One of the earliest stories of white-Indian interaction in North America is that of Squanto, a Patuxet Indian taken captive by English explorer Thomas Hunt in 1614 and sold as a slave in Spain. Tisquantum—his real name—escaped and made his way back to Cape Cod through England. He had picked up English along the way, a skill that would prove valuable when the Mayflower landed and the newcomers needed help with agriculture and the ways of the new world. Unfortunately, Squanto, whose tribe had completely succumbed to diseases brought ashore by European fishermen, who was valued and praised by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford, did not live long, just long enough to show the colony food caches, seeds, fertilizer and fields.
The violence in Squanto’s capture and demise was caused by slavery and disease, harbingers of continuing interrelationships between the misnamed Indians and the European newcomers from that day forward. A third tool of dismemberment of the native societies was armed force, the use of guns and powder, as the Euro-Americans marched across the continent.
Here’s the time to point out that the earliest Europeans were WASPS, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, because disease, slavery, and physical force have often been wielded against other “white” immigrants as well as resident tribal people and imported African slaves. And the common theme in all cases is that the break-up of family and tribe was critical in the WASP hold on power as it pursued its Manifest Destiny.
We know the story of slave markets, of selling off children and spouses and arranged breeding of more slaves. We’re less likely to think of the indentured white servants, sent to America by distraught parents living in poverty—often drought related in the time of the Little Ice Age—as a means of giving them some small chance at life. They came singly with ships’ captains auctioning them off for 4, 5, or 7 years of servitude to recapture the cost of their passage. Over half of the European immigrants from the Mayflower to the Revolution—almost 200 years worth—were indentured servants. In other words, single, mostly young, white girls and boys ripped from families to start new lives on their own.
I can find no good numbers on the number of European immigrants, and the number of indentured servants, but adding numbers from various sources says it must have been more than 200,000, so over 100,000 from broken families. And in one place found a number of over 20,000 Irish alone.
For whatever reason, the number of Africans coming to the new world is easier to find. Here, down to the 100s, is a figure for the period 1700-1775: an “estimated 278,400 Africans” were brought to the new WASP world. The point in all of this is that the first 200 years of the United States of America owed its building to broken families.
And it didn’t stop there. While a flood of immigrants from Western European countries came from Civil War through the end of the 19th century, the government, promoting programs of westward expansion and settlement with grants to railroads and eventually the Homestead Act, actively cleared the country of Indians, breaking up tribes and families with wars and, beginning in the 1880s, boarding schools, where children were torn from families and stripped of their language and culture.
But even the Europeans who moved west became or resulted in broken families. Many of the women wanted to stay near families that had become rooted on farms and in towns across the East and Midwest. But the promise of free land and a patriarchal society that put husbands and fathers in charge of their nuclear families moved them west.
Italians, Greeks, the Irish, and Eastern European Jews filled eastern cities and did establish and rely on extended families, which grew into clans that in many cases dominated local politics, business, and even crime. Some accounts say that this—the enclaves of Eastern and Southern Europeans—drove WASPS west and promulgated the idea of Manifest Destiny. Owen Wister and his ilk thought themselves the tip on civilization’s arrow, which they had picked up from the fading British Empire.
But the WASPs could not do it alone. Some did bring slaves with them, but the quest for slave states was lost to the Civil War, and the westering WASPs soon turned to Asian workers. The Chinese and Japanese who came to work on railroads, to mine, and to farm came primarily as single men. The Chinese sent money from Gold Mountain back to China; the Japanese, having fled a small land with growing population, sent home for “picture brides.”
Families made their way on the Oregon Trail. But the white west attracted adventurous men, the fur traders, loggers, and fishermen. The trappers often married or took in Indian women. On an island near Seattle, a man named Mercer sent east for factory working women to come meet potential husbands in the fishermen and lumberjacks on what would become Mercer Island. It’s said that white men outnumbered white women in the region 10-1. The Puget Sound was not settled by families.
The Indian story is the dreariest. Along with boarding schools came the Dawes Allotment Act, which allotted reservation lands to individual Indians. They were to pay taxes and could, after 25 years, sell it to whites. The connections of extended families and tribes were frayed, and the attack on Indian families continued through the 1950s, when Eisenhower sought to “solve” the Indian “problem” by terminating tribal reservations completely, and a “relocation” program which moved young Indians to cities with a bus ticket and a few bucks towards a job or school. The policies failed, and the remnant urban Indians today are sometimes reconnecting with tribal roots and land.
When we come that far forward in time, to WW 2 and its aftermath, the jumble of urban whites from the East had mixed up the West, while the Mexican Braceros—men recruited to work while western farmers went to war, were herded back to Mexico, and the country has invented and reinvented migrant labor programs to harvest our crops ever since. Sometimes migrants travel as families, sometimes as individuals, but in any case they are broken from any previous lives as stable families who lived and grew in one place over time.
New immigrants to the country, whether they come individually or as families, are coming to a world that is dominated by individualism, where grandparents, cousins, extended families and tribes are here still—but often struggle against the forces that have broken families in the names of progress and nation building for over 500 years.
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