Retired UWSP professor talks about dark history of Native American treatment
Retired University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) history professor David R. Wrone recently presented a lecture about the heinous mistreatment of Native Americans by frontiersmen and the American Government to the American Bar Association (ABA) during its annual Leadership Meeting held June 16 to 18 in Vancouver, Canada.
The ABA’s motto is to “defend liberty and protect freedom,” and it prides itself on championing social justice, so it invites speakers each year to sensitize its members to the historical issues connected to ethnic and racial groups. Last year, the ABA invited George Takei, best known for his role as Sulu on the original “Star Trek” series, to talk about the Japanese American relocation to camps during World War II.
This year, Wrone was invited to talk about the history of Native American tribes to remind its members of the darkness humans are capable of.
He titled his talk “Who’s the Savage?” – taken from his book “Who’s the Savage? A Documentary History of the Mistreatment of the Native North Americans” he co-authored with the late UWSP professor Russell S. Nelson Jr. The book was used in colleges throughout the country.
“From the beginning … In 1776, we were hemmed in by a mountain barrier from Maine to Georgia by the Appalachian Mountains, and it was very difficult to cross. On the other side were the Indian tribes,” Wrone said. “In 1778, George Washington sent an emissary to the Delaware Nation (Lenape tribe) at the forks of the Ohio River, which is Pittsburgh today, and we signed the first treaty with the tribes and they agreed to remain neutral during our war. They also agreed to come into the nation as the 14th state.
“But on the way home from the treaty through the forest, the frontiersmen assassinated the chiefs and threw the tribes into war against us,” Wrone said.
But the violence didn’t stop with the assassination of tribal chiefs.
“In southern what is now Ohio, (Mohicans) set up an ideal Mohican community near the Pennsylvania border. These people had their own frame houses, picket fences, cattle herds, school houses in their language,” he said. “A hundred miles away, the frontiersmen in a Pennsylvania village decided the Mohicans were hostile.
“Now, these (Mohicans) were fundamentalist Christians, they were Moravian pacifists. The frontiersmen came in upon them suddenly and seized 96 of them and put them in a big barn. And while the Indians sang Christian hymns in their language and prayed for the souls of their captors, they were taken one by one to a blacksmith’s anvil and the Americans smashed their heads in with a maul. All 96 of them,” Wrone said.
“Another illustration would be in northern Georgia. The Cherokee had many bands of Cherokees and some of the bands were opposed to us moving into the Tennessee Valley. In the 1780s, the frontiersmen occupied the northern part of the Tennessee River, the southern part was Cherokee,” he said. “Some frontiersmen sent an emissary to Old Corntassel band of Cherokees to come and discuss problems they had. So, the chief came with six of his assistants, crossed the Tennessee River, and per the agreement, they left all their weapons in their canoes.
“They went up to the cabin where the meeting was to take place, and the white people inside as per agreement had left their rifles outside. After they entered, the whites outside rushed the cabin, slammed and barred the doors and windows. Then inside they picked up the kindling axes and chopped the Indians to death,” Wrone said.
Wrone said the frontiersmen just didn’t want to live near the Native Americans, who refused to leave the land that had been their home for thousands of years. So, they resorted to violence.
“When General (Andrew) Jackson became President Jackson in 1833, he explained in his annual message to Congress that the Indians were ‘inferior people’ and unable to civilize and if they didn’t civilize, they would disappear. So, he pushed through the removal acts. All the Indian tribes east of the Mississippi would be moved west,” Wrone said.
“A classic example of that were the Cherokee. The Cherokee 15 years before had undergone a transformation. Sequoia had developed an Indian alphabet, and the Cherokees had their own printing press, their own newspapers, printed books and laws printed in the Cherokee language. They were 90-percent literate. That was at least twice the literacy rate of whites,” he said.
“They had their own ferries, textiles mills, they had cattle herds, hogs, cotton fields and so forth. They were unbelievably dynamic in their civilization. So, we decided they were savages and they had to be moved west of the Mississippi. Their land in northern Georgia and parts of Tennessee was then raffled off to the whites,” he said.
The U.S. Army marched in, rounded up the Cherokee men, women and children and marched them to one of 11 stockades for the approximately 16,000 Cherokees. On the heels of the Army were mobs of frontiersmen who robbed and looted the towns and villages after the Cherokee were forcefully removed.
“Then they went to the Cherokee cemeteries and dug up the bodies looking for souvenirs and valuables,” Wrone said.
The Cherokee tribes were then moved through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Roughly 25 percent of them died on the way because they were not allowed to bring anything along, including blankets for the winter.
But the atrocities didn’t stop there. In the southwest in the 1850s, American professional scalp hunters would track down the Apaches and murder men, women and children for their scalps. The Americans would then sell the scalps to Mexican authorities.
“Then there’s General Custer; we celebrate him. We celebrate him because of all the propaganda and his family relations and so forth,” Wrone said. “But on Nov. 27, 1868, on a river on what is now western Oklahoma, the Cheyenne had a village under the leadership of Chief Black Kettle. Custer, with his 7th Calvary, snuck up on him in the night and attacked them at dawn’s early light.
“Black Kettle’s band was a pacifist band, so he attacked a band of pacifists, killed 20 men, 40 women and children, captured the remaining women and children and took them back to Fort Cobb, a three- or four-day’s march at least, and to defend themselves against avenging other tribes, they used the women and children as human shields,” Wrone said.
“Then, at Fort Cobb, he took the Cheyenne women – who were noted for their beauty – and raped them. Custer took the daughter of Black Kettle – whom he had just shot in the back – and raped her and took her as his mistress. From her he had a son named ‘Son of Yellow Hair.’ When his wife came out a year later, he took them to the gates of the fort and kicked them out,” he said.
That’s the celebrated General Custer, he said.
“One question I was asked by the (ABA) moderator was, ‘how did I get interested studying Indians?’” Wrone said. “I said, ‘I came into it with a positive attitude.’
“As a child in the 1930s, I’m 83 now, I had a regular medical doctor but we were also treated by a Cherokee medicine man three times a year who would come to my central Illinois town with his (medicines) and herbs, and he’d treat us,” Wrone said. “He was very, very kind. He had a three-piece suit, polished shoes and was just a wonderful man. He also taught us boys the proper way to climb a tree.”
Wrone and his childhood friends would go to the movies for a nickel – later a dime – on Saturdays. He said they thought it strange the movies about cowboys and Indians usually featured Indians attacking the caravans – armed with guns – with bows and arrows.
“Then one of our neighbor kids had his aging grandmother living with him. She had gone west in a covered wagon to the Oregon Country, and when she described it, she said the Indians traded with them and were great friends,” he said. “Later, when I became a professor, I read there’s only been six white people killed by Indians going west in wagon trains.”
Wrone called it “awful propaganda.”
He said his family history had a part in defining his perception of Indians as well. His great-grandfather was wounded and left for dead by his unit in an Indian skirmish, only to be discovered by the “enemy’s” warriors, taken back to their camp, nursed back to health and released unharmed and untortured.
His great-grandfather on the other side was captured by the Shawnee in a raid, and they held him for a few weeks, kept him healthy and released him, also unharmed and untortured.
These positive stories led him to a mistrust in the propaganda coloring the Native Americans as savages and ultimately led to a life of academic study to discover the truth.
Over the years, Wrone said he’s read more than 40 history books used in schools, and not one mentions the atrocities against Native Americans.
“Once in a while they’d give a sentence on Cherokee removal, but never really explained what happened. So I went to the original sources, and there we found the reality,” he said.
Wrone said it is important for us to remember these deeds to ensure they don’t happen again.
“It is important for us to remember this is a part of our heritage as Americans and that we have this (in our history). It’s not just one institution, it was many institutions involved here – including religious, civilian and military – and that we have that element in us. We have to know it exists in order to define and prepare ourselves better for the future. We have to be honest,” he said.