Monday, March 20, 2017

"Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers and Slaves in the Age of Jackson" a review

Great Crossings:Indians, Settlers and Slaves in the Age of Jackson by Christina Snyder was mentioned to me recently. I bought the book and read it. Some would say I am being hypercritical, and arguably, some of my problems with the book stem from my background in genealogy, most specifically, my background in Choctaw genealogy.

With the knowledge in mind that historians often view genealogy as an unwanted little cousin, and that this is far from the first book that did not reflect complete accuracy from a genealogical perspective, I am going to in this blog address the problems I found with the book. I will address the genealogy though, but to be fair, the author most likely had no knowledge of her errors. The post will follow this one.

There is however, one blatant error that I find unacceptable. John Pitchlynn was not orphaned as a teenager. That someone failed to read the letters written by Isaac Pitchlynn in the Mississippi territorial papers and in Washington after John's appointment as government interpreter and again when his home was burned does not show much research on the subject of John Pitchlynn. A research citation for a family file at the Oklahoma Historical Society is cited, but, given the lack of citations on other genealogical information, I would assume that the author did research on them.

The subject of the book would appear by the title to be that of Great Crossings and the Choctaw Academy. I find it rather confusing then, when the author drifts off that topic into events that occur elsewhere and into people and subjects that are irrelevant to the topic. I suppose the inclusion of the rape of Susannah Lyles was an attempt to set up the reason the Choctaws wanted the Academy, however, that event occurred several years after the Choctaw Academy accepted it's first class, and is an arguable point in history. The pregnancy of Susannah Lyles by her teacher is thought by some researchers to be not about a non-consensual relationship, but instead, may have been made into a ploy to manipulate the missionaries by Greenwood Leflore. 

The time problem is a theme throughout the book. Often each chapter talks of events and goes back in forth in time, which in several cases suggests events occurred in years that they did not. For example, when talking about the 1826 speech by Pierre Juzan, the author mentions that the school was attended by 17 nations of Indians and references Pierre's speech. In 1826, however, the Choctaw Academy did not include students from 17 nations, that occurred later, and if I am not mistaken, it wasn't until 1828 that the first students from another Native nation arrived.

Another example of the time organization is the case of the murder of Silas and Jack Pitchlynn. Not only is the inclusion irrelevant, but the author makes it appear that it occurs after 1831. However, if one were to look at the Armstrong roll of 1831 they would find that Eve Pitchlynn nee Folsom, the widow of Jack Pitchlynn had married John Riddle. The note on the Armstrong roll is confusing as they don't get his name right, but I am quite sure the information was as readily available at the Oklahoma Historical Society as the Pitchlynn family file.

The beginning of the book I found the most objectionable. Primarily because in trying to make history interesting to non-historians, the author's narrative in regard to Richard M. Johnson's relationship with Julia Chinn and his reasons for wanting the academy appear almost romanticized. As I progressed the tone of the narrative did change,  but the authors approach to the subject matter showed a shifting point of view.

Often the tone and implication when she spoke of the Choctaw students reflected the bias of Richard M. Johnson. This predominates the book, however, when she shifts focus to James L. McDonald, Peter Pitchlynn, and later Choctaw schools, an attempt to show the Choctaw point of view is present. It is however, a bit confusing to the reader.

An explanation of the status of the Choctaws as elites and the perceived expectation of a preferential treatment is understandable from Johnson's point of view, however, I do find the tone overall rather unsympathetic to the Choctaw students in regards to slavery issues. While attempting to explain the Choctaw student's behavior because of their status, I found instead a complete lack of understanding into the cultural differences.

Slavery was not a new idea to the Choctaws, however, I do believe that the early attitude the Choctaws had towards slaves was based on a culture that valued the skills of a warrior. In this society, becoming a captive and slave was the worst fate, so the disdain the Choctaws had for those in slavery wasn't necessarily based on the color of their skin. It was based on a disdain for weakness.

It is often overlooked that the Choctaw as a culture viewed themselves as superior. The bravado expressed in stories about Pushmataha isn't restricted to him or his position, but rather was a reflection of how the Choctaw saw themselves. They didn't see themselves as less than the whites, despite the belief and treatment they received from them.  A perception of preferential treatment towards someone they viewed as lesser would be an insult. If the slaves of Great Crossing were treated in such a manner, it was natural for the Choctaws to object.

Many of the objections made by the students at the Academy were similar to  objections about the missionary schools. While Richard Johnson may have considered some of the students spoiled and difficult, the reality is, among the Choctaw their family didn't get them special treatment as children and young men, and as much as heredity played a role in politics, the ability to lead, and the abilities as a warrior was as relevant if not more.

While it is true the elite class of the Choctaw nation had always had privilege, it was not the same privilege as one would perceive belonged to members of the plantation class elsewhere in the country, nor was it akin to anything resembling the gentry of England. Privilege for the Choctaw, with the exception of very few, involved access to trade goods, guns, western clothing and the like. Yes, many of the mixed elites had slaves, but the homes of most of these families was modest compared to the antebellum  south. 

Yes, this would and did change, but during the early years of the Academy, this was not the prevalent attitude.  It wasn't until 1825 that a mixed blood had even been allowed in a key leadership position, not as a speaker, but as a leader. It is often overlooked that Robert Cole who took over upon the death of Apuckshunnubbee was a mixed blood.

The objective to educate their youth, most especially their mixed blood youth, was I believe a calculated maneuver on the part of the last three hereditary chiefs. Despite this, we have from William Ward and George S. Gaines repeated that neither Pushmataha or Apuckshunnubbee believed that a mixed blood should ever lead. What they intended to do with this educated group one only knows, but the result was a political struggle that almost tore the nation apart.

Though mentioned and eluded to briefly, the political struggles between 1828-1830 were undoubtedly reflected at the Choctaw Academy, because the family members of the students were among the players at home. In conventional terms, the Choctaw nation was divided between progressives  who wanted to emigrate and move forward, and conservatives who wanted to remain and have things remain the same.

Very few of the Choctaws were equipped to understand all of the ramifications of the negotiations of this time. Certainly James L. McDonald, Peter Pitchlynn and Robert M. Jones were, they had at that point the best education, and had from childhood, been exposed to whites in a manner that most had not. While the later two were students and their inclusion in the book makes sense, James L McDonald's chapter in the book makes little sense. Yes, he visited the academy, and for 5 years he was among the most influential in the nation, but overall he had little to do with the school and is not part of it's story.

Peter Pitchlynn gets pretty good coverage, but Robert M. Jones, arguably one of the most successful Choctaws within the Choctaw nation, is barely mentioned. George W. Trahern, who is the most successful outside of the Choctaw nation has quite a bit more in the book, the author eludes to his omission of his ancestry in later years, but fails to get his early childhood, family relations and connections right.

In the end, one must ask is this a book about the school, Richard M. Johnson and his black mistress and children, or about the Choctaw. Instead it is a book that tries to cover a vast amount of material, with questionable success. The story of Richard M Johnson and his family is unusual and deserves coverage, perhaps the author thought that alone wasn't a book. And though they overlap in some areas, in many areas, the Choctaw Academy appears to deserve it's own recognition apart from that story.

Ultimately, I was left with the opinion that historically, the book while providing some excellent information on some little known facts about the Choctaw academy, was more akin to Cushman in it's lack of clarity with timeline and misleading if not inaccurate events. I also found at times, the narrative of Richard M Johnson's life with Julia and his family to be more in line with something written by Lincecum.

That may seem somewhat harsh, but as someone pointed out, I am one of few people for whom the errors are glaring and apparent. As a genealogist, I know that many a researcher, amateur and experienced turns to history books for information on the Choctaw. As one of several who strive for accuracy, I know the frustration of trying to stop the perpetuation of inaccuracies we often find as a result of something someone found in a book, on a message board, or from a shaky leaf on a tree. This isn't a problem restricted to genealogist for the Choctaw, it is something that genealogist across the spectrum face.

To see the errors and not comment would be a disservice to those in my community who strive for accuracy, for the researchers of the Leflore, McCurtain, Pitchlynn, King and other families, who feel as passionately as I do about the need for accuracy. Because although it is the unwanted little cousin of historians, in the end, countless researchers spend hundreds of hours in research with a degree for accuracy that equals if not exceeds the research of a historian. And ultimately, because while for the vast amount of history of the United States, ignoring the genealogy is fine. It is irrelevant, but for histories among the Native Americans, it is as important and as a vital part of the history as the treaties themselves.

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