Voluntary Native American Migrations: Identity, Community, and Innovation, 1750–1860

AHA Session 73
Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia Hall 7 (Washington Hilton)
Michael Witgen, University of Michigan
French-African Indians: Interpreters in Nineteenth-Century Minnesota Ojibwe Country
Mattie M. Harper, University of California, Santa Cruz
Forgotten 49ers: Native American Miners in the California Gold Rush
Benjamin Madley, University of California, Los Angeles
The Audience

Session Abstract

Within the field of Native North American history, the topic of forced removals to reservations has often overshadowed the cases of self-motivated or voluntary migrations of Native Americans. Eighteenth and nineteenth century American history is replete with narratives of forced westward removal of Indian communities that were violently removed from their homelands. While these are certainly important histories that continue to warrant close examination, histories of voluntary Native American migration are also important to understanding how various Native communities survived and adapted to colonialism. In the wake of tumultuous change, Native American peoples sought new ways to protect their communities, some of which included travel and migration. Some traveled to new communities to build networks with other indigenous communities or to serve as liaisons between Native peoples and colonial agents, while others sought new inroads into burgeoning capitalist markets that transformed the landscape of America. The three studies presented here highlight divergent cases all contained in North America and bounded temporally between 1750s and 1860s.

“Voluntary Native American Migrations” explores both individual travel and communal migration as a survival strategy for Native Americans during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This panel addresses how migration, movement, and the continuity of community are intertwined, as we present three diverse yet complementary research projects about Native American communities and the choices they made to cope with colonial expansion. Thomas Peace presents a study of individuals from the Wendat community near Quebec at Jeune-Lorette who lived away from the community between 1760s-1820s and fostered significant relationships with indigenous communities hundreds of miles away. Both men Peace examines maintained connections to their home community and conducted work as migrants that shaped local Wendat decision-making in a way that helped them cope with French expansion. Mattie Harper offers an examination of two brothers with kin ties to an Ojibwe community in Minnesota who constantly traveled from the community in 1830s-1860s to work as interpreters at treaty sessions and for colonial agents. As these individuals traveled across racial and cultural boundaries they constantly negotiated their “mixed-race” identities in oftentimes volatile circumstances, taking potentially deadly risks to aid Ojibwe communities facing pressure from Americans to surrender homeland. Finally, in following the thousands of Native Americans who traveled often far from home to mine in California’s gold rush, Ben Madley recovers a history of a largely neglected group of migrants who helped to transform California. Including California Indians, Cherokees, Lenape, Kanaka Maoli, Oregon Indians, and others, Madley explores the mining conditions they endured from 1848-1860, the rising violence against California Indians, and reasons behind the marginalization of this history. The variety of geographical perspectives the panelists offer – from the Canadian province of Quebec and the Great Lakes region to California and beyond – bridge the experiences of certain individuals to broader social, communal, and political histories. The panelists collectively raise larger questions about Native American history, violence and colonialism, and historical agency, and highlight ways Native Americans expressed their identities through innovative communities and networks.

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