Mar 132014

(Or another tale of an accidental Indian)

by Howard Winn



     When I finally retired from my teaching position, the Director of Human Resources, who used to be called just “Personnel Office,” as if the space were the person, in the “exit interview” noted that the infinitesimal percentage for Native Americans on his “affirmative action report” would be gone. He was not particularly happy about that circumstance because, he said, we were actually one of the few Community Colleges in the state who could have such a statistic to report and he had just lost his bragging rights.

     Of course, I was (am) only one sixteenth Native American, Mohawk of the Iroquois League, a drop in the blood bucket, one might say, to mix with the Anglo-Irish, the dissenter Welsh and the Puritan English.

     Bragging rights? Now that was an interesting concept. How such a notion would have baffled and confused my Great Aunt Cemira Howard Scudder (one quarter Mohawk) who was the issue of a Howard offspring (of Howard and Adams and one half Mohawk) who was, in turn, the offspring of the Howard and Johnson marriage. So when my father, issue of a Howard and a Winn and one eighth Mohawk) fathered me with a marriage to a Collins, I came into the world at one sixteenth Mohawk, much to the eventually delight of the Director of Human Relations who did not care about the genealogy but just the resulting report.

     You see, Great Aunt Cemira Howard Scudder made a major effort to obliterate the Mohawk connection. Why she took on this task and not her two sisters and four brothers is only speculation, and somewhat odd because she was a devoted Suffragette, a rebel on social issues, a successful businesswoman who was a company officer (the treasurer) in a trouser manufacturer.  It was a time when such a career was so rare as to be practically non-existent for a woman. She did not marry until she was in her forties, wedding a widower who was a bank officer with a grown son; although, she produced no children but bought real estate and company stock. She designed her own wedding garb which was not a dress, but full white bloomers with a sensible white blouse, admittedly with some minimum lace.  She did have some romantic notion about the nature of the ceremony and the decoration of the bride. But a devoted “Bloomer Girl,” was Cemira Howard.

     How did she go about this cleansing of the family tree? She could not very well expunge the legal documents of town, county and state, but she did what she could do with the Howard Family Bible, which in some cases in the early less formal arrangements of another age was the record of family births, marriages, and deaths. We know that pages were ripped out because the jagged remnants remained along the inner spine of the tome, like the uneven teeth of some old crone.

     So there went all references to Molly Brant, Mohawk woman, and her eight children by Sir William Johnson, Baronet. Magnanimous Sir William did give his name to the children and they are acknowledged as “Johnsons.” The story that Sir William had fathered a hundred children, with both European and Native American women, has been dismissed as myth created by political opponents.  Exact numbers are a question for debate, but eight by Molly seems probably correct and even verifiable.

      It is reasonably clear that Native American genes entered the Winn DNA via the Mohawk Johnson connection, and Great Aunt Cemira fervently wished to eradicate any evidence she could lay her hands on for whatever prejudicial and racist attitudes in the culture she might have been concerned about. I wonder if it all had something to do with her business and marital prospects. The effort did appear antithetical to her otherwise deep-seated individualism and rebellion against the role of women in her day. Perhaps being part Indian was just too much to swallow and more rebellious than the culture would tolerate.

     It is true that at the time the Howard children of her generation were growing up in the small Catskill Mountain hamlets north of Kingston in Ulster County there was a settlement of “Indians” where the Esopus Creek joined the Hudson River. Ulster County would say. No longer farmers as their forbears had been but laborers, they did not live well.  Also, having no false sense of racial superiority, these “Esopus Indians” had on occasion married a stray African American, introducing some darker skin into this “redskin” world.

     The historic relationship between first the Dutch, then the English and the French Huguenots and this Esopus settlement at the mouth of the Esopus Kill near Saugerties was always contentious, often murderous, produced the First Esopus War and then the Second Esopus war. The Dutch viewed the Esopus tribe of the Lanape as treacherous, sneaky, duplicitous, underhanded, brandy-loving drunkards who would run amok when under the influence of alcohol. The Esopus Wars, particularly the second, involved torching Dutch farm houses, shooting of guns, kidnapping woman, pillaging food and supplies, burning the planted fields. These Native Americans, as they defended their tribal lands from the farming Dutch and English, were not to be trusted was the white man’s common conviction. The various Europeans, first the Dutch and then the English, even called up the Mohawks from the north to assist them in their struggle with the Esopus Lanape Delaware tribes of New Jersey and Southern New York around the Hurley, Kingston, and New Paltz settlements. After all, the Mohawks of the Albany region had been enlisted in the English cause by the same Sir William Johnson. Even in peace, the relationship between the Esopus and the white man was at best uneasy. Eventually, the Esopus Lanape tribes were forced to move, settled in reservations as far away as Wisconsin. So much for the rights of the indigenous population. Who in his right mind then would want to live in the wilds of Wisconsin?

     But there was Great Aunt Cemira Howard with her ultimately futile effort, if short term successful, to obliterate the evidence of the Mohawk strain or stain in the Howard clan. As one of the Dutch inhabitants of the area observed at the time, it was difficult, if not impossible, for the white settlers, Dutch, English, or French, to distinguish between the Indians of the various tribes. “They all looked alike,” someone actually said.  And then there was the possible if slight African American link with those seeking refuge from Southern bigotry via the Underground Railroad. The passage way for escaping slaves did pass through the area.

     Little wonder, I suppose, that Great Aunt Cemira Howard, did want to sever connection with the Molly Brant Johnson daughter, even if that was to the more beneficent Mohawk British link. Could one expect the narrow, provincial, and intolerant locals to understand such distinctions when “all Indians looked alike?” Their Hudson Valley Ulster County settler ancestors had not fought the two Esopus Wars for nothing!

     Lanape. Mohawk. Iroquois. All the same to the colonists.

     An irony about this group was that one of the major ways the residual Esopus Indians made a living was in the quarrying of blue stone slabs which they hauled to the Hudson, loaded on barges that were taken down stream to New York City, where the stone was used to create the legendary “sidewalks of New York” before poured cement took over. So I suppose distant relatives of the Winn clan helped to build the Big Apple.

     A further irony for the family is in the fact that a number of the Howards and the Winns were displaced when the Ashoken Reservoir was created in order to provide drinking water for the exploding population of that same New York City that Indians were helping pave. Farms and villages were swallowed up by the potable water being collected for the City. The Esopus Kill (Dutch word for small stream) fed the Ashoken Reservoir and then continued over the dam spillway to Henry Hudson’s river.

     One might even consider that seizure through eminent domain was further mistreatment of the Native Americans, the Mohawks of the Iroquois Nation, similar to their loss of ancestral lands to the white man.  An interesting related fact is that the labor for that reservoir was provided by workers brought up from the City, African Americans and Italian Immigrants. The groups often fought one another because of racial or class friction. Local inhabitants apparently would not do that labor at the wages offered.

     Or there were just not enough of them. Or they much preferred farming.

     Much of that land, of course, had originally been deeded over to Sir William for his singular efforts to keep the Mohawks and the rest of the Iroquois League in the British camp as they fought off the French.

     If not for his death in 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence, things might have been different for the Johnson children by Molly Brant and their Howard descendants. Sir William had acquired not only those great stretches of land near the Albany area, but had built an impressive mansion in Albany, was very active in the business world of that city and accumulated a sizable fortune. He had come a long way from being the younger son of that Catholic Irishman who embraced the Church of England to give him advantages in the Empire.

     The unfortunate aspect of the end of his life for his holdings was that as the King’s man who helped keep the members of the Iroquois League for the British, and remained faithful to the benefactor who had rewarded him with land and a title, he chose the Loyalist side in the American Revolution and with the loss by the British, his wealth that might have gone to his descendants was forfeit to the new United States of America.

     I would be very happy if I could assert my own Reservation connection and demand the return of all that prime real estate to the Winn clan, but I doubt if I have sufficient legal claim.

     I certainly do not look Indian/Native American unless by my nose, apparently inherited from my father who with his ultra-black hair and aquiline profile did exhibit some appropriate physical attributes; however, his mother, my grandmother Winn, had more Native American physical features and, in fact, in extreme old age (she lived to be ninety) looked to me quite like pictures of Sitting Bull that I remember from elementary school history books where the great chief was shown as the bad guy. Courageous but bad. I guess my complexion, blond hair before gray took over, and other features, except for the nose, were from the Collins, White, and Foster side of the family. In the generation of our children, the youngest managed to be born with “Indian Hair” according to a Maine hairdresser who cut her locks in adulthood. She also has a feminized version of my profile, not unattractive, I must say in self-defense. It is not a bad inheritance. The oldest son also did get a similar profile, if not with the hirsute feature, being born with my blond hair, that of the Collins’ tribe. The other two children, a son and a daughter, are Anglo-Saxon to their finger-tips with a bit of German from their mother. Mongrels, all.

     All that upstate, Albany, Catskill, Phoenicia, Shandakin, Big Indian, Tannersville, Johnstown DNA and culture was diluted by Collins, Foster, White – names held by Welsh dissenter genes and from English Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the rebellious state of Rhode Island.  The earliest Collins was a starch and soap maker, looking to make his secure life in the world of Plymouth, New England. A prosperous descendent of his founded Collinsville in Connecticut. Peregrine White, first child born in New England, helped found the Whites of Massachusetts who married into the Foster clan who moved to Rhode Island when it became Rhode Island, and then on to New Hampshire. Even connection with Stephen Collins Foster, the composer and song writer – consider those names – was claimed by the Collins family of Millerton, New York. That part of the family could more definitely claim the baseball star, Eddie Collins, the great second baseman and the first actual college graduate (Columbia) to play in the major leagues, base stealer of the first order, third in home runs, apparently only honest member of the White Sox team that threw the World Series, bats left and throws right.  His nickname was “Cocky.”  A baseball field in Millerton, New York, is named in his honor.

     I guess we modern Winns shall just have to live with the consequences of the loyalty of that original Anglo-Irishman, Catholic turned Church of English protestant to get ahead in the Empire, our British Indian, as he was called in his time, with fealty to George III. Many of his contemporaries in the Hudson Valley, a collection of Tories, unlike our revolutionary Adams connection in New England, also remained, for practical reasons, supporters of the British and were punished for that either profitable or steadfast stand.

     At least for a number of years, I was able to supply affirmative action bragging rights for that Director of Human Resources, Yet, I wonder what would Great Aunt Cemira Howard Scudder do now about her Mohawk lineage in these affirmative action times? Just accept? Trumpet the relationship? Brag?  Celebrate? Not bother to mention the ancestry?

     Who knows what our Bloomer Girl Suffragette would do now? Run for political office?




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