A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Guest Host: Frank Sesno
In Cornwall, Conn., in the early 19th century, a group of Protestant missionaries created a unique school they thought would save the world. Derisively known as “the heathen school,” the project recruited boys from Native American nations and around the world, including China and Hawaii. The multicultural school prospered for years and several graduates became famous. But in a new book, historian John Demos reveals the school’s disruptive impact and how it set off a chain of events that culminated in the Trail of Tears.
- John Demos professor emeritus of history, Yale University, and author of several histories of early America, including "Entertaining Satan" and "The Unredeemed Captive," which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic” by John Demos. Copyright © 2014 by John Demos. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved.
MR. FRANK SESNOThanks for joining us. I'm Frank Sesno, director in School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, sitting in for Diane Rehm today. She's on vacation. She will be back on Monday. In the early 1800s, a group of Protestant missionaries created a unique multicultural school in a place called Cornwall, Conn.
MR. FRANK SESNOThey said it would change the world. Historian John Demos says in a new book that the school did alter history, but not the way the founders intended. The title of the book is "The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic." Author John Demos joins me in the studio. Great to see you. Thanks for coming in.
MR. JOHN DEMOSThank you for inviting me. I'm delighted to be here.
SESNOWhat's this book all about?
DEMOSWell, there's a kind of small story in a way of the heathen school, and we'll get into that, I imagine, as the interview goes on. But there's a much larger context as well. I was drawn to this story not just because I thought the Heathen School itself had a kind of great narrative interest in power, but because I thought it touched very kind of basic and bedrock themes and trends in American history in the largest possible sense, really from the beginning all the way to the present.
SESNOIt's fascinating. So the school was set up. I'm going to read just a very short passage here from your first pages because I found it captivating when I opened the book. "A Heathen school," you write, "specially designed for indigenous youth from all parts of the earth. Educate them, civilize them, convert them to Christianity, then send them back to help start similar projects in their various homelands, and the entire world," you write, "will be saved in the shortest time imaginable.
SESNO"High hopes and strong claims of initial success followed by unexpected crisis, they court and marry our daughters, families torn apart, public outrage at fever pitch. The school shut down in disgrace."
DEMOSThat's the -- that's it in a nutshell. That's what I heard. Almost 20 years ago now, I went to visit an old friend in the town of Cornwall, Conn., where the school had been located. And one of the other dinner guests started to tell me this story, as he described it, as a piece of local history. But he didn't get very far into the story before I was just totally transfixed by what he was saying. And to me it sounded like a lot more than local history. And I have sort of pursued the trail off and on for a long time. And it's kind of nice to be able to finally reach the end in the last few days.
SESNOThe school was in Cornwall, Conn. How did it get to this little remote place in the middle of nowhere at the time?
DEMOSWell, the founders of the school got together, as you already suggested, around the idea that if we could bring a group of heathen -- so-called, as they said, heathen youth from around the world, educate them, treat them in a civilized way, and teach them civilized manners and ways of living, convert them to Christianity...
DEMOSThat's central. And then send them back to their respective homelands. This is the quickest possible way to get the whole world -- again, to use their language -- saved in the shortest time imaginable. I mean, it was really a kind of little acorn from which a mighty oak would eventually grow. And, in fact, not -- it might not take so long.
DEMOSSome of them tried to calculate the length of time that some people thought maybe 60 years, and by that time the whole world would be converted, could be more, could be less. But the point was this was a -- there was a kind of multiplier effect which would make this the most efficient possible way to achieve this goal.
SESNOAnd this was when that this started taking shape?
DEMOSThe 18-teens, basically. But the beginning of the story as I tell it involves a particular young man from Hawaii (unintelligible) Hawaii, yeah.
SESNOHawaii. I was going to say -- I mean, you would never have thought that Hawaii would be the first.
DEMOSWell, for some years just before, Americans had been getting increasingly involved in what came to be known as the China trade, a massive enterprise of outreach, really, and trade with the Far East, not just China. But China was at the center of it. The boats involved and the ships involved in the China trade would stop en route very often in Hawaii. And there some -- there might be some sort of change of personnel.
DEMOSSome of the American sailors might jump ship and stay in Hawaii. But also some young Hawaiians would get on board. Some of them, I think, were actually stowaways. Others were hired as crew. One of them was this man -- had a young man named Henry Obookiah. And the upshot was that after a couple of years of working in the trade on one of these ships, he was sort of let off in New Haven, Conn. And he's...
SESNOSo he somehow goes from Hawaii to New Haven, Conn.
DEMOSHe gets to New Haven. And then he finds his way to the steps of Yale College. And one day, in the autumn of 1809, I think it was, he's observed at the college, sort of sitting off to one side as the Yale students are kind of going in and out. He's weeping. Some of the students notice this. They say, what's the matter? Why are you so miserable? And he says, because nobody gives me learning. At least that's how it is reported.
SESNOAnd Henry Obookiah, this fascinating character who kicks this whole thing off, has an incredible story in his own right, his narrative which was both tragic and violent, that led him to the steps of Yale College.
DEMOSYes. He was the child of a -- in a family on the big island of Hawaii. And the islands were -- all of the islands at that point at the very end of the 18th century were being kind of convulsed by a series of wars, a kind of civil war. His own parents were essentially on the losing side. They were killed. Obookiah himself was orphaned.
DEMOSHe was then taken in by an uncle who was a so-called pagan priest. He was trained for the priesthood himself. He was not happy with this life. By now we've gotten him into his early to mid-teens. He began looking, I think, for a way out. The ship arrived, and he saw a way to escape. And he took it.
SESNOAnd remarkably he ends up on the steps of Yale College, as you mention, but that's not all. He ends up living with the president of Yale.
DEMOSYes. Yes. The president of Yale, the then-president, a very famous clergyman named Timothy Dwight, took him into his house, the presidential residence. And the president himself and a lot of Yale students began to tutor Obookiah in terms of both kind of both academic and also spiritual terms. So they were trying to convert him to Christianity from the first moment. They were also teaching him English, teaching him to read and write, all these things he didn't know.
DEMOSHe was a very able and apt pupil. It seems he learned pretty well. And within the space of a couple of years, he was on his way to a very different way of living. In fact, after he had been at Yale for a while, he was sort of taken on tour. He was shipped around from one minister's household to another all across New England. He really became a pretty famous character, I think, as far as I can tell.
SESNOWhat's interesting is you write about, too, how physically distinctive he was. I mean, after all, he was from Hawaii. And this was at a time when diversity was not a watch word on American college campuses.
DEMOSAbsolutely, and especially Pacific Islanders. I think he was seen very much as a kind of exotic creature at first. But they had strong hopes of transforming him, of turning him into a kind of West American-style Christian, educated and so forth and so on. And their success with Obookiah, I mean, they -- he did attain full conversion. It was a -- took a while. They were careful with about this. But he did attain full conversion, and then this gave them the idea that they could do this on a much wider scale. Hence the idea for the school.
SESNOHow does the school then start to come together? Where does the money come from it? Where does the idea come? And what is Henry's role with respect to this new school?
DEMOSWell, the wider context is a growing interest in missionary activity among Protestant Evangelicals really all across the country at that time.
SESNOAt the time, yeah, yeah.
DEMOSYeah. At that time. And so some of the leaders -- and, in fact, President Dwight of Yale is centrally involved -- conceived the idea of the school. They kind of gather forces. They begin to raise money for the school. There's a large missionary organization that's founded in Boston around this time called the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.
DEMOSAnd they get into the act right away. They provide some sort of seed money for the school. And then they begin to raise money in major kinds of publicity fundraising campaigns all around New England. And really it extends beyond New England as well. And there's even some going on overseas. It's very touching to read the lists of donations that were published at great length in the religious press of the time.
SESNOAnd this starts with five young Hawaiians. But, you know, you write about this impulse to save the world and the spreading of gospel truth.
DEMOSYeah. That impulse has taken hold very widely. And that, I think, relates to a -- one of these big themes in American history. I mean, there's a sense in which this country has a kind of redemptive mission in mind, almost from the outset.
SESNOAnd that's what was behind the Heathen School?
DEMOSThat was behind -- very much behind the Heathen School.
SESNOSo they start with five boys?
DEMOSFive Hawaiians. Obookiah's kind of the star of this founding group. But there are other Hawaiians who are in the area who kind of come there along by the same route, more or less. And they, too, are absorbed into the plan. So the core group is five young Hawaiians.
SESNOAnd in short order, that spread to boys from what other parts of the world?
DEMOSChina, India, other parts of the Pacific Islands. Eventually, there were a few European Jews who were drawn in. There were a couple of Greeks, which kind of interested me because I'm a Greek extraction. There were a couple from South America. And then increasingly, there were large numbers of Native Americans.
SESNOAt its height, how big was this school? How many...
DEMOSOnly about three dozen at any one time. So it's a tiny kind of experiment. But I can't overemphasize the degree to which these -- the leaders of this school expected that this would be the germ of a project of absolutely universal significance.
SESNOBut slowly -- and just give us a hint here -- there was an indication of how difficult and problematic this really was.
DEMOSYeah. It was difficult right from the start, I think. I mean, imagine it. You take these people from many different parts of the world. They have nothing in common. And never mind the fact that they're completely unfamiliar to the climate of the U.S. in those days. So it's very difficult.
SESNOWe're talking to John Demos. He wrote "The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic." We'll talk to him more about the problems the school encountered, take your calls and questions for him in a moment. I'm Frank Sesno. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane today. I'm talking to John Demos. He is the professor emeritus of history at Yale University, author of several historical nonfiction books about early America, including "Entertaining Satan" and "The Unredeemed Captive," which was a finalist for the National Book Award. We're talking with him today about his new book, "The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic."
SESNOAnd, John Demos, what we were talking about a moment ago was these boys who were brought from all over the world to this little place in Cornwall, CT to be civilized, in the word of the time, and to be converted to Christianity. And what's fascinating in the book -- and you've got to actually listen to adjoining pages -- is both the sense of success and optimism and the utter realization that was going to be phenomenally difficult.
SESNOA quote, here you have the -- someone who was writing about the school, "The experiment has been tried and proved successful. You're right, heathen youth can be civilized and instructed and prepared for extensive usefulness among their countrymen within a limited period and at a comparatively small expense." And yet a page away, you have someone in a letter that was written to the American board, "There are here used, brought from each hemisphere, from various climates, regions, nations, whose languages, habits are very dissimilar."
SESNO"To manage them wisely is no easy service. They cannot be placed in classes as it is with our own children. There must be almost as many classes as there are scholars."
DEMOSThere was always a kind of tension between the P.R., the face -- the public face that the school wanted to present to the world at large and, on the other hand, the reality of the difficulties that they encounter. And you feel the leader struggling with how to deal with this tension. It's very important that the school have a good reputation, because the fundraising and all the support depends on that.
DEMOSOn the other hand, if you -- you don't have to read very far between the lines to see that they were really struggling. And the quotes you've just read is one of the more candid statements from within the ranks of the teachers and so on. All these people were so different. They can hardly -- the students, they call them the scholars, could hardly communicate at all with each other except perhaps as they began to learn a little English. And then there was the problem of really communicating with their teachers.
SESNOWas it a brutal place?
DEMOSI don't think there was any kind of physical brutality. But I think it was -- you know, in some larger sense, I think it was extremely hard on the so-called scholars. Many of them were clearly stressed and unhappy with their lives in the school. They would occasionally run off and disappear for a while. And then a sort of an investigation would begin as to where they've gone. It was said that some of them seemed almost insane with their situation.
DEMOSThere were a variety of words that appear in the internal records of the school. Again, you have to go really deeply into the internal records to get this, because the public presentation, as I've said, had to be and was very positive.
SESNOIn fairly short order, there are some real problems that start to emerge and tensions with the town. Talk about that.
DEMOSOkay. Well, it really all comes to a crisis when it turns out that romance is developing between some of the heathen scholars and local women in the town.
SESNOSo these young have been brought to this town in the middle of nowhere and they actually start to become interested in some of the local women, and the women return the favors, by the way.
DEMOSThey return the favors. This is not some kind of hanky-panky. This is because the women themselves have a very missionary minded sense of their lives. And if they can connect to these young men, whether -- in whatever way, as friends or even as romantic partners, they will be able themselves to further the missionary cause. So at a certain point, it comes out that one particular Native American young man, he's a Cherokee named John Ridge, has become deeply involved with, in love with a young woman in the town, the daughter actually of the steward, the so-called steward of the school.
DEMOSRidge has taken sick. He's had to be taken in the steward's household for kind of close-up medical care. And there is this young, I think she's a 15- or 16-year-old girl and they call deeply in love. Well, that's a crisis. That's not part of the plan that these heathen -- it's one thing we should bring you here and educate you and civilize you and convert you to Christianity. It's another thing that you should court and marry our daughters. So that was...
SESNOJust out of bounds.
DEMOSJust out of bounds, absolutely over the line.
SESNOAnd there's another young man, Elias Boudinot.
DEMOSSo let me just say that the first pairing that Ridge and this young woman named Sarah Northrup (unintelligible) marriage, I think it's in 1820, beginning of 1823. There's a huge kind of blow up, a scandal. It is very major proportions, not just in Cornwall, but really across the state of Connecticut and around the country. Then things die down a little bit. The school authorities promised that nothing like this could possibly ever happen again, and then it does happen again.
DEMOSA year or so later, another one of the Cherokee scholars there named Elias Boudinot gets involved with a local girl named Harriet Gold and it's clear that they intend to marry and there's a whole new blowup around that.
SESNONow, I'm going to actually do a flashback here for a moment and then we'll come back to these two young men, because the school has become very well known. You're right that it actually becomes a tourist attraction and come back to our protagonist, young Henry, for a moment, right? Henry gets sick and dies a very dramatic death at his school. Would you describe that sort of bedside scene and how he -- what -- how he becomes a martyr effectively.
DEMOSThe school has only been open a few months at this point. And Henry Obookiah is clearly the star student. He is the face of the school, in some ways, to the world at large. And lo and behold, he falls sick, it turns -- I think it's typhus. It's a kind of lingering illness that goes on for weeks or months. There are moments when there are some hope of his recovery. But eventually it becomes clear that he's not going to recover.
DEMOSPeople gather around from all over. Ministers come to talk to him as he's more or less on his deathbed.
SESNOAnd he's converted to Christianity.
DEMOSHe's been converted to Christianity.
SESNOSo he's a very godly man.
DEMOSVery godly young man. The other scholars, especially his sort of Hawaiian compatriots are closely involved in his -- trying to help him deal with his illness and eventually with his death. He dies at a certain point and he immediately becomes a kind of martyr for the cause of the school.
SESNOHe has an almost angelic death.
DEMOSHe has an angelic death, that's right. He dies with a smile on his lips. People say that they've never seen anybody quite so brave and kind of beautiful in dying. His death is memorialized, and in print too, in the public press and in very short order. One of his teachers and mentors decides to write what purports to be a kind of autobiography. It's a book that will be called "The Memoirs of Henry Obookiah."
DEMOSIn fact, it's kind of ghostwritten by of his mentors. And that book in turn becomes a best-seller for its time.
SESNOThis is in what year?
DEMOSThis is in 1818.
SESNOSo in 1818, here's the Heathen School, Henry Obookiah has died, book is written, people know about this place, it's written about in the local press and beyond.
DEMOSAll true, yeah.
SESNOAll right, now we go back to where we were a moment ago with our two Cherokee young men who have now married white women and there is a scandal.
DEMOSA total scandal. There's a great deal of discussion in the press. Locally, a lot of local people are very, very upset by this. It goes back and forth in the local press. It's picked up much more broadly in the national press as well. There's not -- it's not like everybody is terribly upset. There are some people who say that maybe this could even be seen as a good thing, another way to sort of missionize and Christianize the heathen.
DEMOSBut by and large, it's seen as a very disappointing and even disastrous development.
SESNOThey're now in a very hostile place and a hostile environment. What do they do?
DEMOSThe young men themselves? Well, they marry and they leave town as quickly as they can. There are reports that there were crowds that greeted them on the route out of Cornwall, angry crowds denouncing them and so forth. And in particular, after the second of the marriages, the one between Elias Boudinot and Harriet Gold, there's an immediate reaction in the town. There's a certain night, which is vividly described after the fact by Harriet herself when a crowd gathers on the town green.
DEMOSAnd there's a bonfire and they burn Harriet and Elias Boudinot and a couple of others who were thought to be involved in the whole situation. They burned them in effigy, which is a very dramatic statement. That in itself becomes the focus of some discussion, is this really an appropriate Christian thing to do or not. But, yeah, and after that, Elias and Harriet have to leave in a hurry, and they do.
SESNOAnd they go where?
DEMOSAnd they go back to the Cherokee Nation. Both Ridge and Boudinot now accompanied by their Connecticut wives, go back to what is today north Georgia, which is kind of the heartland of the Cherokee Nation. And they immediately become leaders. I mean, they were not -- they were not sort of ordinary people. They were Cherokees to begin with. They were the sons of major chiefs, major figures.
SESNOThese are connected people. They have the educations now.
SESNOAnd so they stand out and become leaders.
DEMOSAnd they become leaders, even though they're young men still in their 20s, they go right to the forefront of the leadership.
SESNOAnd this is where your story takes a really unexpected turn, because in their role as leaders, they helped make decisions and participate in deliberations that leads to a truly historic moment.
DEMOSJohn Ridge almost immediately becomes a center of the negotiations between the nation, between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government. There's lots going on at this point, back and forth about the whole issue of Cherokee survival in their homeland. The idea of removing, of chasing Indians out of their homelands, the South is taken hold, some are for and some are against.
DEMOSAnd so Ridge and a couple of others really becomes major negotiators with the government, trying all the while, certainly in Ridge's case, to forestall the idea of removal. And then a variety of treaties that are happening around this time in which the Cherokees have given away some of their lands to the government on the understanding that this would be the end. That from here on, they could stay where they were.
DEMOSAnd Ridge is trying to firm up that prospect. Elias Boudinot, for his part, he's also involved actually, personally, in some of the negotiations with federal authorities. But he's also the founder of a newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix, which was the first newspaper of its kind. The first newspaper founded by and for Indian people in history. And in the pages of his newspaper, he is advocating the same position against removal.
DEMOSAnd then, well, political events move forward here in the nation's capital. And the upshot is a congressional decision in favor of forcibly removing the Cherokees. Then there's the Supreme Court case, famous Supreme Court case. John Marshall is the chief justice, delivers the verdict. And that go -- the case goes in favor of the Cherokees against the federal government. They should not be removed in this way.
DEMOSSo for a brief period, there's hope among the Cherokees that they can yet survive where they are. However, the administration of Andrew Jackson and Jackson himself refuse to enforce the Supreme Court decision, and then it's clear that the Cherokees are in a very tight spot.
SESNOYou're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Our guest this hour, John Demos, author of "The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic." I'm Frank Sesno. John Demos, we've heard -- we've all heard of the trail of tears and this is what it becomes, a trail of tears, right, as these Native Americans are forcibly removed or removed and marched across the country. What was the role of your two Heathen School alumni, graduates in ultimately moving that decision?
DEMOSAs I was saying a minute ago, they were leading for several years the resistance to the whole idea of removal. But when it becomes clear to them, and I think especially to John Ridge, Ridge has a meeting with President Jackson at some point from which he comes away very disappointed and discouraged. He realizes then that there's maybe no hope for the Cherokees to stay where they are.
DEMOSSo he and his friend and colleague, Elias Boudinot, essentially flip and they say we better accept the idea of removal. Their word for it actually emigration of the Cherokee Nation. We better accept that idea and sort of get it on the best terms we can. From then on they are working among their fellow Cherokees to promote the cause of emigration. Most Cherokees continue to resist.
DEMOSMost Cherokees come to regard the role of Ridge and Boudinot as essentially traitorous to the Cherokee cause. But nonetheless, these two young men persist and they actually promote and sign the treaty, which is a kind of bogus treaty in some ways, the Treaty of...
SESNOBut they signed it.
DEMOSThey signed it. It was signed actually in the living room of the home of Elias Boudinot, a kind of rump group of Cherokee leaders, including Ridge and Boudinot. And so that gives a kind of official gloss to the idea of removal.
SESNOAnd the Trail of Tears is?
DEMOSAnd the Trail of Tears is what follows when the federal government moves along to actually to make the process of removal happen. It begins with kind of rounding up Cherokees into what they called stock caves, taking them away from their lands, putting them in these virtually I think we might call them concentration camps for a few months, getting them ready to be pushed out across the route to Oklahoma, which is where they're all going to be displaced.
DEMOSAnd then there follows this period of several months when -- it's thought to be around 15,000 Cherokees are forcibly taken across the lower part of the country into Oklahoma. This is where it becomes known to history as the Trail of Tears. It's believed that about 4,000 of the 15,000 who started out died en route. The conditions are absolutely terrible. They really had very little support along the way. Most of them were obliged to walk, whether you're young, old or in between.
SESNOIf you want to join us with calls, a question, a comment for our author and discussant here, John Demos, call us at 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now we're going to take a break in just a moment. But before we do so, John Demos, let me ask you this, what ultimately happens to Ridge and Boudinot?
DEMOSSo the removal is accomplished, and Ridge and Boudinot are a part of it. They actually have a fairly easy time making this move to Oklahoma themselves. They traveled under relatively comfortable circumstances. They get to Oklahoma. There is bitter feeling among most of their Cherokee compatriot about what they've all just been put through.
SESNOAnd they're still considered traitors?
DEMOSThey're still considered traitors by many. And the upshot, to get right to the point, is that they are assassinated on the same day in June of 1839. Those two and actually the father of John Ridge, Major Ridge had also been an important Cherokee leader. Those three coordinated murders take place on the single morning in June of 1839.
SESNOCompleting the tragedy, really, from what started as such high hopes with them at this Heathen School back in Cornwall, CT.
SESNOI want to, when we come back in just a moment, talk to you about what happens to the school and all that. We'll open the phones and take some of your comments and questions for John Demos, author of "The Heathen School" at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email at email@example.com. I'm Frank Sesno. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane today. She's on vacation and will be back with you on Monday. Our guest this hour is John Demos, author of "The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic." Want to open it up to your questions and comments now and start with a couple of emails we've got.
SESNOJohn Demos, here's one from Sheila. "Were these heathen boys or orphans taken with parents' permission?" she writes. "And if the latter, were their parents told the truth about the Christianizing agenda of the schools that the "heathens" were taken to?"
DEMOSWell, that's a great question, and I don't think there's a simple answer to it because, in the case of -- for example, of the Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, they essentially made the -- like Henry Obookiah, he made his own decision about escaping from where he was. And his parents were not living anymore and so forth.
DEMOSBut in the case of the Cherokees -- and I suppose other Native Americans as well -- I think families -- parents were involved. It took some convincing, I know, in the case of John Ridge to get his parents to agree to his coming. But missionaries had already been at work among the Cherokee. So the idea of Christianity, of conversion to Christianity and so on wasn't unfamiliar to the Cherokees. And I think they also saw as an opportunity to get good education for their children or something.
SESNOSo here's an email from Brenda. "The colossal arrogance of Christianity," she writes, "was this not at the same time that Yale faculty and students had slaves? How is Henry's life different from that of any other slave?"
DEMOSWell, that's a good question, too. I don't think Yale -- well, Yale faculty did not have slaves. But probably some Yale students came from the South -- and I can't give you details about this -- and may have had slaves. But this is one of the great...
SESNOAnd let me just remind the audience that you're a professor emeritus from Yale.
DEMOSYes. No, this is quite close to home, in some ways, this whole story. I did a lot of the research right across the street from my office in the library at Yale where some of the papers have been preserved. But there is -- sure, there is arrogance, there is irony. Did they -- how much did people not see that these were -- you know, these were people of color, these Hawaiians and indeed the Cherokees themselves.
DEMOSIt's all very hard to sort out from all this time so much later on. But I think at the same time, many Americans, many of those even involved with the school would have seen a difference, frankly, between African-Americans and Indians. I have to say, too, that when John Ridge went back to the Cherokee nation, he became a plantation owner and a slave owner himself. His father, indeed, Maj. Ridges, he was called, had 20 or 25 slaves. And I think John Ridge had about the same number. So there were lots...
SESNOSo irony upon irony, contradiction upon contradiction.
DEMOSIrony upon irony. Absolutely.
SESNOLet's go to the phones now. And I think we have a very special caller here, Sherry from Brownsville, Md. Hi, Sherry.
SHERRYHi. Glad to get on.
SESNOWell, I'm glad to have you here. And let me start by what I think you're going to tell us about your proximity to this story.
SHERRYYes. Well, I'm a descendant of Harriet Gold Boudinot's sister. She was my grandmother's great-grandmother. And...
SESNOSo you -- so let's make sure we got this right. You're the -- you're a descendant of Boudinot's wife.
SHERRYHis wife's sister.
SESNOHis wife's sister. Okay.
SHERRYYes. So she would be an aunt, a great-great-great-great-aunt.
SESNOOkay. Close enough. So what do you know about them?
SHERRYWell, I have a bunch of papers. I have the town history papers of the Women's Club of Washington, Conn. and a presentation by Elias Boudinot's granddaughter. And it's an account of his life that she wrote. And it has, you know, letters between the sisters and back and forth in the family and about all the hoo-ha that went on when she decided -- when they decided they wanted to get married.
SESNOSo there was a lot of hoo-ha that went on? I can...
SHERRYOh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. And the burning an effigy thing is in that, and that was before they actually were married. She had a lot of...
SESNOLet me ask you a question. Then you can ask John Demos a question.
SESNOWhat happened to your great-great-great-great-aunt after her husband was killed?
SHERRYWell, she died before they went to Oklahoma.
SHERRYAnd, in fact, we were down in New Echota this year and went and found her gravesite which was really interesting to see. And New Echota is amazing. It's a great park if ever -- you know, if you're down there at the state park, it's wonderful to see. And the whole village where they lived is laid out and all the buildings. And Harriet's parents went down to visit by wagon. It took 47 days. And they were very impressed with what a civilized community it was.
SESNOYou have a question or a comment for John Demos, the author of this book?
SHERRYI just, you know, I wanted him to -- you know, well, I wondered if he had the same papers I had, I guess.
SESNOOr maybe he has a question for you.
DEMOSWell, no, I'm just fascinated, though, by your connection to the story. And I'm -- obviously, it's been a very lively manner within your own family, right down to your own day.
SHERRYWell, it was funny. When I was in college, my anthropology professor got all excited when he found out my family came from Washington, Conn. because he'd spent so much time in the Gunn Library. He was specialized in the Cherokee.
DEMOSMm hmm. Okay. Okay.
SHERRYAnyways, that was...
DEMOSWell, those papers that you describe, I think -- at least I hope -- I have seen them. I know that address by the granddaughter to the Women's Club in Washington.
SHERRYRight. Right. Yeah, yeah.
DEMOSThat was a valuable source for me, and other things as well.
SESNOWell, Sherry, thank you very much for your call and for being on with this.
SHERRYYeah, well, good.
SESNOAnd if you haven't seen the book, you'll have to take a read.
SHERRYYeah. I'm going to have to see the book. Great.
SESNOAll right. Thanks very much.
SESNOLet's go to another caller now. Daniel calls in from Silver Spring, Md. Hi, Daniel.
DANIELHi. How you doing?
DANIELI want to shift my question because you answered a question about a tangent onto slavery. So, first off, I'm kind of interested in the implications of the discourse surrounding the school and its impact on letters like Hawthorne and Melville, if that might have popped up in their work.
DANIELAnd also, to what extent do you see the school and the discourse kind of as a response to or another iteration of the captivity narratives of the pre-Colonial period in which you have whites captured by Native Americans and a sort of redemptive narrative that emerges there as well? I'll hang up and listen to my answer off the air.
SESNOThanks so much, Daniel.
DEMOSWell, it so happens that I have actually written a previous book about one of the most famous captivity stories, a story of a woman named Eunice Williams, was the daughter of a minister in Deerfield, Mass. in the late 17th century, and was captured by Canadian Indians in a way that then went on to become kind of sensationalized. And she lived the rest of her life among these Canadian Indians. She became an Indian herself. So there's a kind of --in my own sort of mind and feelings, there is a connection between the two kinds of story.
DEMOSBoth of them, it seems to me, speak to the issue of -- if I can put it this way -- of crossing cultural boundaries, of confronting the whole issue of otherness in various ways. We're othered in just by virtue of being alive. We're different from people we kind of are in touch with every day. And that's always been something that has interested me. So in both stories, I was eager to kind of grapple with that issue.
SESNOTo Bob now on the phones from Tahlequah, Okla. Hi, Bob.
BOBYeah. Hi. Thanks for taking the call.
SESNOWell, thanks for calling.
SESNOTahlequah. Thank you.
BOBAnd people around here say Boudinot as Boudinot, and that may be a local flavor. But I've been blessed with parents who cared about Native Americans. And my dad was a social worker, worked with Cherokee. And my mother, who still lives, always brought my attention to things that mattered, generic and so forth. And I have a great-great-great-great-uncle who was a general, Thomas C. Hindman.
BOBThere's a tribute to him over in Prairie View, Ark. And so I've been doing a lot of studying and living here in Cherokee country all my life. I think the work you're doing is so important. And we just lost a great historian and writer. Robert Conley just passed away. I wonder if you're familiar with his work. And I think this conflict with assimilation goes on today. I think it's important, the work you're doing.
BOBIt's important to make these -- it's interesting. I was sitting in a barber shop one time down here. And the barber asked me, what do you think about how they rewrite history, how they're rewriting history? And I said, well, you know, if they're getting it more accurate, I think we just need to keep looking at it and keep studying it. So I appreciate the work you're doing.
DEMOSWell, thank you very much.
SESNOAnd thanks, Bob, appreciate your call.
DEMOSAppreciate that. Yeah. Well, we certainly do rewrite history. I don't know whether we make it better, but we certainly make it different. Every generation kind of needs its own take on the past, on history. And I think you can trace that kind of process over many generations. I certainly agree with you that the issue of assimilation -- the whole issue of where of the place of Native Americans, and even in modern American life, is still unresolved. In many ways, it's quite difficult and even tragic in some aspects.
DEMOSI have made my living for so many years now as a historian of early America. And for many, many years, I barely noticed the presence of the Native Americans. That was the way it was when I was sort of coming up in the history business in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. We just didn't notice that the Native Americans were much there. And I think in the last 20 years or so, historians, including myself, have been trying to sort of make up for that terrible omission. It's extraordinary, when I think back, at how little we knew, how little we took Native Americans into account.
SESNOHow could that be?
DEMOSOh, my. You know, I think it goes back actually into the 19th century. A familiar idea in the 19th century was that Indians were vanishing. Indians were disappearing. Well, that was a sort of self -- what shall I say? -- self-fulfilling prophecy or at least a kind of self-justifying premise that I think white Americans, basically, took as a way of dealing with their -- maybe with their own guilt to some extent over what had happened.
SESNOTo our next caller, Nick in Durham, N.C. Hi, Nick.
NICKHello. Thanks for taking my call. Can I ask my question now?
NICKOkay. So this is my first time calling. I'm originally from Carlisle, Penn. And I know back in the past they had an Indian school there. And it was, I think, strictly comprised of Indians. One of our most -- the most famous alumni from that school was the Olympiad Jim Thorpe. And I was just wondering if you were perhaps familiar with that school as well since I feel like it's somewhat related to the Heathen School and if you had any comments or if they were any different, you know.
DEMOSIt is related. It comes afterward, later on. As you said, it was kind of specifically targeted at Native Americans. I don't think it had anything like the same investment of grandiose hope to save the world behind it. So in some respects, it's similar. But in others, I think it's really quite different. Of course, school for Indians, continued schools for Indians were founded on reservations and so on in the late 19th century and really on well into the 20th century.
DEMOSThis is a kind of tail end maybe of the story of the Heathen School. But it doesn't have quite the same -- I don't know -- quite the same breadth and depth, I think, that the story of the Heathen School itself had.
SESNOI'm Frank Sesno, and you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And our guest today is John Demos. He's author of "The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic." What finally happened to the school?
DEMOSWell, in the aftermath of the two intermarriages, as they were called, the Ridge and Boudinot intermarriages, the school really had shut itself down very fast. It was clear at this point that there was a serious danger to the whole missionary movement, the whole missionary idea. So I think they just wanted to put it behind them as quickly as possible. And the leadership of the American mission movement actually made a kind of strategic decision after the failure of the -- and it was a failure of the -- I think we can say, of the Heathen School.
DEMOSThey decided, in a word, that it's better that we should go to them in their own -- the heathen in their own homelands instead of bringing them here 'cause now we can -- we've seen all of the unanticipated problems that can arise from that earlier approach.
SESNOSo the conclusion was, it didn't work, it wouldn't work, keep them away?
DEMOSThey were very reluctant to use the word failure. One of the things that has interested me about the project from the start is I think it is unquestionably a failure. They didn't want to see it that way. They said, well, you know, it's done what it could for us. And now we'll kind of just move to a different front. But it was very tough for them to admit that their grand idea had not succeeded.
SESNOYou may have been fated to write this book because your father -- well, go ahead.
DEMOSWell, I discovered part-way through the research that I had a kind of a personal connection to the story. My father was a Greek man. Actually, he was raised in Turkey, and he was schooled at a kind of a missionary college. It was called Anatolia College, way out in the sort of wiles of Central Turkey. It had been founded by Protestant missionaries from America. It was sponsored by the very same organization that had sponsored the Heathen School. In short, I came to see that my father, from a certain perspective, was himself a kind of heathen youth who had been, in a way, converted.
DEMOSHe had a very good life after he came to America. But he had traveled a long way from his beginnings, and there was something that -- resonant there to the story of Obookiah and Ridge and all those others at the Heathen School.
SESNOAnd you may have even gotten a sign part-way through this whole thing.
SESNOYou got a sign, this postcard you got with your father...
DEMOSOkay. Right. Yes. One day, as I was doing the -- beginning the research, I got a fundraising appeal from this college, which still goes on, the college...
SESNOFrom the school your father went to, in Turkey?
DEMOSFrom the school my father went to. It is now gone. It's moved to Greece, but it's the same place. And there was this fundraising circular brochure that came to me. And I was kind of ready to toss it aside when I noticed there was a picture, an old photograph on the front. It was a photograph of the school orchestra as of about 1908 or '10, something like that. And there in the middle of the photograph was my father. And I felt just kind of thunderstruck. It made me feel that maybe there is a way in which fate has determined my connection to this particular project.
SESNOJohn Demos, what did you learn about America and about humanity from this work?
DEMOSWell, I think the bedrock theme here is the danger of overreaching, the kind of hubris that's involved in thinking that one can make great changes without all that much effort -- well, they tried very hard. But the idea of transforming, fully transforming the lives and the psyches of this very different people, it was not going to have a good outcome, it seems to me.
DEMOSWe can say that from the start. And I think this has been a sort of a persistent and on and off theme in American history. We've had grand ambitions, and I don't wish to disparage them. But sometimes we do overreach, and that is what the Heathen School story is finally all about.
SESNOAnd what do you hope readers come away with then?
DEMOSWell, I hope they come away with a sort of chastened sense of what's possible in this way. You know, I think it comes up right to the present day. We talk about nation-building around the world, and we've seen in the last few years how difficult that is, how many...
SESNOIs there inspiration in this book, though, too?
DEMOSI think it's more by way of caution, to be quite honest. Again, I don't want to disparage the inspiration side, the ambition, the hope to, you know, rise to make -- help the whole world sort of rise to a higher way of being. But it's awfully difficult.
SESNOJohn Demos, author of "The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic." It is a fascinating read on so many levels. Thank you for your time today.
DEMOSWell, thank you very much for inviting me here. It's been a pleasure.
SESNOIt's been a great pleasure. I'm Frank Sesno. It's my pleasure to be sitting in for Diane Rehm on "The Diane Rehm Show."
Most Recent Shows
Kate Mulgrew, who stars as "Red" in the Netflix TV series "Orange Is The New Black", opens up in a new memoir about her complicated family and the baby she gave away for adoption as a young woman.
On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”