Friday, April 3, 2020


Scott Wiedensaul's, First Frontier

I recently picked up a copy of The First Frontier, Scott Weidensaul’s lively account of America's eastern seaboard before and during early colonial times. I just finished a section on the captivity of one John Gyles, a ten-year-old boy who was taken from his home by the Abenaki in 1689. Although Gyles remained with the Abenaki for nine years, they never quite adopted him. This surprised me. I had mistakenly thought that, if captured by Indians, one's fate was either to be tortured and killed or adopted and treated kindly.

This engraving, based on a drawing by Benjamin West, 
shows Indians returning captive children to Colonel 
Bouquet after the French and Indian War. John Gyles
was older than these children when taken, and was less
warmly embraced by his captors.  
Gyles lived in a kind of purgatory between these two extremes. His captors would eventually ransom him, but for most of his captivity, he was worked hard, treated badly, and sometimes even tortured. I have accounts of long-time Indian captives who refused to be redeemed, but Gyles welcomed the opportunity. After being freed, he became a prominent military officer in New England, in part, because he had learned to speak French and a couple of Indian languages during his captivity.

Weidensaul says Gyles's account of his time with the Indians is among the very best of the genre. I just pulled it from the Internet Archive and look forward to perusing it before long. Among the best accounts of European interaction with the woodland Indians before the 19th century are the Jesuit Relations, letters, and journal entries written by Jesuit priests living among the indigenous peoples of North America.* Along with Gyles, the Jesuits remark upon Indian notions of revenge. Novelist Frank McCourt's definition of "Irish Alzheimer's"—"You forget everything except the grudge"—seems to apply.

The Jesuits asked the Iroquois why they insisted on eating the lice they took from each other's hair. The Indians responded (I paraphrase here), "Eating?, We're not eating, we're biting! The damned things bit us, how can we not bite them back!"

Weidensaul gives an account of Indians taking revenge on a trader who had cheated them through usurious credit and sharp practices like putting his finger on the scale to short-change them. Before killing the trader, each man in the raiding party insisted on "scratching out" his debt by cutting an X on the trader's chest, each declaring, "I cross out my account."  They then cut off the trader's fingers, asking him "how much his fist weighed now." 

Similar gruesome accounts are not uncommon in the literature. Many have a certain poetic justice. The modern American says, “That’s a primitive society for you!” And yet, in recent times we’ve seen similar behavior in places like Ireland, Yugoslavia, Myanmar and Rwanda, where past wrongs are remembered and old scores settled with new violence.  Yet, to build a nation, that is, to achieve a sense of "peoplehood," takes a lot of forgetting. Native Americans had a ritual to mark such forgetting. They called it "burying the hatchet." 

* The 73-volume collection of the Jesuit Relations  (1610-1791) can be found at the Internet Archives. Click here for a 1901 review of the collection.  

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