Ann Maydosz [*]
The "New Found Land,"  as America was called by Thomas Harriot, one of the continent's first ethnographers, opened a Pandora's box of troubles for the Englishmen who landed there. Confounded by their unpreparedness for life there, they quickly discovered that unfamiliar terrain was an almost insurmountable obstacle. Yet, their eyes told them that people could thrive, even prosper there. Initially native societies evoked an awe born not just of curiosity about these newly discovered humans, but of necessity because the Native Americans' survival skills towered over the European settlers'. Eventually the transplanted Europeans were able to overcome their ineptness and led by the Native Americans, as chronicled by Harriot in his book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, began to carve out a life on the new continent.
The European settlers' relationship with the Africans they encountered, though, suffered none of the self-doubt which infected first meetings with the Native Americans. Although Native Americans were also used as slaves, to the eyes of needy European colonists, the Africans held only one status: a conscriptable labor force. The owners of African slaves had no need or interest in learning the native culture of their newly acquired workers. Many Africans were at least nominally Christian, having been baptized before capture, and some of their owners undertook the responsibility for further religious instruction, primarily to insure their passivity and stamp out native tendencies as quickly as possible.
One element which survived and perhaps even enlivened the culture clashes was humor. European settlers, Native Americans and Africans retained the right to laugh at each other through the painful transitions all endured. Although none of the groups were homogeneous, there tended to be a seamless blending when faced with members of the outlying groups. Settlers, in this case, were of such a variety of original nationalities, all with preconceived notions of each other, that any sort of unity seemed impossible. Yet, when confronted with the wildly dissimilar cultures of the African or the Native American, a definable alliance was born. This ethnocentrism-- "us" against "them"--was the basis for the rich variety of ethnic humor which abounded at the time. Tempestuous and troubling issues: guilt, superiority and insecurity were often played out on the miniature stage of the popular joke.
These conflicts exposed a disparity of image when it came to the Europeans' view of the Native Americans and Africans. Although the European colonists viewed Native Americans and Africans differently, at face value their cultural situation was similar. Neither the Native American nor the African spoke the white man's language. Both had intact cultures when the white man thrust himself upon them, causing each to alter his values. And yet, initially, the Native Americans were perceived as possessing desirable qualities, whereas the native Africans never had this advantage. As late as 1922, these perceived differences lingered, as seen in The Planters of Colonial Virginia. Speaking of their usefulness to the Virginia planters, Native Americans are described thusly:
To hunt them out of their native lairs and bind them to arduous and ignominious service was hardly to be thought of. Their spirit was too proud to be thus broken, the safe refuge of the woods too near at hand. One might well have attempted to hitch lions and tigers to the plough shaft, as to place these wild children of the forest at the handles.
This wonderful, intangible immunity doesn't extend to the African, however:
Born in savagery, unacquainted with the English tongue, knowing little of agriculture, it was a matter of some difficulty to accustom himself to his task in the tobacco fields. yet when his lesson had been learned, when a few years of experience had taught him what his master expected him to do, the slave showed himself adequate to the requirements of one staple crop. 
The noble savage image was born in the first encounter with the white man and dwindled proportionately as the colonists' desire and ability to dominate the land escalated. The anecdotal portrayals of the Native Americans of this early period paint a picture of native cunning, intelligence and eloquence free of insulting dialect. Had the European colonists adopted the Native Americans as a reference group-one to be emulated? George Alsop, a British satirist who extolled the virtues of the colonies as a way of twitting British readers, gave this inflated description of the Susquehanocks:
...the men being for the most part seven foot high in latitude, and in magnitude and bulk so suitable to so high a pitch; their voyce [sic] large and hollow, as ascending out of a Cave; their gate and behavior strait, stately and majestick, treading on the Earth with as much pride, contempt, and disdain to so sordid a Center, as can be imagined from a creature derived as the same mould as Earth. 
An envious admiration creeps into first settlement leader Thomas Harriot's description of the eating habits of the Native Americans of Roanoke Island: "Yet they are moderate in their eatinge wherby they avoide sicknes. I would [sic.] to god we would follow their example." Harriot's 1590 chronicle finds many other instances of virtuous Native American behavior to uphold: "They are verye sober in their eatinge, and drinkinge, and consequentlye verye longe lived because they doe not oppress nature." 
Their physical habits were not the only aspect to be envied, as this wry, but eloquent riposte from an Native American chief of the Creek nation illustrates:
An Indian chief of the Creek nation, being once appointed to negotiate a treaty of peace with the people of South Carolina, was desired by the governor and council to speak his mind freely, and not to be afraid, for he was among friends, "I will speak freely; I will not be afraid," said he. "For why should I be afraid among my friends, who am never afraid among my enemies."  Benjamin Franklin, American statesman and humorist, was greatly impressed with the eloquence of the native speakers. He and others chronicled the witty reply and ironic twist of the response of the Chiefs of the Six Nations when offered an education for six of their sons at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia:
... We have had some experience of it: Several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences, but when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger; knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy; spoke our language imperfectly; were therefore neither fit for hunters, warriors, or counsellors; they were totally good Lot nothing. We are however not the less obliged by your kind offer, though we decline accepting it: and to show our grateful sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them. 
Initial skirmishes with the Native Americans did little to diminish the colonists' respect for the virtues of the Native American. His bravery, even when faced with torture, was noted in an early jest book (forerunner of the comic almanac):
When one was taken by his enemies, he told them, with a bold voice, that he was a very noted warrior, and gained most of his martial preferment at the expense of their nation, and was desirous of shewing them in the act of dying, that he was still as much superior to them as when he headed his gallant countrymen against them. 
As this anecdote reveals, the Native American's powers of observation were seen as extraordinary as well. A Native American finds that his venison has been stolen. After a few minutes observation of the scene, he sets off in pursuit. Encountering some men in the forest, he asks if they have seen a small, old, white man with a short gun, accompanied by a small dog with a bobbed tail. In amazement, the men ask how he happens to know so much:
The Indian answered thus; The thief I know is a little man, by his having made a pile of stones to stand upon, in order to reach the venison from the height I hung it, standing on the ground; that he is an old man, I know by his short steps, which I have traced over the dead leaves in the woods; and that he is a white man, I know by his turning out his toes when he walks which an Indian never does. His gun I know to be short, by the mark which the muzzle makes rubbing the bark of the tree against which it leaned; that his dog is small I know by the tracks; and that he has a bob tail, I discovered by the mark it made in the dust where he was sitting, at the time his master was taking down the meat. 
Although conflicts were becoming more common, each side could still good-naturedly poke fun at one another and themselves. The Native Americans found much to ridicule in the strange habits of the Euro-Americans. Contrasting the size of the Native American and English spoons, Robert Beverly, author of The History and Present State of Virginia, recorded this observation, "The spoon which they eat with, so generally hold half a pint; and they laugh at the English for using small ones, which they must be forced to carry so often to their Mouths, that their Arms are in danger of being tir'd, before their Belly."  William Byrd, Virginia wit and illuminatus, in his essay "Journey to the Land of Eden," noted that the Native Americans "laughed at the English for losing one day in seven," referring to the custom of resting on the Sabbath.  A comment from a Native American ridiculing the English fighting style may have caused the colonists to reassess their tactics: "The English people are fools; they hold their guns half man high, and let them snap: We take sight and have them at a shot . . . we take care to have the first shot at our enemies."  The English, for their part, could mock only the bravado of the Native American:
A sagamore with a hum-bird in his ear for a pendant, a black-hawk on his occiput for his plume, mowhackees for his gold chain, good store of wamponpeage begirting his loins, his bow in his hand, his quiver at his back, with six naked Indian spatter-lashes at his heels for his guard, think, himself little inferior to the great Chain; he will not stick to say he is all one with King Charles. He thinks he can blow down castles with his breath, and conquer kingdoms with his conceit. 
Unfortunately, by the mid-19th century, neither side found much to joke amiably about. Their relationship had disintegrated to the point where even Benjamin Franklin, once so favorably impressed with the Native American's eloquence, portrays a nearly mute Tatua standing before King Louis XVI on his throne. When an envoy's speech detailing the great services performed by Tatua on the king's behalf is finished, Tatua mutters, "Ugh" and rattles his carbine.  Having slipped into dialect, anecdotes now show the Native American as a drunk, an unfortunate condition becoming all too common. In Ebenezer Cook's "The Sotweed Factor," a startled visitor offers a Native American he encounters in the woods the customary placation with great success:
Judging from thence, the Brute was civil,
I boldly fac'd the courteous Devil,
And lugging out of a Dram of Rum,
I gave his tawny Worship some
Triumphantly continuing on his ride, he muses:
Discoursing as along I rode,
Whether this Race was fram'd of GOD
Or whether some malignant Power,
Had fram'd them in an evil Hour,
And from his own infernal Look,
Their dusky Form and Image took. 
This lowered, the Native American makes suitable foil for the despicable importer of the Revolutionary days:
WHAT is the difference betwixt an Importer and an Indian?
1. An Indian drinks Cyder-an Importer drinks the Blood of his Country.
2. An Indian is an Enemy only to himself-an Importer is an Enemy to America.
3. An Indian will sometimes fulfill his Engagements--but the strongest Cords, and the most solemn Engagements will not bind an Importer.
4. An Indian, not having Means of Light, is not subject to any tormenting Reflections--an Importer is eternally haunted with apparitions, and the Horror of a guilty Conscience.
5. An Importer, covered with Tar, would shine with an artificial Lustre--whereas the black Colour of the Indian is natural.
6. How the Indian came into the country is unknown--but if Importers should have their deserts, there would be no Witchcraft in determining how they would go out. From whence it appears that the State of an Indian is much better than that of an Importer. 
The colonist, now able to stand on his own, desired to be rid of anything which reminded him of his early frailties. Independence meant not only repudiating England, but declaring himself free of his dependence on the once indispensable Native American. Moses Coit Taylor, American biographer, summed up the demise of the Native American's mystique:
Furthermore, those uncouth dusky creatures, the savage proprietors of the continent, whom, both in friendship and hostility, the colonists at once came into contact with, for a long time seemed to our ancestors to be most mysterious beings, and were the objects of an unspeakable interest in England as well as here... To us, of course, the American indian is no longer a mysterious or even interesting personage--he is simply a fierce dull biped standing in our way; it is only by a strong effort of the imagination that we can in any degree reproduce for ourselves the zest of ineffable curiousity with which, during most of the seventeenth century, he was regarded by the English on both sides of the ocean. 
The colonists' early impression of the African was never tinged with the golden glow which haloed the early Native American/European colonist relations. The colonists' fantasy that they shared characteristics with the Native Americans never existed in kind with the Africans they encountered. Enslaved by the white man, the Africans were thought of first, last and always as intellectually inferior, lazy, barely articulate and dully happy in the most meager surroundings.
Though the Native American is seldom portrayed as speaking in dialect and rarely named, dialect is rampant in anecdotes about Africans. Mangled speech characterized by misspellings rather than distinguishing phrases, highlights the stupidity of the speaker. The African subjects invariably have comic and ethnically identifiable names given them by their masters, such as Caesar, Sambo, Cato, Pompey, etc., readily contrasted to Anglican standards such as Thomas and James, for example.  Simpleton images abound as in this anecdote from an early jest book. "A tradesman tells his lazy black servant he must get up at sunrise, 'At sunrise, massa?,' replies the African. 'But suppose, massa, the sun rise before daylight-- What do I do den, sir?'"  A later jest book perpetuates the simpleton image with a joke about a confused servant attempting to balance his training in etiquette with the latest fashion--a double-breasted coat:
... he has been told to hand the plate on the buttonhole side of his guest: He looked first at one side of the gentleman's coat and then the other, and finally, quite confounded by the outlandish make of the stranger's garment, he cast a despairing look at his master, and exclaiming in a loud voice, "Buttonholes at both sides, massa," handed the plate right over the gentleman's head. 
Petty thievery was considered to be a natural outlet for the slave or freeman of the period. His dishonesty is accepted by all:
Two Negroes who dealt in brooms, meeting one day on the street, Sam asked, "how de debil, Cato, you afford to sell cheaper than me when I teal de tuff?" "Ah you fool (says the other), I teal them ready-made." 
One has to search little to find jokes which portray the African slave as his own worst enemy, as these stories show:
Pompey and Jim, two slaves, were comparing notes about their respective masters. "I gits 'long tol'ble well wid my massa," said Pompey.
"Hoccum you gits 'long tol'ble well wid yo' massa," demanded Jim, "He meaner'n my massa."
"I jes' cuss 'im out real good when I's a mind ter," said Pompey coolly.
Jim was astonished. 'An' nothin' happen ter you?"
"Nothin' a'tal. Try it yo'se'f--it sho' make you feel good."
Jim agreed, but when he met Pompey the following afternoon his face was badly bruised and his back a mass of ugly welts from the rawhiding he had received. "I done like you say an' really cuss 'im out," Jim moaned, "But Massa, he toh me up."
"Whar you wuz when you cuss 'im out?"
"Why I wuz stannin' right befo' his face, dat's whar."
"You oughtta have mo' sense dan dat," reproached Pompey. "Now when I cuss my massa I wait ontwel he up at de big house an' I stannin' down at de othuh en' uv de fiel'."
One day Abraham bought a lottery ticket from his meager saving earned from performing odd jobs for other landowners. To his glee, he won a thousand dollars. He was well aware of his favored status, of course, but he also knew he was a slave. So he decided to buy his freedom. "Master," he began, "how much am I worth on today's slave market?"
"Oh, about fifteen hundred, more or less. Why?"
"I won first prize in a lottery. I want to buy my freedom."
"Well, good for you!" responded the owner feelingly. "In that case I'll make it an even thousand."
Abraham's face fell. He nodded and walked away scowling.
"What's the matter?" asked his master. "Don't you have that much money left?"
"Yes, master, I have enough. But the price of slaves right now is too high. I'll wait for the market to ease up a bit and buy when we're cheaper." 
Notice the difference in the portrayal of the master's demeanor. There was a change in the air--the beginning of a cry against slavery. Changing attitudes gave the slave a voice, the wry wisdom of which was deftly turned on his master. From The American Jest Book (1833) entitled "Good Going": " 'I shall soon die, Cuffy--I must soon set out upon a long journey,' said a sick man to his old negro servant. 'Berry well,' replied Cuffy, 'I guess Massa hab good going, cause it be all way down-hill.' "22 A gentle backhand to the master is found in this anecdote as well: "When an old gentleman tells Cato that he has arranged to have him buried in the family vault, Cato declines the honor: 'Massa, suppose we be buried togeder, and de devil come looking for massa in de dark, he might take away poor negar man in mistake.'" 
The second generation of Afro-American slaves and slave owners was faced with the increasigly popular view of slavery as an injustice, and the plight of slaves is pointedly at issue here:
A Negro in the island of St. Christopher, had so cruel a master, that he dreaded the sight of him. After exercising much tyranny amongst his slaves, the planter died, and left his son heir to the estates, Some time after his death, a gentleman, meeting the negro, asked him how his young master behaved. "I suppose," says he, "he's a chip off the old block?" "No, no," says the negro, "massa be all block himself." 
The hypocrisy of slavery is the undisguised point in this tale about an accused thief who turns the tables on the jurist, from a jest book of 1808:
"Well den," says Caesar, "here be Tom's massa--hold him fast, constable, he buy Tom, as I buy de piccaninny knife and de piccaninny corkscrew. He knew very well Tom be tolen from his fadder and mudder, and de knife and de corkscrew have neder." 
... a slave defends himself before a justice of the peace in Philadelphia against the charge of possessing stolen property: "If the black rascal be whipt for buying tolen, me hope the white rascal be whipt too for the same ting, when we catch him as well as Caesar."
"To be sure," rejoined his worship.
The Revolutionary War gave African-Americans a chance to earn respect by distinguishing themselves on the field of battle. Stories featuring Afro-American heroes began to appear in humor journals, such as this one highlighting the stoic dignity of a soldier facing a painful amputation, "Neber mind, massa, take um off--tank God, I got noder leg and noder arm left for um yet."  Though the African-American soldier is willing to give all for his country, the recorder of the story is not willing to give up dialect in his portrayal. However, stories such as this one show the beginning of a slow move toward sympathy for African-American slaves and their plight and the consequent efforts to right the wrongs of slavery.
"Laugh, if you are wise."  reads the inscription of an 1833 copy of The American Jest Book. The ability to laugh at each other was a small unity shared by these diverse groups. Laughing at each other was one way to retain a cherished culture which was being usurped by another. Initially, the Native Americans fared the best. Jokes about them tended to emphasize their physical superiority, eloquent rhetoric, and natural nobility. The colonists sought them not only as romantic figures, but as a reference group--until they were no longer needed. The Euro-Americans could not romanticize or deny their enslavement of the Africans, however. Conveniently, they were assumed to have a genetic under-endowment of intelligence, as is evident in their portrayals in the jokes of the period. Mangled speech, gullibility and comic names were the characteristics of the slave in popular humor. The white man, though publisher of virtually all of these recorded anecdotes, occasionally allowed a discordant note to creep into ev en his own caricature when it suited his purposes. Humans have always felt a need to delineate their territory, and the early European settlers fiercely so. Once afoot in their "New Found Land," they continued to revise and define not only their geographical borders, but their ethnic and social ones as well.
* Ann Maydosz resides in Norfolk, Virginia.
(1.) Thomas Harriot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia The Complete 1590 Theodore de Bry Edition (New York, 1972).
(2.) Thomas J. Wertenbaker, The Planters of Colonial Virginia (Princeton, New Jersey, 1922), p. 30.
(3.) George Alsop, "A Character of the Province of Mary-Land," quoted in Laughter in the Wilderness: Early American Humor to 1783, ed. by W. Howland Kenney (Kent OH, 1976) p. 90.
(4.) Harriot, pp. 60f.
(5.) The American Jest Book, (1789) quoted in A Treasury of American Folk Humor, ed. By James M. Tidwell (New York, 1956) p. 30.
(6.) Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, quoted in Ben Franklin Laughing: Anecdotes from Original Sources by and about Ben Franklin, ed. by P.M. Zall (Berkeley, CA, 1980) p. 45.
(7.) Robert Secor, "Ethnic Humor in Early American Jest Books," in A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, ed. by Frank Shuffleton (New York, 1993) p. 168.
(9.) Luise van Keuren, "The American Indian as Humorist in Colonial Literature," in A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, ed. by Frank Shuffleton (New York, 1993) p. 81.
(11.) Ibid., p. 82.
(12.) Carl Holliday, The Wit and Humor of Colonial Day, (New York, 1960) p. 32.
(13.) Ladies Repository (Cinncinnati) 8 (1848), quoted in Ben Franklin Laughing, p. 155.
(14.) Ebenezer Cook, "The Sotweed Factor," quoted in Laughter in the Wilderness: Early American Humor to 1783, ed. by Howland Kenney (Kent, OH, 1976) p. 102.
(15.) The Massachusetts Spy, Aug. 25, 1770, quoted in Laughter in the Wilderness, p. 217.
(16.) Van Keuren, "The American Indian as Humorist in Colonial Literature," p. 77.
(17.) Robert K. Dodge, Early American Almanac Humor (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1987) p. 54.
(18.) Secor, "Ethnic Humor in Early American Jest Books," p. 173.
(20.) Ibid., p. 174.
(21.) Henry Spalding, Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor (Middle Village, NY, 1972) p. 38.
(22.) The American Jest Book (Pittsburgh, PA, 1833) p. 163.
(23.) Secor, "Ethnic Humor in Early American Jest Books," p. 174.
(24.) The American Jest Book, p. 109.
(25.) Secor, "Ethnic Humor in Early American Jest Books, " p. 176.
(26.) Ibid., p. 176.
(27.) The American Jest Book.…