Friday, May 8, 2009

Schafer's Wisconsin Domesday Book, Part 1

From 1920, until his death in 1941, Joseph Schafer was the Director of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. He believed that detailed study of local data was required before historians could make generalizations.

A Domesday Book is a census which is compiled from a comprehensive survey of a geographic sector. Given Schafer's viewpoint, it is no surprise that he was the author of a series known as the Wisconsin Domesday Book. Here we are only concerned with Volume IV: The Winnebago-Horicon Basin: A Type Study in Western History, which was published in 1937. Two chapters are largely about the Stockbridge Mohicans.

Schafer might have been the first white historian to write about the Citizen vs. Indian conflict. He doesn't appear to have felt any pressure to write what we might call "politically correct" history, but he still put most of the blame for the "ruin" of the Stockbridge Indians on the federal government. Nevertheless, he also put a lot of blame on the Indians themselves.

Schafer's expertise was on economic and agricultural history, and he explored that aspect of the Stockbridge Mohicans of the 1800's like no historian has before or since.

A flaw in Schafer's view is that he used statistics from the 1850 census. That was a time when there was a lot of controversy over land ownership at Stockbridge, which kept some of the tribe from farming. Nevertheless, here's what Schafer had to say about the Stockbridge farmers:

In 1850, as the census reveals, very few of them were raising wheat, the regular market crop among white farmers. Their fields usually varied from four to forty acres; they grew some corn, some potatoes, other garden truck, and made maple sugar. Nearly all had a few head of cattle for the support of which they put up a little forage, usually a yoke of oxen, sometimes a horse, commonly a number of swine, which could 'rustle' their own feed in the woods. But it was the most primitive subsistence farming that they carried on.... The 1860 census, representing mostly white farmers recently settled in the township, shows a definite improvement in that virtually all raised crops of wheat and corn and put up quantities of hay for winter stock feed, while the business of sugar-making - favored by the abundant and fine maple groves, had been pushed farther.
It is surprising that the people who invented maple sugar would be beat in its production by those who came after them, but that is what Schafer is saying.

What do we make of Schafer's analysis of the 1850 census data?

Instead of ridiculing Schafer for being politically incorrect, I think the data says something very important if we put it in a different context. Instead of comparing the tribe's rather low output to that of the whites that came after them, we can compare it to how they were doing back in New York State. As early as 1796, it was reported that two-thirds of the Stockbridge males were "industrious" and some even sold hogs to the Oneidas (source: Belknap and Morse). So when Schafer says they were "primitive subsistence" farmers in 1850, it appears they had taken a step backward.

Stay tuned for more on this topic

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