Broken Fragments of Antique Legends
“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.”
Each furnished with his staff and knapsack,
And some provisions for the war
We ventured on without conceiving,
What trials lay yet before
—Issachar Bates, “A Winter’s Journey to Busroe” (1811)
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History is all iteration, wrote Melville. This week while going through an old file cabinet I came across my rain-stained pencil and ballpoint journal from the summer, 50 years ago, when I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. I glanced over a few pages before determining to make it into a book someday.
Wedged into the interior liner of the back cover I found a selfie from 1972. Judging by the small stream running behind me where the trail had been, I’m guessing this was taken in the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania right after Hurricane Agnes. The Blues run about 150 miles (240 km) from the Delaware Water Gap to Big Gap. At their southern extent, the western flank slopes down into the Cumberland Valley, which extends off into Kentucky and Ohio.
I was 25 then and it was not until I was 70 that I learned my ancestor, Shaker poet-singer-songwriter Issachar Bates, had walked perhaps even this same trail where the picture was taken. In 1805 he and two other missionaries left New Lebanon, New York, for an extended recruitment mission to the American West. It was a time of festive camp meeting revivals along the frontier and Issachar performed at a Shaker rave at Turtle Creek, Ohio on May 23, 1805. Falling down trances a la Saul of Tarsus and snake-handling were the best one could do before psychedelics if you abstained from applejack spirits.
After founding another Shaker colony at West Union (Busro), Indiana, my great great great great grandfather was nearly castrated and lynched but was saved by his gifted tongue and sense of humor that disarmed the angry mob. (I would likely still be here regardless since he only joined the celibate Shaker order after fathering my great great great grandfather). From 1806 to 1811, Issachar by his own account was in constant motion, traveling some 38,000 miles on foot or horse.
The Western Shaker converts and colonies were fragile in their beliefs and practices—being a long distance for communication with the better-established colonies in the East—so elders like Issachar felt it necessary to make regular visitations, resolve conflicts, decide hard questions, and relate stories of the tribulations of others to serve as good examples of perseverance in the faith. His handmade two-story fieldstone home known as Deacon’s House still stands in Pleasant Hill Shaker Village on the Ohio side of the Kentucky River. In a different Shaker Village, he built a dormitory for 40 faithful from stones gathered from the dry floor of the Wabash river in a drought year. Typical of a missionary’s penchant for divine attribution, Issachar called the drought a gift from God.
Ye may judge that it hath been dry in this country—we got stones for our cellar wall out of the bottom of the great Wabash which was a great favour to us. We got all our stones in the Wabash. We have often thought of the words of the psalmist (while we were rolling out such nice stones, which had been hid where the finger of man could never before touch them), "What ailed thee thou sea, that thou floodest, And thou ordain that thou was driven back?” (Answer) “At the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of the whole earth." What ailed thee thou Wabash that thou was so dryed up? Because we had a special gift of God to go to building in this place, where God hath placed his name and we took hold of it and God— even God—opened the way, that he might confound and put to silence an unbelieving spirit, that was always crying out that we had nothing here to build with. But we have now found out that we have enough to build with, and that if we do the work, God will provide the stuff.
Carol Medlicott’s biography of my grandfather describes his travels in the “West” of early 19th century North America. He would have seen these places very much as the teenage Busro Shaker, William Redmon, described them:
The prairies, rivers, ponds, bayous, &c abounded with birds, fishes, fowls, & game of all kinds peculiar to that country: Wild geese, swans, pelicans, brants, cranes, ducks &c. Fishes astonishingly plenty, of strange kinds & uncommon in size. Among the numerous birds, Paroquets as mischievous as beautiful; Black Birds by millions; Prairie Hens by thousands, they rose from the fields as a cloud making a noise like thunder. But I must not be tedious for it would require a Book to hint at all the peculiarities of this New World, as seen by my juvenile eyes.
The Kentucky and Ohio Shaker colonies lay very close to areas where the Shawnee traveled seasonally for hunting and salt supply. Sixty miles due north lay Vincennes, a thriving frontier town on the Wabash founded by the French in 1732, which had been a key western military outpost since the Revolutionary War. Since Vincennes had been named the capital of Indiana Territory in 1800, military authorities in the region had worked to establish overland trails, or “traces," linking it with other population centers. Some of these followed older Indian or animal trails, such as the Buffalo Trace, surveyed in 1805, between the falls of the Ohio at Louisville and Vincennes to the west. About the same time, Vincennes residents petitioned the U.S. government to support the development of a trace between Vincennes and Red Banks, and this led to the establishment of forts, taverns, and ferry crossings along the route. In 1807, soldiers from Vincennes were ordered to patrol the Red Banks Trail to discourage Indians from interfering with white travelers.
Our Ninth President
William Henry Harrison became the first governor of Indiana Territory in 1801 and while still in his 20s concluded multiple Indian treaties acquiring millions of acres for the United States—vast swaths that today constitute Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, southern Michigan and the eastern portion of Minnesota—by conquest, fraud, brutality, and deception. Four decades later, at 68, Harrison was the oldest person to assume the American presidency until Ronald Reagan, lasting only 31 days until his death, a record for brevity of office that has not since been matched.
You should be good, and serve the great spirit in your own manner, without being taught by ministers sent from the white people.
During their quiet interludes on the trail together while journeying from place to place, Issachar Bates and his companions talked about the Indians and wondered whether they might convert them to the revelatory Shaker gospel. As early as the spring of 1805 they had heard rumors of camp revivals among the Shawnee. Medlicott writes:
It was there in about 1805 that a Shawnee named Lalawethika, the younger brother of Tecumseh, had endured a series of disturbing religious visions that plainly illustrated to him the consequences for various wicked behaviors. As a result, he renounced alcohol and began a vigorous program of charismatic preaching among the Indians. He adopted a new name, Tenskwatawa, meaning "the open door," and began urging the Shawnee to purify themselves of all practices adopted from white Americans and embark on a spiritual revival. To most, he became known as "the Prophet" About 1806 he moved with his brother Tecumseh and a very large group of followers back into Ohio to a settlement near Greenville, where the treaty expelling the Shawnee had been conducted in 1795.
When the Indiana Shakers paid a call at the Greenville settlement, Carol Medlicott writes:
The men were awestruck by the Indians' enormous timbered "meeting house" built for worship, 150 feet long. All preachers themselves, and familiar with the challenges of outdoor speech-making to scattered crowds, the Shakers were particularly amazed at the vocal delivery of one of the Indian orators, identified as a cousin of Lallawasheka: "Ten thousand people might have distinctly understood him & his voice might have been heard over the plains for the distance of at least two miles."
Some twenty-five Indians, including Tecumseh and the aged Chief Bluejacket, along with interpreter Peter Cornstalk, returned the visit to the Shakers at Turtle Creek, guided there by the Beaver Creek Shakers. They witnessed Shaker worship, singing, circle dancing, and preaching, with a crowd of several hundred assembled.
A Stand Down Order from Shaker HQ
Mother Lucy Wright, the Shakers' principal authority at the New Lebanon Ministry, received the report of these visits and was openly dismayed:
Since I have heard of your going after the Indians, I have felt some tribulations on that account though I do not know the cause of your going & therefore cannot judge whether you went in the gift of God or not, or whether it would not be better to have sent some of the young believers than to have gone yourself I leave you to judge – but this I know, that as you are the first in your order, your Gift is to bear & suffer the most for the increase of the Gospel.
We believe it [preaching to the Indians] ought to be done by some of the young believers, that… have not much gift in relation to white people and then leave them to act for themselves, &c by no means gather them, for they are Indians & Will remain so, therefore cannot be brought into the order of white people, but must be saved in their own order & Nation. We believe that God is able to raise up them of their own Nation that will be able to lead & protect them… therefore we believe it to be wisdom not to meddle much with them.
However, the Shakers at Turtle Creek, unaware of Mother Lucy's concern because of the slow progress of mail to and from the frontier, continued to pursue their newfound friendship with the Shawnee during the summer of 1807. In August, Issachar Bates and Richard McNemar made the long hike to Greenville, passing along the way some ancient Mississippian earthworks.
Issachar wrote in his journal:
…all these mounds & the prospects around them are great marks of antiquity & are very striking to the eye.
This time Issachar met Tenskwatawa in the enormous Indian meeting house and attended an assembly that continued overnight with singing and dancing. Soon after, a group of fifty Indians traveled to Turtle Creek on August 28, and joined in the music and dance of the Shakers there, much to the consternation of the local militia.
Chastened by learning of the letters from Mother Lucy, Issachar wrote a letter to his new friends, Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh, in the Summer of 1807:
Brothers, we do not think strange if some people call the work of the good-spirit which is among you foolishness and nonsense. It is because they do not understand it. So they say of the work among us [the Shakers]. They… say our good people who have confessed & put away their sins ought Not to dance & rejoice before the great spirit. But we tell them that the good people did so more than three thousand years ago, when they got away from Egypt a country of wicked people & went to a place where the prophets of the great spirit told them. But after awhile them good people did wicked, & then the wicked people stole Dancing away from them. But the good spirit spake by his prophets & said that in the last days, when The day of judgment would come on the wicked, then the good people should rejoice again in the Dance, both young men & old together, & the good prophets wrote it down more than two thousand years ago, that the good people might see it. If the Interpreter has a Bible, he may find these things in Exodus 15.20 & in the book of Jeremiah 31.14 & in many other places. But brothers, what is the reason that the wicked people do not believe when they see a good people that will not cheat, nor lie, nor drink whiskey, nor quarrel, nor fight, nor do any bad thing to any one? The only reason why they do not believe the work of the good spirit is because they want to be wicked.
We say that the great spirit has raised up prophets of your own, as he had promised long ago. But there are a great many good chiefs and great men, and peaceable citizens who love and observe the laws of the country, and want to live in peace, and such are willing that you should be good, and serve the great spirit in your own manner, without being taught by ministers sent from the white people.
The Canoe Tips
News of the Shawnee presence and the rise of a new Indian “prophet" sparked complaints in the white settlements of the region. Because of these threats, in 1808 Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh established a village that the Colonists dubbed "Prophetstown" north of present-day Lafayette, Indiana near the confluence of the Tippecanoe River and the Wabash River. There they urged Native Americans of all tribes and nations to resist invasion and occupation and to remain resolute in their rejection of acculturation.
Three years later, a white vigilante army led by William Henry Harrison burned Prophetstown to the ground in the so-called Battle of Tippecanoe, which was really just a genocidal attack on the Shawnee religious center. The Prophet, who had forecast victory over the whites, lost his influence, became an outcast, and migrated to Canada during the War of 1812. Tecumseh allied himself with the British to oppose US expansionism but was killed at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, after which resistance in the Ohio Valley ended. His last words were “So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.” Harrison’s ethnic cleansing campaign removed the surviving Shawnee to Kansas.
"Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" became a popular and influential campaign song and slogan of the Whig Party's Log Cabin Campaign in the 1840 United States presidential election. Its lyrics sang the praises of Whig candidates Harrison (“Old Tippecanoe") and veep John Tyler, while denigrating incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren. The song was revived for the 1968 Off-Broadway musical How to Steal an Election. According to Wikipedia, where you can hear the jingle, the song "firmly established the power of singing as a campaign device" in the United States, and with the other songs and slogans of 1840, marked the "Great Divide" in the polarized cravenness of American political campaigns. The North American Review said at the time that the song was, "in the political canvas of 1840 what the Marseillaise was to the French Revolution. It sang Harrison into the presidency."
The ironies of religious practices considered scandalous because they reveled in song and dance and a campaign jingle that catapulted a jingoist into the White House are head-shaking. You can call William Henry Harrison sort of an early version of Bosnia and Herzegovina President Radovan Karadžić—who now serves out his life sentence in a UK prison for ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war (1992–1995).
All nature calls for busy hands,
For this is heav'n's decree;
The beast, the bird, the insect stands A monitor to me;
The little busy artful bee
Works ev'ry shining hour,
And her industry I can see,
In ev'ry opening flower.
—Issachar Bates, “Industry"
North of Delaware Water Gap, within sight of the Appalachian Trail at Mt. Tammany, is Shawnee Island in the Delaware River. I wondered if that might be somewhere Issachar and Tenskwatawa might have met. As it turned out, that name was given to the island by a surveyor sent by William Penn, who mistakenly thought the local Indians were Shawnee when in actuality, they were Minsis. There are a few dozen places in SW New Jersey and NE Pennsylvania—Shawnee Village, Shawnee on Delaware, Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort, Shawnee Mountain Ski Resort—all tracing their name to that surveying error.
Much in the way Black Hawk described Rock Island in the middle of the Mississippi (today Moline IL), Shawnee Island may well have supported temperate fruit and nut forests, wild game and unlimited fish for the Minsis, Lenape and Delaware peoples. Today it is a 27-hole golf course. Cost of membership: $600 to $2200.
Some years after reading those passages in Carol Medlicott’s book, I learned that Tenskwatawa had been survived by a mixed-race daughter, whom he had named Marcy Bates. As far as we know, there are no other “Bates” in the family line of Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh, or of Algonquin-speaking Indians, for that matter. Issachar’s mother’s name was Mercy Bates.
History is all iteration, wrote Melville. Or as Mark Twain said, "History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.”
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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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