Monday, June 22, 2009

The JSM Presbyterian Church, Fred Westfall, the Safe, and my Research

The safe you see below was prominently displayed at the Arvid E. Miller Memorial Library Museum [that is what the Stockbridge Mohicans call their museum], in the fall of 2003. At that time people were still allowed to take photos, so the picture you see is my own intellectual property.

In the fall of 2003, I was a library school student working on a term paper about the Stockbridge Bible. An employee of the Arvid E. Miller Memorial Museum invited me to attend a meeting of the Stockbridge-Munsee Historical Committee so that I could ask questions of the tribal elders who were considered to be the experts. I listened attentively and tried my best to understand everything that was said.

There was emotion in the room. It was raw anger. I don't think you could honestly call it anything else. Maybe it was just one member of the committee getting worked up - but boy did she get worked up. And her anger was directed towards one villain in particular: the Reverend Fred Westfall.

According to the S-M Historical Committee (or according to their most vocal member that day), Rev. Fred Westfall of the John Sergeant Memorial (JSM) Presbyterian Church entered the home of an Indian [Jamison Quinney] took the Stockbridge Bible and put it in a safe in the front of the church, before selling it off to Mabel Choate in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

I didn't write down exactly all that was said, but suffice it to say that (over the course of the semester) I interviewed as many people as I could - whether in person or over the phone -and most people really didn't know much, but of those who had something to say, the conventional wisdom was that Fred Westfall was the villain responsible for sending the Stockbridge Bible back to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. One person even told me he suspected that Rev. Westfall had pocketed the money obtained from the sale of the sacred volumes.

Although I ran into many dead ends, I was fortunate enough to speak with members of a family that had belonged to the old John Sergeant Memorial Church and realized that they looked at things very differently. However, they also told me that they weren't going to share the phone number of a family member that knew more and they weren't going to say much at all. They told me something to the effect of 'go find another topic to study.'

I didn't listen to that particular comment. I was too far into it anyway by that time. I gathered photos and made photocopies of relevant documents and read them, thought about them, and read them again. And I asked myself these questions: Was Rev. Fred Westfall truly a villain preying upon the Indians? Did he take the Stockbridge Mohicans' tribal Bible? Did the hushed up disagreement I encountered from former members of the JSM church represent a longstanding difference of opinion about ownership of the two volumes? and especially, I asked myself the most basic of all historical questions: what happened when?

Stay tuned to find out the answers to those questions.

No comments :