A glaring flaw

Clarina Nichols was first and foremost a feminist, and her written views on Native Americans are scant. But nothing supports the claims about the pioneering suffragist and newspaper editor made in a recent column.

As the author of the first biography of Clarina I. H. Nichols, I read with interest Rolf Parker's commentary about his discovery of articles in the Windham County Democrat in which Nichols allegedly endorses the extermination of Native Americans in the west.

There are several major flaws in Parker's argument, but the most glaring one has to do with the example that he hangs his hat on.

In the Oct. 12, 1853, issue of the Democrat, Parker found a brief article, “From Oregon,” documenting attacks by Athapaskan natives on white settlers. The Democrat included, without comment, a line from an Oregon newspaper promising to “avenge these outrages, and not quit the field while the color of an Indian is seen.”

Leaving aside whether reprinting a story constitutes agreement with the author's views - a highly dubious assumption with 19th-century weeklies - Parker falsely assigns agency for this reprint to Clarina Nichols.

Had he read my book, Revolutionary Heart, he would have known that Nichols spent the entire month of October touring the state of Wisconsin on a temperance campaign. The Democrat was in the care of someone else, and quite possibly had been for most of 1853, as Clarina's plate was full with speaking engagements and reform conventions.

In fact, Parker wouldn't even have had to crack open my book to discover his error. On the very same page of that Oct. 12 issue that he quotes, right there in column three is a letter dated Sept. 30 from Milwaukee - signed “C.I.H. Nichols”!

* * *

Nor do we have to read between the lines to discover what Nichols thought of America's indigenous peoples.

Soon after returning from Wisconsin, she closed the Democrat, moved to Kansas, and settled in an anti-slavery town founded and populated by Wyandotte Indians.

She partnered with a prominent Wyandotte, Lucy Armstrong, at the constitutional convention that gave Kansas women more rights than any state in the Union.

Her youngest son married Mary Warpole, a Wyandotte; when Warpole failed to receive fair payment for her land, Clarina filed an appeal in her defense. After Warpole's death, Clarina helped George raise their three small children. All seven lie under a single family gravestone in Pomo, California.

Her writings on Indian affairs in Kansas are scant, aside from a moving 1868 report on the last Green Corn Festival that the Wyandottes held before many of them removed to Oklahoma.

Nichols was first and foremost a feminist, and her correspondence is dominated by women's issues. More than a decade after leaving Brattleboro, she was still debating suffrage with her old adversaries at the Vermont Phoenix.

Nothing, however, supports the claims made about her in The Commons.

* * *

I do not understand Parker's self-described “obsession” with finding politically incorrect speech about Native Americans in the Democrat, except that he feels a need to silence a pioneering female voice in American history.

For the thousands of women and girls who have taken inspiration from the life of Clarina Nichols, her actions - and the words she actually wrote - speak for themselves.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates