A Lenape among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman

By Dawn G. Marsh. University of Nebraska Press, 2014. 240 pages. $27.95/hardcover; $17.95/paperback or eBook.

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William Penn’s Peaceable Kingdom is a keystone of the Quaker myth. Made most memorable in Benjamin West’s famous painting Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, it projects the comfortable notion that colonial Quakers had a benign, harmonious, and mutually respectful relationship with the Lenape/Delaware indigenous peoples of what eventually became Chester County, Pa.

In her book A Lenape among the Quakers, historian Dawn G. Marsh contends that things weren’t that clean and simple. In essence, Marsh sets out to demonstrate that the Quakers dispossessed the natives of their land just as surely as every other European group that came to the New World. The difference, Marsh suggests, is that the Quakers were nicer about it.

Marsh tells this unsettling story through the eyes of the Lenape woman Hannah Freeman, also known as “Indian Hannah,” whom many considered “the last of her race” when she died at an advanced age in the county poorhouse in 1802. Throughout, Marsh discusses in detail the relationship between the Quakers and the Lenape, represented by Freeman, and shows that it was ambivalent at best. While unquestioningly assuming their own cultural superiority, like Europeans generally, the Quakers were indeed kinder to their indigenous neighbors, paying them fair wages for work they performed, for example, and not giving them blankets infused with smallpox. But when the Lenape, a migratory people like most Native Americans, moved in the fall from the fertile bottomlands of the Brandywine River and other watercourses to upstream woodlands with their shelter and game, Quaker landowners, following European common law, decided the natives had abandoned the rich soil, and claimed it as their own. Yes, they paid for it, but only after announcing that it was now theirs.

Issues like this, Marsh shows us, contributed to the disintegration of the Peaceable Kingdom ideal in the generations following Penn’s. His “haven for religious tolerance and good governance unraveled under the forces of rapid expansion and colonialism,” she writes. It was not just Quakers who were responsible, of course, yet she presents evidence that indicts some Friends.

Marsh develops “Indian Hannah’s” story as best she can, given a lack of documentation except for her final few years of virtual incarceration in the county home for the indigent, deprived of her ancestral lands and her way of life. As for the overarching attitude toward native peoples, Marsh proves that Freeman was not in fact “the last of her race,” pointing out that Lenape still live as close by as New Jersey. The Quakers and others constructed that meme to justify their land claims and to mythologize both the Lenape and their own benevolence toward them, she contends.

Marsh, at the time of publication an assistant professor of history at Purdue University, does not indicate whether she is a Friend, but regardless, she displays an adequate understanding of Quakerism and its practices, and treats the Quakers of the eighteenth century thoroughly, accurately, and forthrightly. My one concern here is that she twice identifies Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as “the central governing body of the Society of Friends.” For a mostly non-Quaker readership, that may be the simplest way to explain Quaker organization.

The content of this book is good, but its execution is weak. It’s addressed primarily to a scholarly audience, so clumsy academic jargon like “problematize” slips in. There is extensive repetition; we are told over and over that “we cannot know” what Hannah did or felt. Paragraphing and sentence sequencing are poor, punctuation is inconsistent, and errors like “statue” for “statute” and “principals” for “principles” intrude. In short, the book needed an editor.

That shortcoming aside, Marsh challenges Quakers to rethink with an unvarnished lens their fraught relationship with native peoples. Were we as considerate as we could have been, and believe we were? Are we smugly content that we did the right thing? Are we willing now, some 325 years after first contact, to consider the “pay the rent” movement, through which in locations such as Australia and Manitoba surviving indigenous populations are being compensated for Caucasians’ occupation of their historic lands? It may not be easy, but this book forces us to look to ourselves.

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