June 13, 2024

A Tainted Trophy And The Framing Of White Supremacy In America, Part 2 (Tink Tinker)

The following is the second of a three-part series. The first can be found here. The entire article appears in the fall 2022 issue of The New Polis Journal.

In fact, this book—with its cover—had become part of the romance narrative of christian conquest, helping to frame destruction, murder and conquest as somehow justifiable before their god. This larger romanticized history of eurochristian conquest of the Land where he grew up could not have left RM unaffected, although it is a far cry from justifying his elite colonialist ignorance. At the same time, the historical narrative framed anthony wayne as the hero who opened the continent to westward expansion, defeated the Natives in their homeland, and negotiated the Treaty of greenville in 1795.

Hence, the narrative of justifiable christian conquest must have been so deeply lodged in RM’s subconscious mind that he never gave a second thought to his possession of such a tainted treasure. Indeed, he valued it so deeply that it seemed to him (and to iliff and the university of denver) a memorable gift to this new school of theology. Just five years before, for instance, in 1888 RM began a two-year appointment to the prestigious wayne street church in a city called ft. wayne, indiana; yet he never seems to have indicated any misgivings about the history of this mad anthony and his genocidal ravaging of the ohio valley.[1]

A quick perusal of some popular literature from RM’s youth can only reinforce this sense that derives from the blood saturated Land itself. Popular “frontier” journalist and presbyterian minister hugh brackenridge stands out as the most blood-obsessed incendiary writer of the day, even though he never himself pulled the trigger to kill any Native as far as we know. It was brackenridge who first published about morgan’s murder of two Lenape men, not as murder but as a glorious moment in frontier history, in the u.s. magazine. And brackenridge even used the legal state execution of bill crawford (washington’s land investment colleague) by the Lenape (1782) to rouse frontier sentiment against what he framed as a savage killing of crawford, just as he had written to glorify david morgan’s homicidal behavior a couple of years prior.[2]

On the other hand, brackenridge ignores the infamous murder and genocide of a hundred non-combatant and pacifist Lenape christian converts at Goschocking by an earlier pittsburgh millita only a couple of months before the crawford debacle of an invasion.[3] Certainly, crawford’s sentence and execution by the Lenape was in part retribution for those blatant and savage murders (executions) by a eurochristian army. It was those scandalous murders of a Lenape village that caused the Wyandot to turn crawford over to their Lenape allies for trial and sentencing. It was brackenridge’s writings, however, that framed the whole as a romance narrative of the eurochristian conquest of Native Land and never any true retelling of historical fact.

Novelist james fenimore cooper made the “liberal-colonizer” attempt to give a more balanced portrait of Native Peoples in the northwest territory of the u.s. At the same time, we remember his writings more clearly characterized as the leatherstocking tales, whereby leatherstockings refer to the grotesque skinning and tanning of Indian victims in order to make lightweight chaps for marching through wooded underbrush.[4]  Nevertheless, eurochristian colonialists were not going to allow cooper’s more sanguine portrait of Native Peoples to captivate the consciousness of colonialist squatters. So, robert montgomery bird responded with his own wicked anti-Indian novel that bestialized Native Peoples as depraved savages just as had brackenridge a generation before.

In 1837 he published his best-selling novel nick of the woods, which until very recently continued to be taught as american literature in american colleges—sometimes excused as some sort of frontier humor. The model for bird’s protagonist was provided by the legends of Indian-killing of figures like levi morgan, lewis wetzel, and jesse hughes of merely a generation or so before. It should be noted that bird’s protagonist is a quaker and peaceful citizen by daytime and Indian-killer at night, living as it were a double standard. One remembers then that the morgan family also had deep quaker roots, even though david morgan did convert to methodism later in his life. Nick of the woods became bird’s best-selling novel, wildly successful at the time. It seems highly unlikely that an educated RM would have not read this book in his youth.

By the time of RM’s early adulthood, herman melville would publish the confidence man, with its chapter titled “the metaphysics of Indian killing,” depicting a story not terribly different from bird’s narrative in nick of the woods, although melville’s story is based on another novel in that genre. Not nearly as popular as bird’s novel, melville’s title nonetheless indicates the popularity of the literary theme—however one judges melville’s effort. One historian counted eleven american novels from the first half of the nineteenth century built on the mythic hero of the Indian-killer,[5] including the story that melville retells in “the metaphysics of Indian killing.” So, melville’s narrative underscores a recurring theme of all these frontier narratives, even as he based his story of the “Indian-hater” on john hall’s writing about the legend of john morelock, a historical figure of early eurochristian occupation of the state of illinois.[6]

At the same time, RM becomes the living embodiment of another heroic narrative frontier theme. He was the ultimate heroic methodist itinerant minister in the classic methodist system of itinerancy and developed a significant reputation across indiana and illinois before transferring to the colorado annual conference. In the earliest american methodist tradition, a circuit rider might travel a circuit of a hundred or more miles to serve small congregations over the course of some weeks. For instance, francis asbury is said to have visited david morgan’s rather remote western virginia community a couple of times as people there converted to methodism.[7]

As that system of itinerancy evolved in methodism, the bishop of a conference would announce clergy church appointments each year at their “annual conference,” assigning clergy to congregations, moving them from one community to another. That meant that both ordained clergy and licensed lay preachers with their families would be moved from town to town each year (or at most two years). The idea, evidently, was to keep both clergy and congregations fresh to different preachings of the gospel—united by a book of discipline and a common theological sense.

Over an illustrious fifty-year career, then, RM moved from one church to another every year or at most two years as the bishop announced the new appointments, moving his family and all their belongings. Barns was well-known as an outstanding preacher, a favorite pastor and a sought-after speaker for church conferences. In 1890, at the age of nearly sixty, barns relocated his ministry efforts to the new methodist frontier of colorado, where his new bishop would be one of iliff’s founders and denver university trustee, henry white warren.

In every step of his itinerant career, as he packed up to move from one community to the next, he also packed up this family treasure, this sacred relic, a trophy of colonialist frontier life, a book of christian history written in latin and bound in the tanned skin of an American Indian murder victim. One presumes that in such a context of itinerancy that methodist ministers would keep personal possessions to something of a minimum to limit the hassles of moving so frequently. So, we can measure the importance of the book to RM in his persistence in taking this book with him in every move until he graced the new iliff library with the gift. Especially American Indians, but indeed all of us, must wonder what was it that drove RM to such wicked devotion. What was RM thinking that he prized this horrific relic so highly? How did he balance the violent history of the book with his christian/methodist faith?

Before we answer these important questions, we need to unpack the history of the book’s journey from the rivesville, western virginia, location of david morgan’s squatter farm and the site of his murders, to the library of iliff school of theology. RM gives us our first hint about the pre-1830s history of the book, since he claims the book was his father’s, a gift to william barns, m.d., from the originator of this newly-covered-book, from the murderer himself. That transaction would undoubtedly have taken place in western virginia.

Since david morgan died in 1813, william barns would have procured the volume somewhat prior to that date. william was born in conococheague, maryland, in 1778, the year before morgan murdered two Lenape men for violating his squatter’s right to what he claimed as his farm property (i.e., walking across it). But by 1790 the genealogical record puts the family in (west) virginia when william would have been twelve, and by 1807, william is married there in monongahela county. A decade later by 1817 william had moved to medina county, ohio, a couple hundred miles northwest of the western virginia home, where he had already become a well-known preacher and a physician, another “noble” profession.

I suspect that david morgan gave william barns the book because barns had been developing his skill as a minister, and morgan, by then converted to methodism, thought the book with its attached human remains from an Indian morgan had himself murdered to be a useful gift for furthering the gospel. In that regard there is no indication that morgan ever thought his cold-blooded murder of a Lenape man to be inconsistent with his christian commitment, whether as a quaker or later as a methodist. Indeed, I would argue that there is an implicit sense that the murders actually added chrisitan value to the book. william barns was a physician, but he was also a licensed local pastor in the methodist tradition—while probably never ordained an elder. Thus, RM notes him as a physician, signaling m.d. after his name and foregoing the title “rev.” before the name. william barns is remembered in the memoriam written for the passing of rebecca barns’ husband in 1892 as a prominent ohio methodist minister.[8]

Records show, then, that william barns was married in monongahela county, which was then inclusive of what later became rivesville and fairmont. That means, he would have been a neighbor of david morgan, and he was a close relative of william h. barns, a friend of david morgan who squatted a large farm a few miles upstream from david and had participated with morgan in building prickett’s fort in 1774. By 1810, william’s second son was born in middleton (which later became fairmont), a son whom he named john wesley barns after the progenitor of the methodist church movement. This would indicate that william was already firmly methodist by that time, and it is only somewhat presumptuous to speculate indeed that the barns family (going back to william h. barns) was part of the cadre that met at calder haymond’s home near prickett’s creek on that day in 1786 to become methodist converts, a group that did include Indian-killer david morgan.

Moreover, william was respected as a methodist minister—as well as a physician and a millwright by the time he moves to ohio.[9] He is said to have preached the first funeral in lodi ohio in 1817. By 1833, however, william had moved his family to his wife’s hometown of georgetown ohio, just a few miles east of cincinnati, which would have put RM in the neighborhood of vevay indiana, where he underwent his own conversion experience in 1847 that seems to have directed the young man into methodist ministry. RM’s dad, however, must have been in ill health. He died that summer less than a month before RM’s third birthday.

It is highly improbable that the book was given directly to RM by his father, since RM still a toddler when his father died. It seems much more probable that the book’s transmission was from william to daughter rebecca ann before it came to RM. Sixteen years senior to RM, rebecca ann was born in 1814, and she evidently took over possession of the book after her father’s death. She actually wrote in the book and signed her name on the second page of text as rebecca a. barns, a signaling of possession. In 1842, the year RM and rebecca’s mother died, rebecca became the wife of another prominent methodist minister, ezra marsh boring, who served churches from the marietta district to chicago.[10] What is unclear in extant evidence is whether the relationship between rebecca and RM included a period of guardianship after their mother died, since RM would have been not quite twelve at the time.

RM may have spent a goodly period of his adolescence directly under the tutelage of rebecca and her methodist minister husband. And it may well have been that ezra boring was responsible for getting RM admitted into indiana asbury university. Matthew simpson left the presidency of indiana asbury in 1848, so there is some slim chance that the two might have intersected there briefly. There was a strong bond between simpson and john evans, with bishop simpson living for a number of years in evans’ home in evanston before the latter was appointed governor of colorado territory in 1862.

In any case, it seems most plausible that rebecca would have gifted this family treasure to her younger brother at some point to help encourage his own study and eventual career in methodist ministry just as david morgan had gifted it to her father early in his turn to ministry. It is, after all, a relatively standard (albeit protestant) “history of christianity” textbook of its day. But this standard history of christianity came with a special signifier, of course, that special book cover that valorized the entire conquest of American Indians by christian invaders—a ghoulish but highly treasured cover of human skin. It was a great family tradition, evidently, in the minds of this eurochristian colonialist family of ohio methodist ministers. At least, the barns father and son ministers kept it as a treasure throughout their itinerant ministries.

Tink Tinker is wazhazhe, a citizen of the Osage Nation. For 33 years he was a professor of American Indian studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, where he still holds the title emeritus professor. During most of that time, Tinker also was the (non-stipendiary) director of Four Winds American Indian Council in Denver. Tinker has abandoned christianity as a colonialist and Genocidal imposition on Indian Peoples in favor of recapturing the traditional worldview of Native Peoples. Although Tinker was trained in eurochristian theology and bible, he has come to see the Native experience of the interrelationship of all life and our ideal of cosmic balance and harmony as totally incompatible with eurochristian colonialist imaginary of hierarchy, one that sees reality as a manichaean hierarchical struggle of good versus evil. He is the author of American Indian Liberation (Orbis, 2008).


[1] Annual conferences of the methodist episcopal church: spring conferences 1888 (phillips and hunt. 1888), p. 45.

[2] See t. tinker, “’damn it, he’s an injun!’ christian murder, colonial wealth, and tanned human skin.” Barbara mann, george washington’s war against Native America; mann talks about the media frenzy that followed crawford’s death.

[3] While accounts of the atrocities at Goschocking are plentiful, perhaps the best account historically is that of barbara mann, “Goschocking (ohio) Massacre of 1782,” encyclopedia of American Indian history, bruce e. johansen and barry m. pritzker, editors (ABC-CLIO, 2007), 1: 240–43. Goschocking is the location usually identified by eurochristians in terms of their colonialist renaming of Indian places: gnadenhutten.

[4] See barbara mann, george washington’s war against Native America, p. 86, for archival evidence of this practice. Of course, leatherstocking is also cooper’s protagonist’s name in the series. At least the invasive eurochristians call him leatherstocking.

[5] Roy Harvey Pearce, historicism once more: problems and occasions for the american scholar (Princeton, 1969), 111.

[6] John hall, sketches of history, life, and manners, in the west, volume II (philadelphia: harrison hall, 1835), chapter 6. Compare with melville, the confidence-man: his masquerade (edward dix and co., 1857), chapters 25-28.

[7] Asbury was one of the first two bishops of the methodist episcopal church in america.

[8] Sylvester f. jones, “ezra marsh boring, d.d.,” minutes of the 53rd session of the rock river annual conference of the methodist episcopal church (1892, rockford, illinois), pp. 65-66.

[9] William henry perrrin, j.h. battle, weston arthur goodspeed, history of medina county and ohio: containing a history of the state of ohio, from its earliest settlement to the present time (baskin & battey, 1881), p. 256; gertrude van rensselaer wickham, Memorial to the pioneer women of the western reserve (woman’s department of the cleveland centennial commission, 1896), p. 368, also cites dr. william barns as performing the first funeral in lodi. Combination atlas map of medina county, ohio (l.h. everts, 1874), p. 22: “dr. william barns, who built the first mill in the township, combining in himself the three professions of miller, doctor, and preacher….” lodi ohio is less that twenty miles from wooster, the town of RM’s birth.

[10] Sylvester f. jones, “ezra marsh boring, d.d.,” minutes of the 53rd session of the rock river annual conference of the methodist episcopal church, pp. 65-66.

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