Friday, May 26, 2017

Kidnapped by Indians - Meggie Stinson (SW Pennsylvania, 1764) and Jenny Wiley (East Kentucky, 1789)

There were, and still are, Savages in the Ards Peninsula. That's not a pejorative term, although the wordplay is sometimes aimed at me by local town-dwellers! The Savages / Le Sauvages were an Anglo-Norman family who arrived in Ireland in 1171 and eventually moved north to Ulster, settling in Antrim and Down. After the Bruce wars of the early 1300s their estates were restricted to the southern end of the Ards Peninsula and also Lecale just across Strangford Lough. Their legacy is a collection of castles which exist to this day, and probably some of the early abbeys and churches. Their history was catalogued by George Francis Savage-Armstrong in two books, firstly The Ancient and Noble Family of the Savages of the Ards (1888) and the posthumous revision The Savages of Ulster (1906).

So what of these 'noble savages'? This is an idea which exists far beyond the Ards.

The romantic 'noble savage' theory (usually attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Wikipedia here), proposed that ancient peoples were peaceful, living at harmony with the natural world and enlightened, until a group of 'outsiders' arrived and colonised them all. You can apply this to various places in the world, you can hear it assumed and implied in many places - People A were idyllic, happy and peaceful, a model society even, until People B turned up, supposedly bringing ‘civilisation'. The 'noble savage' idea has been disproven time and again - ancient peoples were themselves sometimes violent and barbaric. Human remains have demonstrated this over and over again. What we might think of today as 'people groups' have been warring amongst themselves since the dawn of time - and so even the notion of homogenous 'people groups’, defined as such in our era, is flawed.

This article on - The Myth of the Noble Savage - is an interesting read, especially the references to Marxist theory of the late 1800s and neo-Marxists of the 1970s. A Biblical outlook is that 'all have sinned', that everybody is contaminated by an broken, sinful, nature, and capable of great evil. So therefore no individual or people group is virtuous. Everybody's just as bad as everybody else, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, geography, gender or historical era. We are all ‘savages'. And we are all able to accept redemption.

Here is a clip from the 2007 film version of the book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee which might be of interest –

It is of course true that terrible things happened to the Native Americans, and that some of this was at the hands of Scotch-Irish settlers and pioneers, as well as English, French, Germans, Dutch, and all other European settlers. For Central and South America, consider what Spain and Portuguese conquistadors did.Many Native American Indian tribes allied themselves with the French

The Scotch-Irish in turn were on the receiving end of some terrible atrocities carried out by Native American Indians, having been (conveniently) driven by the coastal elites into the backcountry, to form a 'human buffer' in the front line of potential Indian conflict and attack. Many of them were happy to go, confident in their ability to defend themselves if necessary and keen to get away from authority. Others, like James Adair from Ulster (Wikipedia page here) lived very happily in Indian communities for most of their lives.

Charles A Hanna's seminal The Scotch-Irish: The Scot in North Britain, north Ireland, and north America contains much detail of the Scotch-Irish/Native American interactions. They exchanged clothing styles, and both learned how to shoot long rifles with astonishing accuracy (think Davy Crockett). Some were amorous and resulted in intermarriage, some were amicable, some were tolerable, some were seemingly manipulated by the establishment governments. Some were barbaric.

This Declaration document, penned by Matthew Smith and James Gibson in 1764, and signed by 1500 frontier people, gives a clear picture on the experiences of some of the Scotch-Irish.


I've recently come across the stories of two women who were both kidnapped by Native Americans.

• One, Jenny Wiley, was the wife of Ulster emigrant Thomas Wiley. Her father was Hezekiah Sellars/Sellards, described as a 'Presbyterian of the strictest sort' who had settled first in Shenandoah in Virginia. Her mother might have been a Cherokee woman. Jennie was said to have been 'endowed with an abundance of good hard Scotch common-sense'. In 1789 while Thomas was away, the family home in east Kentucky was attacked, nearly all of the children were killed, pregnant Jennie was taken captive with her one surviving 15 month old infant. Both of these children were later killed by their captors. She was held hostage for 11 months, eventually managing to escape and return to Thomas. Today a State Park at Prestonburg, Kentucky, is named for her. Here Wikipedia page is here.

• A similar tale can be found in a song from south western Pennsylvania, from 1764 (the same year as the Declaration above) about a Meggie Stinson / Stevenson who was taken captive as a child. Some years later she and other hostages were set free and returned to their settlement, but Meggie had forgotten what her own mother looked like. The song below, from the despairing mother's perspective, is in broad Scots. It is possible that the song 'Meggie Stinson’ is in fact based on a story of a German settler girl called Regina Hartman Leininger (see gravestone here) who might well have become emblematic of a common frontier experience, one familiar to Scotch-Irish families as well as their German neighbours.

Life is complicated, so is history. One for the sociologists to unpick.

Meggie Stinson

There is a lot of quite interesting material online about the 'noble savage' myth. New York Times science correspondent Nicholas Wade published Before The Dawn in 2006, which appears to be a major reassessment of how ancient people are understood, including the view that "archaeologists of the postwar period had artificially "pacified the past" and shared a pervasive bias against the possibility of prehistoric warfare".

If you Google 'myth of the noble savage' you'll find things like a 2004 course at the University of Washington, Seattle which describes it as 'anthropology’s oldest and most successful hoax'.