"Finding Refuge in the Wigwam": History Colloquium with Northern Illinois University Prof. Natalie Joy


In opening her December 4 colloquium presentation with a quote from Frederick Douglass on how “the slave goes to the wigwam of the savage” to seek refuge from his Christian master, Northern Illinois University Assistant Professor of History Natalie Joy immediately touched on both practical and rhetorical factors that complicate the historiography of the relationship between runaway slaves and Native American communities in the decades prior to the Civil War. More specifically, and as Prof. Joy demonstrated in examining various slave narratives and other anti-slavery sources, Douglass falsely attributes a singularity to this relationship.

There is, to be sure, a rich history of Native American communities offering fugitive slaves the kind of sanctuary to which Douglass alludes. For example, Randall Burton, a slave who had stowed away on The Franklin (a freighter out of South Carolina), was directed by crew members to seek refuge with the Wampanoag in Gay Head, MA, when it was revealed that the ship’s captain had alerted the sheriff of his presence aboard the vessel. With the help of Beluah Vanderhoop, and through a coordinated effort between the Wampanoag and anti-slavery society members on the mainland in New Bedford, Burton would elude capture and remain free. However, while there are numerous other accounts of Native Americans offering shelter, food, and guidance to runaway slaves, they do not tell the entirety of the story. Jermaine Loguen, for instance, writes in The Rev. J.W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman of the “annoyance [of] the occasional lack of hospitality” that he found among the Native Americans with whom he took refuge after escaping bondage in Tennessee (and who the Quaker community where he had stayed previously told him to seek out). Moreover, and based on prevailing stereotypes of the time, Loguen also reveals a distrust of Native Americans that slaves sometimes fostered, describing how they would sometimes “lay down among their enemies in the wigwam, and [sleep] on the watch, in contempt of them.” Which is all to say that the relationship between runaway slaves and the tribes who harbored them is far more complex than literature on the subject at times suggests—a complexity compounded by the fact that it is often difficult to determine whether or not these tribes were, in fact, acting on anti-slavery convictions.

Prof. Joy added that the history of Native Americans and the Underground Railroad is further complicated by the way in which abolitionists introduced the trope of the “wigwam as refuge” into the public record. Maintaining the trope as lacking variance had a degree of rhetorical utility for abolitionists, she noted, in so far as it allowed them to deploy the narrative of the “nominal heathen” warmly and uniformly offering aid as a means of critiquing white Christians for assisting slave hunters in their pursuit of fugitives. And while the rise of this trope peaked after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act—and while figures such as Wendell Phillips drew on it as late as the 1870s—it originated, Prof. Joy concluded, during the second Seminole War, which abolitionists claimed was caused by the slaveholding South’s desire to exterminate the Florida tribe because of its willingness to harbor runaways.

Joy Preview Post PictureNatalie Joy received her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of California-Los Angeles and currently serves as Assistant Professor of History at Northern Illinois, where she teaches U.S. and Native American History. Before coming to Northern Illinois, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism at the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. Joy has published articles and book reviews in Common-place and Journal of Southern History, and her chapter “From Slave Quarters to Wigwams: Native American Slaveholding and the Debate over Civilization” appeared in the collection Slavery, Memory and Identity: National Representations and Global Legacies, edited by Douglas Hamilton, Kate Hodgson, and Joel Quirk. She has received fellowships from the New York Public Library’s Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, the American Philosophical Society, and the Huntington Library, among other places. Prof. Joy is currently in the process of completing a book manuscript that traces the relationship between Native Americans and the American antislavery movement from the 1820s through the 1850s, as well as an invited essay on “Blacks and Indians in the Abolitionist Imagination” for Race, Ethnicity, National Minorities, and Citizenship, a forthcoming collection to be published as part of the Penn Press Series on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism.