We ask you how the Muscogee Nation came by this country? You came from the west and took the country from another people who were in possession. After living here a great many years, the people from over the big waters came in large vessels and took some of the country from you and set up their own government, and made laws, & made you obey them …
you must be sensible that it will be impossible for you to remain, for any length of time, in your present situation, as a distinct society or nation, within the limits of Georgia, or any other State. Such a community is incompatible with our system, and must yield to it. This truth is too striking and obvious not to be seen by all of you, surrounded as you are by the people of the several States. You must either cease to be a distinct community, and become, at no distant period, a part of the State within whose limits you are, or remove beyond the limits of any State …
Brothers, we now tell you, what we, in the name of your Father the President, want you to do. We want the country you now occupy. It is within the limits of Georgia and Alabama. These States insist upon having their lines cleared. The President will do this by giving you a better country, and will aid you in removing; protect you where you may go, against whites and all others, and give you a solemn guaranty in the title and occupancy of the new country which you may select … By deciding for yourselves, it may prevent others from deciding for you.
Brothers, you have been deceived. A snake has been coiled in the shade, and you are running into his mouth … drunk with the fire of the pale-face. Brothers, the hunting grounds of our fathers have been stolen by our chief and sold to the pale-face, whose gold is in his pouch. Brothers, our grounds are gone, and the plow of the pale-face will soon upturn the bones of our fathers. Brothers, are you tame? Will you submit?
Jackson himself had tangled with the Creek during his career-making appearance as America’s up-and-coming caudillo in the War of 1812: the eponymous Fort Jackson in Alabama was the base from which the Tennessee militia captain had defeated rebellious natives in the 1813-1814 Creek War and forced upon them the Treaty of Fort Jackson.* “Numberless aggressions,” read that document, “had been committed [by the Creeks] against the peace, the property, and the lives of citizens of the United States.”
So small wonder that as President, Old Hickory — for whom Indian Removal was a signature policy — had no time for Creek appeals to Washington to uphold their treaty rights in Alabama and Georgia. Their defeat in 1814 had left the Creek polity a powerless dependency, whose rights and even survival extended precisely so far as the American government wished. With the shrunken remnant** of their ancestral lands increasingly sought by white settlers, all the pressure within Anglo America ran towards the ethnic cleansing option.
“Voluntary” emigration under steady white pressure gnawed away at Creek numbers in the Southeast for a decade or more preceding the events of this post, but there was always going to be a militant slice of the population for whom no inducement short of violence would suffice. In 1836, land incursions finally triggered a Creek revolt, and became the Second Creek War — Jackson’s justification at last for completing the long-sought elimination of the Creek in the East.†
“The Creek Indians, below the Federal Road, are all in arms and killing every white person they have fallen in with,” ran the May 12, 1836 Macon Messenger. Everything was in “confusion and disarray” — the fleeting advantage of initiative while Anglos mustered an overwhelming response.
Attacks on stagecoaches this same month “created a greater sensation throughout the country than any previous act of Indian hostility,” per this public domain history of Columbus, Ga. (The town abuts the Alabama border.)
Two stages carrying the United States mail, going from Columbus to Tuskegee, Ala., were attacked about eighteen miles from Columbus. The Indians killed Mr. Green, one of the drivers, and two horses, and robbed the mail. The next day a party of fifteen men started to come through to Columbus with two stages. Some of these men were passengers and others volunteers who accompanied the stages to assist in their protection.
It was for this raid that claimed Green’s life that Tuscoona Fixico and four others — never named in any source I have been able to find — were condemned to hang on Nov. 25, alongside a man named Chilancha for the unrelated killing of a man named Fannin during the uprising.
The Second Creek War went much the same way as the first, and proved those American diplomats prescient as to the inevitability of the conquered peoples’ fate. Today, the Poarch Creek — numbering barely 2,000 — are the only remaining band of Muscogee Creek in Alabama.
** In one vain bid to stanch the loss of Creek territory, the tribe — incensed by the Treaty of Indian Springs — had in 1821 enacted capital punishment for anyone who sold land to whites. It was on the strength of this statute that Creek assassins murdered/executed the collaborationist chief William McIntosh in 1825.
On this date in 1834, the Cherokee James Graves was hanged in Spring Place, Georgia, for murder. He’s the only person ever executed in Georgia’s Murray County.
But he was also a sad waymarker on the way to a much larger tragedy.
It happened that in 1834 the state of Georgia’s long-simmering conflict with the indigenous Cherokee nation was coming to a nasty head. In the infancy of the American Republic, it had made a pact placing the Cherokee under the protection of the United States.
By the 1820s, however, Cherokee land had been nibbled away and the white citizens of Georgia started clamoring for a proper ethnic cleansing: forcibly expelling the Cherokee to the western frontier.
The immediate territorial conflict became joined to a conflict over federal jurisdiction, because the Cherokee had their treaty with the United States (not with Georgia) and its terms were supposed to be guaranteed by Washington (not Milledgeville). As the Georgia legislature enacted laws stripping the Cherokee of land and self-rule, the Cherokee appealed in federal courts.
The Cherokee notched a major win in the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that Indian affairs were the domain of the federal government and individual states had nothing to say in the matter.
But to give a sense of where the wind was blowing, this is the very decision about which U.S. President (and notorious Indian-killer) Andrew Jackson is supposed to have remarked, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” The quote itself is probably apocryphal but the atmosphere of lawless confrontation was very real indeed.
James Graves was convicted by a Georgia jury in September 1834 of murdering a white man several years prior on Indian land … or rather, on what Georgia said was now no longer Indian land.
The Supreme Court directed Georgia to stay the hanging and appear at a January 1835 hearing.
Governor William Lumpkin* would have none of it. Grandstanding in a communique to an all but universally supportive legislature, he vowed to ignore the court’s order.
Any attempt to infringe the evident rights of the State, to govern its entire population, of whatever complexion, and punish all offences committed against its laws within those limits … I consider a direct usurpation of power. … Such attempts demand the determined resistance of the States … I shall wholly disregard all such unconstitutional requisitions, of whatever character or origin, and, to the utmost of my power, protect and defend the rights of the State, and use the means afforded me to maintain the laws and Constitution of the same. (Nov. 7, 1834)
Two weeks later, Georgia hung James Graves, stay or no stay. There would be no hearing in Washington that January.
“What is to be done with Georgia?” lamented the Nantucket Inquirer (Dec. 13, 1834). “Will another presidential proclamation, full of big words and bombastic threats, be issued against her, for having nullified the U.S. claim of sovereignty over the Indians, and for having hanged the copper-skinned citizen Graves, in defiance of the interdict of one of Gen. Jackson’s judges?”
* Lumpkin County, Georgia is named for him. That’s not too shabby, but he almost hit big-time when the city of Terminus proposed to rename itself Lumpkin. Lumpkin declined and the city is today known as Atlanta.
** Georgia conducted another execution, that of George Tassels, under similarly contested circumstances a few years before Graves.
On this date in 1879, a half-blooded Native American named Pocket died in Hallettsville on an oak tree.
The son of a French Canadian father and a Blackfoot Sioux mother, Pocket had been befriended by a cattleman named Lou Allen. They met by chance in the early 1870s; Pocket was a half-caste child, maybe not even into adolescence, with broken English, doing odd jobs to scrape by.
Of Pocket we have only glimpses of the moments where he comes into the view of white men. His rancher-friend took him until “becoming tired of civilized life, and pining for the freedom of his native wilds,” Pocket vanished on a horse that Mr. Allen willingly gave him. (The quote comes from the Galveston Weekly News of September 18, 1879; it’s also the source for the other quotes in this post.)
That was in 1874. For the next several years Pocket’s activities are mostly unknown, save for the few times he popped back into Mr. Allen’s life — once to bum a suit of clothes; another time when they met by accident in Wichita, Pocket destitute after gambling everything away; and finally when Pocket reappeared in Lavaca County only to be refused aid by his benefactor in a possible gesture of tough love. Pocket found work on a nearby farm instead.
On Valentine’s Day 1878, Pocket was seen in the county seat of Hallettsville getting roaring drunk on whiskey. He left town for the countryside carrying another bottle and proceeded to stop at several farms to accost their residents.
At the Smith house, he barged in, stole a pistol, and forced his way into the family dinner. He stumbled into the home of a former slave named Frank Edwards, ripped up bed clothes, and started swinging an axe around until Edwards punched out the unwanted visitor.
Fuming, Pocket proceeded to yet another farm, the Petersons, where he contrived to get the family hunting rifle by representing the presence of a drove of turkeys nearby. A young Brit named Leonard Hyde worked for the Petersons, and he went along with Pocket “to see the fun.” As ominously as this reads, Hyde had no reason to suspect trouble; the Galveston Weekly News would note that Hyde and Pocket “were both under twenty-one years of age, friendly with one another up to the last moment, and both strangers in the land which has given to each of them a grave.” Two kids out on a turkey-shooting lark.
Hyde trotted along on foot after Pockett, and soon another of Hyde’s friends joined the supposed hunting foray. Suddenly, their intoxicated leader stopped and cursed Hyde for following him — then shot him dead through the forehead with his pistol. The killer’s mind was obviously disordered and impulsive, but it’s possible that Hyde died in place of Frank Edwards, or if not Edwards then whomever Pocket might have crossed paths with next that night.
Now with blood on his hands, Pocket did not pause to revenge any other slights but galloped off into the wilderness. He was eventually captured in Bosque County.
(Source, which also preserves a sad letter from Hyde’s father written in March 1878 upon learning of his son’s murder.)
Perhaps three thousand souls turned out to see a repentant Pocket die in Hallettsville on September 12, 1879 — “every road entering this town became alive with people of all ages, sexes and colors, without regard to previous condition, coming to witness the first legal execution in this county.” Pocket had spent his last weeks in religious devotion and struck those who saw him as a profoundly changed man.
The great hanging-tree can still be seen today, shading a picnic-table in City Park, next to the Hallettsville Golf Association clubhouse.
On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.
Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.
To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.
Matoonas bided his time, but when the opportunity to fight back arrived he joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.
“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.
But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.
Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.
A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.
After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.
Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.
The generations-long conquest of indigenous peoples in North America might look from posterity like a historical ienvitability, but the 1715-1718 Yamasee War was perhaps “as close to wiping out the European colonists as ever [they] came during the colonial period.” (Gary Nash, quoted by William Ramsey in “‘Something Cloudy in Their Looks': The Origins of the Yamasee War Reconsidered”, Journal of American History, June 2003. This post draws heavily from Ramsey’s article, which is the source of any quote not otherwise attributed.) In it, not only the Yamasee but a vast coalition of peoples throughout what is today the United States Southeast nearly swept the British out of South Carolina.
And it started three hundred years ago today with some executions.
British South Carolina had extensive trading contacts with the native peoples in their environs — acquiring deerskins and Indian slaves for the plantation colony — and said trading had too often been a flashpoint between alien cultures. South Carolina’s annals record a number of instances of natives crudely abused by Anglo merchants, including women whose bodies were next to sacrosanct for the matrilineal Yamasee, and traders aggressively taking slaves even from friendly tribes. Many years later a Lower Creek man would recall that “we lived as brothers for some time till the traders began to use us very ill and wanted to enslave us which occasioned a war.”
It has never been entirely clear just why and how such individual abuses, even as a pattern, triggered in 1715 something as drastic as military action; our source William Ramsey suspects that they only hint at much wider-ranging economic pressures of the Atlantic economy, which entangled native peoples in debt and warped traditional lifeways towards producing ever more deerskins for export, obtained at ever poorer prices from ever more belligerent merchants.
Just as trade relations were at their most antagonistic, the colonial capital Charles Town fell down on the diplomatic side of the job. (This is, again, per Ramsey.)
The colony had created in 1707 an office of Indian Agent.
Intended to manage the complications of its sometimes-delicate cross-cultural trade and police the traders, the post instead became a locus of bitter competition between two men: Thomas Nairne and John Wright. (There’s a 1710 account of South Carolina in Nairne’s hand available here.) These two men, South Carolina’s most expert Indian diplomats and the only two men ever to hold the Indian agent office, had by the 1713-1715 period become consumed with their internal rivalry. Wright, a trader who thought Nairne too accommodating of the natives generally and unduly meddlesome with Wright’s own commerce specifically, bombarded the latter with lawsuits; Nairne eventually had to stay in Charles Town almost permanently to protect his own affairs. The colony’s diplomatic voice fell silent — which meant that rapacious traders squeezing mounting debts on their spring rounds in 1715 were that voice.
In annoyance, one tribe returned an ultimatum to Charles Town: “upon the first Afront from any of the Traders they would down with them and soe goe on with itt.” (See The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732)
That warning got the colony’s attention.
The Indian Agent rivals Wright and Nairne were dispatched together to meet with the Yamasees at Pocotaligo and smooth things over. But just as these men stood at loggerheads professionally, they were noted for quite distinct policies towards the Indians: Nairne was the friendly hand, the man who sympathized with natives. Wright was the asshole. If their joint presence was intended to be a good cop-bad cop act, they carried it off as clumsily as their mutual antipathy might suggest.
In a famous meeting on the night of April 14, Nairne, Wright, and a number of traders seemingly reassured the Yamasees over a feast that their grievances would be redressed, and went to sleep satisfied that matters were well in hand.
It was not so for the Yamasees, who held council that night after the Europeans were tucked away. An unknown Indian leader who signed himself “the Huspaw King” would later dictate a letter to a hostage charging that at the April 14 meeting
Mr. Wright said that the white men would come and fetch [illegible] the Yamasees in one night and that they would hang four of the head men and take all the rest of them for slaves, and that he would send them all off the country, for he said that the men of the Yamasees were like women, and shew’d his hands one to the other, and what he said vex’d the great warrier’s, and this made them begin the war.
We don’t know if this was on-message for the delegation — a glimpse of the iron fist that Nairne’s politesse was to glove — or delivered privately in Wright’s going campaign to undermine his opposite number. What we do know is that the Yamasees had seen both these men in authority over colonial-Indian trade over the past several years: on the night of April 14-15, they had to decide between mixed messages. Could they count on Nairne’s reassurances of comity? Or should they believe, as Wright intimated, the increasingly obnoxious inroads of traders presaged the outright destruction of their people?
April 15th was Good Friday. And the Europeans awoke to their Calvary.
The Yamasees’ decision about the intentions of their European counterparts was far from internally unanimous — but it was instantly effected.
“The next morning at dawn their terrible war-whoop was heard and a great multitude was seen whose faces and several other parts of their bodies were painted with red and black streaks, resembling devils come out of Hell,” a plantation owner later wrote to London. Most of the Europeans were killed on the spot, Wright apparently among them. A couple of them escaped.
And for Thomas Nairne, a stake in the center of the little village awaited, with an agonizing torture-execution said to have required three days before Nairne mercifully expired on April 17th.
The red indicates War, and the black represents the death without mercy which their enemies must expect.
They threw themselves first upon the Agents and on Mr. Wright, seized their houses and effects, fired on everybody without distinction, and put to death, with torture, in the most cruel manner in the world, those who escaped the fire of their weapons. Amongst those who were there, Captain Burage (who is now in this town, and from whom I derive what I have just said) escaped by swimming across a river; but he was wounded at the same time by two bullets, one of which pierced his neck and came out of his mouth, and the other pierced his back and is lodged in his chest, without touching a vital spot. …
Another Indian Trader (the only one who escaped out of a large number) saved his life by crawling into a marsh, where he kept himself hid near the town. He heard, during the whole day, an almost continual fire, and cries and grievous groans. He often raised his head in his hiding-place, and heard and saw unheard-of things done; for the Indians burned the men, and made them die in torture. They treated the women in the most shameful manner in the world. And when these poor wretches cried O Lord! O my God! they danced and repeated the same words mocking them. Modesty forbids me to tell you in what manner they treated the women: modesty demands that I should draw a veil over this subject.
This man who had witnessed so many cruelties, stripped himself naked so as completely to resemble the Indians; and in this state, made his escape by night, crossing the town without being perceived, he heard many people talking there, and saw several candles in each house; and having avoided the sentries, God granted that he should arrive here safe and sound.
Mr. Jean Wright, with whom I had struck up a close friendship, and Mr. Nairne have been overwhelmed in this disaster. I do not know if Mr. Wright was burnt piece-meal, or not: but it is said that the criminals loaded Mr. Nairne with a great number of pieces of wood, to which they set fire, and burnt him in this manner so that he suffered horrible torture, during several days, before he was allowed to die.
On this date in 1894, a young Indian named Joe Dick was executed outside the courthouse of Eufaula in present-day Oklahoma.
At the time, Eufala was part of the Muscogee Creek jursidiction of Indian Territory. Until the 1898 Curtis Act, the tribal governments in Indian Country enjoyed full legal jurisdiction, up to and including application of the death penalty.
One interesting feature of that jurisdiction (previously noted in these annals) was the absence of standing jails to incarcerate death-sentenced prisoners. Joe Dick was only loosely guarded and on “Christmas week, he told the officers that were guarding him that he was of a lively nature and would like to attend some of the dances that were going on through the country.” They happily loaned him a horse and saddle, and Joe Dick was as good as his word: after dancing all night, he returned and “reported the next morning for breakfast.”
On another occasion, with firewood running short, an officer John Hawkins set Dick loose in the woods with a cart. The murderer came back three hours later, loaded with firewood. “After that, he was allowed to go anywhere he desired, if he would promise to report for duty at meal times.”
Hawkins and a fellow-officer named Bob Roberts conducted the execution by musketry — both shooting Dick dead through the heart from five yards’ distance as Dick stood against a large tree. (In the Indian Territory, only the Cherokee had enough death penalty cases to warrant a standing gallows; other nations generally carried out executions by shooting.)
Dick had opportunistically murdered a man named Thomas Gray against whom he held a grudge. Chancing upon Gray at work in an orchard one day, Dick simply shot him and rode away. Dick confessed the crime.
On this day in 1897, Choka Ebin (Eben), a full-blooded Creek Indian, was executed in Perry, Oklahoma for the murder of Laura Anthony. He’d killed her just three weeks before, on May 23, and was arrested that same day. The law required Ebin’s own tribe to try and sentence him, and his own nearest kin to perform the execution — a precaution against the execution initiating a blood feud.
Ebin remained free between his conviction and his execution. He was supposed to die on June 4, but sent word that he was too sick to ride to town, and got a ten-day reprieve. On June 14 he dutifully appeared and turned himself in to the authorities.
He was placed on his knees on a chair, and his father and brother, Riley and Palko, took positions twelve paces back and fired their Winchester rifles.
On this date in 1858, Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe was controversially hanged at Fort Steilacoom (present-day Lakewood) in the Washington Territory.
Yankee officer Isaac Stevens only spent four years in the Washington Territory as Franklin Pierce’s appointed governor, but he left his stamp on the state.
And no project defined the tenure of this authoritarian but effective executive like putting the screws to the native peoples. Growing white settlement in the Pacific Northwest was creating conflict with the Indians who already inhabited it. In time, that conflict would claim Leschi.
Late in 1854, Stevens summoned the chiefs of several tribes in the newly-minted Washington Territory for an offer they couldn’t refuse: pack up and move to reservations of a few square miles’ undesirable territory, ceding 2.5 million acres to white settlers.
Chief Leschi — and it was Stevens’ men who had designated him a “chief”, the operation upon an alien culture of a bureaucracy that required official spokesmen — allegedly refused to sign the Treaty of Medicine Creek, although the evidence is unclear. Whatever the truth of that matter, sufficient signatures were cajoled for the government to ratify an agreement for massive dispossession, and Leschi became a prominent voice in the growing Indian dissatisfaction once the extent of the hustle became clear.
An attempt to arrest Leschi, who increasingly feared white assassination, touched off the Puget Sound War in 1855, and with an analogous conflict brewing on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, all Washington was soon a conflict zone.
That story’s end is predictable enough, but Leschi’s fate was protested by both native and white contemporaries. Leschi was condemned for “murdering” a militiaman during hostilities, a charge whose logic flowed from the rights asserted by American authorities but whose fundamental injustice (even leaving aside the very doubtful factual evidence) seems manifest, as it did to the defendant.
I have supposed that the killing of armed men in wartime was not murder; if it was, the soldiers who killed Indians are guilty of murder too.
George W. Bush would’ve called him an illegal combatant. That was hardly common sentiment.
So much good will did Leschi enjoy among whites — with whom he had years of amicable relations prior to Gov. Stevens’ arrival — that a scheduled January 22 hanging was deviously put off by the sheriff charged with the task: he arranged to have himself arrested on a liquor charge while in possession of the death warrant shortly before Leschi was to have been hung, and the two-hour window allotted for the execution of the sentence elapsed before matters could be put right.
They carried the sentence out four weeks later — “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man,” executioner Charles Grainger would say, “and I believe it yet” — but that hardly put an end to Chief Leschi’s story. The Nisqually have pushed hard for Leschi’s official exoneration, and won a Washington Senate resolution to that effect and an “acquittal” (of no legal force) from a panel of state jurists. But even though it attached to a convicted murderer, Leschi’s was never a black name in the state; it adorns a Seattle neighborhood and a number of schools and other public places. (“Stevens” is similarly prominent.)
On this date in 1894, Sioux Chief Cha Nopa Uhah (“Two Sticks”) was hanged in Deadwood, S.D., for instigating the murder of white ranchers on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The story begins little more than two years after one of the most tragic and emblematic events in the white conquest of North America — Wounded Knee:
By early 1893, the “Ghost Dance” religious movement that had animated the Lakota people had not disappeared … nor had the futile dream of armed resistance to white domination.
A band under Chief Two Sticks, a leader described as resistant to settled white civilization and inclined towards retaining the traditional nomadic life, raided a white cattle ranch. The raid was not deadly, but its consequences were.
Indian police dispatched to arrest the raiders were killed in a shootout, after which the raiders again attacked the ranch — looking this time for men, not cattle. Four white cowboys were killed.
A number of additional Indians died when tribal authorities deployed in force to stop Two Sticks’ followers, perhaps narrowly averting much worse — as it’s a given that federal authorities would not have countenanced Two Sticks’ continued liberty.
The chief himself was severely wounded in the process, and only after a lengthy recovery was he well enough to stand trial in the white men’s courts in Deadwood.
My heart is not bad. I did not kill the cowboys; the Indian boys [meaning White Faced Horse, Fights With, Two Two and First Eagle] killed them. I have killed many Indians, but never killed a white man; I never pulled a gun on a white man. The great father* and the men under him should talk to me and I would show them I am innocent. The white men are going to kill me for something I haven’t done. I am a great chief myself. I have always been a friend of the white man. The white men will find out sometime that I am innocent and then they will be sorry they killed me. The great father will be sorry, too, and he will be ashamed. My people will be ashamed, too. My heart is straight and I like everybody. God made all hearts the same. My heart is the same as the white man’s. If I had not been innocent I would not have come up here so good when they wanted me. They know I am innocent or they would not let me go around here. My heart knows I am not guilty and I am happy. I am not afraid to die. I was taught that if I raised my hands to God and told a lie that God would kill me that day. I never told a lie in my life.
On December 20, 1786, the Sheriff of New London, Conn., led a distraught 12-year-old girl to the gallows, placed a rope around her neck, and hanged her in front of a crowd of spectators. The girl was Hannah Ocuish, a young member of the Pequot nation. She was charged with the murder of six-year-old Eunice Bolles, a white girl with whom Hannah had quarreled the previous summer.
While it is difficult to get a clear picture of Hannah’s life from the available sources, it is clear that hers was not a comfortable existence. An appendix to Rev. Henry Channing’s execution sermon notes that Hannah’s mother was “an abandoned creature, much addicted to the vice of drunkenness,” who sent Hannah to work as a servant in a white family’s home. At the age of six, Hannah was accused of beating a white child while trying to steal her necklace. The anonymous author describes Hannah’s character thus:
Her conduct, as appeared in evidence before the honorable Superior Court was marked with almost every thing bad. Theft and lying were her common vices. To these were added a maliciousness of disposition which made the children in the neighborhood much afraid of her. She had a degree of artful cunning and sagacity beyond many of her years.
This description, expressed in terms designed to emphasize the importance of training children in obedience, may or may not be accurate. Regardless, all evidence suggests that Hannah was alone in a hostile world. (Some historians have suggested that she may also have been mentally retarded intellectually disabled.)
On July 21, 1786, someone found Eunice Bolles’ body at the side of the road outside Norwich, Conn. The corpse displayed signs of extreme trauma: “the head and body were mangled in a shocking manner, the back and one arm broken, and a number of heavy stones placed on the body, arms and legs.” Investigators questioned Hannah, who initially denied any involvement, but mentioned that she had seen a group of boys on the road earlier. The town officials did not believe her. On July 22, “she was closely questioned, but repeatedly denied that she was guilty.” Still unconvinced, the investigators “carried [Hannah] to the house where the body lay, and being charged with the crime, burst into tears and confessed that she killed her, saying if she could be forgiven she would never do so again.”
Hannah’s confession, which was accepted as truth by the court, indicated that she had sought revenge on Eunice because the younger girl had “complained of her in strawberry time … for taking away her strawberries.” When Hannah saw Eunice walking to school alone, she beat and choked her, covering the body with rocks “to make people think that the wall fell upon her and killed her.”
Rev. Henry Channing, a talented local minister, visited Hannah in prison many times, urging her to repent so that her soul might be spared. On the day of her execution, he delivered a thundering sermon entitled, God Admonishing His People of Their Duty as Parents and Masters, which held Hannah up as an example of what could happen if parents did not raise their children to be “dutiful and obedient.”
Her crimes, he argued, were the “natural consequences of too great parental indulgence,” and warned that “appetites and passions unrestrained in childhood become furious in youth; and ensure dishonour, disease and an untimely death.” In the portion of the sermon directed at Hannah herself, Channing did his best to scare her into repentance:
HANNAH! — prisoner at the bar– agreeably to the laws of the land you have arraigned, tried and convicted of the crime of murder … The good and safety of society requires, that no one, of such a malignant character, shall be suffered to live, and the punishment of death is but the just demerit of your crime: and the sparing you on account of your age, would, as the law says, be of dangerous consequence to the publick, by holding up an idea, that children might commit such atrocious crimes with impunity … And you must consider that after death you must undergo another trial, infinitely more solemn and awful than what you have here passed through, before that God against whom you offended; at whose bar the deceased child will appear as a swift witness against you — And you will be condemned and consigned to an everlasting punishment, unless you now obtain a pardon, by confessing and sincerely repenting of your sins, and applying to his sovereign grace, through the merits of his Son, Jesus Christ, for mercy, who is able and willing to save the greatest offenders, who repent and believe in him.
At her trial in October, Hannah “appeared entirely unconcerned,” but as the date of her execution approached, she began to show fear. In early December, visitors began to ask her how long she had to live, and Hannah “would tell the Number of her Days with manifest Agitation.” On December 19th, she “appeared in great Distress . . . and continued in Tears most of the Day, and until her Execution.” Witnesses to her execution reported that Hannah “seemed greatly afraid when at the Gallows.” With her last words, she “thanked the Sheriff for his kindness, and launched into the eternal World.”
In the United States, the youngest children put to death by the government have all be children of color. James Arcene, a Cherokee boy, was only 10 or 11 years old when he was hanged for committed a robbery and murder that resulted in his 1885 hanging in Arkansas.* At 12, Hannah Ocuish was the youngest female offender executed by any state. In the 20th century, the youngest children executed were both African-American: 13-year-old Fortune Ferguson of Florida (1927) and 14-year-old George Stinney of South Carolina (1944).
In 2005, the United States Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for criminals who committed their crimes as juveniles (Roper v. Simmons). The court split 5-4, with Jutices Scalia, O’Connor, Thomas, and Chief Justice Rehnquist dissenting. In his dissent, Justice Scalia excoriated the majority for considering international consensus (along with the laws of 30 of the 50 U.S. states) on the cruelty of executing children under the age of 18 when determining the standard for “cruel and unusual.” Justice Scalia, an avowed proponent of Constitutional originalism, proclaimed, “I do not believe that the meaning of our Eighth Amendment, any more than the meaning of other provisions of our Constitution, should be determined by the subjective views of five Members of this Court and like-minded foreigners.”
* This post originally asserted that Arcene was a juvenile when hanged. In fact, he was (or claimed to have been) 10 years old or so at the time he committed the crime, but was not tried and hanged until over a decade later. (This is corrected in the Arcene post.) -ed.