Academic journal article Folklore

May Games and Noble Savages: The Native American in Early Celebrations of the Tammany Society

Academic journal article Folklore

May Games and Noble Savages: The Native American in Early Celebrations of the Tammany Society

Article excerpt

"A May morning indeed!" runs the diary entry a young Philadelphia woman for 1 May 1773, "this morning was ushered in by the ringing of bells in memory of King Tammany, as he was used to be called, but now I think they have got him canonized, for he is now celebrated as Saint Tammany" (Eve 1891, 19). This is obviously far from a traditional English May, not the least of its unusual features being a Native American patron of the festival who, moreover, has achieved some form of canonisation.

May Day was certainly not a widespread celebration in colonial North America. The influence of Puritanism in New England was, of course, a major factor in eliminating this as well as most other secular holidays. When Thomas Morton raised a maypole in his settlement of Merrymount (present Quincy, Massachusetts) in 1623, and moreover included Native Americans in his "revels," he was imprisoned by the Separatists from Plymouth and his settlement disbanded (Morton 1632, Book 3 chap. 14; Bradford 1952, 205). William Penn and the Quakers who founded Philadelphia in the late seventeenth century were also little interested in importing or nurturing such frivolous or even "idolatrous" seasonal celebrations. The bell peals on the May morning of 1773, then, signal a mostly locally-grown folk practice. They were part of wider celebration of a distinct holiday fraternity, the "Sons of St Tammany" specifically oriented to Maytide, and incorporating many Woodland Indian features including fully-fledged Indian masquerade. Let us begin with a summary view of a Tammany May Day in its prime, c. 1783-94 in its native city.(1)

The Tammany May Festival

Philadelphia newspaper reports from the exuberant years immediately following American Independence allow one to make a fairly consistent composite of the sequence of events on a Tammany May Day according to the "good old custom of our worthy forefathers" (Cabeen 1901-3. Hereafter cited as PMHB with volume and page number. Here, PMHN 26:216). The location was the banks of the rural Schuylkill River on Philadelphia's westside. Festivities began at noon with a raising of the colours on three "maypoles" festooned with garlands, the central maypole sometimes dubbed the "Liberty Pole." The flags of the Netherlands and France, America's earliest allies, flanked the Pennsylvania state flag (later the U.S. ensign) which sported a portrait of Tammany on its field. A cannon salute and a marching-band rendition of a popular theatre song in honour of St Tammany then followed, and these would continue to punctuate activities through the rest of the day. Obvious is the heavy ideological content of this May Day, as well as its strictly "men's club" orientation. Through all the Tammany records there is no hint of a gathering in of the May with its attendant wooing and mating, so much a part of the event in "Merry England" (Judge 1991; Hutton 1994, 27-8). This event is closer in spirit to the old country's Midsummer Watch. Maypoles here are not so much to dance around as to salute.

The previous year's officers would next surrender "the ensigns of authority," which were engraved military gorgets. Then the bear-greased, face-painted, bucktailed and befeathered company formed a ring to elect a new chief and thirteen sachems (sub-chiefs), symbolic of the thirteen United States, each with its animal totem. Some of these brothers would even deck themselves out in a shaved head with scalplock fashioned from an animal bladder and horsehair. The new sachems' assumed names had an "authentic" ring, some of them belonging to major Woodland Indian leaders.(2) In 1785 we find a "Kill Buck," one of the Revd Heckewelder's Lenape associates in central Pennsylvania, and "Cornstalk," the Shawnee leader who was murdered while confined at Fort Pitt in 1777 (PMHB 26:338). In 1786 we find "Deunquatt," a Wyandot chieftain at Sandusky out in the Ohio country, and "Tediescung," the so-called "King of the Delawares" (PMHB 26:450; Wallace 1949). …

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