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Professor recounts past racial tension

Nick Bock | Friday, October 5, 2007

In the early 19th century in the upper Midwest, people were either white or American Indian.

“There was no in between,” said Michigan State history professor and author Susan Sleeper-Smith in a lecture Thursday at the Eck Center Auditorium.

Sleeper-Smith quoted a famous nursery rhyme by songwriter Septimus Winner to describe the state of racial conflict in the Midwest in the early 1800s. “Ten Little Indians” traces the demise of a group of “Injuns,” with the last remaining Indian’s removal an important viewpoint.

“One little Injun living all alone, he got married and then there were none,” the rhyme says.

Sleeper-Smith said the line reflected the views of white Americans in the Northeast that intermarriage with the American Indians would eventually destroy Indian culture – something that was seen as a positive at the time.

In Wisconsin, however, the opinions were different. There, settlers viewed intermarriage as a threat to the white race.

An influx of white fur traders in the Fox River valley, whose business hinged on healthy social relationships with the local Indians, “points to an increase in mixed-ancestry births” from the 1600s to the mid-1800s, Sleeper-Smith said.

Using court records and captivity narratives, Sleeper-Smith described the extreme reactions of the white settlers to interracial children.

The early 19th century attitude about mixed racial heritage transformed from “cruelty to racism,” Sleeper-Smith said, adding that “domesticity and issues of cleanliness and whiteness defeated the allure of sexuality [for American Indian women].”

Two years after the disappearance of a white child named Casper, local white settlers claimed a mixed-race Indian youth was the missing boy, who probably had drowned in a local river. Originally, the mother and father denied that the new boy was their son, but the mother later claimed that the boy’s supposed mother had abused Casper and tainted his skin and physical characteristics to the point he was no longer easily recognizable.

A physician testified at the trial that skin color could be changed. One doctor said “the application of nitrate and silver can make white men almost as dark as a Negro,” Sleeper-Smith quoted court records as saying.

White mothers believed that bathing children daily would keep them white and pure by keeping these stains from their skin – and thus frequent bathing became associated with whiteness in the area.

Sleeper-Smith also described the reaction of the judicial system to the “paranoia” of Indian “tainting.” A Michigan Supreme Court judge, she said, charged many fur-traders with “lewd behavior” because of their sexual relationships with American Indian women.

“A perpetual fear that white people would become Indians created this rhetorical paranoia,” Sleeper-Smith said.

Sarah Jenkins, a senior American studies major, attended the event for her “Woman and Work in Early America” class. After studying how daily bathing practices had only begun in the 18th century, she said, the idea of bathing white children was “more radical than it may seem.”

She said she enjoyed the presentation and found it “fascinating to see primary documents.”

Sleeper-Smith used pictures, testimonies and case studies as visual aids. The Department of American Studies hosted the event and a reception following the speech.