The Author’s Corner with Richard Pointer

Richard Pointer is Professor Emeritus of History at Westmont College. This interview is based on his new book, Pacifist Prophet: Papunhank and the Quest for Peace in Early America (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Pacifist Prophet?

RP: As sometimes happens, this book, and more specifically Papunhank, found me rather than the other way around. I was doing some research on Pennsylvania-Native American relations in the 1750s and ‘60s and he kept popping up in a range of Quaker, Moravian and government source materials. I also began to notice his name briefly mentioned in a few recent secondary accounts. But it quickly became clear that no one had yet put together the various pieces of his life. Two considerations eventually persuaded me to attempt a biography: first and foremost, I discovered his to be an utterly fascinating and important story that should change some of what we think about Indigenous peoples in early America; and second, reconstructing his life offered a chance to put a small dent in the ongoing preoccupation of early American biography with white men.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Pacifist Prophet?

RP: In a mid-eighteenth century world filled with political turmoil, racial hatred, and deadly violence, Papunhank, like most Native Americans, sought a secure homeland for his people. But unlike most Indigenous leaders and prophets, he rejected warfare and promoted a principled pacifism that kept hundreds of his followers alive and contributed to a longer and wider Indian peace tradition.

JF: Why do we need to read Pacifist Prophet?

RP: In reconstructing Papunhank’s remarkable story, Pacifist Prophet reveals a heretofore largely overlooked Indigenous peacemaking tradition and in the process, widens our vision of the possibilities and limits Native peoples encountered in pre-Revolutionary America. In other words, it recovers an essential piece of Native American heritage and American history. As we consider our own cultural moment, Papunhank’s leadership model of self-sacrificial, dignified, morally-grounded service may be worth a look, especially in a world so much in need of being reminded that as Papunhank himself put it “when God made Men he never intend[ed] they should kill or destroy one another.” Moreover, the typical impression in the popular mind continues to be that Indians everywhere and always (or at least until 1890) were warlike. Either by nature, cultural inclination, or political necessity, they had to be. But it turns out that most Native peoples across the long span of early American history avoided war whenever they could. Instead, they, more quietly, pursued peaceful ways to cope with the new realities facing them after the Europeans’ arrival. Few did more or tried harder along those lines than Papunhank. His life, though extraordinary in the choices he made, was far more typical of what most Natives experienced in early America than the handful of Indians from this era (think Pocahontas and Squanto) familiar to Americans today.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RP: When asked this question, I always point back to childhood family vacations to historic sites along the East Coast that left me equating history and fun. That seed was then nurtured by excellent junior high and high school American history teachers, enough so that I went to college certain that I wanted to major in history. There my love of the subject and especially early American history grew. Completing a major research project on seventeenth-century Connecticut during my senior year gave me a much better idea of what historians actually do and helped persuade me to pursue graduate school in history. So, too, did the example of my older brother, Steve, who by that point was working on a PhD in history. When the opportunity came along for me to study at Johns Hopkins University, I grabbed it, not quite knowing what I was in for or where I was headed but convinced that a life in academia teaching and writing American history would be a worthy calling.

JF: What is your next project?

RP: Well, I’ve just retired in the last few months from my faculty position at Westmont College so my main project at the moment is figuring out what retirement will look like. So far it is feeling very good, even in the midst of the pandemic. The latter, of course, is making research much more difficult. But I have begun preliminary work on the question, how did the Seven Years’ War shape or re-shape religion in America? Over the past couple of decades, early American historians have come to see that war as far more pivotal in “making America” than previously thought. I’m curious to see if that was true for religion as well. Historians of religion in mid-eighteenth century America have tended to be preoccupied with the First Great Awakening and then the American Revolution, typically skipping over the Seven Years’ War. Yet I suspect that long conflict did much to set the trajectory of religion in America toward disestablishment, anti-Catholicism, evangelical expansion, racial exclusivity, and apocalyptic hope. Perhaps someday we’ll even say that it was the war that “made American religion.”

JF: Thanks, Rick!

Harriet Beecher Stowe and the 1849 Cholera Pandemic

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Nancy Koester, a writer and historian, is the author of an informative religious history of Harriett Beecher Stowe titled Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life.  If you are interested in how Stowe’s faith informed her activism, I recommend Nancy’s book. See our interview with Koester here.

In her recent piece at The Christian Post, Koester discusses how Stowe dealt with the death of her son Charley during Cincinnati’s 1849 cholera epidemic.

Here is a taste:

…cholera came to town in January 1849.  It started among the poor. African Americans and immigrants often lived in cramped quarters, with poor sanitation.  They suffered disproportionately then as now. 

But by late spring the disease was spreading.  Calvin was out of town, so Harriet wrote often. Doctors were getting “used up,” she said. There weren’t enough hearses to haul away the bodies, so farm wagons and furniture trucks were used.  On the streets people burned coal fires, laced with lime and Sulphur to combat the miasma.  One hundred and sixteen people died in a day.  Although the mayor proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer, the bars were so packed that drinkers went out to the streets and imbibed next to coffins awaiting transport.

Then Charley got sick….

Read the entire piece here.

The Lockmasters of the Muskingum

 

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Muskingum River Canal at Zanesville (Wikimedia Commons)

Atlas Obscura is running Dylan Taylor-Lehman’s really interesting piece on the canals of the Muskingum River in Ohio and the lockmaster who run them.  Here is a taste:

 

THE MIGHTY MUSKINGUM RIVER WINDS 112 miles through southeastern Ohio, from Coshocton to Marietta, where it flows into the Ohio and, in turn, the even-mightier Mississippi. The Muskingum was, for decades, a critical route for the movement of people and goods in the region, though today it’s almost exclusively used by pleasure boaters. As the river bends around downtown Zanesville, a small city with an emerging art scene in the gentlest foothills of the Appalachians, there’s a dam, one of 10 on the river. Boaters who want to pass it need to steer toward an old but well-maintained canal on the eastern side of the river, and grab the attention of a man sitting in a small wooden shack. That’s Tim Curtis, and he’s one of the few full-time lockmasters still manning America’s waterways.

A boat that wants to get past the dam has to rise or drop 15 feet, so the canal is equipped with locks. The Muskingum’s locks are some of the last period-correct examples in the country, Curtis says, and his job has barely changed in 170 years.

Curtis’s shack sits on a narrow, verdant island, approximately 600 yards long, formed where the canal splits off the river and accessible from the town’s three-way Y-Bridge. As a boat approaches, Curtis dons a small lifejacket—“we have to wear these even if we’re mowing”—and grabs the crank handles from the shack, where they are kept under lock and key.

Read the rest here.

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 9

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For previous posts in this series click here.

We began Day 9 in Middletown, Ohio and ended it back in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.   It was an amazing trip and I was blessed to have experienced it with my wife Joy and my youngest daughter Caroline.  We spent a lot of time in the car on the drive home to the Harrisburg area discussing all that we learned.

Thanks to Todd Allen and the staff of Common Ground Project for all of their work in making this tour a success.  I am also happy to report that Messiah College will be the new base of operation for the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour.  Todd will be joining us in the Fall as a professor in the Department of Communications and special assistant to the president for diversity affairs.

Our only stop on Day 9 was the historic Clearview Golf Club in Canton, Ohio.  The golf course was designed and constructed in 1946 by William “Bill” Powell. When Powell returned to Minerva, Ohio after serving in the Air Force during World War II he was banned from all-white golf courses and could not obtain a bank loan to build his own course.  (Powell learned the game as a boy from working at a golf club in Canton. He went on to captain the golf team at Wilberforce University).  He eventually found two doctors willing to help him buy a piece of farmland in East Canton and went to work on building Clearview Golf Club.  He worked on the course during the day and, in order so support his family, worked as a security guard from 3-11pm.  In 1948 Clearview opened as an integrated course–the only course in the United States designed, constructed, owned, and operated by an African American.  Here is a USGA video on Powell and Clearview:

Our host at Clearview was Powell’s daughter Renee Powell, the club professional.  Renee spent thirteen years (1967-1980) on the LPGA tour and was the second black golfer to play on the tour. (Althea Gibson was the first).  Since then she has been an ambassador for golf around the world.

Here are some more pics:

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with Renee Powell at Clearview Golf Club

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My Visit to Marietta College

I am writing from Marietta, Ohio where I have been spending some time with the History Department at Marietta College.

On Tuesday night I gave a public lecture on Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  The McDonough Auditorium on campus was mostly filled with students, faculty, and members of the community.  (The college president, provost, and assistant provost were also in attendance).  I was glad to hear that my book is being used in two classes this semester–a course on the American founding era and a sophomore historical methods seminar. 

As is usually the case when I give these talks, the members of the audience were full of questions, both following the lecture and at the book table.  One young man asked me if I thought an atheist would ever be elected President of the United States and, if there was an atheist elected, would he/she swear on the Bible during the inauguration ceremony.  One guy asked a “question” that consisted of him reading aloud a passage from a book called The 5000 Year Leap.  Yet another audience member asked the following question: “Roe v. Wade?”   (Yes, you read that correctly.  He basically uttered the name of the famous Supreme Court case using an interrogative inflection and somehow expected me to answer him).  These things sometimes happen when you are on the road asking people to consider whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. 

I spent the day learning about the Marietta History Department, the rich early American history of the town of Marietta (which was the first settlement in the old Northwest Territory and the site of some amazing native American earthworks), the college’s special collections library (which houses the complete papers of the Ohio Company among other gems), and plans to create an early American center with a strong public history dimension. It looks like some very exciting things are happening on the latter front and I was honored to be able to help the faculty refine their vision for such an initiative.

Thanks to Matt Young and the rest of the History Department (it was good to see Andy Wehrman again) for their gracious hospitality during my visit.  I had some delicious spicy shrimp soup at Austyn’s, experienced the local breakfast flavor at The Busy Bee, and tried some Jeni’s ice cream (Pistachio) at The Buckley House.