- Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson by Christina Snyder
Christina Snyder's new book, Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson, simultaneously tells a small story—that of Richard Mentor Johnson's Choctaw Academy—and the biggest story in U.S. (and possibly modern global) history—the birth of the empire that would eventually transform the world. Snyder masterfully illustrates how the community of Great Crossings, Kentucky, the home of Johnson's academy, "embodied the meeting of space, cultures, and time that distinguished the period between the War of 1812 and the coming of the Civil War" (15–16). The "adolescent empire," she argues, offered optimism and possibility, but ultimately "coalesced around principles of intolerance, exclusion, and racial injustice" (317).
The Choctaw Academy was founded in 1825 as a collaborative effort between the federal government and the Choctaw Nation, and at the time it was one of only two schools under the purview of the War Department (the other being West Point). While there were thirty-eight additional Indian schools in operation, the Choctaw Academy differed in that it was the only one not run by missionaries. Schoolmaster Johnson, although frequently heavily in debt, had earned a name as a backwoods politician and, as most Americans believed, the man who killed the Shawnee leader Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames. Despite that reputation, Johnson exhibited progressive social views for his time; he championed Indian education and advancement, argued against debtors' imprisonment, and although he avoided publicly supporting antislavery politics, he carried on a romantic and practical public relationship with Julia Chinn, a mixed-race woman with whom he had two daughters, Imogene and Adaline. Chinn and their daughters occupied elevated positions at the school, overseeing various areas of the operation; in fact, when Johnson traveled to Washington, D.C., as one of Kentucky's senators, Julia Chinn oversaw his entire estate.
The Choctaw Academy, Snyder argues, represented the optimism possible at the margins of Jacksonian society. The Native students at the school encountered a wide variety of people there and around Great Crossings—Catholic, Protestant, white, black, enslaved, free (and quasi-free)—including Irish immigrants whose families were much poorer than their own; wealthy planters with racetracks and opulent, big houses; and "slaves who did not own even themselves." In short, the students learned that "Americans were of all sorts and that the world . . . was wide and full [End Page 136] of possibility." Indeed, "many paths converged at Great Crossings," Snyder concludes the midpoint of the narrative, and when these varied individuals "shared a meal or bowed their heads together in prayer, the way ahead seemed peaceful" (98).
This optimism would not last. Indian removal represented a period of upheaval at Choctaw Academy, and Snyder uses the experiences of students and their families to illustrate how the United States in the 1830s abandoned the collaborative spirit that had created the school in the beginning. While the student population grew during the era, many Indian parents preferred to have their families together during the migration to Indian Territory. Those children who returned "home" later often struggled to fit in. By the end of the 1830s, conditions at the school were deteriorating, and conflicts between students and local settlers intensified. As federal policy shifted from "civilization" to removal, officials began to view assimilation as a pipe dream, while the leaders of Native nations sought to divert educational annuities into schools within their own communities. In 1841, Peter Pitchlynn, a former student and a critic of Choctaw Academy, became its new superintendent. His goal—to dissolve the school—was aided by campus disruptions in the form of riots and protests, and the Choctaw Nation itself pulled its students in favor of educating them at home. The school closed in 1848, its founder, Richard Mentor Johnson, once again desperately poor.
Great Crossings is an important book and required reading for anyone studying the early Civil War era in the United States. Snyder...