Sunday, February 20, 2005

Not Quite White

The Negro, who earnestly desires to mingle his race with that of the European, cannot do so; while the Indian, who might succeed to a certain extent, disdains to make the attempt. The servility of the one dooms him to slavery, the pride of the other to death.

Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America

My mother's family had been in America for a hundred years when my father's family arrived. George Steele (Johannes Georg Staehl), my great great great great great grandfather, got off the boat in Philadelphia in 1754 as a young man in his early twenties. He came on a ship called the Friendship with 120 other young men who had German names. They were all described as French Protestants. France had recently annexed a German border area they called Franconia and young men who spoke German there were apparently considered a liability. They arrived just in time for the French and Indian War, although it's not clear what part, if any, they took in it.

Twenty years later, during the American Revolution, George fought for independence. Family lore has it that he was promised a homestead in the Northwest Territory as compensation for his efforts, somewhere in a place called Indiana. They called it that because that's who lived there then. While waiting for the tenants of their new abode to vacate the premises, they settled in Bedford County in Pennsylvania which was about as far west as you could go then without getting your insurance cancelled. George died in 1801.

George had a son named Phillip who was born in about 1756. He was reputedly a wagonmaker. He and his wife Susannah were still in Bedford PA when their son, Elias, was born in 1811. That was the year that the War of 1812 was fought, at least the part of it that was fought in Indiana. That part came right after the part that was fought in Illinois. Apparently there was a fort near the southern tip of Lake Michigan called Fort Dearborn and some intrepid settlers had decided to build a little town around it. But they forgot to obtain a building permit with a valid fire inspection sticker attached and duly stamped. When they learned that their dwellings posed a serious fire hazard the settlers agreed to go to Fort Detroit to get their paperwork properly notarized, but somehow the guide they hired to lead them to Detroit got lost and they never arrived. Apparently there was another fort they should have gone to in Indiana that was much closer than the one in Detroit. And that's when Benjamin Harrison decided to check the fort in Indiana to see if the settlers might have gone there instead. But when he got there the fort with the funny French name he was looking for had been turned into a religious theme park called Prophetstown and it was unmistakably clear that the Indians running the place, some Potawatomi, some Shawnee, some Miami, some Cherokee and even a few Kickapoos, were selling liquor without a license. So he butchered every last one of them except for the ones that hightailed it off into the woods. It took a few months before news of all this reached Washington D.C., but when it did, the shit really hit the fan.

Eventually the folks in D.C. got things sorted out with Britain and France and a few years later Phillip and Susannah and their son, Elias, and the rest of the kids put all of their stuff on a wagon that Phillip had built and they hauled it over to Pittsburgh, put it on a raft and poled their way down the Ohio River. It wasn't the choice bit in Indiana that the Continental Congress had promised to Grandpa George, but at least they were across the river and in the Old Northwest, although by this time Ohio, Indiana and Illinois had all been declared states even though nobody lived there yet. They moved to a place that didn't even have a name so at first they called it New Bedford, but now they call it Akron, Ohio, the place where the rubber meets the road.

The family seems to have done some traveling back and forth between New Bedford in Ohio and their family and friends still back at Old Bedford in Pennsylvania, and they also seem to have made a few trips out west to look around and try to locate Grandpa's land. But it wasn't until 1861 when Elias finally pulled up stakes at the age of 50 and settled in South Bend, Indiana, with his wife Elizabeth and their five sons and who knows how many daughters. It was a good time to move to South Bend. One of their cousins had moved there a few years earlier, a blacksmith named John Studebaker. The Studebaker family had been making Conestoga wagons during the 50s and shipping them by boat down to St. Louis for people going west to California on the Oregon Trail. But it turns out that that was small potatoes because in 1861 they landed a government contract to make wagons for the Union army.

Elias settled his family in Liberty Township in South Bend that year. His oldest son signed up to fight for the Union army and it seems he was taken prisoner and died at Andersonville. The second son, Michael Steele, was my great great grandfather. One account I've seen refers to him as the family teamster which would seem to suggest that his work involved wagons in one way or another. He married a girl named Charlotte Stradley, who was born in Liberty Township in 1844. South Bend was a pretty small settlement up until 1840. Before that most of the people living there were either Catholic priests or Potawatomi Indians. The Treaty of Chicago was signed in 1833 and the terms of that agreement were that the Potawatomi would move within five years to a reservation next to the Shawnees just north and east of Topeka, Kansas. In 1838 there were still nearly a thousand Potawatomi living between the Tippecanoe and the Wabash rivers. They were rounded up at gunpoint in 1838 and marched nearly a thousand miles on foot across the plains of Illinois and Iowa to their new home on the reservation, an event still remembered as the Trail of Death.

I don't know much about Charlotte Stradley. I suppose she might have been part or even all Potawatomi. There were a few white settlers there before 1840 who were tolerated because they had married into the tribe. Michael and Charlotte Steele had a son named Ira Steele who was born in North Liberty in 1874. He married a woman named Laura Price who was born there in 1876. I've seen pictures of Laura Price, my great grandmother. My guess, based on her picture, would be that she was at least half Potawatomi. She died in 1916 at the age of forty. Ira lived until 1932. My grandfather was born in 1899 in Akron, so at the turn of the century it seems they were still in contact with family back in Coshocton County in Ohio and probably with family back in Bedford County in Pennsylvania as well. Ira and Laura had quite a few relatives in South Bend, but they also had a farm down on the Wabash River near Logansport, just a few short miles up the river from Prophetstown.

I was born in Lawrence, Kansas, on the same date as the signing of the Treaty of Chicago 120 years earlier. The kid in the incubator next to mine was a full-blooded Shawnee Indian. My mother used to call me Chief Hiawatha because she was never quite sure if she'd brought home the right kid.


Craig said...

Actually, Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, who led the victorious American forces in 1811 at the Battle of Tippecanoe. The Fort Dearborn Massacre took place in August of 1812 and might be construed as a reprisal for the destruction of Prophetstown.

Craig said...

Another detail -- Michael Steele was actually the 3rd son of Elias Steele. Jeremiah, the eldest, was known as "the Carpenter". The second son, Abraham Steele, a doctor, died at Andersonville. Michael was known as "the Bookkeeper". Charlotte Stradley was the daughter of a man called Dr. Stradley, for whom the boys built a house when they first arrived in Indiana. The Steele family owned and milled timber which was probably useful to people in the business of building wagons.