Daily Connector | Part VI: Reparations Essay | Wilbur Miller

I’m sharing with you a couple snapshots of what I am learning about our diverse nation’s migration story.

The last eleven years Shirley and I have been living among African Americans in Olde Towne East here in central Ohio. The last several years I have been reading about the history of African Americans in our country. I have been shocked by the graphic stories of how the Christian church has taken an active role in promoting slavery and white supremacy since 1619 when they first arrived here on these shores.

Why didn’t I know this part of our history, our story? It seems that I was educated in an educational system written by whites, other European Americans like me. The authors in the curriculum that I have read in schools haven’t given me a complete picture of who we really are.

I grew up in central Kansas in a rural community of Amish-Mennonites. We were mostly farmers, known as “people of the land,” In 1883 my grandma Nisly’s grandfather left Illinois and followed the Santa Fe Railroad to Hutchinson, Kansas. They were able to buy land for $5.00/acre. Ten years later when my Miller ancestors from Holmes County, Ohio arrived they purchased farmland for $20.00/acre. The 4-foot-high prairie grass had been newly plowed under for wheat farming. What drew us out west? We sold our fertile farms in Ohio and were able to buy land for a song. Our government had just recently declared in 1854 that Kansas Indian Territory was now open for settlers. So my grandma’s grandpa, Abraham Nisly and Christian Bontrager loaded up 5 boxcars with their two families and horses and wagons and moved out west to start up a new community.

It’s difficult to find anything about Native Americans in our German-American family lore. The closest I could come up with was that John Miller, my 6th great-grandfather was nicknamed “Indian John” or “crippled John” because he was injured in the attack known as the Hochstetler family massacre [1] during the French and Indian War in 1757. His neighbor Jacob Hochstetler’s wife and two of their children were killed when their house and barn were burnt in that Native American raid. Jacob and his 2 sons, Joseph and Christian were taken captive. Jacob was captive several years before he was able to escape. His two sons were adopted into two different tribes and were released after six years. They say that it took these children a while to adjust back to their old way of living again. I would love to hear the stories of their experiences among the indigenous residents of this land. Jacob Hochstetler was also my 6th great-grandfather through 3 of his children and through 3 of my grandparents (Nisly, Yoder and Schrock).

But, I’d like to hear the Native Americans tell their story from their perspective. Every viewpoint is a view from a point. I hunger to hear history from other perspectives.

Here are a few things I have been learning these days:

     • “In order to stimulate settlement on its Kansas lands, the Santa Fe railroad offered free or reduced fares for potential farmland buyers. Many settlers on railroad land, especially those from overseas, could bring all of their household goods at the railway company’s expense.” [2] So my ancestors were lured out to the prairies by financial incentives. Many Mennonites from the Ukraine were enticed to bring their Turkey Red winter wheat and settle in Newton as well. Thousands of them came and by 1888 they established Bethel College. We were lured by:
          o Cheap land prices
          o Free moving transportation
          o Exemption from military service for Conscientious Objectors [3]

     • Why weren’t more African Americans from the south given these same incentives? 
         o Forty acres and a mule [4] is part of Special Field Orders No. 15, [5] This is a wartime order proclaimed by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman on January 16, 1865, during the American Civil War, to allot land to some freed families, in plots of land no larger than 40 acres. This military order was sidelined when Lincoln was assassinated and the new president, Johnson, put an end to Reconstruction of our union.
        o “Following the Civil War, African Americans began to move from the South to seek better lives. Promoters encouraged black families to move to Graham County in western Kansas. By the summer of 1877, prior to the African American “exoduster” movement, 300 blacks established a new town called Nicodemus. Several African American settlements were established in other parts of the state.” [6]     

     •This past month I have been reading stories of the indigenous people of this land we call America… the stories of their Trail of Tears as they were uprooted from their lands and sent out West by our government decrees. Decrees and treaties that our government usually discarded within a few decades.

          o “In Northern Indiana the Potawatomi were coerced to sign a series of treaties to cede their land to the government. The Treaty of Yellow River signed in August 1836, which promised $1 per acre of Indiana land and 320 acres of land in Kansas for each member of the tribe if they agreed to leave within 2 years. The forced journey known as The Potawatomi Trail of Death lasted from Sept. 4 to Nov. 4. 1838. Of the 859 Potawatomi who began the 665 mile march only 700 arrived in Kansas. The houses that were to have been built and waiting for them in Kansas were nonexistent, and winter was coming.” [7]
         o “Before Kansas was a territory, George Bluejacket anticipated the long journey to the prairie from his home in Ohio. His band of the Shawnee had agreed to move west as part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. A mounted military escort would accompany the band on their two-year journey by foot. A member of the Shawnee tribe, and son of the Great Chief Blue Jacket, George Bluejacket kept a diary in his native language, which was later translated. His entry in the fall of 1830 tells of the impending removal west.” [8]

George Bluejacket’s diary entry:
January 9, 1830

          o  “***** have come to tell us all Indians must move right away to Girty’s Town [St. Marys] to make more ready to go to new Indian land on big Ta-was-ko-ta [“prairie”] near “Night Lodge of Ke-sath-wa “ [Sun]. Our old people make much sorry [sorrow] for they not wish to leave old home. Nath-the-wee-law [Geo. C. Johnston] and John Johnston sorry too, but say Indian must do like the Great White Father at Washington say, for white people must have all land before the Big Se-pe [East of the Mississippi River]. Our tribe is no more a great people. Our old chiefs most all gone. Our warriors sit down most like E-qui-wa [“women”]. We take what our White Father gives us. Now we must go to new land. Soon more times we will have to move again. Soon there will be no more Shaw-anoes. Our hearts [are] full of sorry [sorrow] for all the tribes. But we will listen to the voice of our Mish-eme-ne-toc [“good spirit”] in the great Me-to-quegh-ke [“forest”] and he tells his A-pe-to-the [“children”] when they all gone from this Mel-che-a-sis-ke [“poor land”, or “poor earth”] he will lead them to their their We-che-a-sis-ke [“good land”] where all place is for Indian; where pale-face never come. Then poor Indian more again be happy.

Girty’s Town [St. Marys, Ohio] June, 1831

          o Nath-the-wee-law [Geo. C. Johnston] tell me to write more in book. Soon Nath-the-wee-law go back home to Piquatown. When our White Father [agent] have plenty much Me-she-wa [“horses”] then Indian start on long walk to new home. Our tribe [will] go down to old Pe-quaw Town at John Johnston post, and sit sometime on the graves of our fathers. Then we will tell good-by to John Johnston and Nath-the-wee-law [Geo. C. Johnston]. Then we will tell good-by to the Me-to-quegh-ke [“forest”] by the Se-pe [“river”], and leave our old home forever.”

(Note added by editor and translator –John A. Rayner)

          o “From other authority we learn that just previous to their removal west, and by special invitation of their former agent, Col. John Johnston, this tribe did come down in a body to their old home at Upper Piqua and remained several days on the site of their old home and burial grounds. Their parting from these old-time scenes, and especially their final farewell to their kindly old Agent and his family, was very affecting, and was the occasion of much shedding of tears by all the participants. Not long after the removal of this tribe to their western reservation, Bluejacket became Chief, and according to Major Stephen Johnston, is still living at this date.” [9]

     • Brothers and sisters in this time of Lent, also a season of COVID-19 (the plague or the pandemic), the Great Spirit is calling us to acknowledge that we have benefitted from;
          o the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the original residents of this land
          o the exploitation of our African American brothers and sisters by
                enslavement
                segregation
                racist housing and
                mass incarceration
     • On this Palm Sunday, anticipating in one week the celebration the resurrection of our Lord Jesus;
          o Let's commit to a new time of repenting and repairing the breach that has been part of our inheritance. 
          o Let’s commit to learning the stories of the Native American and African American so that we can all, like Jesus, rise again and breathe new life.

[1] https://www.berkshistory.org/multimedia/articles/hochstetler-massacre/
[2] https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/santa-fe-railway/12194
[3] https://www.sss.gov/conscientious-objectors/
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forty_acres_and_a_mule#:~:text=Forty%20acres %20and%20a%20mule%20is%20part%20of%20Special%20Field,40%20acres% 20(16%20ha)
[5] https://nfu.org/2020/06/19/juneteenth-and-the-broken-promise-of-40-acres and-a mule/#:~:text=The%20long%2Dterm%20financial%20implications,be%20worth% 20%24640%20billion%20today.
[6] https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/settlement-in-kansas/14546
[7] https://anabaptistworld.org/uneasy-inheritance-trail-death/
[8]https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/emigrant indians/15146#:~:text=The%20Miamis%20were%20moved%20by,more%20than %20600%20miles%20away
[9] https://ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p16007coll27/id/1000/rec/10