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UVA and the History of Race: The George Rogers Clark Statue and Native Americans

Jul 29, 2020 |

Editor’s note: Even an institution as historic as the University of Virginia – now entering its third century – has stories yet to be told. Some are inspiring, while the truths of others are painful, but necessary for a fuller accounting of the past. The president’s commissions on Slavery and on the University in the Age of Segregation were established to find and tell those stories. Here are some of them, written by those who did the research. One in an occasional series:

One hundred years ago, when Charlottesville began an eight-year period of monument-building, the city wrote a series of historical narratives that have reverberated to the present.

In a speech celebrating the dedication of the statue of George Rogers Clark, then-UVA President Edwin Alderman lauded it as an “epic in metal and stone, of conquest and empire.”

Beginning in 1916 and ending in 1924, Charlottesville and the University of Virginia erected four statues across the city: two commemorated the Lost Cause and two glorified the frontier exploits of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and of George Rogers Clark.

The monuments to Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are powerful symbols of white supremacy. They were built at a time of resurgent Ku Klux Klan terrorism, as well as increased valorization of the myth of the Lost Cause, a pro-Confederate interpretation of history that held that the Civil War was not actually lost, and could still be won by new forms of racial proscription and segregation.

In ways different than the Lee and Jackson statues, the George Rogers Clark and the Lewis and Clark statues are also monuments to white supremacy. They are instrumental in creating and perpetuating the myth of brave white men conquering a supposedly unknown and unclaimed land.

The Lee and Jackson statues have received considerable attention over the years. Most recently, the controversy over their proposed removal erupted in the hate-filled violence wrought by white supremacists on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. The memorials to Lewis and Clark and George Rogers Clark have not yet generated profound and violent controversy, but momentum also has grown for their removal. In November 2019, the Charlottesville City Council voted in favor of removing the Lewis and Clark statue, and community members submitted a petition to UVA earlier that year, urging removal of the George Rogers Clark statue.

Edwin Alderman, who served as UVA’s first president from 1905 to 1931, spoke at the unveiling of both statues. In 1919, at the Lewis and Clark ceremony, Alderman characterized Lewis and Clark’s journey as one designed “to break paths through pathless woods, to voyage down vast unsailed rivers, to battle with the savage and the beast, to use science in dominion over nature.”

The statue of Lewis and Clark at the east end of West Main Street again casts white men as conquerors and empire buiders.
Sanjay Suchak / University Communications

Two years later, it was front page news in The Daily Progress the day after Alderman accepted the George Rogers Clark statue on behalf of the University. In a speech celebrating the gift from Paul Goodloe McIntire – the benefactor responsible for all four of the Charlottesville statues – Alderman praised it as an “epic in metal and stone, of conquest and empire.”

The statues articulate a particular version of history. Unlike the monuments to Lee and Jackson – monuments, at the time, to events from the relatively recent past – the monuments to Lewis and Clark and George Rogers Clark had less to do with memory than they did with an imagined past. And that past was built upon two myths: the myth of the lone frontier hero settling the West and the myth of the vanishing Indian.¹ In 1916, when announcing the city’s intention to build a monument to Lewis and Clark, an anonymous columnist for The Daily Progress quoted the “poet laureate of the Confederacy,” Father Abram Joseph Ryan: “A land without monuments is a land without memories; a land without memories is a land without history.” And the history being written included Indian people solely as obstacles to progress.

At the dedication ceremonies, the speakers extolled individual heroism, empire-building and the conquest of nature. No one mentioned Indian people. They did not have to; the statues said it all: Native people submitted.

UVA’s Clark statue helped create and perpetuate the myth "of brave white men conquering a supposedly unknown and unclaimed land,” though Native Americans already were well-established there.
Sanjay Suchak / University Communications

The Lewis and Clark statue features the two men standing erect, gazing sternly into the distance while Sacajawea, their guide, is on her knees with her eyes to the ground. The George Rogers Clark statue calls him the “Conqueror of the Northwest” and features Indian people braced for submission. Both are explicit in their valorization of conquest and empire. This should come as no surprise: after all, the Lewis and Clark expedition and George Rogers Clark’s pursuits in the West were about conquest and empire.

When the George Rogers Clark statue was unveiled at the University on Nov. 3, 1921, Albert LeFevre, the Corcoran Professor of Philosophy, told the crowd: “I present to the University of Virginia this monument of pride, enlightenment and inspiration – a monument erected as a memorial to the daring adventures of George Rogers Clark, the conqueror of the Northwest territory. This beautiful work of sculptural genius, like the noble statue of Lewis and Clark, awakens in us just pride, because it makes us ever mindful of the tribute we love to render to those great and heroic sons of the soil of Albemarle, sent forth on their high missions and fateful destinies by the prophetic wisdom of Thomas Jefferson.”²

Despite the hero worship at the unveiling, to claim that Clark was the “Conqueror the Northwest” is absurd. The contest over control of the Ohio Country began in the middle of the 17th century and would not end until almost the beginning of the 19th. George Rogers Clark played a minor role in the centuries-long struggle for control between the French, the English, the Native peoples and eventually the Americans. Clark was an important strategist and soldier during the Revolution’s western phase; he was well connected and adept at gathering intelligence. But the victories he became most famous for – particularly Sackville and Vincennes – were won against weakly fortified enemies and had little bearing on the war’s outcome.³

Indians were not mentioned at the dedication ceremonies, as they were considered little more than a barrier to civilization.
Corks & Curls, UVA Yearbook

Clark’s approach to Indian people was Jeffersonian. Jefferson had a scientific fascination with Indian people. But he shared the common view that Indians were a barrier to civilization. During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson counseled Clark in his dealings with American Indians. In a letter to Clark, Jefferson wrote that the best way to deal with Native people was “total suppression of Savage Insolence and Cruelties.”

Clark followed Jefferson’s advice frequently following attacks on Shawnee villages, for instance, with the destruction of houses and crops. His dealings with the Shawnees at the negotiations over the Treaty of Fort McIntosh in 1785 – which the Shawnee rejected – further inflamed American relations with Native people and prolonged military conflict. No conquering occurred.⁴

During the Lewis and Clark unveiling ceremony, there was of course similar rhetoric about the singular achievements of the two men. But added to the myth of Lewis and Clark was the notion that the land west of the Mississippi was empty and free for the taking. When local historian Armistead Gordon spoke at the ceremony, he argued that the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark’s expedition were the singular achievements of Jefferson’s presidency. After all, the resources in the West were the bounty of that “inexhaustible conquest.” Gordon concluded his remarks with the following: “the immortal names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose indomitable courage and endurance, defying life and death, carved an empire out of wilderness, and gave to succeeding generations of Americans the inheritance which they conquered.”

In a letter to George Rogers Clark, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the best way to deal with Native people was “total suppression of Savage Insolence and Cruelties."
Sanjay Suchak / University Communications

Lewis and Clark, of course, had encountered nothing like a wilderness – and they would never have claimed such a thing. Nor would Jefferson. On the contrary, Jefferson knew that west of the Mississippi, Native people were in charge. In fact, it was, according to Jefferson, the “immense power” of the Sioux, particularly the Lakota, that would be the biggest barrier to American trade and settlement.⁵ The wilderness that Armistead Gordon imagined in 1919 at the unveiling of the Lewis and Clark statue was in fact a region in which Sioux population and power would only increase in the decades after Lewis and Clark passed through.

In the early 1920s, in America and Virginia, worshipping those who settled the American landscape and erasing the presence – in the past and the present – of those who were here first, was commonplace. This manifested in several ways.

For one, in the decades surrounding World War I, the number of statues memorializing the settlement of the West exploded. The frontier had “officially” closed as of the 1890 census. No longer was the West considered unsettled. Frederick Jackson Turner, in his famous 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” claimed that the frontier was a place of rugged individualism, where societies could be formed anew. But with the closing of the frontier and America’s increasing urbanization, a key piece of America’s identity disappeared. When it did, a newfound interest in the country’s pioneer past emerged.

At the same time, Indians had come to be considered a “vanishing race,” doomed to extinction. Fueling this notion was a proliferation of “expert” opinion regarding what they argued was the vanishingly low Native population prior to contact with Europeans – an argument used to justify denying Native peoples legal rights to land.⁶

Finally, the American West was reimagined as having been a wilderness, a land uninhabited and free for the taking. The American past was rewritten and Indians were erased. There was no place to recognize, for example, the “immense power” Jefferson knew the Sioux possessed over a huge swath of the Northern Plains. The West, in this new historical narrative, was empty. The statues dedicated to Lewis and Clark and George Rogers Clark reinforced this historical narrative.

The myth-building about the vanishing Indian would not only be advanced by monuments. More devastatingly, actual laws harmed Native people and exacerbated discrimination against them for decades.

In 1924, when the General Assembly passed the notorious Racial Integrity Act, Virginia added racial purity to this already toxic mix of ideas. The act redefined racial classification in Virginia. Now, there were two: white and black. The categories were strictly defined and meticulously policed by the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Being Indian was no longer possible.

Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 essentially wrote Native Americans out of existence.

Native people in Virginia began to disappear from official records such as the census. After all, they no longer existed. By the 1940s, the Racial Integrity Act had greatly diminished the number of official Native people in Virginia. Walter Plecker, the State Registrar of Vital Statistics, was relentless in his pursuit of racial purity. He chased down individuals claiming to be Indian.⁷

In 1940, when explaining why he returned one man’s birth certificate, he wrote the following: “We have learned that none of the native-born individuals in Virginia claiming to be Indian are free from negro mixture, and under the law of Virginia every person with any ascertainable degree of negro blood is to be classed as a negro or colored person not as an Indian.” To another person claiming to be Indian, he wrote: “We do not recognize any native-born Indian as of pure Indian descent unmixed with negro blood. According to the law of Virginia any ascertainable degree of negro blood constitutes the individual a colored person.” Finally, after assiduous research in 1943 he claimed: “Public records in the office of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, and in the State Library, indicate that there does not exist today a descendant of the Virginia ancestors claiming to be an Indian who is unmixed with negro blood.”⁸ Therefore, there were no Indians in Virginia.

As the national historical narrative erased Indians, so, too, did Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act.

The impulse to pass laws like the Racial Integrity Act emerged out of the then-flourishing “science” of eugenics. Eugenics was based on the notion that, through selective breeding, superior racial stock would emerge. By forbidding the races to inter-marry, racial purity, and thus white racial supremacy, could be maintained. Eugenics, explored previously in this series, flourished at the University during the first decades of the 20th century.

During the 1920s, in addition to hiring professors who promoted eugenics, UVA also hired sociologist Floyd House. House got his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, studying under Robert Park. He arrived at UVA the same year as Ivan McDougle and Arthur Estabrook published “Mongrel Virginians: The Win Tribe.” Win stood for “white, Indian, negro,” and the book was presented as an ethnographic-like case study of the nearly apocalyptic consequences that resulted when the races mixed. The community “Mongrel Virginians” depicted largely self-identified as Indian.

But not everyone believed in the racist logic of eugenics. Jeff Hantman, professor emeritus of anthropology at UVA and an expert on the Monacan Nation, has been doing research on House and the history of anthropology at UVA. Hantman’s research revealed a fascinating 1928 UVA master’s thesis by Bertha Wailes, one of House’s students. “Backward Virginias: A Further Study of the Win Tribe” was in many respects a rebuttal to Mongrel Virginians. Wailes knew the community well and argued that while they were indeed “backward,” their place in the social hierarchy could not be explained by their race. In fact, if race played a role in their social position, it was due to the racial prejudice of their neighbors and not any inherent racial characteristics the so-called Win Tribe possessed.

UVA sociologist Floyd House, a eugenicist, wrote “Mongrel Virginians” as a warning of the dangers of race-mixing.
Sanjay Suchak / University Communications

Further, Wailes argued, the Win’s “backwardness” could be explained by malnutrition, lack of education, and the social isolation they faced because of their skin color. These are much the same conditions that public health experts today call the social determinants of health. The Racial Integrity Act was a special concern for the Win. Due to their mixed-race history, the Win worried they would be erased. In fact, because they supposedly possessed “negro blood,” they were officially “colored” under Virginia law. Were these ideas to ultimately prevail, the people we now know as the Monacan Nation would not exist. 

The national narrative of the vanishing Indian and Virginia’s extraordinary efforts to erase Indians had profound consequences not only for Indian identity, but also made it astonishingly difficult for Indian people to claim legal rights, land and tribal recognition. In 1946, just before Congress created the Indian Claims Commission and formalized the process by which Indian people could gain compensation for stolen land, Felix Cohen – the legislation’s lead author and one of the 20th century’s greatest advocates for Indians – wrote that Indian claims are “the backwash of a great national experiment in dictatorship and racial extermination.” Cohen was blunt, but right. And yet, despite the extraordinary power of Plecker and the Racial Integrity Act and the myth of the vanishing Indian, as enshrined by the Lewis and Clark and George Rogers Clark statues, there has been remarkable change.

The myth of the vanishing Indian is itself vanishing, though it’s not yet disappeared. Perhaps most remarkable of all is that on Jan. 29, 2018, Congress passed, and President Trump signed, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act. Both the legislation and the reports leading to its passage noted the profound burden Plecker’s legacy had on tribal recognition. Nonetheless, changing ideas about race, tribal oral histories and traditions, and the work of numerous anthropologists and historians meant that Plecker’s efforts to erase Indians in Virginia were, while damaging and deeply racist, ultimately unsuccessful.

The Lee and Jackson statues perpetuate the myth of the Lost Cause and actively distort American history. The monuments to George Rogers Clark and Lewis and Clark do much the same: they aid in sustaining many of the most destructive myths about American Indians.

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Notes

1. On the vanishing myth Brian Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1991).

2. Albert LeFevre, “Presentation Address, in The George Rogers Clark Statue: The Unveiling of the Monument to George Rogers Clark by Robert Aitken, Charlottesville, Va., Nov. 3, 1921, Special Collections, Alderman Library, University of Virginia

3. The history of the conquest of the Ohio Country has been written by many. See, for example, Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991).

4. Among many other sources see James Fisher, “A Forgotten Hero Remembered, Revered, and Revised: The Legacy and Ordeal of George Rogers Clark,” Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 92, No. 2 (June 1996), pp. 109-132; Colin G. Calloway, ‘"We Have Always Been the Frontier": The American Revolution in Shawnee Country,” American Indian Quarterly, Winter, 1992, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter, 1992), pp. 39- 52.

5. Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, 22 January 1804, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-42-02-0285

6. Christian W. McMillen, Making Indian Law: The Hualapai Land Case and the Birth of Ethnohistory (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2007).

7. Richard Sherman, "The Last Stand": The Fight for Racial Integrity in Virginia in the 1920s, The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Feb., 1988), pp. 69-92; J. Douglas Smith, “The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: ‘Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro,’” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 65-106.

8. All quotes from Mika Endo, "The Word ‘Mixed’ without the ‘Indian’ Would Be Better": Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and the Destruction of Indian Race in the Early Twentieth Century, Native South, Volume 7, 2014, pp. 92-107. The originals are in the Papers of John Powell, Special Collections, Alderman Library, University of Virginia. Many of the Plecker letters have been digitized and can be found here: https://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=uva-sc/viu03212.xml.