Vermont’s history of women, Native Americans, and African Americans revisited

Reviewed by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 8-29-2012

Vermont Women, Native Americans & African Americans, Out of the Shadows of History, by Cynthia D. Bittiinger.  Paperback.  158 pages.  Published by the History Press.  $19.99.

It generally wasn’t until the 1960s that Vermont history books were written to acknowledge the fact that Europeans were not the first to inhabit this ground, Cynthia Bittinger says in this slender book.  The man who finally assembled a convincing body of research on the early presence of the Abenaki, the man who finally managed to get historical mention of a people who’d been here for something like 11,000 years before Europeans were, was from Albany.

Historians generally credit Gordon M. Day with being the person who unearthed New England’s native past, Ms. Bittinger says.  Mr. Day was born in Orleans County in 1911 and, as a child, played with children who were part Abenaki.  He also knew the area as a place for natives to hunt and trap.

“In his adult years, he initially set out to study forest ecology, but after serving in World War II, he decided to devote himself entirely to saving Abenaki culture from oblivion,” Ms. Bittinger writes.

Mr. Day used French records (apparently more accurate — and more friendly — than British records) and Indian tradition in his research, discovering that, until the end of the eighteenth century, the village of Missisquoi, near present day Swanton, was a political hub for Western Abenaki.

Since he knew the Abenaki language, he was able to avail himself of natives’ oral tradition to reconstruct a narrative for a people who had either died wholesale, largely from European diseases they had no immunity to, or willfully vanished, either literally or figuratively, in order to avoid persecution, destitution, or sterilization.

What, Ms. Bittinger wonders, allowed for misinformation so grave that an entire people was excluded from the history books?  Ethnocentricism?  Lack of imagination?  Lack of sources?  The willingness of the Abenaki themselves to disappear?

Whatever the cause, Ms. Bittinger has done her part to remedy the omission and devotes the initial part of this book to the eastern Indian tribes.

The American Revolution seemed to spell the end of the Abenaki as a visible presence, she says.  Although many pulled back into Canada, some lingered in northern Vermont.

However, the Abenaki did little to reclaim their own history, possibly because of fear of retaliation for taking captives or attacking settlers, Ms. Bittinger speculates.

Later, in the twentieth century, Abenakis would be likely to hide their ancestry if possible because revealing it could lead to involuntary sterilization through the eugenics movement, which was not only aimed at Indians, but also at the poor and the less intelligent.

Ms. Bittinger has packed an awful lot of information into this little book.  Any one of the subjects she tackles here could have been a book in itself.  However, the section on the natives of Vermont is the most tantalizing and left this reader, at least, yearning for more.

Ms. Bittinger is a history professor as well as a commentator and lecturer, and this book reads more like a text than a narrative, with brief, sometimes very brief, descriptions on significant events, people, and historical information.  Each section ends with a “conclusion,” summing up the information that precedes it, much in the way one might write a scholarly paper.

What Ms. Bittinger set out to do, though, is admirable.  “Women and people of color have been denied a usable history,” she writes in her introduction.  “With a focus on landscape, military battles and government, natives, blacks and women are usually not included unless they participated in a battle or ran for office.”

But people have a need to know where they fit into the American story, she says.  “I am offering this history to change the narrative of Vermont’s past, present and future.”

She says she has tried to focus on the positive, on those who worked to improve the lives of others.

Vermont has often been ahead of the curve in its efforts to afford equal rights to its people, but it’s far from perfect.  For instance, passage of an Equal Rights Amendment for women failed as late as 1986.

In the nineteenth century, often women who died were not even remembered by their names on gravestones.  Widows were referred to as “relicts.”  Ms. Bittinger offers this example:  “Experience.  Relict of Samuel Wellington.  Died Dec. 17, 1838. Age 69.  Her first husband was Elias Bemis.”

The fact that maiden names were sometimes not included on headstones, can make tracing geneologies tough.

She moves rapidly from the grimness of that time for women, recording gains and the stories of some of the remarkable women who helped achieve them.

Ms. Bittinger’s credentials are long and illustrious.  She teaches Vermont history for Community College, she’s a lecturer, she’s a founding member of the Vermont Women’s History Project at the Vermont Historical Society, a commentator on Vermont history for Vermont Public Radio, and was the executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in Plymouth for 18 years, and her commentaries on Grace Coolidge won the Edward R. Morrow Award.

If you’re looking for a captivating read, this isn’t the book, but it does impart some very useful information about Vermont history and some remarkable people who risked their lives, or at least security and prosperity, to make this state be the leader it remains in civil rights.

Ms. Bittinger has done her homework, and produced an edifying volume of work that outlines not only many of the brave and ethical people who helped push this state forward in its fight for decency and fairness, but also honestly discusses where it’s gone wrong.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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