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The witchcraft of others

One way of distancing newly ‘enlightened’ America from the dark days of Salem was to reposition witchcraft belief as the affliction of non-Europeans. At first this meant pointing the finger at Native Americans. This was nothing new of course. Seventeenth-century British, French, and Spanish missionaries, explorers, and settlers saw Native Americans, with their strange religions and medicine men, as the Devil’s agents, potent workers of malign magic. They were pagan idolaters worshipping the Devil in the guise of their gods. According to Cotton Mather their medicine men or ‘powaws’ were ‘horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurers, and such as Conversed with Daemons’.10 A century later the view remained pervasive. ‘The Devil’s kingdom now is spread, Where’er an Indian shews his head’, ran a deeply racist broadside entitled The Indian’s Pedigree, published in 1794. Yet Native Americans were rarely caught up in the legal prosecution of witches in English colonial America. By contrast, the Spanish authorities at the other end of the country were directly involved with prosecuting indigenous peoples. In the early twentieth century the Pueblo population of Taos, New Mexico, had a motto that it was best to avoid contact with Spanish-Mexicans because if they fell ill they accused you of witchcraft.11 Such caution has a well-founded history.

Spanish chroniclers presented a very broad conception of witchcraft—more broad than was applied back in Spain—that included indigenous medicine as well as religion, so that all medicine men or healers were routinely denounced as sorcerers and witches. A few years after Sante Fe was created as the capital of the province of New Mexico in 1610, in what was Pueblo territory, the missionary Fray Alonso de Benavides, described how the male Pueblo population was divided into warriors and sorcerers, the latter holding the people under their thrall with their power to control the weather, heal, and cause death. Coupled with this was the association of Native American witchery with rebellion. In 1675 accusations of witchcraft and Devil worship were mixed up with a supposed plot involving Pueblos and Apaches conspiring to rise up against Spanish authority. Four Native Americans were sentenced to hang, forty-seven whipped and enslaved, and others jailed.12 One of those punished was a medicine man named Pope, who would confirm Spanish suspicions by leading a major Pueblo revolt five years later.

Both the Inquisition and civil authorities continued to pursue cases of witchcraft throughout the eighteenth century, mostly instigated by Spaniards accusing Native Americans or those of mixed race known as mestizos. In 1708, for example, a twenty-year-old Spanish woman accused two older Pueblo women with witchcraft. One of the defendants complained, in turn, that ‘Spanish women say that whatever sickness they have it is bewitchment’.13 A case from 1733 illustrates the point in more detail. Bicente Garcia and his wife, Spanish residents of Isleta on the Rio Grande, charged a Pueblo named Melchor Trujillo with bewitching them. Under questioning by the alcalde or magistrate (a position of both military and civilian authority), the governor of Isleta, El Casique, explained that Trujillo was a medicine man and not a sorcerer, and had been engaged with curing not killing the Garcias. Investigation revealed that he had given them a drink containing peyote, a cactus that had long been used in the region for healing and ritual and is the source of the psychoactive drug mescaline. El Casique then went on to confess that he was, in fact, the head of a group of sorcerers, including an Apache woman, who had bewitched several local leading Spaniards.14

Catholic missionaries also instigated witch trials. Following the possession in the late 1750s of several women in the northern New Mexican settlement of Abiquiu, some fifty miles from Santa Fe, Brother Juan Jose Toledo made formal accusations that led to the most extensive and complex witch trials in New Mexico, involving the Inquisition and secular authorities.15 At their heart was a clash between Christian conceptions of possession and native healing and religious practices. There was also a heightened level of insecurity as the Commanche harried the Spanish territory. Toledo attempted to exorcize the women, who exhibited the usual symptoms of diabolic possession—paroxysms of shrieking, fulminations, and convulsions. One of the possessed said two Indian women ‘controlled her’, forcing her to renounce her Christian devotions. Several decades later, in 1799, Father Antonio Barreras of the San Ildefonso mission accused two Pueblo men and a woman of being ‘maleficiadores’ or practitioners of harmful magic. He blamed his sickness upon them, and the alcalde took the unusual step of handing over the two accused men to the priest along with a pillory, which was rather like the stocks but held the head and hands rather than the feet. So Barreras whipped the men while they were in the pillory to force a confession. One of them, Juan Domingo Caracho, died from this torture.

The Spanish in New Mexico lived more intimately with the Native Americans than did Europeans in the rest of North America at the time. Large numbers of Pueblos, and to a lesser extent Navajos and Apaches, integrated into Hispanic society, mostly as genlzaros—servants and labourers. Even in Pueblo communities Hispanic influences in terms of dress, Christianity, and modes of living, were adopted without necessarily undermining Pueblo customary life. The accusations of witchcraft were, in a sense, symptomatic of this close relationship.16 This helps explain why most eighteenth-century New Mexico trials seem to have collapsed or were deliberately truncated, exposing tensions between the prerogatives of the local clergy and secular authorities. The latter may have been obliged to pursue such cases but they were cautious about the evidence presented, and also aware of the potential for unrest if Native Americans were severely punished. Extralegal action against witches was equally frowned upon. When the Spanish Commandant General in Chihuahua heard of the Barreras case, he acted swiftly to punish the alcalde and banished Barreras from New Mexico.

Elsewhere in North America relations between Native Americans and Europeans were mediated principally through traders and Protestant missionaries. The

German-Czech Moravians are a case in point. They too equated the practices of the medicine men with European conceptions of diabolic witchcraft; they were expressions of heathenism, and therefore a major hindrance to the spread of the gospel, in their view. The Moravian missionary David Zeisberger (1721—1808), who worked amongst the Delaware, wrote, ‘I believed the Indians were too stupid for such satanic practices, but I have been persuaded otherwise. I know for a certainty that witchcraft is common among them’.17 When, in 1772, Zeisberger and his colleagues founded the village of Schoenbrunn, the first township in Ohio, for his Native American converts, they created a set of rules and regulations that included the stipulation:

Whosoever tells stories about others’ preparing poison, hunting people at night, and practising witchcraft, must prove this before the committee, and he of whom such things are proved shall not live with us. If, however, the accuser has been found lying, we will regard him as a tool of the Devil.18

The town was abandoned a few years later during the Revolutionary War.

Missionaries capable of reasonable reflection on Native American cultural ways often tied themselves in knots when it came to witchcraft, sometimes denouncing the godlessness of the pagans, their lack of religious awareness, and yet labelling obvious expressions of spirituality as superstition and witchcraft.19 The same Bible that had underpinned the Salem trials was now seen as the ultimate weapon for vanquishing the witchcraft of benighted others. The hypocrisy was all too apparent to some. In 1821 newspapers reported a speech made by the Iroquois chief and Seneca orator Red Jacket at the trial instigated by New York State of a Seneca man, Tommy Jemmy, for killing a supposed witch:

What! Do you denounce us as fools and bigots, because we still continue to believe that which you, yourselves, sedulously inculcated two centuries ago? Your divines have thundered this doctrine from the pulpit; your judges have pronounced it from the bench; your courts of justice have sanctioned it with the formalities of law; and you would now punish our unfortunate brother for adhering to the superstitions of his fathers! Go to Salem! Look at the records of your government, and you will find hundreds executed for the very crime which has called forth the sentence of condemnation upon this woman, and drawn down the arm of vengeance upon her. What have our brothers done more than the mlers of your people have done? And what crime has this man committed by executing in a summary way the laws of his country and the injunctions of his God?20

For some Native Americans, witchcraft was viewed as a problem brought upon them by contact with Europeans, and not as the missionaries would have it, an expression of antique heathenism. The contagious diseases brought by the Europeans caused devastation that was, for some, incomprehensible other than in terms of witchcraft. So in the seventeenth-century the Iroquois accused Jesuit missionaries of being plague-spreading witches.21 Then the cultural and social disruption caused by encroachment, alcohol, Christianity, and war, led to movements that attempted to pull back from the world of the European settlers, and sought to redefine native identity. This required eradicating destabilizing influences such as alcohol abuse and witchcraft. Witches were at the same time a manifestation of external forces and also internal enemies undermining kinships and the wider community. Prophets emerged that sought to purge their communities of these evildoers. A couple of such messianic figures active amongst the Delawares in the 1760s preached that their fellow men and women should renounce rum, guns, and other imports, revive old religious ceremonies and rites, and so return to the cultural purity of a time before the Europeans arrived. One of them, a Munsee named Wangomen, launched a campaign against witches as part of this agenda but apparently gave up due to the scale of the problem and disputes with other chiefs over the methods involved.22

The most serious anti-witch campaigns emerged after the Revolutionary War (1775-1783).23 Most Native American chiefs east of the Mississippi sided with the British during the conflict and subsequently faced increased prejudice; they were forced to accept humiliating treaties and further loss of land and rights. The Senecas felt the wrath of the new Americans more than most, and it is no surprise that a Prophet arose in the guise of the heavy-drinking chief Handsome Lake (1735—1815). In 1799, following a series of terrible visions that revealed the depths to which his people had sunk, he began a campaign to revitalize the Nation. During his trances he claimed the spirits of the dead and angelic messengers had been sent to him by the Great Spirit who was angered by the terrible influence over his people of whiskey, witchcraft, charms, and abortion magic. So, as part of his reform movement, Handsome Lake launched a campaign against witches, who the spirits in his visions had described as ‘people without their right minds. They make disease and spread sickness to make the living die’. But many of his followers came to reject the policy, and he was criticized by his political rivals such as Red Jacket, who was himself apparently accused of witchcraft by Handsome Lake. He watered down his rhetoric, and the ‘Code of Handsome Lake’ included the prohibition of harming witches, instructing that they should be left for God to punish as he saw fit.

A more systematic and brutal campaign was launched in 1805 by Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, amongst the Native Americans of the Ohio River Valley.24

Another reformed alcoholic, Tenskwatawa, received visions that most of his fellow Shawnees were destined to bum in the afterlife. He had been tasked by the Great Spirit to lead his fellow men and women away from sin and towards salvation. This would be achieved by rejecting European ways, abandoning metal implements, European clothing, and food. The spirits also warned him against the witches operating within. He claimed he had been given the power to identify witches, and so travelled from settlement to settlement among the Delawares and Wyandots like some latter-day Witchfmder General pointing out the evil ones. His accusations were frequently politically inspired, accusing chiefs who sought compromise with European society and converts to Christianity.

Much of what we know of the witch hunting activities of Handsome Lake, the Shawnee Prophet and others, derives from the writings of missionaries. It is no surprise, then, if the extent of their campaigns came to be wildly inflated. Claims that hundreds perished say much about white perceptions of Native Americans credulity, superstition, and brutality, but little about the reality. The movements fizzled out due to resistance and objection by Native American society, not because of European religious, moral, or martial authority. There was no great panic, no appetite for the destabilizing effect of systematic persecution at an already precarious time. The movements certainly fed from the widespread fear of witchcraft generally, but were alien in their pursuance. Repugnance at Handsome Lake’s involvement in the killing of an accused witch in 1809 chipped away at his support. No more than sixteen witch executions can be found in the sources regarding Tenskwatawa’s campaign. Most of his accusations against other chiefs did not stick.

In these episodes, rebellion and witchcraft were once again entwined but this time the accusations were not made by Europeans against subjugated and restless indigenous peoples, but by Native Americans against their own kin: the rebellion was not martial but cultural. While the paucity of the evidence needs to be recognized, the suggestion is that due to European influence the conception of the witch changed. Before the mid-eighteenth century the witch in Native American belief was usually an outsider from another clan or another race. So the Iroquois often cast accusations at the Delaware for instance. But through extensive exposure to Europeans the witch figure became the enemy within, an internalized expression of the external threat to their existence. Despite arguing for the disengagement with European ways that were thought to be corroding the culture of their ancestors, the prophets and their messages were clearly influenced by the religious and moral ideas they had assimilated through contact with Protestant missionaries. Algonquian and Iroquois witchcraft beliefs, for instance, came to incorporate Christian conceptions of the Devil as the source of evil and witchery.25 The prophets’ political denunciations of their medicine men probably chimed more with the missionaries than with popular sentiment. This is not to say that Native Americans were reluctant witch killers. Further periods of witch fear gripped Native American communities later in the century too, as will be discussed in subsequent chapters.

It is estimated that between the early seventeenth century and the prohibition of the slave trade in 1807, nearly half a million Africans were taken by force to North America. Here was another subjugated people on whom to pin the label of the ‘superstitious other’. As with Native Americans, skin colour reinforced prejudice, with Europeans associating blackness with devils and demons, sooty from the depths of Hell. As former New York slave John Jea wrote of his masters, ‘Frequently did they tell us we were made by, and like the devil, and commonly called us black devils’.26The African slaves also challenged Americans with new religions and forms of worship that deeply disturbed the Christian senses. Once again religious practices, most notably the Voodoo of New Orleans, would be portrayed as an addiction to devil worship and witchcraft. Only the white man wielding his Bible could tame such wild, pagan impulses. Thaddeus Norris, writing on ‘Negro Superstitions’ in 1870, stated that association with the white man ‘humanized’ their ‘superstitions’. But too much contact could also be detrimental to the white man; African ‘superstition’ could be contagious. There was concern about the ‘nonsense’ that black nursemaids might instil in the minds of their masters’ children, but it was the cultural intimacy between poor whites and African Americans that disturbed racist sensibilities most.27 In 1879 the Indianapolis Sentinel reported the case of William Padgett of Meade County, Kentucky, who murdered his wife under the delusion that she had bewitched him. The paper described Padgett as ‘an ignorant, unsophisticated Kentuckian, who was raised among the Negroes in the old slave times, and partook of their superstitions and wild vagaries. There are many white men of this class now living in Kentucky.’28 Indeed, for some, these ‘crackers’ or poor ‘white trash’ of the southern states were ‘worse than the colored man’. While ‘the Negro race is naturally superstitious’, opined the Philadelphia Times in 1890, the cracker ‘fondly imagines that he is so much shrewder, and so he does not use what brains he has, nor does he try to learn anything. He has thousands of signs, omens, cures, and beliefs that are a continual source of annoyance to him, and perpetually keep him in a state of dread’. Another editorial making the some observation, decided that the superstition of the ‘Kentucky darkies’ ultimately trumped that of their ‘whiter brethren’ thanks to the ‘grotesqueness and sometimes the horror that is associated with the former’s “hoodoo” worship’.29

The nineteenth-century American sense of superiority that consigned witchcraft to dark-skinned ‘heathens’ also extended to the ‘old world’ people of Europe. Dripping with condescension, the St Louis Republic opined in 1896 that ‘Most people believe that witchcraft among civilized people ended when the “Salem witch mania” ran its course and died out in the year 1692. It did, as far as America is concerned, except among savages, but in other countries the belief in the superstition did not die until a much later date’.30 There followed mention of nineteenth-century trials resulting from the drowning, torturing, and burning of witches in England, France, Spain, Prussia, Russia, Poland, Austria, and Mexico. There was no reflection, of course, on where the hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants in America originated.

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