Thursday, April 6, 2017

Christina Snyder's "Great Crossings"

Christina Snyder is Thomas and Kathryn Miller Associate Professor of History at Indiana University. She is the author of the award-winning Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America.

Snyder applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson, and reported the following:
My new book retells the story of Jacksonian America. Often the history of this era focuses on whites who turned west to conquer a continent. This story, instead, begins in the interior of the continent and looks outward to reorient our perspective and broaden our gaze. It includes Indians who faced east and met Americans in the middle and African Americans who challenged the empire of liberty to live up to its rhetoric. These diverse people converged in an experimental community in Kentucky called Great Crossings, which was home to a famous interracial family and the first federally-controlled Indian school. Here, America’s diverse peoples articulated new visions of the continent’s future. However, these visions were often at odds, as page 99 reveals.

“The trouble began, as it often did, in the dining hall.” There, the Native students of the federal school, Choctaw Academy, were served by enslaved African Americans owned by the school’s proprietor, Richard Mentor Johnson. Johnson, a prominent politician who later became vice president, believed that Choctaw Academy would enhance his career, but he also used the school to covertly educate Adaline and Imogene, the daughters he shared with his long-term African American concubine Julia Chinn. Unlike most white fathers of enslaved children, Johnson eventually emancipated his daughters as well as a few of their relatives. Meanwhile, Chinn instilled in her daughters and nieces middle-class American values, hoping this would enhance their status after emancipation. Chinn, who oversaw Johnson’s estate while he served in Congress, assigned her relatives work that kept them away from the harsher—and less stereotypically feminine—labor of the fields and mills. Several served as waitstaff in the dining hall, where they “wore neat country dresses.” Indeed, some local whites complained that the waitstaff “dressed too fine,” but Chinn tailored their uniforms to mirror the look of “other respectable women in rural Kentucky.”

To the waitstaff, “students complained bitterly and often of the inferior coffee,” which one upperclassman characterized as “mixed with rye” and “badly prepared.” The students of Choctaw Academy came from distinguished families in Indian country, and they read meaning into food. Several complained that “inferior coffee,” “fatty bacon,” and “tough mutton” were not just unappealing—they were inappropriate for young gentlemen. They should have blamed Richard Johnson, ever the penny-pincher, but the students took their frustrations out the waitstaff. Verbal attacks became physical as the students rioted, “dashing coffee” and “throwing stones” at the dining hall staff.

The coffee riot, which happened in early 1830, reveals much about how the Jacksonian era transformed North America. As biological notions of race hardened, Jackson’s Indian removal policy sought to expel Indians from their homelands to make way for the rising US empire. The enslavement of African Americans expanded, and free people of color lost many of the gains of the Revolutionary generation. In this context, the Indian gentlemen and black ladies of Great Crossings turned to class and its trappings (in this case, food, clothing, and labor roles) as a strategy to preserve or enhance status in a changing world. Sometimes this led to collaboration—students and slaves ran away together, for example—but, as page 99 suggests, the problems posed by early US imperialism often led the people of Great Crossings to take divergent paths.
Learn more about Great Crossings at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Slavery in Indian Country.

--Marshal Zeringue