For people of European descent carving out space for themselves in the present borders of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a major barrier: people already lived there. The nation did not regard this as an insurmountable hurdle, however. America tried a variety of things as it expanded westward: driving Native Americans across continually shifting borders, attempting to assimilate them into a dominant white culture, and employing a variety of approaches in between. As the United States consumed more and more territory occupied by American Indians who attempted to maintain ownership, conflicts worsened. In the late 19th century, a crisis point had been reached. In 1890 and 1891, the Lakota Sioux fought a losing battle over treaty violations and land use with the United States Army. The Ghost Dance War resulted in the deaths of dozens of combatants on both sides and hundreds of Lakota Sioux civilians during its best-known battle, the Wounded Knee Massacre. During this period, Native Americans came under particular scrutiny.
At the College of New Jersey (Princeton), opinions were mixed about this so-called “Indian Problem.” A few weeks after the Ghost Dance War ended, students debated what should be done. One claimed “that though the good Indian was not the dead Indian, yet the good Indian had not yet been found.” Samuel Semple of the Class of 1891, who was selected as the winner of the debate’s $1,000 prize, argued that the only thing to do was to adopt Richard Pratt’s program of forced assimilation, removing Native American children from their homes and sending them to boarding schools. Pratt later famously summed up his program’s rationale in this way: “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
During this same semester, Princeton’s Dramatic Association and Glee Club collaborated to present a burlesque show. This was the first time the group (later named Triangle Club) presented work performed and produced by students. Reflective of the spirit of the times, the play focused on American Indians. It was a redface spoof of the life of Pocahontas (the “gentle savage”). It was originally scheduled to premiere the same week as the “Indian Problem” debate, but ultimately was delayed a few months. Audiences received it well.
A few years later, Triangle Club revived “Po-ca-hon-tas,” but they re-wrote one scene to feature a student listed in the program as “a full-blooded Tuscarora Indian” who “will do a native Indian love song and war dance.”
Referring to the actor as “full-blooded” stretched the truth a bit. The Class of 1901’s Rho-whas-ne-uh (“News carrier”), who was known in English as Howard Edwards Gansworth, had official tribal affiliation with the Seneca but also had a variety of tribes in his lineage as well as some European ancestry. Given that the Tuscarora and the Seneca are both in the Iroquois Confederacy, however, his actual tribal affiliation might not have mattered to his fellow performers. It was a play about the Tuscarora. Gansworth was Iroquois, like the Tuscarora. Ergo, Gansworth was listed as a full-blooded Tuscarora in the program.
Gansworth worked his way through Princeton, delivering copies of the Princetonian to dorms, waiting tables, and taking other odd jobs as they became available. There were only a handful of American Indians who preceded him at the College of New Jersey, and we have found no record of any who attended between the Civil War and Gansworth’s matriculation. His is also the first record we have found of a Native American recipient of a graduate degree from Princeton (he received his M.A. in 1906). He had previously studied at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, America’s flagship boarding school for Pratt’s assimilationist program. Before coming to Princeton, Gansworth also spent a year at Dickinson College.
In college, as in later life, Gansworth appears to have deliberately avoided the assimilation Pratt’s boarding school had encouraged, instead taking pains to emphasize his ethnic identity. He spent the summer of 1901 working at the Pan-American Exhibition’s Indian exhibit. Whig Hall gave him space to thrive as a public speaker, and he was named one of eight junior orators in his third year of study. At that oratorical contest in 1900, he chose to speak on “The Indian American.” His masters thesis was entitled “The Iroquois Confederacy.”
We are left only to speculate on Gansworth’s decision to put on redface in 1898, but given that it appears he was the only indigenous student at Princeton for about six decades, and also possibly the first non-white student to attend following the Civil War, we can imagine the environment would have been quite challenging in many ways. Seeking acceptance may have been the motivation. In any event, he appears to have achieved acceptance to a remarkable degree. He served on the Nassau Herald committee in 1901, putting together the senior yearbook for his class.
In his post-Princeton work, Gansworth traveled throughout North America recruiting students from reservations as the Assistant Disciplinarian of the Carlisle School for four years, then moved to Buffalo, New York in 1906 to rise to prominence in the advertising industry. Again, we find that Gansworth reflected what Pratt had hoped to achieve in some ways and in others openly defied it. He had been educated at one of Pratt’s boarding schools, pursued higher education at one of white America’s most prominent colleges, and established himself in the white business world, but Gansworth still clung tightly to his Native American identity. He joined the Society of American Indians in 1911, and in 1921, he became president of the New York Indian Welfare Society. In this capacity, he fought stereotypes of Native Americans and instead sought to show Americans at large that Indians could be part of modern society as Native Americans, rather than in spite of their heritage. Believing that heritage should be preserved rather than eradicated, for decades he worked to develop an archive of Iroquois materials. None of his updates on his activities for the Princeton Alumni Weekly or the Class of 1901’s reunion books fail to mention work along these lines and/or his pride in his ethnic background. Meanwhile, he remained very active in the Princeton Club of Buffalo, ultimately becoming its president in 1915. Fifty years after graduating from Princeton, Gansworth said the three high points of his life were his marriage, his service to the Princeton Club of Buffalo, and his service to the New York Indian Welfare Society. He remained deeply committed to both Princeton and the cause of the American Indian for the rest of his life.
Class Reunion Books Collection (AC214)
Cliosophic Society Archives (AC016)
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)
Triangle Club Records (AC122)
For further reading:
Boyd, Douglas Power. “The Irony of Assimilation: Howard Edwards Gansworth and the Burden of Iroquois History.” New York History 72, no. 1 (January 1991): 4-44.
Gansworth, Howard Edwards. Student File, Carlisle Indian School. Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, Dickinson College.
“Indian at Princeton.” Ottowa (Ontario) Journal 12 March 1898.
Indian Helper (Carlisle, Pennsylvania)
Leahy, Todd and Nathan Wilson. “‘My First Days at the Carlisle Indian School’ by Howard Gansworth: An Annotated Manuscript.” Pennsylvania History 71, no. 4 (Autumn 2004): 479-493.
Synott, Marcia Graham. The Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900-1970. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2013.
Thatcher, John Hamilton. “The College Burlesque at Princeton.” American University Magazine (March 1895): 347-350.