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Modern History Sourcebook:
Lewis Henry Morgan:
The Destiny of the Indian, 1851

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818­1881) is best known as the "father of American anthropology. " Here he considers the future of the American Indian.

The future destiny of the Indian upon this continent, is a subject of no ordinary interest. If the fact, that he cannot be saved in his native state, needed any proof beyond the experience of the past, it could be demonstrated from the nature of things. Our primitive inhabitants are environed with civilized life, the baleful and disastrous influence of which, when brought in contact with Indian life, is wholly irresistible. Civilization is aggressive, as well as progressive-a positive state of society, attacking every obstacle, overwhelming every lesser agency, and searching out and filling up every crevice, both in the moral and physical world; while Indian life is an unarmed condition, a negative state, without inherent vitality, and without powers of resistance. The institutions of the red man fix him to the soil with a fragile and precarious tenure; while those of civilized man, in his highest estate, enable him to seize it with a grasp which defies displacement. To uproot a race at the meridian of its intellectual power, is next to impossible; but the expulsion of a contiguous one, in a state of primitive rudeness, is comparatively easy, if not an absolute necessity.

The manifest destiny of the Indian, if left to himself, calls up the question of his reclamation, certainly, in itself, a more interesting and far more important subject than any which have before been considered. All the Indian races now dwelling within the Republic have fallen under its jurisdiction; thus casting upon the government a vast responsibility, as the administrator of their affairs, and a solemn trust, as the guardian of their future welfare. Should the system of tutelage and supervision, adopted by the national government, find its highest aim and ultimate object in the adjustment of their present difficulties from day to day; or should it look beyond and above these temporary considerations, towards their final elevation to the rights and privileges of American citizens?

This is certainly a grave question, and if the latter enterprise itself be feasible it should be prosecuted with a zeal and energy as eamest and untiring as its importance demands. During the period within which this question will be solved, the American people cannot remain indifferent and passive spectators, and avoid responsibility; for while the government is chiefly accountable for the administration of their civil affairs, those of a moral and religious character which, at least, are not less important, appeal to the enlightened benevolence of the public at large.

Whether a portion of the Indian family may yet be reclaimed and civilized, and thus saved eventually from the fate which has already befallen so many of our aboriginal races, will furnish the theme of a few concluding reflections. What is true of the Iroquois, in a general sense, can be predicated of any other portion of our primitive inhabitants. For this reason the facts relied upon to establish the hypothesis that the Indian can be permanently reclaimed and civilized, will be drawn exclusively from the social history of the former.

There are now about four thousand Iroquois living in the state of New York. Having for many years been surrounded by civilization, and shut in from all intercourse with the ruder tribes of the wilderness, they have not only lost their native fierceness, but have become quite tractable and humane" In addition to this, the agricultural pursuits into which they have gradually become initiated, have introduced new modes of life, and awakened new aspirations until a change, in itself scarcely perceptible to the casual observer, but in reality very great, has already been accomplished. At the present moment their decline has not only been arrested, but they are actually increasing in numbers, and improving in their social condition. The proximate cause of this universal spectacle is to be found in their feeble attempts at agriculture; but the remote and the true one is to be discovered in the schools of the missionaries.

To these establishments among the Iroquois, from the days of the Jesuit fathers down to the present time, they are principally indebted for all the progress they have made, and for whatever prospect of ultimate reclamation their condition is beginning to inspire. By the missionaries they were taught our language, and many of the arts of husbandry and of domestic life; from them they received the Bible and the precepts of Christianity. After the lapse of so many years, the fruits of their toil and devotion are becoming constantly more apparent: as, through years of slow and almost imperceptible progress, they have gradually emancipated themselves from much of the rudeness of Indian life. The Iroquois of the present day is, in his social condition, elevated far above the Iroquois of the seventeenth century. This fact is sufficient to prove, that philanthropy and Christianity are not wasted upon the Indian; and further than this, that the Iroquois, if eventually reclaimed, must ascribe their preservation to the persevering and devoted efforts of those missionaries who labored for their welfare when they were injured and defrauded by the unscrupulous, neglected by the civil authorities, and oppressed by the multitude of misfortunes which accelerated their decline.

There are but two means of rescuing the Indian from his impending destiny; and these are education and Christianity. If he will receive into his mind the light of knowledge and the spirit of civilization, he will possess, not only the means of self­defence, but the power with which to emancipate himself from the thraldom in which he is held. The frequent attempts which have been made to educate the Indian, and the numerous failures in which these attempts have eventuated, have, to some extent, created a belief in the public mind, that his education and reclamation are both impossible. This enterprise may still, perhaps, be considered an experiment, and of uncertain issue; but experience has not yet shown that it is hopeless. There is now, in each Indian community in the State, a large and respectable class who have become habitual cultivators of the soil; many of whom have adopted our mode of life, have become members of the missionary churches, speak our language, and are in every respect discreet and sensible men. In this particular class there is a strong desire for the adoption of the customs of civilized life, and more especially for the education of their children, upon which subject they often express the strongest solicitude. Among the youth who are brought up under such influences, there exists the same desire for knowledge, and the same readiness to improve educational advantages. Out of this class Indian youth may be selected for a higher education, with every prospect of success, since to a better preparation for superior advantages, there is superadded a stronger security against a relapse into Indian life. In the attempted education of their young men, the prime difficulty has been to render their attainments permanent, and useful to themselves.(To draw an untutored Indian from his forest home, and, when carefully educated, to dismiss him again to the wilderness, a solitary scholar, would be an idle experiment; because his attainments would not only be unappreciated by his former associates, but he would incur the hazard of being despised because of them. The education of the Indian youth should be general, and chiefly in schools at home.

A new order of things has recently become apparent among the Iroquois, which is favorable to a more general education at home and to a higher cultivation in particular instances. The schools of the missionaries, established as they have been, and are, in the heart of our Indian communities, have reached the people directly, and laid the only true and solid foundation of their permanent improvement. They have created a new society in the midst of them, founded upon Christianity; thereby awakening new desires, creating new habits, and arousing new aspirations. In fact they have gathered together the better elements of Indian society, and quickened them with the light of religion and of knowledge. A class has thus been gradually formed, which if encouraged and strengthened, will eventually draw over to itself that portion of our Indian population which is susceptible of improvement and elevation, and willing to make the attempt. Under the fostering care of the government, both state and national, and under the still more efficient tutelage of religious societies, great hopes may be justly entertained of the ultimate and permanent civilization of this portion of the Iroquois.

Lewis Henry Morgan, League of the Ho­de '­no­sau­nee, or Iroquois, vol. 2 (Rochester, New York, 1851; rept. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1901), pp. 108­13.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu