Quaker Displacement of Native Peoples



With the permission of Friends Meeting of Washington DC's Committee on Peace and Social Concerns, I'm sharing a letter the committee recently sent to Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Indian Affairs Committee. The letter cites important research by Helena Cobban on Quaker participation in the colonization of Indigenous lands, and calls for reflection and discernment about what these truths mean for BYM Friends today. I am sharing this letter in hopes that other monthly and yearly meetings may follow this example of uncovering and facing difficult truths in our Quaker history.

from Paula Palmer, Boulder Friends Meeting (2/15/2022)

Dear Friends of the BYM Indian Affairs Committee,

We greet you from the traditional lands of the Nacotchtanks and Piscataways!

We want to applaud the efforts you've made to bring the concerns of Native Americans to the attention of the broader BYM community. FMW’s Peace & Social Concerns much welcomes the initiative you launched to win BYM support for the Minute on Quaker boarding schools and the need to support the truth and Healing Commission. Our Committee took the Minute to FMW's January Meeting for Business and won meeting-wide support for it.

However, some of our Committee members have been seized by a concern that the responsibilities of the BYM community for the sufferings-- historically, and today-- of our Native and Indigenous siblings may actually be more direct and graver than the involvement that BYM Friends had in the past for the damaging cultural genocide programs pursued in the schools that Quakers ran to de-culture and allegedly "civilize" Native American children.

As we know in the case of the Native American boarding schools, the damaging effects of any such project are very long-lived. The issue of the Quaker-run "Indian" schools is not just a matter of the past.

We believe that the direct involvement of many members of earlier generations of BYM Friends in the whole, broader "White" settler-colonial project here in Turtle Island is similarly a record whose harms have lived on through the generations, and a record that weighs heavily on us. It is possible, indeed, to see the whole matter of the Indian boarding-school project as just one small example of the broader harms that the "White" settler-colonial project has inflicted on the continent's Indigenous peoples.

We would like to initiate a dialogue with the BYM Indian Affairs Committee on these matters and explore whether we might integrate into your programing a consideration of this broader history of BYM Quakers' direct involvement in colonial-era seizures of land and resources vital to the survival, wellbeing, and religious integrity of the nations whom the colonial settlers forcibly displaced.

One member of our committee, Helena Cobban, has started exploring the historical record of the involvement of BYM Quakers in the settler-colonial project and its westward expansion. In her recent writings (1, 2, 3, 4) she has pulled together the following facts, which we find very disturbing:

  • The earliest Quakers here in Turtle Island were "White" settlers in Virginia who became convinced by the testimonies of Quaker missionaries who came to the Chesapeake area from London as early as 1655 CE--before William Penn won his "charter", further north. It seems likely that most of those early Quakers in the Chesapeake area had been colonists before they became Quakers (unlike William Penn.) But starting in 1727 CE, Quakers were notable participants in the project to extend the area of "White" settlement across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley, where their Monthly Meetings were part of BYM. The late Charlottesville MM Friend Jay Worrall wrote in his book Friendly Virginians, p.129, that "The valley was still Indian country when the first settlers came. A treaty was in effect, made in 1722... [by which] the Iroquois and their allies agreed to stay west of the Blue Ridge with the east side reserved for whites... Nevertheless the white settlers had moved west of the Treaty line."
  • Quakers from all the east-coast Yearly Meetings participated in the continued westward expansion of the "White" settlement project into the Ohio Valley; and BYM Quakers were often very much involved in this expansion. In 1748, Jay Worrall wrote, p.153, the English monarch chartered the establishment of something called the "Ohio Company", to which he allotted the right to establish settlements in half a million acres in Ohio-- and he did so "after intensive lobbying in London by Quaker John Hanbury", who became one of the 12 directors of the new company. (On p. 134, Worrall had described Hanbury as "the world's greatest tobacco merchant [whose] name was familiar all across Virginia.")
  • In the early 1790s, there were fierce battles between the army of the newly independent "United States" and the Indigenous nations of the Ohio; by 1794 the U.S. forces had emerged victorious. In 1796, a wealthy Quaker originally from the Shenandoah Valley called Ebenezer Zane (who had fought in the United States's "Revolutionary War") pioneered a key piece of infrastructure designed to facilitate the implantation of additional "White" Anglo settlers ever deeper into Ohio. As described in John Hrastar's study Breaking the Appalachian Barrier, "Zane's Trace" was an important precursor of the National Road and other routes that enabled settlers to start moving in great numbers into the lands of the now-defeated Indigenes.
  • Among those moving to Ohio were numerous Quakers from the Chesapeake (BYM) area and North Carolina. Jay Worrall wrote, p.265, that in the late 1790s "Ohio fever" seized many Quakers from Virginia, and "By 1800 thousands of Virginia families had already moved west… [W]hen the Ohio country opened up to the northwest it drew Quakers of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia like iron to the magnet.” The fact that many of those Quaker families were seeking to leave Virginia because of their growing disquiet with the practice of slavery, makes their decision to go and establish farming colonies in lands newly conquered by force from the Native Americans none the less troubling for us. 
  • We find it interesting, and possibly troubling, that BYM's Indian Affairs Committee was established in that same period, in 1795. According to the recent history of the IAC published by your member Martha Catlin, BYM established it to try to use monies previously collected from BYM Friends in an attempt to provide "compensation" to the previous Indigenous owners of the lands in the Shenandoah on which Quakers had established their farms. But by 1795, not having been able to identify or find those Indigenes (or their descendants), they decided to use those monies to do some humanitarian good works to help the Native Americans in the Ohio Valley. However, none of the sources Friend Helena has consulted makes any mention of BYM Quakers having advocated in either the Virginia state capital or the U.S. federal capital to halt the wars of White-supremacist colonial expansion in the West.
  • One of the BYM Quakers who traveled to Ohio under the auspices of the IAC was Philip Thomas of Baltimore, who traveled there in 1799 at age 23. In 1825, after he had become a successful Baltimore business-owner, Philip Thomas was named a commissioner of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company. In 1828, he left that post to become the founding President of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which was a much more successful attempt to upgrade the vital infrastructural underpinning of the colonizers' westward expansion. While in that position he served as clerk of the BYM IAC. 
  • Along the way, yes, the BYM-IAC did play a very troubling role in spearheading the movement to deculture the children of the Indigenous nations, in Ohio, in Upstate New York (under the lengthy IAC clerkship of Philip Thomas), and in Nebraska. We are grateful to Friend Martha for detailing many of those facts; as, too, did the historian Clyde Milner in his book With Good Intentions about the activities of the BYM-IAC in Nebraska, in the 1870s.

The White-supremacist settler-colonial project here on Turtle Island was established, maintained, and expanded through the force of arms, and inflicted almost unimaginable suffering on the Indigenous peoples of this continent. Along the way, over the course of around 300 years, many (or at times, most) BYM Quakers have been beneficiaries of this highly discriminatory, sometimes genocidal system, and some BYM Quakers have been active participants or leaders in its expansion. We find these facts very troubling and we have no clarity yet on what we should do about them. Hence, we would welcome some form of an exploratory meeting with you in which we might jointly discern a way forward.

We would approach such a meeting inspired in no small part by your work on the Quaker boarding schools issue. We are inspired, too, by developments like the following:

  • The work of so many Native American thought leaders on the whole range of issues that confront them;
  • The work that Quakers throughout the United States and Canada have done to wrestle with the troubling legacy of White settler colonialism here on Turtle Island, and to start to discern how to effect restitution (where possible), reparations, healing, and a degree of real accountability;
  • The clarion call that the UN issued in its 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • The actions that the government of Aotearoa/New Zealand has been taking since 1975 to reinstate the English settlers' 1840 Treaty with the Indigenous Maori people and to take real steps towards its limited implementation.

Friends, back in 1671, George Fox expressed his conditional endorsement of the institution of slavery, and over the decades that followed many Quaker families here in the BYM area and elsewhere became strong participants in, and beneficiaries of, that institution. It took many years of tireless laboring together before visionary Friends like Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet, or John Woolman were able to convince the vast majority of Friends of the moral imperative of ending their participation in that institution. Today, we feel that too few BYM Quakers fully understand the depth of our community's historical involvement in, and taking of hyper-profits from, the institution of settler colonialism: a set of arrangements that was similarly built on concepts of White supremacy and the systematic oppression and exploitation of non-White peoples. We hope that a dialogue with you might lead to further clarity and enlightenment for all of us on these issues.

In the Light,

Barbara Briggs, Clerk
Committee on Peace & Social Concerns
Friends Meeting of Washington