I have Indian blood in me. I have just enough white blood for you to question my honesty. — Will Rogers
My family moved to New Jersey from the Outback when I was 11. The first defining event of transplanted statehood I recall is not the Garden State “Parkway” nor some diabolically dripping slice of pizza; but my little sister at about 4 years old skipping home from summer day camp in an indeterminate paper necklace, singing at the top of her impressive lungs “I’m a WAM-pa-noag!” That and a couple days of high school history focused on the indigenous Lenni-Lenape tribes in New Jersey is all I recall about understanding Native Americans beyond a Boy Scout merit badge I never got around to. This was all within 10 miles of what is now the tribal headquarters of the Ramapough Lenape Nation of 5,000 or so people in Mahwah.
So when a Princeton professor begins a course by spending a couple of minutes laying out the idea that this University is not some divinely-endowed miracle that just materialized amid a few billion cicadas, and gives a land acknowledgement to a very different culture that has its own place in our history, I tend to be understanding. Exactly what that should mean to us today is thought provoking, but at the least it means we should listen to these people from the past as well as those today, and understand what we can do together to serve humanity, as it says on the big fancy engraving.
This is a challenge as old as Princeton. While the principal treaty that removed the various Delaware Indian tribes, including the Lenni-Lenape, from New Jersey was signed in 1758, only two years after Nassau Hall opened for business, relations between natives and the European folks who increasingly called themselves “Americans” were already very complex. Relationships varied between local native groups and local white settlers, with European politics layered on top of it all — most notably in the “French and Indian” War of 1754-63. The Lenni-Lenape fought principally for the French, but some flipped during the war and defended the English in western Pennsylvania. After winning, the English settlers continued killing them anyway.
The smattering who remained in New Jersey mainly decided to adapt rather than continue a futile struggle, and so developed the attempt to play the white man’s game. The vehicles for this were often Christian missionaries, such as the Presbyterian David Brainerd in New Jersey, whose native interpreter from Cranbury was a schoolteacher known as Stephen Calvin, so transformed we don’t now even know his native name. His son Wilted Grass, known as Bartholomew Scott Calvin, was born in 1756 or so, and together with the remaining Lenni-Lenape south of the Raritan they moved to Brotherton in Burlington County, the first formal Indian reservation in America, in 1758 after the Easton treaty.
Bartholomew, son of schoolmaster Stephen and young protégé of John Brainerd, who took over the mission after the death of his brother, was prepped for Wheelock’s Indian school in Connecticut, with an eye toward the College at Princeton, where the Presbyterians also held sway. Newly arrived president Rev. John Witherspoon was sympathetic, and by 1774, Bartholomew Calvin had made the momentous transition to colonial college life. There’s no indication he was anything but an acceptable student, on track to be the first Native American to get a Princeton degree (he was the second to attend), but the Scottish missionary fund paying his tuition was inactivated by the war, and in 1776, before the Battle of Princeton, he was gone.
However, he certainly took Witherspoon’s Revolutionary message to heart. His first stop was not home in Brotherton, but across the river in Pennsylvania, as a volunteer in Washington’s army, where he served (along with other Native Americans) until at least 1780, seeing a range of combat.
Having thus spent a formative decade of his life coming to terms with the white man’s world, he chose to return to help his native brethren. Back in Brotherton, he succeeded his father as schoolmaster, even attracting to his classes a range of white students from the area who paid the nation for the privilege. Calvin and his free-market success notwithstanding, the colony was simply not large enough to be self-sustaining, and began falling into disrepair. Down to perhaps 80 residents by 1802, the Brotherton leadership petitioned the legislature to allow it to sell the land, to provide funds to move itself to Oneida Lake, New York, with the Stockbridge Mahican tribe, late of Massachusetts. This was closer than the large preponderance of other Delaware communities, then in Ohio. The legislature assented, and only a smattering of the Lenni-Lenape remained across New Jersey.
Calvin took up teaching again in New York, but his mother died in 1804 and he grew restive along with many of the transplanted tribes; he often took to drink, then upbraided himself severely. By 1822, the community unease was so prevalent, the remains of the Brotherton tribe chose to petition New Jersey for its remaining funds from the 1802 land sale, in order to move to the west of the Michigan territory, near what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin. This gradual move, with federal blessing, by 1840 made the tribe almost unrecognizable as a separate entity, with smatterings of people remaining in New York and some returning to New Jersey, beyond those in Wisconsin with the Stockbridge tribe.
Having moved to Wisconsin in 1823, as documented by tribal historian Carolyn K. Andler, Calvin, a skilled schoolteacher (and so by default still a pillar of the community), was a prime candidate for a big Church revival in 1828, conducted there by none other than a minister of the Scottish missionary society that had paid for his Princeton education 50 years before. Indeed, Calvin was born again in the Revival, and gave up drink for good. His minister described the now-tribal elder: “Seldom have I seen one who appears to possess more of the grace of humility, this is manifest in all his deportment, but especially in prayer, here he seems a suppliant indeed. His humility seems to arise from a deep sense of the sinfulness and depravity of his heart by nature and of the greatness and holiness of God.”
And so it was in 1832, honored and white-haired at 76, Bartholomew Calvin from the West stood delegated in front of the New Jersey legislature in Trenton regarding unfinished business from the Treaty of 1758, signed originally by his father. It had explicitly reserved sizeable hunting and fishing rights for the Lenni-Lenape, and while the tribes were gone, the obligation remained. He appealed to the body for just compensation: “My brethren, I am old, and weak and poor, and therefore a fit representative of my people. You are young and strong, and rich, and therefore fit representatives of your people.” The legislature voted to pay for the rights $2,000 “by fair and voluntary purchase and transfer, as a memorial of kindness and compassion to a once-powerful and friendly people.” That would be maybe $60,000 today, but still…
On March 12, Calvin again stood and addressed the legislature: “The final act of official intercourse between the State of New Jersey and the Delaware Indians, who once owned near the whole of its territory, has now been consummated and in a manner which must redound to the honor of this growing state. And, in all probability, to the prolongation of a wasted, yet grateful people. Upon this parting occasion, I feel it to be an incumbent duty to bear the feeble tribute of my praise to the high-toned justice which, in this instance, and so far as I am acquainted, in all former times, has actuated the councils of this commonwealth in dealing with the aboriginal inhabitants. Not a drop of our blood have you spilled in battle; not an acre of ground have you taken but by our consent. These facts speak for themselves, and need no comment. They place the character of New Jersey in bold relief and bright example to those states within whose territorial limits our brethren still remain… I fervently pray that God will have [the legislators] in his holy keeping — will guide them in safety through the vicissitables of this life, and ultimately, through the rich mercies of our Blessed Redeemer, receive them into the glorious entertainment of his kingdom above.” The entire room erupted in applause and cheers.
After such a stark and somber life, who was speaking here? Wilted Grass, the favored native child? Bartholomew Calvin, the Christian teacher twice guided by the beneficent missionaries? Bartholomew Calvin 1776, the apt student of John Witherspoon, moved to become an active part of his American Revolution?
As he breathed his last on the remote shore of Lake Winnebago eight years later, I wonder if he knew.