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  • "In Family Way":Guarding Indigenous Women's Children in Washington Territory
  • Katrina Jagodinsky (bio)

Just two years after losing her Danish father, Coast Salish mother, and métis sisters to an undocumented tragedy in 1877, Nora Jewell faced another tragic ordeal.1 The twelve-year-old cleared fields and mended fences for James Smith, a guardian appointed by the court to protect her body and estate until she reached eighteen or married. As Nora confided to her maternal aunt Ellen Jones, however, Smith repeatedly assaulted her in the marshy grasslands of central San Juan Island, a secret she would have kept had he not put her "in family way" by the age of fourteen. Ellen's immigrant husband encouraged his niece to report Smith's crimes to the justice of the peace. The ensuing trial revealed that Nora had been placed with Edward Boggess, an elderly and crippled bachelor whom islanders deemed untrustworthy, and then with James Smith, a married homesteader who earned his living by farming, mining, and performing odd jobs. Witnesses described Smith as a strict master who limited Nora's social interactions with Salish relatives, schoolmates, and potential suitors and put her to hard physical labor on his homestead. Nevertheless, the jury of Smith's peers acquitted the workingman, apparently in reasonable doubt of Smith's abuses and paternity and seemingly convinced that Nora's mixed-race and fatherless background proved her promiscuity.2

Salishan tribes valued lateral kinship, and without a territorial court to claim jurisdiction over her, Nora would most likely have joined Ellen Jones's household after losing her parents.3 With her maternal aunt's family in such close proximity, it is worth asking why the orphan was placed under the care of men unrelated to her. Trial testimony suggests that the judge who brokered Nora's guardianship favored Indian assimilation, [End Page 160] which explains why he put the girl in white homes that could benefit from her productive and reproductive labors rather than placing her with Ellen Jones's métis family. Twelve years old when she lost her family, Nora had also reached the age of sexual consent established in the territory.4 Widely circulated newspaper articles such as "Marriage Made Easy" indicate that some residents viewed guardianship as a means to overcome the gap between the age of consent (twelve) and the age of majority (eighteen) so guardians could marry their own wards.5 Legislators had reversed the territory's earlier ban on marriages between white men and métis women, and Probate Justice Bowman may have seen an orphaned mixed-race girl as the ideal child-bride for an aging homesteader like Edward Boggess; indeed, some witnesses would later testify that they suspected it was Boggess who had impregnated the orphaned ward.6 In 1877, however, Nora lived just three months in Boggess's home before Judge Bowman revoked his guardianship without explanation and assigned the girl to James Smith, likely because he was married and deemed less predatory. Smith put his ward to work in the fields, where he could abuse her beyond the perimeter of his home and the purview of his wife, using guardianship as a means to exploit Nora's economic and sexual vulnerability on an island and in a region still engaged in the violent transition from Indian country to American state, one household at a time.7

Nora Jewell's compelling story is told at greater length elsewhere in my work, but this article's concern is the role of nineteenth-century guardianship practices as a pivotal phase in the larger history of formal and informal indigenous child removal.8 Nora Jewell's painful experiences mirror the larger history of settler-colonialism in the Puget Sound region, and they began when Washington's territorial guardianship law defined her as a ward of the state because she had been orphaned. As they collectively stripped Nora Jewell of dignity, family, and property, Probate Judge John Bowman, guardians Ed Boggess and James Smith, and Washington territorial jurists practiced the "microtechniques of dispossession" outlined by Paige Raibmon, who argues that "colonialism's network of laws, attitudes, and practices placed" interracial families like Nora Jewell's "at...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1828
Print ISSN
0095-182X
Pages
pp. 160-177
Launched on MUSE
2013-06-02
Open Access
No
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