Auburn, 1830

Here, from The Boy’s Book About Indians (1873) by the Rev. Edmund B. Tuttle, I give you “Despoiling the Grave of an Old Onondaga Chief,” a story so appalling I lost count of the number of times I was shocked:

“On-on-da-ga was the name of an Indian chief, who died about the year 1830, near Elbridge, a town lying north of Auburn, in the State of New York. This Indian belonged to the Onondagas, one of the tribes called ‘the Six Nations of the Iroquois’ (E-ro-kwa), a confederacy consisting of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Tuscaroras or Chippewas. I was a lad at the time of this chief’s death, having my home in Auburn where my father was the physician and surgeon to the State prison.

“My father had a cousin, who was also a doctor and surgeon, a man of stalwart frame, raised in Vermont, named Cogswell. He was proud of his skill in surgery, and devoted to the science. He had learned of the death of the Onondaga chief, and conceived the idea of getting the body out of the grave for the purpose of dissecting the old fellow, that is, of cutting him up and preserving his bones to hang up on the walls of his office.

“Of course, there was only one way of doing it, and that was by stealing the body under cover of night, as the Indians are very superstitious and careful about the graves of their dead. You know they place all the trappings of the dead—his bow and arrows, tomahawk and wampum—in the grave, as they think he will need them to hunt and supply his wants with on his journey to the happy hunting-grounds…

“Dr. Cogswell took two men one night, with a wagon, and as the distance was only twelve miles, they performed the journey and got back safely before daylight, depositing the body of the Indian in a barn belonging to a Mr. Hopkins, in the north part of the town.

“It was soon noised about town what they had done, and there lived a man there who threatened to go and inform the tribe of the despoiling of the chief’s grave, unless he was paid thirty dollars to keep silence. The doctor, being a bold, courageous man, refused to comply with a request he had no right to make, because it was an attempt ‘to levy blackmail,’ as it is called. Sure enough, he kept his word, and told the Onondagas, who were living between Elbridge and Syracuse. They were very much exasperated when they heard what had been done, and threatened vengeance on the town where the dead chief lay.

“The tribe was soon called together, and a march was planned to go up to Auburn by the way of Skaneateles Lake, a beautiful sheet of water lying six miles east of Auburn. They encamped in the pine woods—a range called the ‘pine ridge’—half-way between the two villages, and sent a few of the tribe into Auburn for the purpose of trading off the baskets they had made for powder and shot; but the real purpose they had in view was to find out just where the body was (deposited in the barn of Mr. Josiah Hopkins), intending to set fire to the barn and burn the town, rescuing the dead chief at the same time.

“For several days the town was greatly excited, and every fireside at night was surrounded with anxious faces; the children listening with greedy ears to narratives of Indian cruelties perpetrated during the war with the English about Canada, in 1812; and I remember how it was told of a cruel Indian named Philip, that he would seize little babes from their mothers’ arms and dash out their brains against the wall! No wonder we dreamed horrid dreams of the dusky faces every night.

“At that time the military did not amount to much. There was a company of citizen soldiers there, called the Auburn Guards, numbering about forty men, with a captain whose name I forget, but who became suddenly seized with the idea of his unfitness to defend the town against the threatened Indian invasion, and did the wisest thing he could, and resigned his commission on a plea of ‘sudden indisposition.’

“The doctor walked the street as bold as a lion, but acting also with the shrewd cunning of the fox. And now, my young friends, instead of weaving a bloody romance in the style of the Dime Novels, depicting the terrible massacre, which might have happened, with so great a wrong to provoke the hostility of the poor Indians, I am about to tell you how the town was saved, and how the doctor outwitted them. If you pause here, and guess, I think you will be far from the mark in reaching the shrewdness of the surgeon, who had not been bred among the hills of old Vermont for nothing.

“As I said, at Auburn there is a State prison, and when the convicts die, their bodies, unless claimed by relatives or friends within twenty-four hours after death, are at the disposal of the surgeon for dissection. As good luck would have it, a negro convict died at the time of our story; and the doctor conceived the idea of getting out of his difficulty by transferring the dead body of the negro Jim to the despoiled empty grave of Onondaga!

“This done, he easily persuaded the Indians to go back and find the body of their chief all right: and so he succeeded in humbugging the weak-minded Indians, while the bones of old Onondaga were duly prepared and hung up to show students how Indians and all men are made of bone and muscle. The doctor thought he had done a good thing; but when I went into the office and saw the horrid skull grinning at me, I was thankful that the spirit of old Onondaga could not say of me, ‘You did it!’”

One could attribute this to the sensibilities of the time, but fortunately I came upon this contemporary review of The Boy’s Book of Indians which reassures us that not everyone shared the warped views of the Rev. Tuttle and Dr. Cogswell:

“What a post chaplain or anybody else sees and hears on the Plains is not all of a nature to repeat to boys and we have serious doubts of the Rev Mr. Tuttle’s capacity to write anything which we could advise boys to read or their elders to let them read. The hotch-potch which he has labeled The Boy’s Book about Indians is in no sense a boy’s book; it treats murderers and horse thieves as well as of Indians, is full of scenes of violence and slaughter, is wretchedly written and disorderly in the last degree, and while it undoubtedly contains a great many true descriptions it is calculated only to convince youthful readers that the Indians have thoroughly deserved their fate whereas the author professes to aim at exciting sympathy on their behalf… His first tale of the Plains is about despoiling the grave of an old Onondaga chief in Central New York. Some passages from it will show the tone which pervades this disagreeable scrap book.”

— from The Nation, Dec. 5, 1872, “Children’s Holiday Books”


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