Among the stories Snyder did not hear as a child were the efforts Indian nations made to co-exist peaceably and productively with their new neighbors. “The Native people were working incredibly hard to try to find peaceful ways to live together—and they thought that education and economic interests were a form of common ground,” she says.
Tribes in the Southeast had farmed the region for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. When white settlers moved in nearby with new and highly profitable practices, the tribes adapted. Their leaders gained recognition of their national rights via treaty with the young U.S. They established business relationships with their new neighbors, shifted away from communal property to individual holdings, and, in some cases, took up the enslavement of Africans.
Slavery in some form was not new to them; long before Europeans came to America, Indians had held other humans in bondage, mostly based on the capture of members of other tribes. Snyder explored this in her first book, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America. Although many of the captives suffered harsh treatment, they were not considered inferior by nature. Over time, either the captives themselves or their children or grandchildren became assimilated as full members of their new tribe. Snyder says this “open” form of slavery “was a short-lived experience, and there’s no one class of people that are potentially slaves.”
That changed when European settlers brought a very different form of slavery to the American colonies, the Caribbean, and Brazil. In this “closed” system, says Snyder, “slavery passes from one generation to the next and is settled on a particular group, and there’s almost no way of escaping it. The idea is that race justifies all of this.”
A different vision
Choctaw Academy presented a very different view of race, at least with regard to Native Americans. The school was the brainchild of Richard Mentor Johnson, a local plantation owner and former Indian fighter. He had parlayed his claim that he killed Shawnee leader Tecumseh at the 1813 Battle of the Thames into a political career. By the 1820s he was a U.S. Senator, with his eye on even higher office. He saw an Indian school as a good source of revenue, but he also was, in many ways, a legitimate reformer of the era. He held progressive views of the inherent value of Indian lives and the power of education to improve their abilities and prospects.
The vision that embraced the intellectual potential of Native Americans did not extend to all of the community’s members, however. The vast majority of the labor on Johnson’s plantation and at the Academy—farming, carpentry, cleaning—was done by slaves.
Still, Johnson doesn’t seem to have believed that the slaves’ status was inherent in their race. The woman he considered his wife, Julia Chinn, was African-American and was, in fact, his slave. She was also the undisputed mistress of his household. When Johnson was out of town on political business, Chinn ran the plantation, handling accounts, negotiating with vendors, and supervising both free and slave workers. Johnson didn’t hide her; she hosted major public events like the visit in 1825 of the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. Johnson doted on their two daughters and made sure they were well-educated by Academy tutors—and when they reached adulthood, he freed them.
Such was the community that welcomed the first class of Indian students in the fall of 1825. All 21 were Choctaw boys, sons of prominent families—the tribe’s elite. Within a year, they were joined by boys from several other tribes in the Deep South and the Upper Midwest. Over the next 20 years, more than 600 students from 17 tribes attended Choctaw Academy.
The tribes paid a small fortune for the privilege; that first year, the Choctaw Nation paid $70,000, about $1.5 million in today’s dollars. That was a big chunk of their tribal wealth, evidence of their belief that education was the way forward for their entire nation.
One member of the first class was 19-year-old Peter Pitchlynn, the eldest child of a white father and a mother from a prominent Choctaw family. He had a keen intelligence, a gift for public speaking, and a powerful sense of duty to his nation. He fully recognized his elite status within the tribe, and seemed to identify more with prominent whites than with people further down the social ladder: slaves. When the Academy opened, the Choctaw nation held fewer slaves than any other southern Indian nation (about 3 percent of their population, compared to 20 percent in the Chickasaw nation and 23 percent in white-dominant Kentucky), but Pitchlynn’s family was the biggest slaveholder in the tribe, with 60 enslaved blacks. “Looking at a tri-racial environment complicates our view of race,” says Snyder. “People are really complicated.”