Friday, January 15, 2016

Steals and Seals: The Importance of Historical Context at the Local Level

Author: Nolan Cool (Utica College Alum)

Historians understand that interpretation is everything. In the village of Whitesboro in Central New York, we see the role of historical interpretation as a factor in a recent decision regarding Whitesboro’s controversial village seal. This past Monday, January 11, 2016, Whitesboro residents voted to keep the image in place. [1]

Two interpretations of the seal emerged in this long-running debate over Whitesboro’s seal. One views the seal as inflammatory and representative of an era of Native American dispossession and gradual removal. Another view claims that the image represents a friendly wrestling match between village founder, Hugh White, and a nameless local Oneida chief. The latter opinion won out.

Whitesboro seal; village of Whitesboro; Whitesboro
Whitesboro's Village Seal

Adequately explaining the first claim means delving into the deeper context of the period before and after Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act. Historian Laurence Hauptman chronicles the Oneida Nation’s gradual degradation and dispossession in his 1999 study Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State. As a scholarly authority on the Iroquois and Upstate New York, Hauptman skillfully uses primary sources to detail the Oneida experience in Central New York following the Revolutionary War. Conspiracy of Interests offers a documented understanding of the scope of dispossession in Central New York, and more broadly, throughout the borderlands of the young United States. [2] However, this post seeks to weigh the value of the historical interpretation as it pertains to Oneida County’s early historical narratives.

During the nineteenth-century, America’s local historians penned scantly cited historical narratives that typically focused on pioneering individuals (usually individualist white men of local importance and status) who “settled” and “tamed” the “wild” frontier beyond the eastern seaboard. [3] In one instance, Oneida County author Pomroy Jones echoed this era’s sentiment in his 1851 work Annals and Recollections of Oneida County. Jones describes Hugh White’s journey from Middletown, Connecticut to the Upper Mohawk Valley in 1784, detailing that White and his family “found many of the farms in that vicinity unoccupied [emphasis mine], and the charred remains of dwelling houses and out-buildings [which] told a fearful tale of the ravages committed by the tories and savages.” Jones explains that a 51-year old White’s journey “was not, therefore, the ardor and restlessness of youth which induced him to emigrate, but that spirit of enterprise and perseverance which looked forward to the future prosperity of himself and family.” [4] Jones’s characterization of Hugh White supports the consistent focus on the sole experience of pre and post-Revolutionary entrepreneurs present in many nineteenth-century narratives.

The wrestling-match interpretation likely stems from a similar nineteenth-century narrative, William Tracy’s 1838 Notices of Men and Events Connected with the Early History of Oneida County. Tracy explains that White arrived with a “vigor of intellect, an ardent spirit of enterprise, and intrepidity and energy that is rarely to be met with, and a perseverance and devotion to his purpose that regarded no obstacle as insurmountable.” Tracy goes on to explain that White’s encounter with an “Oneida chief,” and soon after, the two “for amusement, commenced wrestling.” Tracy writes that White “took hold with the Indian, and by a fortunate trip, succeeded almost instantly in throwing him.” White then “contrived to fall with all his weight, he then constituting an avoirdupois of some 250 lbs., and as heavily as possible, upon the Indian, who then “slowly arose, shrugged his shoulders with an emphatic—“Ugh! you good fellow, too much!” [5]

Tracy’s secondhand account further promotes the story of the era of white self-made pioneers sweeping over “unoccupied” frontier lands. The piece reflects its era even further, as it purposely ignores a diverse and wide-ranging American Indian perspective on the other side of western expansion.

The seal’s continuity represents a clear example of how divergent historical interpretations exist and still bear weight in American society from the local level and even upward. This story also demonstrates the importance of historical truth – to establish legitimacy and critically analyze historical material. One must consider the multiple perspectives surrounding any historical narrative, but must also recognize the larger context. History cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Criticism remains important, as important as historical accuracy and the larger context. Through the lens of history, our action or inaction may bring us closer to a holistic truth.
[1] Jolene Cleaver, “Whitesboro seal receives non-binding support, 'Daily Show' also present for poll,” Utica Observer-Dispatch, last modified January 12, 2016,
[2] See Laurence M. Hauptman, Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State
      (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999).
[3] See Carol Kammen, On Doing Local History, 3rd Edition, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).
[4] Pomroy Jones, Annals and Recollections of Oneida County, (Rome, NY: Published by the author, 1851), 783.
[5] William Tracy, Notices of Men and Events Connected with the Early History of Oneida County: Two Lectures, Delivered Before the Young Men's Association of the City of Utica, (Utica, NY: Printer R. Northway Jr., 1838), 30, 34.

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