Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780-1880

By Melish, Joanne Pope | Journal of the Early Republic, December 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780-1880


Melish, Joanne Pope, Journal of the Early Republic


Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780-1880. By Daniel R. Mandell. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. 343. Cloth, $57.00; Paper, $35.00.)

Reviewed by Joanne Pope Melish

Daniel Mandell's history of the Native peoples of southern New England between 1780 and 1880 focuses on the struggles of Native groups to maintain their autonomy, identity, and cultural values, both as Indians and as particular tribal groups, within the dominant economic and political structures of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. He is interested in interpreting the way Indians' lives, the relationships of their communities with state governments, and whites' perceptions of Indians changed over the course of the century and shaped New England identity and history. For the most part he has succeeded admirably, drawing upon an immense collection of archival sources to fashion an extremely detailed and nuanced story.

The book is organized into six chapters, each focusing on paired aspects of Native experiences in southern New England, followed by an epilogue that explores the effects of state termination of tribal status and the subsequent emergence of pan-Indian and revitalization movements in the 1920s. "Land and Labor" establishes the key elements of Native identity - connection to legally protected tribal reserves whose land and resources were managed in common, and participation in transient wage labor near the reserves and in towns, cities, and ports. Indians worked as whalers, farmers, servants, peddlers, basket makers, and herbal doctors, participating marginally in the emerging regional market economy while maintaining subsistence ways and communal values.

The reserves served as "reservoirs of antimarket forces" (36); but this made them attractive to poor whites and blacks uncomfortable with the impersonal market economy. "Community and Family" focuses on the increasing rates of (usually informal) marriages of Indians to whites and especially African Americans in nearly every Indian community. In the emerging racist climate of the 1820s, whites began to distinguish "real" Indians from "mongrels." While some Indians condemned exogamous marriages and made racist statements about blacks, Mandell argues that most were really concerned about "foreigners" of whatever race; "race became significant among Indians largely as a useful code for speaking to white men." He notes that "only . . . Mohegans and Narragansetts adopted rules that seem to echo American racism, and those rules were rarely followed or enforced" (53). But the many examples of racial antipathy that follow suggest that Mandell is understating the case. He also argues against the claim of scholars such as Ruth Wallis Herndon, Ella Sekatau, and myself that the reassignment of Indians to categories of "black" and "negro" by town officials in the early republic exaggerated the numbers of exogamous relationships and their offspring, citing "figures recorded by Anglo-American men who worked closely with Native communities" that "reflect the reality of the increasing rates of exogamous marriages rather than racist distortions" (48). But why should such men be more immune than town officials to the unconscious changes in their ways of seeing wrought by ideology?

Chapter 3, "Authority and Autonomy," describes how Mashpee and other Indian communities combined Revolutionary ideology and radical evangelical religion to challenge the political and religious authority of the guardians and orthodox clergy assigned by state governments to manage them at the end of the Revolution. The successful revolt of the Mashpee community in 1834 that abolished their guardianship and ousted their assigned Congregationalist minister essentially marked the end of elite demands for moral order and deference from Native groups. …

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