When I was 7 years old, two things frightened me about living in our small town in Connecticut: the brutal murder of Barbara Gibbons, and the wrongful conviction of her son, Peter Riley.
I heard my father, the managing editor of the Lakeville Journal (which fought for Riley’s freedom), discussing all the details of how the accused young man was deprived of food and water and pushed into a confession. An overzealous prosecutorial team also withheld evidence that would have proved that Riley was not at the scene of the crime.
The injustices were documented in the Hartford Courant. The Journal called for a second trial, in which Riley was exonerated.
Though my father did not write the editorials that helped free Riley, I understood that my dad’s job was about truth and justice. This feeling that newspaper writers and editors were heroes was made stronger during the unfolding of Watergate, which my family followed closely. We all saw All the President’s Men in the local movie theater when I was 10.
When I was a child, my heroes were journalists.
This year, I came across information about Clarina Nichols, Windham County’s long-dead abolitionist, journalist, and champion of women’s rights — information that was so disturbing that it becomes very difficult to continue to call her a hero.
This column is about mysteries of the human soul, and not the beautiful kind.
It’s about how well we can discern the motive of a newspaper editor who has been dead for more than 100 years and who cannot defend herself against accusations.
And it’s about accepting that people can be very complicated.
* * *
I first learned about the existence of Clarina Nichols on my honeymoon. When I was 36, I was married in Townshend, on the banks of the West River. It was a pretty spectacular wedding. As we headed off on our trip, we stopped at the West Townshend Country Store on Route 30.
As I got back in the car, I saw two large, green historical markers, one commemorating President William Howard Taft’s family connections to the area, and the other honoring Nichols.
Her marker reads, “Born in West Townshend, 1810, Clarina Howard Nichols became an early advocate for women’s rights. After a divorce in 1843, she married George Nichols. As editor of the Windham County Democrat, she strongly advocated women’s property rights, child custody, temperance, and suffrage. In 1852 she became the first women to address the Vermont Legislature, and lectured throughout New England, and the Midwest. Nichols was a staunch abolitionist who seized the opportunity to move with her family to Kansas, where her views on slavery and women’s rights were widely accepted. During the Civil War, she was director of a home for orphaned black children in Washington, D.C. She died at her son’s home, in Pomo, California.”
Reading all of this, I was intrigued, because I had never heard of her.
Doing a little research, I learned that Nichols also ran an underground railroad in Kansas (a state that was being “settled” by whites who were moving in via actual railroad and taking over indigenous lands.) While many abolitionists lived in Kansas, the state was contested land, and it was still a place where one’s abolitionist views could get you murdered.
Nichols fought for women’s rights. As the Kansas Historical Society puts it, “when the Kansas campaign for equal suffrage was launched in 1867, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Olympia Brown, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton joined Clarina Nichols in a valiant but futile effort. [...] Through strong speaking and writing, Clarina Nichols made history in Kansas and advanced the cause of human rights.”
Years after coming upon the historical marker for Nichols, I became a newspaper reporter at the Deerfield Valley News, in Wilmington.
My writing never reached the heights of either her language or her impact, but Nichols was a hero to me.
* * *
While doing research on Clarina Nichols’s writing, I read some articles in the Windham County Democrat that appeared to support “wars of extermination” against Native people.
I was deeply disturbed.
Here, for example, is an excerpt from the first disturbing article that I came across in the Democrat, in the issue of Oct. 12, 1853.
“A general Indian war appears to have lately broken out in Oregon, and promises to be a war of extermination. [...] Judge Skinner, Indian Agent for Rogue River district, had been butchered in a horrible manner by the Indians. [...] In Scott Valley several settlers had been murdered by the Indians, and several men killed in skirmishes with the savages.”
At the end of this summary item, Nichols published this chilling quote from an Oregon newspaper.
“We have every confidence in our citizens who have gone in pursuit of the savage foe. They will avenge these outrages, and not quit the field while the color of an Indian is seen.”
Modern historians tell us that the incidents that Nichols published were events that took place in a war of extermination against the Athapaskan people of southern Oregon.
According to the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon Encyclopedia, “Many Athapaskan villages were situated on prime river terraces, land that was coveted by American settlers and miners. The Rogue River Indian wars — an effort by Americans to exterminate Native peoples in the region — began in 1850 as a series of skirmishes with early miners and white settlers.”
Some of the people who were alive at the time found the march towards annihilation of the indigenous people in Oregon abhorrent. For example, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia, “Gen. John E. Wool, commander of the Department of the Pacific in 1855-1856, vilified the actions of the militia, blaming it for much of the warfare and for invading tribal territories. ‘Whilest I was in Oregon,’ Wool wrote on February 12, 1856, “it was reported to me, that many citizens, with due proportion of volunteers, ... advocated the extermination of the Indians.”
Because of my tendency to shy away from accusations, and convictions of anyone who cannot defend themselves, I have, perhaps mistakenly tried to imagine what defense could be offered for Nichols.
One might say that she was only quoting other papers. However, before the reader arrives at the quote, Nichols has already written a summary of the news, called the natives “savages” and listed their offenses against white farmers. Following this with silence on a call of extermination is pretty solid evidence of race baiting and the abetting and promotion of genocide.
Nichols repeatedly demonstrated herself to be a gifted writer and political activist. How could she not have seen the potential violent impact of the words she had printed, and as a compassionate person, concerned about justice, how could she have done so?
* * *
The mystery is made only deeper by the words of compassion and understanding published by another editor in Brattleboro, who also worked in the Granite Building (which currently houses Amy’s Bakery Arts Café) but at a different paper, the Semi-Weekly Eagle.
In general, the Eagle’s editorials on policy were frequently at odds with those of the Democrat. Racist humor mocking the intelligence and language of people of African descent are to be found in the Eagle.
But the editor of the Eagle can be credited with printing a Philadelphia Inquirer article about the Bridge Gulf massacre of a tribe of Wintu people in California in 1852, and it promotes a high level of compassion for indigenous people, even those who may have been driven to violence by circumstance.
“The white man encroaches upon the Indian, seizes his land and drives him from his hunting grounds, and when the poor savage, goaded to desperation, turns upon his assailants and commits some outrage, it is made the pretext of the sanguinary extermination of whole families,” readers of the Eagle saw on the front page of the June 21, 1852 issue. “Humanity may mourn, but the march of the pioneer of a system will still be onward, and in the name of Progress and of Liberty — how many excesses will be committed!”
Nichols was indeed a proponent of progress, which for her meant women’s rights, the end of slavery, temperance, and the expansion of “civilization” from New England to all parts of the continent. Unfortunately, she at times writes in broad terms about the war between whites and their civilization, (and the barbarism of Indians,) and she is not talking about a war of ideas.
“The editorial [in the Eagle] is remarkable,” said Rich Holschuh, of Brattleboro, who serves on the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. “I refer to its strong language recognizing the inhumane atrocities committed in the name of patriotic ideals: expansionism, Manifest Destiny, exceptionalism, white superiority.”
“These overt values, which are still in play today to at least some extent, show the dark underside of the USA’s much-vaunted, self-professed moral authority,” he continued. “This Philadelphia Inquirer editorial (reprinted by the Eagle) was among a minority opinion in the country at the time; its characterizations and condemnation of the Bridge Gulch Massacre of over 150 Wintu flew in the face of most popular opinion and risked strong and sometimes violent reactions.”
* * *
I became obsessed with cataloging all the evidence of Nichols’ thoughts on Native people. I created a spreadsheet of every article that ever was printed in the Democrat that included the word “Indian.” This was possible only because the Democrat has been digitized and made available online through the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Chronicling America project.
After reading all 44 such articles, things become both more clear, and more confusing.
On the one hand, the inflammatory article of 1853 is not alone. Other articles penned or published in the Democrat seem to give full support to forced resettlement and murder. Some (but not all) of these articles predate Nichols taking control of the paper, which some historians have said occurred in 1844.
In 1849, she published an article that stated that the Indians in Florida who could not be induced to leave their homeland would be hunted out.
However, she also printed two articles in February of 1853 (before she left for Kansas) that pose a challenge for anyone hoping to paint her as unremittingly unsympathetic to indigenous people.
The first lists the many wrongs of American society, including the “killing indians.”
The second article, a reprint from the Cincinnati Evening Atlas, posits that if the Comanches were returned access to their land, then warfare might be averted.
“Confined to their territory by a hedge of military posts, and unable to pursue their game beyond their frontier, they are almost in a state of starvation,” the piece says. “The buffalo has [sic] nearly disappeared, the deer are driven across the lines, and they are frequently reduced to the necessity of eating horse flesh, and not enough of that to satisfy their hunger.”
The anonymous author opines that “[i]t would not be inappropriate to inquire whether, instead of military posts to awe them into subjection, they could not be conciliated into friendship by timely supplies and means of subsistence.”
There is no steady progression of thought evident in the timeline. Nichols published inflammatory articles on Oregon after she had selected these stories of apparent kindness and reconciliation.
Thus it appears that Nichols printed words that can fairly be seen as encouraging both the extermination of indigenous people and tolerance and understanding toward them.
Do articles of one sort cancel out those of the other? Nichols sincere and effective efforts to advance abolitionist, feminist, and suffragist causes make her an American champion. But her role in fanning the flames of racial hatred against indigenous people cannot be denied.
* * *
I still wish to catalogue all of articles published in the Windham County Democrat that use the words “savage” and “barbarians” and the phrase “red man.” I invite local readers to join in this effort by using Chronicling America to complete the spreadsheet that I have started.
A larger project, which I painfully stumbled on in the course of writing this piece, which surely needs to be done, is to search all the articles published in all the local newspapers that have been digitized to catalog use of the words “extermination” and “Indians.”
Unfortunately for anyone who wants to pretend that the land they live on is free from the taint of robbery and murder, the editors of the newspapers of the 1800s were proud to document the removal and killing of Native peoples from the land. An initial search on Chronicling America for articles about “wars of extermination” reveals more than 5,300 entries.
Not all of these will illuminate evidence of self righteous or gleeful murder, but many of them will.
* * *
My project started with trying to make sense of Clarina Nichols. It has evolved into something that moves closer to explaining our country’s current attitudes toward Native peoples. It looks at the role of the press in shaping people’s perceptions as it reflects the views of a place at a time.
My project is not about convicting the white race, or Americans, as a monolithic mass. But I know that I am not the only person who had no full understanding of the piece-meal genocide that happened in state after state, county after county, and town after town, aided and abetted by local journalists.
Wading in the river of shame and rage rarely improves anything. But an understanding of the full and thorough reality of each tribe that was intentionally murdered seems to me a starting place that cannot be flinched at.
What we do with this truth is another matter. But pulling the knowledge of what was done, up out of the depths of the newspapers where murder was set to print, is a starting place from which we can build something better than denial, or ignorance.
I don’t have a simple answer to solve the mystery of the Clarina Nicholses of the world. But I wonder if maybe heroes, people who take on big causes, in big ways, are more able to do great good, and also more prone to have spectacular failures and cause great harm, because they are the people most likely to be passionate doers.
Without a belief in the absolute and universal humanity of all people, which Clarina seems to have lacked, passion can take one down terrible roads.