“The Chiefs Now in This City:” Indians and the Urban Frontier in Early America


May 16, 2022
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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“The Chiefs Now in This City:” Indians and the Urban Frontier in Early America by Colin G. Calloway (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021)

BOOK REVIEW: In London in 1710, the four “Indian kings” went to see several plays and operas, as well as a Punch and Judy show. When they famously attended an operatic performance of Macbeth, the audience was so intent on gawking at them that the play was interrupted until the Indians could be removed from their box seats and placed on chairs onstage where the audience could watch them as they watched the Scottish tragedy. (page 168)

The above description of Native Americans before the Revolution would not have been the case in British North America, according to historian and Dartmouth professor Colin G. Calloway. Indians were a common sight in cities and towns in the colonies, so much so that such gawking as done in 1710 London would have been deemed uncivil and rude behavior in America. Calloway, the author of the award-winning book The Indian World of George Washington (2018), has written about the presence and experiences of Native Americans in cities in his newest effort, “The Chiefs Now in This City:” Indians and the Urban Frontier in Early America (2021). The traffic of Indians to cities in antebellum America was constant, and seeing them in their native dress walking the streets of Boston or Charleston would have been a regular, normal occurrence. Since most attention has been given to the study and image of Indians on reservations, urban Indians have largely been ignored. Consequently, contemporary audiences risk believing “Native people who live in cities are somehow less Native” (p. 3). Calloway’s book explores this specific group of Indians and tries to answer some basic questions: what was in it for them in the cities? What was their experience? And how did their presence influence urban economics and national politics?

The book opens up with “The Towns and Cities of Early America,” describing the growth of some of what would become the major urban areas of settlement In North America: Boston, Quebec, Montreal, Albany, Philadelphia, Charleston, New Orleans, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Detroit. Chapter 2, “Coming To Town,” answers the question of why the Indians travelled to towns and cities, which was mainly to visit, talk, resolve disputes, trade, and later to sign treaties. Although their presence was not unique, it did put some European colonists on edge:

It could not have been easy for Indian people to make their way through throngs of curious onlookers, no matter who warm the welcome. After all, city dwellers read and heard reports of Indian raids on the frontiers, some citizens who had lost loved ones no doubt harbored hatreds, and old fears and cries for vengeance might rise up at any time. Indian delegates arriving in the city may have experienced an ordeal not unlike that of white captives who had to run a gauntlet between rows of people brandishing sticks when they arrived in Indian communities. (p. 49)

Delegations of Indians were a common in Philadelphia during the Revolution and the administration of President Washington. Washington hosted the Indian leader Alexander McGillivray in his mansion. Merchants and businesses looked forward to the visits of these delegations because the Indians were eager consumers.

Chapter 3 focuses on the non-delegate Indians who lived and worked in cities alongside Scottish, Irish, French, German, and English Americans. Some cities felt the need to police these “foreigners” and therefore passed laws regulating their behavior. Unfortunately, as described in Chapter 4 “Taking Their Lives in Their Hands,” Indians suffered alongside their urban counterparts who fell victim to diseases like yellow-fever and the dreaded smallpox. Such epidemics made Charleston, South Carolina, among the deadliest cities in North America. Calloway then writes about how Indians found lodging, what they ate, and what they drank while in the cities and towns. Taverns were just as important to Indians as gathering places, and alcohol consumption, especially when Indian delegations were in town, was considerable.

The experiences of the Indians themselves are the subjects of Chapter 6 “The Things They Saw” and Chapter 7 “Performance and Performers.” Cities did not always impress their Indian visitors, who were shocked by the smells and sight of refuse, the prisons, prostitution, and crime. They were interested in shipping, marveled at science events, and were astounded at the rapidly growing population in the cities. Indians were aware that they were frequently being watched, and they dressed for the occasion. They understood that they were performing a role, that their ignorant and gullible audience expected them to act a certain way. Indians also knew that their performance established their identity and sovereignty in the halls of American power.

The quickly expanding United States and its efforts to attain “manifest destiny” at any cost meant that the delegations of Indians arriving in cities were gradually getting smaller. Treaties were fewer, and the Indians were no longer negotiating for political relationships. They were now struggling to set favorable terms for their own survival. The final paragraph ends on a happy and hopeful note, as Calloway describes the massive return of thousands of Native peoples to Washington, DC in 2004 to celebrate the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.

“The Chiefs Now in This City:” Indians and the Urban Frontier in Early America is not the usual tragic narrative of Native Americans that one finds in history books. The regular presence of Indians on the streets of major American cities will surely surprise many readers. Their assimilation into American society was more prevalent than many likely believe. Besides writing in his usual excellent style, Calloway provides a separate illustrated section, “Picturing Chiefs in the City.” Several amazing portraits of such individuals as Tishchoan, Lapowinsa, Hipothle Mico, Good Peter, Cornplanter, and Joseph Brant/Thatendanega are displayed. Descriptions of some of the portraits are included to encourage an appreciation for the art.

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