Whose Culture Is It, Anyway? The Long Journey of the Stockbridge Bible

Whose Culture Is It, Anyway? The Long Journey of the Stockbridge Bible

A large folio edition of the Bible printed in Oxford in the early 1700s might not fit the typical profile of a Native American cultural heritage item. But the Stockbridge Bible, given as a gift to the Stockbridge Indians in 1745, is just that and more.

The two leather bound volumes symbolize so much of the tribe’s collective history: the early conversion to the Christian religion, historical ties to the Revolutionary War and the arduous journey from Massachusetts to New York to Wisconsin, where the group would eventually settle and become the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe.[1]

But unfortunately, the Bible would disappear from the tribe in the early 1930s, and its whereabouts would remain unknown for about two decades. Then after it was located, the Stockbridge-Munsee people would engage in a 15-year struggle to regain possession of their prized Bible. Although there was no felonious theft involved, and the final judgment regarding the Bible was issued in probate court, not a packed federal courtroom, the story is a fascinating tale of stolen culture and a devoted effort to reclaim it.

By the time a Massachusetts judge put pen to paper on December 19, 1990, the saga of the Stockbridge Bible had been going on for nearly 250 years. In 1745, eleven years after the tribe allowed an English missionary to set up an Indian mission near their settlement in Massachusetts, Reverend Francis Aysough, a representative of the Prince of Wales, felt compelled to give the Indians a major gift when he heard about their conversion and successful mission town (Siemers 2007).

Aysough had the two volumes of the elegant 1717 edition of the Bible bound. Thomas Coram, a London philanthropist who had been in contact about raising money for mission schools, wrote an inscription on the cover of the Bible, declaring it “the gift of the Rev. D. Francis Ayscough to the Indian Congregation at Housatonic in New England.” Coram also wrote a longer message inside, where he wrote that the Bible “is to remain to the use of the Successors, of those Indians, from Generation to Generation; as a testimony of the said Doctor’s Great Regard for the Salvation of their souls…” (Siemers 2007) These dedications would prove important centuries later.

The Stockbridge Indians accepted the gift with enthusiasm, and made the Bible one of their most cherished possessions, even when they faced some extremely difficult circumstances. Many Stockbridge Indian men fought in the Revolutionary War, but when they returned, they found that most of their land had been taken (Cooper). Because of this, the tribe was forced to move to western New York around 1785. Then in 1820 the Stockbridge were on the move again, this time to Wisconsin. The Bible came along during these migrations, and the tribe even built a special oak chest to protect it (Cooper).

After they settled in their present location of Shawano County Wisconsin in 1856, little is known about the exact location of the Bible over the next few decades. It next surfaced in a newspaper article in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, the Bible had mysteriously disappeared from the reservation and the majority of the tribe had no idea where their prized volumes resided. Two members would eventually find out.

Jim and Grace Davis yearned to learn more about their ancestors and the history of the Stockbridge tribe. In 1951, the husband and wife made a pilgrimage to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to visit the original settlement. The Davises explored various historic sites, took in the sights and sounds of the town, and learned a lot about their forbearers.  Then they entered a building called the Mission House Museum. When they saw their tribe’s priceless Stockbridge Bible sitting in a case, they were stunned. (Cooper, Siemers 2009) How did the two volumes end up in a museum run by whites over 1,000 miles away from the tribe? And how were the rest of the tribe’s members unaware of its location? To understand the answer, we must return to 1908.

At that time, the exact whereabouts of the Bible within the tribe were unknown. Earl North, a local minister, wrote in a Calvinist newspaper that “the Bible was found in a deserted house and was carefully cleaned and put in a place of safety at the home of Mr. Jameson Quinney.” There is little evidence to back up this assertion, and other accounts say that the Bible was not lost and re-discovered, but rather brought to Quinney because he was a tribal leader (Siemers 2009). One fact suggesting that the Bible was never neglected or placed in inhospitable conditions is its present spectacular condition: “Considering its age … it doesn’t appear to have suffered any damage” (Siemers 2007). But on the other hand, the tribe was facing conflict and severe economic hardships at the time, so it could have been temporarily misplaced as the tribe dealt with more pressing issues.

Regardless of what actually transpired, awareness of the Bible increased greatly as a result of the article and its possession by Quinney. The publicity would prove to have significant consequences. Quinney showed off the Stockbridge Bible at a Presbyterian Synod meeting in 1915, and by this point, word was spreading about the unique and valuable item. Soon after, he transferred the Bible to a safe on the altar of the John Sargeant Memorial Church for security. It is said that around this time Quinney was offered several thousand dollars for the two volumes, which he refused (Siemers 2007).

Then in 1927, an article in the Milwaukee Journal took the abandonment angle to a new level. After giving inaccurate information about when and how the Bible had been acquired, the story describes how Kuni (Quinney) rediscovered it. “(Kuni) was poking aimlessly around a rubbish heap in 1875 when he saw what looked like a piece of good leather.” This is likely an exaggeration of the earlier minister’s report, and this same story was retold in an article published in the local Shawano Advocate. The latter article has been described as “full of racial bias,” (Siemers 2009) as it describes the Indians mistreating the magnificent item by stashing it in a pile of trash. It also depicts them as hoarding the Bible for themselves instead of letting the whites control it. The Milwaukee Journal says that act of misplacing the Bible made the Indians “disconsolate, for surely the wrath of the white God would come upon them.” These two articles played a strong role in spreading the story of the Stockbridge Bible to new people. One of these people was Mabel Choate.

An affluent collector of antiques from Masachusetts, Choate planned to build a museum to honor the Reverend John Sargeant, who initially converted the Stockbridge tribe in the 1700s. She naturally wanted as many of their documents and artifacts as possible, with the Stockbridge Bible being the crown jewel of their possessions. By this time, Quinney was nearing the end of his life. He took the Bible away from the church and back to his house, perhaps fearing that the tribe was at risk of losing it to whites after the publicity of the newspaper articles (Guthrie, Siemers 2007).

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