Christina Snyder. Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson. New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2017. 416 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-939906-2.
Reviewed by Daniel Feller (University of Tennessee)
Published on H-AmIndian (January, 2018)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
Noble dream or grand delusion? The tale of Choctaw Academy
Some stories are too incredible not to be true. The tale of Richard Mentor Johnson and his Choctaw Academy would tax the imagination of a novelist. Imagine a rough-and-tumble frontier politician who vaults to national fame in the early republic as the slayer in single combat of a legendary Indian warrior—and then uses that fame to establish a school at his home for Indian youths that becomes the spearhead of a national movement. The politician goes on to become vice-president of the United States and a credible aspirant for the presidency itself, all while cohabiting openly with a slave woman and raising their two daughters to marry and assimilate into white society. The Indian academy becomes a triracial mixing ground and finally a cauldron, where all of Jacksonian America’s complexities and contradictions of race, class, and gender play out in public view. And what should be the name of this place—this microcosm of an entire nation’s grand aspirations and crippling flaws, this exemplary crossroads in its racial and social trajectory? Why, Great Crossings, of course.
The story is true, and Christina Snyder’s Great Crossings tells it exquisitely. She sets her stage at a public exhibition at Johnson’s Choctaw Academy at his home at Great Crossings, Kentucky, in 1827. The idea of education as a vehicle for elevating, "civilizing," and assimilating Indians was in full youthful flower, and a host of illustrious and curious visitors—parents and chiefs, ministers, politicians, dignitaries, military men—gathered to watch Johnson’s pupils perform their exercises. Slave servants, under the watchful eye of Johnson’s bedmate and site manager, Julia Chinn, tended to the guests. Choctaw Academy was right to attract attention, for it embodied a number of important firsts: the first federally funded school outside of West Point; the first Indian academy under secular control; and the first to serve a pan-Indian clientele (though Choctaws took the lead in its establishment, the school eventually served students of seventeen Indian nations). Like Robert Owen’s New Harmony community in southern Indiana, established in the same year of 1825, it embodied the hope of an almost infinitely malleable future, the promise that here in the still-crystallizing society of the American West, solutions could be found to the country’s, and the world’s, most vexing problems—problems of race and class, of economy, of social organization.
Google "Choctaw Academy" today, and stories come up about despairing efforts to save the last crumbling structures at a forsaken and nearly forgotten site. Great Crossings as a distinct community no longer exists. What went wrong?
Snyder’s search for answers takes us into the heart of the academy experience. The school was founded on what appeared a happy conjunction of motives. Choctaw leaders had embraced education as their way for the future, and had secured funds for it in a federal treaty. Previous experience with overbearing missionaries had soured them on religious schools. Richard M. Johnson was a well-connected Kentucky senator of enlarged social views, famous not only for slaying Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 but for championing the abolition of imprisonment for debt. While Johnson steered clear of antislavery politics, his racial egalitarianism was also advanced for the time. His long-standing liaison with Julia Chinn was to appearances both a genuine love match and an efficient practical partnership, a companionate marriage in all but name. One benefit for Johnson of siting an academy at Great Crossings was the chance to educate their two teenaged daughters on the side.
For a time, all seemed to go well at Choctaw Academy. The student population, which included some local whites, ballooned in ten years from twenty-one to nearly two hundred, as cohorts of Indian youths from across the continent, Dakotas and Ojibwes as well as Creeks and Seminoles, arrived to join the Choctaws. The school became a model and a showcase, attracting laudatory press coverage and drawing large crowds to its annual student exhibition. But beneath the surface, fissures opened. Johnson’s constant cost-scrimping undercut his own ambitious goals for the school and fostered complaints about inadequate instruction and poor living conditions. His authority came under challenge as both local whites and rebellious students contested the privileged position of Julia Chinn and her daughters Imogene and Adaline. Many Indian students came from wealthy elite tribal families, some of them slaveholding; and whatever whites might think, they did not consider the black menials who worked at the academy to be their equals. Physical intimacy between staff and students produced some boundary-crossing fraternization, some sex and even romance, but also incidents of confrontation and violence. An episode in 1835 exposed the tangled relations of race and class at Great Crossings to public view. Two young Indian men, a student and a teacher, and two of Julia Chinn’s slave nieces escaped from the school and fled toward Canada, pursued by a posse dispatched by Johnson. The posse’s leader, a white man, was the brother of Imogene’s husband. One of the escapees, Imogene’s cousin, had become Richard M. Johnson’s mistress after Julia’s death in 1833. She was recaptured, whipped, and sold south. The others got away.
Meanwhile, in the world outside the school, racial lines were hardening. Richard M. Johnson’s cohabitation habits, tolerated if not approved by his fellows in the 1820s, came under growing anathema in the decade following, the object of both jest and vitriol. President Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian dispossession and expulsion crushed Choctaw and other tribal aspirations to use economic development and self-improvement, including education, to cement their place within American society. Instead, Indians were stigmatized as savages and thrust out, forced to start over in a new and inhospitable country; and youths who had been dispatched to Choctaw Academy to train as leaders in assimilation returned to find their families broken, their people displaced, and their mission in question. Within the federal government and in particular the War Department, which administered Indian affairs, commitment to the experiment in higher education for Indians faltered. A debate broke out over introducing manual training into the curriculum at Choctaw Academy. Some thought it would be useful, others degrading. Johnson pushed for it as a way to show the school’s utility—and to cut costs.
By the end of the 1830s, Choctaw Academy was under increasing fire from both within and without. The school’s management deteriorated, and Indian students and faculty protested against degraded standards and conditions. Frictions between students and white locals multiplied. Indian leaders complained that youths returned from the academy with ruined morals rather than improved minds. For different reasons, multiple parties came to question the value of Johnson’s experiment. Some whites gave up on the assimilationist program as hopeless, while tribal governments came to think that federal education annuities, which they had been funneling into Choctaw Academy, would be better spent on schools within their own nations, run by their own people for their own purposes.
Paralleling the academy’s decline was Johnson's descent from warrior hero to buffoon. He had once been a genuine popular champion in the Jackson vein, renowned not only for killing Tecumseh but for spearheading the abolition of imprisonment for debt and defending the separation of church and state against the Sabbatarian onslaught. But as Johnson’s finances deteriorated and his political prospects dimmed, he came to treat Choctaw Academy less as a model enterprise than as a personal cash cow. After Julia Chinn’s death, he also replaced her in his bed with a series of slave mistresses. These developments took the shine off his motives. Johnson now appeared to be governed less by philanthropic aspiration than by greed, nepotism, and lechery. He had become a tawdry embarrassment and something of a joke.
In 1841, a new Whig administration in Washington in effect commandeered the school, appointing Peter Pitchlynn, a leading Choctaw and onetime academy student, as its new superintendent. Pitchlynn’s frank aim was to dissolve the school. After a round of campus riots and protests, students began fleeing in groups, and the Choctaw Nation, intent on establishing its own school system, withdrew its students and its patronage. Other Indian nations followed suit. The school staggered on with declining enrollments and finally closed in 1848, its demise seemingly lamented by no one except Richard Mentor Johnson, who desperately needed the money.
Snyder relates this fascinating tale with sensitivity and insight, in a narrative alive with personality and vignette. She wisely resists the temptation to typecast heroes and villains, or to frame the story in simple declensionist terms. Despite the academy’s sorry end, many alumni went on to distinguished careers, while the Choctaws built on its experience to erect a pathbreaking comprehensive school system of their own. Indian nations modernized and adapted, but in their own way, with education playing a central role. Still, the final note is somber. Snyder’s closing chapters trace the multiple legacies and lessons of Choctaw Academy down through the generations. She concludes fairly that its aspirations and failure reflected and exemplified the Jacksonian era, "when the adolescent empire coalesced around principles of intolerance, exclusion, and racial injustice"—failings which Americans still struggle to recognize and to rectify (p. 317).
Over the last half century or so, we have all come to appreciate that American history cannot be rightly comprehended without according central place to Indian dispossession and slavery. What fine books like Great Crossings are now teaching us is that neither of those two stories can be told separately, outside the context of the other. They were not distinct, but twinned and intertwining. And together they helped make us what we are today.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-amindian.
Daniel Feller. Review of Snyder, Christina, Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson.
H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews.
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