dangerous physical trek through the entire landscape measuring with steps and chains. Instead, he determined that he could create a meridian and a baseline ran off the corners of the Vincennes Tract which would be the foundation of a grid made up of six-mile by six mile square plots of land called townships.

Mansfield planned a baseline that would start at the southwestern corner of the Vincennes Tract and run east-west to the edge of the territory and a meridian which ran from the southeastern edge of the tract north through the territory. The north-south line was called the Second Principal Meridian and coincides with 86° 28’ west longitude. The base line coincides with 38° 28’ 20” north latitude and became known locally as Buckingham’s Base Line. From the intersection of these lines, survey lines could be calculated every six miles in all four directions to create the grid of townships. Each township could then be further divided into one mile squares creating thirty-six sections of land. Each section contained 640 acres of land which could then be divided further in half, quarter, half-quarter, and quarter-quarter sections as needed. These plots would then be numbered and sold to settlers without the surveyor hiking the entire territory, the running of the two lines being the only physical surveying needed.

While Mansfield mathematically planned the baseline which would serve as a foundational line for the survey of the Indiana Territory, someone still had to mark the line into the landscape and take measurements. That task fell to a small crew led by deputy surveyor Ebenezer Buckingham, Jr., and he would long be remembered for his efforts. Originally from Connecticut, Buckingham migrated to Ohio in 1796 and began work as a farmhand for General Putnam. He assisted Putnum on survey trips in several Ohio counties, and in 1799, Putnam swore in Buckingham as a deputy surveyor.

Michael P. Conzen, The Making of the American Landscape (New York and London: Routledge, 2010), 143.

In 1804, Mansfield appointed Ebenezer Buckingham to lead a crew to run the base line. They began at a point on the south-side of the Vincennes Tract and ran a line east for 67.5 miles, marking off miles and half-miles on trees. Buckingham and crew then went to the southeast corner of the Vincennes Tract and ran a line due north until they reached the baseline. When they intersected the baseline, they marked the initial point. Then, they marked section corners and half-section corners until they reached the east end of the Vincennes Tract again. They packed up for the winter and returned the next season to finish extending the baseline east twelve miles and the meridian north in September 1805. The placement of the baseline and meridian in these locations allowed Buckingham and his crew to lay the foundations for the survey system and include the Vincennes Tract in it, all without encroaching on lands that still belonged to Native Americans. After this, the townships could be numbered and the land further divided. The township numbers would be increased east and west away from the Principal Meridian and be numbered away from the Baseline north and south, starting at the Initial Point where the two lines crossed.

“Abraham Lincoln, Congressman-elect from Illinois,” daguerreotype, circa 1846-7,Daguerreotype collection, ibrary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.53842/

Because the rectangular survey clearly mapped the land, organized, and numbered it, settlers knew that any land they purchased had a secure title. This was not true in states not mapped in such a standardized way.  For example, in Kentucky, the same land was sometimes surveyed multiple times in different ways giving rise to title disputes. For example, in 1808, a carpenter and cabinet maker named Thomas Lincoln purchased a farm near Nolin Creek, Kentucky. The following year, in the cabin that Thomas built on his land, his son Abraham Lincoln was born. The family soon moved to another farm, along Knob Creek for which Thomas paid cash years later in 1815. However, the titles of both his farms were challenged by competing claimants. According to Abraham Lincoln biographer William E. Gienapp, because Thomas did not have the resources to fight a possibly extensive court battle, “he simply sold out at a loss and in December 1816 moved to Indiana, where the federal government had surveyed the land.” Thus, the survey system played no small role in bringing the studious young man who would become the sixteenth President of the United States to Indiana.

Survey Map (left)accessed Elkhart County Surveyor, http://elkcosurveyor.org/history/;
Aerial View of Indiana (right) accessed Indiana Public Media,

The legacy of the survey system still defines how Hoosiers interact with the landscape today and is seen in our counties, townships, and the quilted pattern of Indiana farmland. In fact, much of the country is organized by this system. According to historian Michael P. Conzen, “Except for the original 13 colonies, Texas, and some western mountainous areas, most of the country is parceled out on the township and range system.” The methods perfected by Mansfield and executed by men like Buckingham were applied throughout the vast landscape of the United States to the benefit of some and the anguish of others. In 2018, IHB will place a state historical marker for Buckingham’s Base Line in Dubois County at one point of the line, literally inserting the story of this complex landscape back into the landscape itself – a reminder that as Hoosiers we share both the legacy of those industrious settlers who arrived following a dream of a better life in a bright new democracy and the legacy of those native peoples who were harmed to make that dream a reality.

Photo from Miami Nation of Indiana, accessed http://www.miamiindians.org/

Special thanks to Annette Scherber who contributed research for this post.

Irene Ray: Alleged “Witch” of Rochester

Irene Ray. Courtesy of the Indiana Album: Joan Hostetler Collection.

In the spring of 1692, a small village in Massachusetts was swept with a hysteria that started after a group of young girls accused several local women of participating in witchcraft and forging pacts with the devil. That hysteria, of course, would lead to the infamous Salem witch trials and in the following months, approximately 150 people would face witchcraft accusations; over 20 of those would be found guilty and put to the gallows.

The Republic, Columbus, Indiana, May 12, 1938, accessed Newspapers.com

Two hundred and forty-six years later, newspapers across the country would once again run headlines including words like “witch”, “hex”, and “spells” and yet another woman’s life would be ruined due to false accusations of witchcraft.

On May 11, 1938, Irene Ray and her husband Charles were driven from the town of Rochester, Indiana due to allegations that Irene was a practitioner of witchcraft and had hexed several town folk. It was alleged that her hexes had caused personal property damage, serious illness, and even death. Irene and Charles had moved to the town six years prior to this unfortunate episode along with their daughter, Iloe, and their cat (a strange fact that many of the newspaper stories were sure to include). What could have happened in the intervening years that would cause the townspeople to call for her removal?

When the Ray family moved to Rochester, they settled in a shack on the outskirts of town. One article in the Logansport Tribune even claims that the couple were forced from the nearby town of Plymouth, Indiana before finding themselves in rather dire circumstances in Rochester. Soon, they applied for and were given “relief” or welfare support. They were placed in a house on Audubon Street, where their neighbors soon came to resent them. They were seen as outsiders who were living off of the tax money of the citizens of Rochester who, although themselves poor, did not apply for relief.

Georgia Conrad, “victim” of Irene Ray, The Tennessean, June 19, 1938, accessed, Newspaper.com.

It may be that Irene herself started the rumors of witchcraft as a way to scare people away from her, relieving the family from taunts and other attacks. No matter how the rumors started, though, soon they spread like wildfire. At first, the townsfolk merely murmured about the witch but after the sudden illness of Georgia Knight Conrad, those murmurs became shouts. Irene had been trying to purchase some antiques from Georgia and had made several visits to her house to pressure the 24-year-old into selling them. On one of these visits, it is said that Irene slipped into Georgia’s bedroom and plucked some hairs from her brush. When leaving, Irene pronounced, “You’ll be sorry soon!” That evening, Georgia fell into a faint and was soon diagnosed as having a “leaking heart valve.” It wasn’t long before the family connected the dots.

Another alleged victim of Mrs. Ray was Chief of Police Clay Sheets. After the chief oversaw the removal of Irene’s granddaughter from her home due to charges against the “morals of the household,” newspapers reported that “dancing with rage, Irene screamed: ‘You are just a tool of that Knight Woman and you will be sorry, too!’” A few days later, Chief Sheets died of what appeared to be a heart attack.

In addition to human hearts, she was accused of hexing one man’s crops. Mrs. Ray made a habit of taking a shortcut through a field owned by Mr. “Friday” Castle, who didn’t appreciate the alleged witch trespassing on his property. When he confronted her she “ran her eyes back and forth over the patch until they had covered every inch of it. Then she . . . said ‘It won’t make a bit of difference now whether anybody walks on it or not.’” According to Castle, no potatoes sprouted that spring.

Other accusations included Mrs. Ray inducing insomnia, nervous indigestion, fires, floods, and more. The alleged methods of hexing ranged from using voodoo dolls to taking hairs of the victim, intertwining them with hairs from her cat, placing them in vinegar and burying them. It was also said that she consulted a more powerful witch from Plymouth when the hex she wanted to perform was above her ability. This consultant would “chew a dime into somewhat the shape of a nail to drive it into a dead tree, by blows of the horny heel of his palm . . . the victim would surely drop dead as soon as the magician had time to say three times: ‘Black Jack of baccarat, hominy domini, corpse.’”

The allegations against Irene Ray mounted and police were increasingly pressured to charge her with witchcraft. Fortunately, unlike Salem Massachusetts in 1692, Indiana had no laws against witchcraft. The state did have vagrancy laws, in essence making it illegal to be homeless. Irene was charged with vagrancy and arrested, only to be released when she promised the new Chief of Police that she and her family would leave town.

Irene Ray press release, May 12, 1938. Courtesy of the Indiana Album: Joan Hostetler Collection.

Although Irene denied the accusations against her, saying “The whole thing is wrong. I can’t do anything like that,” she and her husband Charles moved from the town and settled near Manitou Lake. The story of a “witch” being driven from town spread across the country and appeared in newspaper headlines from California to New York. Most were skeptical of the allegations and cast the whole affair in a grim light. In many of the articles, it is mentioned that Irene was of American Indian descent, although Irene admitted that even she wasn’t sure if this was accurate. The inclusion of this fact, along with that of her alleged consultant was African American, suggests that the incident was as much about race as it was about the financial situation of the family.

Logansport Pharos-Tribune, November 05, 1938, Accessed Newspaper.com.

Just six months later, Irene was hit by a car and died from the injuries. The accusations of witchcraft would outlive the alleged witch. In every article about the accident, her death takes a backseat to the story of her being forced out of Rochester as a witch. Later, when her daughter petitioned to have her stepfather declared of unsound mind (he had sustained a head injury in the accident which killed Irene) the headline focused on the fact that he was the widower of “Rochester’s Noted ‘Witch-Woman.’” It is safe to say now that Irene Ray was no witch, but rather a woman whose neighbors’ dislike and resentment ran so deep that they convinced themselves that she was at the root of their problems.