Built on Broken Families

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.

# # #


At the Fishtrap Gathering this weekend, writer Luis Alberto Urrea talked about the border. He’d written a non-fiction book, The Devil’s Highway, about 26 from Vera Cruz who crossed the border in 2001—twelve made it, and fourteen died in the trying. The book was a Pulitzer finalist and has just been reprinted in a tenth anniversary edition. The story is lauded by many, even by border patrollers, but there is no political purchase or acknowledgement.
He’s followed it with a novel called Into the Beautiful North, which deals somewhat playfully with Mexican villages where mass exoduses of men have left villages of women, young children, and oldsters. Is it an easier way of looking at things?
In seriousness, in a panel on the multi-cultural future, Luis asked the audience to imagine how desperate parents in El Salvador or Honduras must be to gather last resources, give them to a smuggler, and hope that a child makes it to the beautiful north. We’re talking, he said, not about an immigration problem, but about desperation and a refugee problem of major and international proportions. 
All of which reminded me that in my reading of early European settlers among the Indians of North America there is always an undercurrent of desperation. We think and talk of rugged and heroic individuals, but the reality was more often young, scared, and hungry men being chased by circumstances to find something better.
They came to the new world—fleeing the Little Ice Age they couldn’t name but the drought and hunger they felt—as indentured servants, brought to the dock by desperate parents who signed them over to ships’ captains to be auctioned for servitude in Virginia or Massachusetts. With time—two years or five or seven—they might get freedom and a purchase on land or property of their own. The women, chained by marriage and children and living in fear of death by childbirth and death of children, followed on.
And their children, not indentured, but often poor, would push further West. And the companies—fur companies, railroads, charters—would tell them that “rain followed the rails,” that beaver were as thick as cats, that there was gold to be had, that there was “free” land—land stolen from Indians that could be “pre-empted” by Oregon Country settlers beginning in 1841, or homesteaded across the West after 1862.
The men who sold the furs in Europe, made the Levis in California, and owned the railroads everywhere made the money. But the rest of us—our parents and grandparents—at least many of us, hung on and created a country.

And now the rest of us—many of us at least—want to shut the door that opened for our hungry grandparents. How often do we think about those parents who sent our grandparents—or great grandparents—off to an unknown, but just maybe better, future? How do we forget so easily?
# # #

Indentured servants and other old world influences on the new

1738 Indenture contract signed with an X

I was looking for information on Scottish indentured workers in America—remembering something from Charles Mann’s book, 1491, about indentured Scotsmen dying of malaria on southern plantations  so quickly that owners turned to African slaves. Googling around, I realized that my memories had simplified the story, but, as always, I bumped into other facts and ideas that, meshed with current interests and reading and rereading Josephy, have me relearning U.S. history.
I didn’t remember learning much about indentured workers at all on my first, school-time run through American history. Certainly not that as many as 80 percent of white immigrants to North America—those from the British Isles and the Continent—from the early 1600s to the Revolution, were indentured. Feeding and keeping the laborers shipboard cost more than a year’s plowman’s wages in England, some workers did not survive the long voyage, and there was no international banking system to broker labor contracts and amortize the risks of the voyage, so old world Fathers would take teenage sons and daughters to the docks and sign their lives over to a ship’s captain, who would sell them with a labor contract on the American end. The fathers weren’t paid, but, as with parents forever, were looking for a better life for their children.
Terms of indenture were most often from four to seven years, depending on labor needs, health and skills of the immigrant. A good prospect might serve less time; maybe even gain some wages or promise of a few acres of land at term’s end in addition to food and shelter. The freemen went on to build farms and enter trades of their own, joining the burgeoning colonial economy. As a footnote, I found less information about the women involved in these transactions—other than the fact that they were there, and brief mention of domestic servants. One wonders at the numbers—were they roughly equal? Did men send for sisters, wives, and sweethearts as they became established? Again, women’s roles and stories are hidden and submerged behind those of fathers, brothers, and husbands.
How Scotsmen figured into this equation had something to do with events in the old world. In the mid-1600s, at the time of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms—English and Scottish civil wars, Irish Rebellion, Cromwell and all that—the numbers of Irish and Scots who gambled on New World indenture apparently rose dramatically.  And, by the way, according to the “History Detective’s” website, black Africans followed indentured servants to Jamestown by about a decade—in 1619—and were initially treated as indentured servants. It didn’t last long. Slave laws were enacted in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661.
Events in the Old World always influenced what happened in the Western hemisphere. The Dutch were early entrants into North America and the fur and slave trades. Their trading and imperialism played out over the world stage, and Dutch interests in North America were bargained away with the British as part of bigger deals that included South American holdings. For years, from the French and Indian War through the Revolution and the War of 1812, North America was a battlefield in larger conflicts between France and England, and Native Americans were immediately caught up in their disputes.  As tribes most often joined the French in these battles—it  was of course always complicated, as intertribal relations and local conditions and the personalities of British and French actors entered into Indian decisions—one wonders how history would have played out for them had the French played a stronger and longer hand.
In fact, I can’t resist the urge to generalize and speculate further. It seems to me that the Dutch were primarily merchants and traders—easily shoved aside as the colonies developed. The French were traders and adventurers with a romantic bent. There were French settlers too, but not in the numbers that came from the British Isles. And it was the French philosophers who rhapsodized about Indians in the “state of nature,” and French trappers who traversed the continent and left Cajun and Metis cultures—blends of the old world and the new—in their wake. But New France, which begins with Cartier on the St. Lawrence in 1534, well in front of English colonization, was gone in 1763—traded away to Spain and Great Britain.
The English, Irish, and Scots—farmers, merchants, and indentured servants fleeing poor working, religious, and governing conditions—came early in large numbers and they came to settle. And to set farming, business, religion, and politics right. Somewhere in this seventeenth century mix are the seeds of Anglo-American Manifest Destiny, that unique blend of hutzpah and cultural superiority that said that this group was going to–and should–set the agenda for North America.. 
Even the Germans, who comprised the largest immigrant group by far in the nineteenth century, contented themselves with ethnic farming communities in the Midwest and “little Germanys” in Milwaukee, St. Louis, New York, and even Texas. The German immigrants brought their beer, foods, religions, and languages—and they held on to them as long and hard as they could. 
But they—and it seems just about everyone else—have left governance and the ideas of governance to the British. It is a very small way in which the Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Russian Jews, Korean Presbyterians, and scores of smaller ethnic groups and their German towns, Chinatowns, and little Vietnams have been and are on the same side of the assimilationist equation as are the original Americans.
# # #