The Brothertown Nation of Indians: Land Ownership and Nationalism in Early America, 1740-1840

The Brothertown Nation of Indians: Land Ownership and Nationalism in Early America, 1740-1840

The Brothertown Nation of Indians: Land Ownership and Nationalism in Early America, 1740-1840

The Brothertown Nation of Indians: Land Ownership and Nationalism in Early America, 1740-1840

Synopsis

A group of educated Christian Natives from a variety of New England tribes came together in central New York in 1785 to form a community of their own, Brothertown, a proprietary "Body Politick" modeled after a New England town with an elected leadership. In an effort to retain their land rights and remain self-sufficient, the Natives of Brothertown sought accommodation rather than resistance to Anglo-American ideas about religion, land use, and gender relations by embracing the notion of "civilization" while retaining their identity as Natives. Brothertown residents encouraged women to adopt spinning and weaving and men to become farmers on individual assigned lots, rather than working in the Anglo-American community isolated from traditional ties. The Brothertown Natives had to negotiate continuously with local, state, and national authorities to retain the rights to their land and their own sovereignty. They eventually bought a tract of land from Natives in Wisconsin and relocated their community to escape land encroachment in New York. Facing the threat of the Removal Act and forced relocation, the Brothertown Natives used their status as "civilized Christians" to become American citizens in order to retain their land and keep their community intact, thereby establishing both their external identity and their self-understanding as Americans and as the "Brothertown Nation of Indians." Brad D. E. Jarvis examines the origins and experiences of a unique Native community as it negotiated to preserve community identity, sovereignty, and cultural stability in the midst of land loss, weakened political authority, and economic marginalization.

Excerpt

In August 1855 Brothertown Indian Thomas Commuck answered a request from Lyman Draper, a new secretary and librarian at the Wisconsin Historical Society, to submit a brief history of the Brothertown Indians. Although initially hesitant to respond, Commuck eventually acquiesced, deciding that “it would not be wholly uninteresting to give a small sketch of the Brothertown Indians.” the Brothertown story is in fact an interesting one. Commuck’s ancestors from southern New England had created Brothertown in New York after the Revolution in the hope that the new home would provide a place to escape Anglo-American encroachment. There the Brothertown Indians became farmers and Christians, seeking to ameliorate the forces of dispossession through cultural, economic, and political accommodation—all in order to preserve the autonomy and identity of their community. Eventually the Brothertown Indians found it necessary to move once again, this time to a new home along the shores of Lake Winnebago, where the residents hoped their community would stay. As a Brothertown Indian of Narragansett descent, Commuck wrote to remind all who read his history that Indians remained prevalent in American history and society.

The story of the Brothertown Indians is indeed a fascinating one that intersects with traditional themes extant in American Indian historiography, namely the securing of economic resources, the preservation of community identity, and the maintenance of political sovereignty in the midst of coalescent forces intent on redefining Native lands as Euro-American . . .

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