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From the History News Network 

  • A painting depicting the construction of a fort at Jamestown, close to Fort Comfort, from National Park Service



    Reckoning with the past is never easy. We’ve seen this in the United States and the United Kingdom this summer, as British universities grapple with their connections to the wealth and human suffering resulting from transatlantic enslavement, and Americans debate the historical meaning of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English North America. 


    Commemorating the 400th anniversary of what the English colonizer John Rolfe described as the “20 and odd Negroes” (a number that was actually closer to 30) has dominated social media and the summer’s newscycle. But there’s an aspect of this commemorative activity that hasn’t received much attention. I refer specifically to the violence that occurred at Point Comfort less than a decade before the slave ship White Lion made anchor in August 1619. On that spot, a bloody event worthy of historical introspection took place: the massacre of the Kikotan Indians.That bloody event is important because it made it possible for the English to take Native lands and build Fort Henry and Fort Charles. The Kikotan massacre prepared the ground for the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia.


    The history of English North America and what became the United States is a complex and often-violent story involving the enslavement of African peoples and the territorial dispossession and genocide of Native American communities. This is an uncomfortable history and neither the British nor Americans have fully reconciled itwith the contemporary economic, political, and social dimensions of their respective societies.


    Most Americans don’t like to think about genocide as a foundational part of US history, while the English certainly don’t view their forebears as capable of perpetrating the mass killing of indigenous people. However, historian Jeffrey Ostler makes a compelling case for how genocide is woven into the fabric of North American history in his most recent book, Surviving Genocide. In Virginia, English colonization sparked dramatic population declines among Native American communities. While Virginia Indians numbered about 50,000 in 1607, by the early twentieth century, only a little over 2,000 remained.


    But did the English initiate a genocide against Virginia’s Indian people? To answer this question it’s important to define genocide. The United Nations defined genocide in 1948 as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Genocide can involve killing members of a group, causing “serious bodily or mental harm,” deliberately creating conditions designed to physically destroy a group “in whole or in part,” imposing measures that prevent births, and forcibly transferring children out of one group and to another. 


    This definition describes not only the “founding” of Virginia but the course of US history and its relationship to Native America. Importantly, the genocide of Virginia Indians didn’t occur within a discrete time period and under well-established bureaucratic conditions; genocide in Virginia unfolded slowly over a period of decades.


    The opening act in the tragedy of Native land loss, attacks on indigenous culture and language, the separation of children from families, and the physical destruction of entire communities, began in 1607 when English ships passed through the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The English aboard those vessels passed lands belonging to the Accomac, Nansemond, Warraskoyaak, and Kikotan (or Kecoughtan) people. These weren’t the first European ships the region’s Native people saw, but the English were different: they were determined to stay. This wasn’t good news for the Kikotan. They’d once numbered as many as 1,000, but by 1608 the English estimated that the Kikotanhad as few as 20 fighting men and perhaps a total population of no more than 60. The Kikotan had been reduced to a small community vulnerable to external attacks. Joining the Powhatan Chiefdom, albeit by force, under the leadership of Wahunsenacawh (Chief Powhatan) offered a degree of protection from both European and Native American violence and captive raids.


    In the spring of 1608, though, the English probably didn’t seem like much of a threat to the Kikotans because the English were starving. Although the Kikotans and other Native communities provided the English with small parcels of food, in the spring of 1608 the English were on the verge of abandoning Jamestown. The colonizers were saved, however, by the arrival of supply vessels from England.


    The English recognized they couldn’t sustain a colony that relied on supply ships from England. They needed to make changes. One of those changes was establishing trade relationships with Virginia Indians. An Englishman by the name of John Smith helped to initiate trade talks. Smith was an ambitious man determined to make a name for himself in Virginia. Unfortunately for Smith, the Kikotan “scorned” his advances to engage in trade talks, allegedly mocking him for his inability to feed himself. Smith wasn’t amused. He immediately let “fly his muskets,” whereupon the Kecoughtan “fled into the woods.”


    Such incidents seem small and petty when viewed in isolation. However, these types of encounters grew in regularity and fueled mutual mistrust along Virginia’s Anglo-Indian frontier. 


    That mistrust grew between 1609 and 1611 when the English made plans to build forts and establish homesteads on indigenous lands at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The Kikotan need only look across the bay to see how English homesteads had started to displace Nanesmond families. English intentions were clear. Slowly, methodically, a genocide was unfolding.


    Two factors overlapped to result in the genocide of the Kikotan people. First, English colonizers began establishing homesteads on Kikotan lands. Just as they did among the Nansemond, English land use practices were designed to sever indigenous people from their crops, sacred spaces, and homes. 


    Second, violence played an important role in eliminating the remaining Kikotan people from their homelands at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. In 1610, the English moved aggressively against the Kikotans. This sudden English assertiveness was in response to Kikotans aligning with neighboring indigenous tribes in opposition to the construction of English forts – including the fort that witnessed the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia. By early July, 1610, Sir Thomas Gates, the governor of Virginia, was “desyreous for to be Revendged upon the Indyans att Kekowhatan” for their opposition to English colonial expansion.


    Colonial officials initiated a plan to “drive” the remaining “savages” from the land. The violence directed against the Kikotan people in July 1610 became known as the Kikotan massacre. The exact number of Kikotan deaths is unknown. Those who did survive the massacre fled their homelands and took refuge among neighboring indigenous communities. The Kikotan’s connection to their homeland was lost.  


    For the Kikotans, the physical and psychological toll of the 1610 massacre were compounded by English actions in the proceeding years.  To reinforce the sense of loss that Kikotan people undoubtedly felt, the Virginia General Assembly agreed to “change the savage name of Kicowtan” to Elizabeth City in 1611. The Kecoughtan name remained to demarcate the foreshore, but in 1619 English families pushed to have the Kikotan erased from memory and the Corporation of Elizabeth City established. As the “20 and odd negroes” stepped onto Virginia should, the colonizers were writing their name over a Native landscape.


    The English were changing the landscape that Virginia’a Indians had nurtured for as long as anyone could remember. When Wahunsenacawh died in 1618, less than a year before the White Lion set anchor at Port Comfort, Opechancanough, Chief Powhatan’s brother, took up the fight against English incursions into Powhatan homelands. 


    Over the next two decades, violence between English colonizers and Powhatan warriors broke out in fits and starts throughout Virginia. The English, however, weren’t leaving. In 1624 Virginia was declared a royal colony and Native people continued to use violence to prevent the growing number of colonizers from squeezing them off their homelands. 


    Virginia’s Indians were up against a determined foe. Governor Wyatt’s response to Indian resistance in the 1620s captured both the intent and determination of the English: “to root out [the Indians] from being any longer a people.”


    Wyatt’s words are chilling. They reveal that prior to a treaty between the Powhatan and English in 1646, guerrilla-style warfare punctuated life in Virginia. So long as this fighting continued the English would take no quarter with their enemies. Native people, reduced in numbers and confined to reservations by the 1650s, suffered traumas that live on today in the stories Virginia Indian’s tell about seventeenth-century English colonizers. 


    In remembering 1619 it’s right to reflect on the lives of the African people who disembarked from the White Lion on the traditional homelands of the Kikotans. We should also remember the loss of indigenous life in Virginia, losses that grew as the decades unfolded. We need not look too far beyond the events of 1610 and 1619 to see how the English treated Native resistance to their expansive plans for a settler colonial society supported by plantations and the exploitation of unfree labor. 


    At the end of September, Norfolk State University in Virginia will host academics, journalists, and community members at a summit called “1619: The Making of America.” Sponsored by American Evolution, the summit will undoubtedly provide a forum for reflecting on Virginia’s past. I also hope that in trying to understand the “Making of America” we remember that English (and ultimately, United States) colonialism was (and is) built not only with the labor of stolen bodies from Africa, but the stolen lands of Native Americans. 




    We remember them: the East German church peace prayer meetings that, 30 years ago, grew and grew, spilling out into the streets and setting in motion protests too large for the government to contain. That November, the protests led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It feltlike the victory of peace prayer participants over a ruthless regime. But for four decades, the Stasi had managed to prevent that very outcome.


    Ever since East Germany’s birth on 7 October 1949, the country’s churches had been the regime’s particular foe. Not only did they represent a worldview at odds with the atheism the regime stood for; they also had countless connections to fellow Christians abroad, including in Western countries. On top of that, one of the country’s denominations – the Lutheran Church – was a powerful institution, comprising not just a large part of the population but also pastors prepared to speak out against the government. When the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security, was created in 1950, keeping an eye on the country’s churches and their members became one of its central tasks.


    How do you keep an eye on Christians to prevent them from voicing demands such as free and fair elections? The Soviet Union took a brutal approach, sending countless Christians to penal camps on trumped-up charges. The Stasi’s church department, by contrast, opted for a more cunning approach (after a relatively brief Soviet-inspired experiment). “Let them pray, let them sing, but they shouldn’t do politics,” Joachim Wiegand told me. 


    You have probably never heard of Wiegand. That’s because he was a Stasi officer, a man operating in the shadows. During the final decade of the German Democratic Republic’s existence, he led the Stasi’s church department, called Department XX/4. He has never before been interviewed for a book; like most Stasi officers, he – probably correctly – surmises that any interviewer will misconstrue his words. To my great surprise, Wiegand agreed to be interviewed for my new book about Department XX/4’s activities, God’s Spies (published by Eerdmans on September 17). Wiegand and I spent countless hours together, discussing every detail of how Department XX/4 worked to prevent East Germany’s Christians from doing politics. After that initial period of focusing on punishment, Department XX/4 mostly relied on seduction. It got clerics – from bishops to pastors-in-training – and other Christians to become agents.


    Imagine the setting: a secret police agency, staffed by men with impeccable proletarian credentials but no church connections, trying to convince pastors to join the Stasi as agents. (The Stasi’s word for such undercover agents was Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter, IM.) Like other Department XX/4 officers, Wiegand – a former farmhand who had been one of the first graduates of the Stasi’s training school – learnt churches’ terminology and structures. He identified which pastors could be suitable recruitment targets: perhaps they were frustrated with the slow advancement of their careers; perhaps they wanted advantages such as foreign trips. Before even making the initial contact with a pastor, Wiegand and his colleagues had conducted thorough research on the potential recruit, aided by input from existing IMs.


    When a pastor had signed on the dotted line, he reported on whichever setting he found himself in. Some pastors needed more guidance from their case officers than others as to what sort of material might be useful to the Stasi, but the result was a vast collection of reports. Pastors reported on members of their congregations, on their fellow clerics, on international faith organizations. They told Department XX/4 which decisions church leaders were planning to make; sometimes they even influenced those decisions in a Stasi-friendly direction. And all along, they had to worry about other pastor agents in their midst. Because nobody knew who else was working for the Firm, everyone might be doing so. It was a hall of mirrors. And all along, Department XX/4 collected the agents’ reports. Nothing was too small to be documented, not even the style of beards certain theology students wore: it indicated a willingness to rebel against the regime.


    But despite their frequently gossipy reports, the pastor agents were instrumental to the survival of the German Democratic Republic. Because churches formed the country’s only semi-independent space, opposition-minded citizens of all stripes took refuge in churches’ seminaries, their environmental groups, their peace prayer meetings. If the Stasi was to prevent discontent from festering in churches around the country, its pastor agents had to keep a very close eye indeed on their fellow Christians. 


    In God’s Spies, I follow the ecclesiastical-and-intelligence careers of four of those pastor agents. One, an academic who felt overlooked, spied for career purposes, badmouthing his peers while touting his own horn. Another became a rare pastor agent on permanent foreign assignment. A third masterfully combined a career as a pastor-and-church journalist with undercover duties; all in the name of helping his country survive. As East Germany was collapsing, an American Christian magazine published an article by the pastor, its editors clearly in the dark about his dual affiliation. A fourth pastor deviously infiltrated Western Bible-smuggling groups, preventing the books from reaching their destination and endangering the lives of the intended recipients.


    Department XX/4 achieved great success: without its infiltration of every corner of East German Christianity, the church-led protests would likely have gained steam much earlier. Would the Berlin Wall have fallen earlier too? It is, of course, impossible to tell. But through their diligent work, the Stasi’s pastor agents – who have never before been the subject of an English-language non-fiction book – played a vital role in helping the German Democratic Republic limp along until its 40th birthday. On that day, Mikhail Gorbachev dutifully attended his fellow Socialists’ proud celebrations. Two days later, on October 9, record numbers of Leipzigers attended the peace prayer meetings in their city, then marched through the city. A month after that, the Berlin Wall fell. No snooping in the world could have saved a country as unwanted by its citizens as East Germany.

  • Last week, Trump tweeted a “Trump 2024” sign. 



    In a view shared by many, it is easy to believe that what Donald Trump really wants is not to be president of the country, but dictator of it. 


    Indeed, he has suggested how good it might be for him to enjoy a third term, perhaps more, even though the Constitution forcefully forbids it. 


    In a Fathers Day tweet he fantasized over the possibility, suggesting the public might “demand” that he serve a third term. The [good news], he wrote, “is that at the end of six years, after America has been made GREAT again and I leave the beautiful White House  (do you think the people would demand that I stay longer? KEEP AMERICA GREAT)….”  


    After Chinese president Xi Jingping abolished term limits in his own country, Trump said he liked the sound of that. “President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have give that a shot some day.” Just joking? It is not all that laughable. [The quotes in these two paragraphs are from an article by Gabrielle Bruney in Esquire, July 16, 2019. They have also appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post.]


    So what does a wannabe dictator who wants to give that a shot some day have to do day-by-day to reach his miserable goal? And how is Trump measuring up?


    It is not an easy jump from democracy to dictatorship in our country. There is that dratted Constitution in the way. There are laws to be violated. There are critics, opponents, Democrats, immigrants, and the unfaithful to be purged.There is the critical mainstream media to be done away with. There are many lies to be told. It is hard, nasty work and Trump is fast running out of time. 


    A dictator must as soon as possible, by any means, shut down the media or control it. No dictatorship can exist in the presence of a free press. So far Trump has only been able to call the media names—”the fake news media,” “the enemy of the people,” “the opposition party.” From the time of announcing his candidacy to the end of his second year in office he had tweeted 5,400 times. Some 1,339 of those tweets were attacks of some kind on the media or individual reporters. This doesn’t count the times he has harangued the media in his speeches. He has turned many of his supporters into media haters like himself. 


    He is particularly incensed by the Washington Post and the New York Times, both of them highly critical of him. He has said that in the event that the public did demand  that he stay, “both of these horrible papers will quickly go out of business & be forever gone!”


    A dictator must be an avid hater of some minority group and wanting to purge it. Trump hates Muslims. He is not too crazy about blacks and Hispanics either. But there are now many of them, a very tall purging job. On the other side of this coin, Trump seems in no mind to purge white supremacists, who love him as one of their own.


    A dictator must tell lies, lots of lies. Trump is far and away the champion liar in presidential history. It is said by news outlets who keep track of such things, that Trump averages about six lies per day.


    A dictator must be willing to exterminate people, lots of people. Since this is forbidden in a democracy, Trump can only slander them with a tweet or in a speech or fire them. In a successful dictatorship you just shoot anybody you want any time you want. Trump can only fire them, or tweet insults at them. But it is not a far jump to think of Trump’s firings and insults as symbolic exterminations. Nor is it a far leap to think of the would-be immigrants pinned up and families separated on our southern border as concentration camps.


    A dictator often has an affinity with other established dictators. Trump admires and is on friendly footing with two elite of the world’s dictators—Vladimir Putin of the Soviet Union and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea. He has met and spoken kindly of both. And there is that admiration of  China’s Xi Jinping for making himself president for life.


    A dictator is narcissistic, in love with himself and glory seeking, demanding and getting total obedience and acclamation from his followers. In his first cabinet meeting Trump invited each member to praise and celebrate his greatness. He loves his many rallies out in the country, where he basks in the acclamation of his many avid followers, which are said to be a strong third of the country’s population. 


    A dictator is lawless, often pushing the limits of his power. Breaking a law seems meaningless to Trump. Whether intentionally or ignorantly, he has violated a host of laws, many later challenged or overturned by the courts, thwarted by the judiciary. That is why it is so important for Trump and the Republican Party to appoint sympathetic judges to as many courts as possible. As for the Constitution, it can perhaps be questioned whether he has ever read it, much less  whether he worries about violating it.


    A dictator questions the legitimacy of his opponents, demonizing them and curtailing or abolishing their rights. In the 2016 campaign for president, Trump suggested he might not accept the legitimacy of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, if she won the election, and suggested several times that she ought to be thrown in prison. He has tweeted hatred of many of his detractors and has encouraged brutality against anti-Trump demonstrators at his rallies. 


    As a wannabe dictator in training he has been doing reasonably well.


    In an interview conducted in 2002, the late Helen Hornbeck Tanner, an influential historian of the Native American experience in the Midwest best known for her magisterial Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (1987), reflected on the considerable record of “coexistence and cooperation” between African Americans and Indians in the region.  According to Tanner, “[an] important example of African and Indian cooperation was the Indian-operated Underground Railroad.  Nothing about this activity appears in the historical literature.”


    Tanner’s assertion is largely true.  Native American assistance to freedom seekers crossing through the Midwest, then often called the Old Northwest, or seeking sanctuary in Indian villages in the region, has largely been erased from Underground Railroad studies. Two key examples from the historiography of the Underground Railroad demonstrate the extent of that deficiency.  The first volume, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898) by pioneering Underground Railroad historian Wilbur H. Siebert, is still a beginning point for many who investigate efforts to assist freedom seekers in the pre-Civil War Midwest.  Siebert collected testimony from hundreds of participants and witnesses in the struggle and converted this documentary record into a broad and influential work that is still in print.  Exactly two sentences in a work of 358 pages discuss the aid given to freedom seekers by Native Americans, in this case the hospitality afforded at Chief Kinjeino’s village on the Maumee River in northwestern Ohio.  


    Fast forward nearly eleven decades to the second work, perhaps the most extensive and authoritative Underground Railroad interpretation since Siebert.  Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (2005) by journalist and popular historian Fergus Bordewich does only slightly better.  It includes four sentences out of 439 pages on the assistance given to freedom seekers by Native Americans passing through the region, in this case the aid provided to Jermain Loguen and John Farney in northern Indiana and Josiah Henson and his family in northwestern Ohio.  Readers of these two volumes could be excused for thinking that there was little interaction between freedom seekers and Native Americans in the Midwest.


    There are at least two primary reasons for the absence of Native Americans in the historiography of the Underground Railroad. 


    First, both freedom seekers fleeing slavery in the South and the Native Americans who assisted them in the Midwest came from oral cultures.  Scholars of slave literacy estimate that only five to ten per cent of those in bondage could read and write.  Although the percentage might have been slightly higher among those who made their way to freedom, a small minority of freedom seekers had achieved literacy.  Indians across the pre-Civil War Midwest also lived in primarily oral cultures.  Scholars have noted that “oral histories were central to indigenous society,” making use of mnemonic devices and reflected in storytelling.  As a result, both freedom seekers and Native Americans left a limited written record of their interaction.


    Second, local histories, including the large volume of county histories produced across the Midwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, start the clock with white settlement, ignoring Native American contributions generally and particularly those after the War of 1812.  In fact, most of these county histories make it seem as if Native Americans disappeared from the lower Midwest by the end of the War of 1812.  My own investigation of county histories for nearly two dozen counties in northwestern Ohio, an area where Native Americans were the primary population group until the 1830s, shows that Native Americans are largely excluded from this later history.  When the Underground Railroad is mentioned, it consists of white settlers aiding anonymous freedom seekers and is completely a post-settlement phenomenon of the 1840s and 1850s.  This is reflected as well in Siebert’s massive project in the 1890s.  As a result, the interaction of freedom seekers and Native Americans in communities across the Midwest has been obscured.


    In spite of the absence of Native Americans in the historiography of the Underground Railroad, a scattered documentary record exists to demonstrate that freedom seekers received significant assistance from Indians in the pre-Civil War Midwest. There are at least five major evidences of this interaction.


    The first of these evidences is simple geography.  Tiya Miles, who has written extensively about African American-Native American interaction, notes that “the routes that escaping slaves took went by these (Native) communities.”  Examples abound, especially in the lower Midwest.  The Michigan Road, a major thoroughfare for freedom seekers making their way through central Indiana, ran through or past dozens of Potawatomi villages north of the Wabash.  Hull’s Trace and the Scioto Trail ran through or past Ottawa and Wyandot reserves, respectively, in northwestern Ohio.  Another major trail ran through Shawnee villages in western Ohio, before reaching Ottawa villages at Lower Tawa Town and Chief Kinjeino’s Village on the Maumee River.  From about 1800 to 1843, a maroon community of sorts existed at Negro Town in the heart of the Wyandot Grand Reserve on the Sandusky River.  It was peopled by runaway slaves from Kentucky or western Virginia who had followed the Scioto Trail northward.


    A second of these evidences can be found in the slave narratives, autobiographies written by freedom seekers after their escape from bondage.  Several of these tell of assistance received from Native Americans. Two provide particularly instructive content about the Midwest.  Josiah Henson’s narrative traces his and his family’s escape from Kentucky to Upper Canada (contemporary Ontario) in 1830, eventually taking them up Hull’s Trace through the heart of Indian Country in northwestern Ohio.  There they were assisted by Native Americans (probably Wyandot) who fed them “bountifully” and gave them “a comfortable wigwam” to sleep in for the night.  The next day, their Indian companions accompanied them along the route for a considerable distance, before finally pointing them toward the port of Sandusky on Lake Erie, where they could take a vessel across to Upper Canada. Jermain Loguen’s narrative traces his escape with John Farney from Tennessee to Upper Canada in 1835 by way of central Indiana.  North of the Wabash, they were aided at a number of Potawatomi villages, receiving food, shelter, and direction from their Indian hosts.  Upon reaching Michigan Territory, they turned eastward and crossed into Upper Canada.  Both Henson and Loguen later achieved literacy and became well-known black abolitionists.


    A third of these evidences survives in Native American oral tradition.  One of the best examples comes from Ottawa oral tradition in western Michigan.  A story of helping twenty-one freedom seekers to reach Upper Canada was passed down through three generations of the Micksawbay family, before it was finally recorded in print by Ottawa storyteller Bill Dunlop in the book The Indians of Hungry Hollow (2004).  The oral tradition recounts an episode in the 1830s that involved the group of freedom seekers, who had gathered at Blackskin’s Village on the Grand River.  Ottawa elders, fearful that these runaways would be overtaken and captured by slave catchers, and sensing that sending them to Detroit was unsafe at the time, arranged for ten Ottawa men to accompany them overland to the Straits of Mackinac, where they were handed off to friendly Ojibwa.  The latter took them across by canoe to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and then accompanied them overland, crossing into Upper Canada by way of Neebish Island.  Oral history interviews with Native American descendants in the Midwest have also proven useful in establishing elements of this African American-Native American interaction.


    A fourth of these evidences comes from the memoirs, letters, and journals of white traders, trappers, missionaries, and soldiers who lived in or passed through Indian Country in the Midwest and recorded their experiences in textual form.  My own research in northwestern Ohio has located discussions of Native American assistance to freedom seekers in the memoir of trader Edward Gunn and the letters to Siebert by trader Dresden Howard, both of the Maumee River valley, and the letters and journals of Moravian missionaries and U.S. soldiers in the War of 1812 who recounted life in Negro Town. A particularly instructive example appears in the memoir of Eliza Porter of Wisconsin.  She and her husband Jeremiah, missionaries in Green Bay, cooperated with Native Americans on the Stockbridge reservation east of Lake Winnebago in aiding fugitive slaves making their way through eastern Wisconsin to Great Lakes ports in the 1850s.  On one occasion, detailed in Porter’s memoir, they assisted a family of four runaways from Missouri in avoiding slave catchers and bounty hunters said to be “sneaking around” the reservation.  The Stockbridge helped their guests make their way to Green Bay and gain passage on the steamer Michigan, which carried them to freedom in Canada West (formerly Upper Canada).


    A final evidence appears in the bodies of freedom seekers and Native Americans and their descendants. This takes us into the realms of genealogy and the DNA record and particularly applies to those freedom seekers who sought permanent sanctuary in Native American villages in the Midwest. Native American genealogist Don Greene has found extensive evidence of African American ancestry among the Shawnee in the region.  A case in point is Caesar, a Virginia fugitive who escaped across the Appalachian Mountains to the Ohio Country in 1774 and was adopted by the Shawnee.  He married a mixed-race Shawnee woman named Sally and fathered children known to history as “Sally’s white son” and “Sally’s black son” due to their difference in hue.  The latter is still listed as “Sally’s black son” on the roll of Shawnee migrants removed from the reservation at Wapakoneta to the Kansas frontier in 1832.  Similarly, researchers have suggested that the origin of the R-M 173 Y-chromosome among Native Americans, especially Ojibwa in the Great Lakes region, comes from the large number of runaway slaves settling among them.  These are examples from Indian Country in the Midwest of what historian William Loren Katz labels “Black Indians.”


    Some subjects of historical research can be substantiated by investigating a single archive or a few collections in related archives.  The role of Native Americans in assisting freedom seekers in the pre-Civil War Midwest is not one of those subjects.  The latter subject requires the historian to assemble an archive from a range of disparate sources.  The evidence exists, however, to suggest that it can be done.  Simple geography, a few slave narratives, Native American oral tradition, dozens of scattered documents by particularly involved and insightful whites in Indian Country, and genealogy and the DNA record substantiate Tanner’s 2002 observation about Native Americans and the Underground Railroad in the Midwest.


    It may come as a surprise to many Americans to learn that the first country to have its citizens specifically excluded by the U.S. Congress was not Mexico, or a Middle East nation, but China. In 1882, Congress passed the first of several Chinese Exclusion Acts that prevented all immigration of Chinese laborers. These laws were not reversed until 1943, when China was an important ally in the war with Japan. 


    The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum (CHSA) is currently displaying an exhibit, Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, which vividly documents the changing views of Americans towards Chinese immigrants in 19th and 20th century America. The museum, in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, is the oldest organization in the country dedicated to the interpretation of the cultural and political history and contributions of the Chinese in America. 


    Tamiko Wong, the executive director of the CHSA, spoke with the History News Network about the exhibit. Before joining the CHSA, Wong was the Executive Director of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. A graduate of U.C. Berkeley, she is a former Asian Pacific American Women’s Leadership Institute fellow. She has served on the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs and is a recent graduate of Coro’s Women in Leadership program. 



    Q. The current exhibit is very timely. How was it organized? 

    A. Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion was originally curated by the New York Historical Society in 2014. Our museum provided content and paintings for the initial 2014-2015 show in New York. The NYHS originally hoped that the exhibit would travel to different parts of the country, but after one run at the Oregon Historical Society, the New York museum gave it to us in 2016. We were delighted because it is a high quality, interactive exhibition highly relevant to our story. 


    When it arrived in San Francisco, we added more objects from our own collection and refocused it to include more of a West Coast story.  Although there are more than 5 million Chinese in America, we are still a small minority being only about 1.5% of the total population. Our hope for the exhibition is to enlighten visitors on the struggles of immigrants and contributions of Chinese in the U.S. even when citizenship was not an option. We want to contribute to the discussion of what it means to be an American.  


    The exhibit is timely because it clearly shows a pattern we have seen throughout history, not just in the US but elsewhere too. Immigrants are brought in as a source of cheap labor, and have often faced discrimination and harsh conditions. Especially during downturns in the economy, immigrants become scapegoats who are blamed for society’s ills. Racist rhetoric becomes normalized in the media, discriminatory feelings are codified into law, and immigrants face violence and unfair treatment. For Chinese Americans in particular, we have been seen as perpetual foreigners even when many of us are citizens, have fought and died for this country, and have contributed to the building of this country from everything from railroads to some of the civil liberties we currently have such as birthright citizenship. 


    Q. What has been the reaction to the exhibit by the local Chinese community and the broader, regional public? 

    Overall, Chinese American history is not general knowledge. Here in California, even though there are curriculum standards to teach about the Chinese Exclusion Act, I would say 90% of our new visitors know very little about Chinese American history prior to coming to the museum. So often we hear, “I had no idea about what the Chinese went through.” Those who took Asian American studies courses when they were in college may remember some aspects of our history, but the content which we cover in Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion is a very powerful history lesson on immigration policy, discrimination, and resilience. Visitors who leave messages in our comment books express how important it is to have this history shared and how timely it is because of how immigrant and racial issues are discussed today. 


    Q. Most of the exhibit materials were of American origin, including photographs, posters, newspaper clippings. Apparently very few written materials from Chinese immigrants (e.g. diaries, letters, books) have survived. Why is that? 

    I am not sure if the lack of first-hand accounts from letters or diaries is true of all periods in Chinese American history. The lack of letters and diaries is true in the case of Chinese railroad workers during the late 1800s. As reported by professor Gordon Chang, head of Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, despite an extensive search, researchers have been unable to recover first-hand accounts or letters from these workers although many could read and write Chinese.  There are theories about why this is so, for example, many family and historical documents were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in China. In the U.S., many Chinese communities were damaged or destroyed by hostile forces in the late 1800s-early 1900s. And the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed most of this city’s Chinatown.   


    Q. A large section of the exhibition is given over to the role of Chinese American women. One display noted that in 1850 only seven of San Francisco’s 4,000 Chinese residents were women. However, today in San Francisco, the city’s assessor and one of its seven supervisors are Chinese American women. What are the reasons for this dramatic evolution?

    One current section of our museum, Towards Equality: California’s Chinese American Women is devoted to that topic. Unfortunately, this particular display will close in October. 


    To summarize, few Chinese women immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1800s due to patriarchal norms in China that relegated them to their homes and reinforced their inequality. In the U.S. Chinese women were viewed as immoral, and Congress passed the 1875 Page Act that effectively stopped Chinese women from immigrating. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act curtailed the overall number of Chinese immigrants, but ironically created a broader opportunity for Chinese women to come as family members of merchants or American citizens. Over time, the population of Chinese women grew, especially among those born in the U.S. We find that these American-born, English speaking 2nd and 3rd generation women broke with traditional Chinese values and sought independence, mainstream acceptance, and became community activists seeking inclusion by American society. 


    Q. This year, 2019, is also the 150th  anniversary of the transcontinental railroad, in which Chinese workers played an important part. One part of the exhibit notes that a delegation to the 1969 Centennial celebration was snubbed by Nixon’s Transportation Secretary. 

    I was proud to have been present at the transcontinental railroad’s sesquicentennial celebration held on May 10, 2019 in Utah (also known as Spike 150).  This fulfilled a mission begun in 1969 by then CHSA President Phil Choy. He was initially asked to speak at the centennial celebration, but at the last minute he was removed and replaced with actor John Wayne.  To add insult to injury, Transportation Secretary John Volpe said in his keynote address, “Who else but Americans could chisel through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid 10 miles of track?” 


    This was an insult to the memory of Chinese immigrants who actually performed these feats yet could not become citizens at this time due to racist laws. 


    Q. What are the next steps for the exhibit and the CHSA? Will this exhibit or others travel to other museums?

    Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion has content that remains relevant and we plan to continue exhibiting it. We hope to add more content that helps to tell the important and timely story of how immigrants have been treated here in the U.S. through different points of view. We hope to add features that will focus on how the lives of well-known Chinese Americans who have intersected with history, looking at immigration to the U.S. that has been mediated by experiences in other places such as the Philippines, Latin America, and Taiwan.  


    The overall exhibition is large and this makes it difficult to travel. However, we have built a number of traveling exhibitions that touch upon the themes covered in it.  The most travelled exhibit to date is Remembering 1882 which focuses on the Chinese Exclusion Act and this year, because of the 150 Anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, our The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental has been very popular. Additionally, starting in October, our exhibit Towards Equality: California’s Chinese American Women will be available to travel and we welcome inquiries from other institutions who may wish to show it. In addition, we have available another display, Detained at Liberty’s Door, which traces the formation of the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay and highlights the inspiring story of Mrs. Lee Yoke Suey, the wife of a native-born citizen who was detained for more than 15 months. 


    Note: to see excerpts from the exhibit and learn more about Chinese Historical Society of America, go to ., You may contact the museum staff at .     

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

James Baldwin
The Price of the Ticket