The View Through Different Eyes

Barbara Hensley, late 19th century

Barbara Hensley, late 19th century

 

There is a meme seen on social media, showing a large deer in the middle of a road enclosed by woods.

Under the photo are the words “The deer is not crossing the road. A road is crossing his forest.”

I often come back to this idea when considering American history.

What we are reading, seeing, believing, remembering, and forgetting depends entirely on whose eyes through which we are viewing things.

When history is only a list of powerful men, then the first word we think of is “president” when we hear the names Washington or Lincoln.

It is human nature to be lazy when assigning names, labels, and meanings to things…and people.

 

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By becoming the first president of the USA, Washington became an icon, a symbol upon which people hung all of their ideas about the meaning of the word “president”.

And that’s it.  “George Washington” = “First President”.

Yet anyone who knew him during the 57 years before he became a head of state in 1789 would have known a completely different man to the “symbol” created by 230 years of projection and myth-making.

Standing in the shoes of someone who knew the pre-presidency Washington, we see first and foremost a cartographer, surveyor, and land speculator.

Put in the bluntest possible terms, from the time of his service to the crown in the 1750s French and Indian War, Washington saw soldiery, surveying, and map-making as a way to acquire “title” to vast tracts of land.

Whether fighting for or against the British, his eye remained firmly fixed on the main prize – access to land.

And more land.

When the British and French reached peace terms after the 1750s, the British issued a proclamation stating that Cherokee and other tribal lands to the west were to remain unsettled and unmolested by American colonists.  This was not so much a reflection of British benevolence, but an attempt to leave native territories as a form of buffer between lands claimed by Britain, France, and Spain.

This was a cause for some alarm in the mind of our overly-acquisitive Mr. Washington, who had already hatched clear plans for the Indian country.

In a letter to a fellow surveyor in 1767, Washington was explicit when he wrote:

“…I can never look upon the Proclamation in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians. It must fall, of course, in a few years, especially when those Indians consent to our occupying those lands. Any person who neglects hunting out good lands, and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own, in order to keep others from settling them will never regain it. If you will be at the trouble of seeking out the lands, I will take upon me the part of securing them, as soon as there is a possibility of doing it and will, moreover, be at all the cost and charges surveying and patenting the same . . . . By this time it be easy for you to discover that my plan is to secure a good deal of land. You will consequently come in for a handsome quantity.”

Seen in this light, the motivations for elites such as George Washington taking-up arms against the British Crown become rather more complex.

 

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When Washington assumed office in 1789, the non-indigenous population of Kentucky stood at around 72,000 squatters, settlers, and colonisers.

By the time he died 10 years later, Kentucky’s population had swelled to over 221,000.

To encourage settlement, land speculators promised a pre-surveyed “empty land” of natural riches. Kentucky was characterised as a rarely-visited “neutral hunting ground”, uninhabited by indigenous peoples.

This was all a lie, of course.

Cherokee.  Chickasaw.  Delaware.  Mosopelea.  Shawnee.  Wyandot.  Yuchi.  French.  French Métis.

All of these people were already present in Kentucky, and the land speculators knew it full well.

They would leave it to the settlers to defend this land sold “with title”.

 

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The myth persists to this day in the minds of many Americans that the Indians of Kentucky were only itinerant hunters, and that they either “sold their rights”, or eventually “moved-on” from “white” encroachment.

In fact, many, many indigenous people remained, reduced to an impoverished underclass in their own homeland as their communities fragmented under pressure.

Indigenous American women were particularly vulnerable, with many becoming widowed “consorts” to incoming settlers, due to extreme poverty and the scarcity of “white” women during those earliest frontier days.

All of this would have been largely forgotten, except for a few things: the digital revolution, affordable DNA testing, folklore, and a few ragged surviving photographs.

So now, when we read an obituary notice from a newspaper published in 1909, mentioning the passing of old “Mrs. Barrett” – born “Barbara Hensley” in 1830 – it is possible and necessary to consider that some women were not quite who we presume them to have been.

 

#beforewewerewhite #oldmixamericans #georgewashington #landspeculation #indigenousamericans

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