J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Meaning of the Whitesboro Seal

This is the seal of the village of Whitesboro, New York. It got a lot of attention this month because it appears to show a white frontiersman choking a Native American. All to represent a place called “Whitesboro.”

Village officials insist the seal isn’t about white people conquering Indians. The village is truly named after an early American settler named Hugh White (1733-1812), who moved to the region from Middletown, Connecticut, in 1784.

During the war White had invested in a privateer. Other sources say he was a commissary to the Continental Army or even a captain, but I haven’t found any independent evidence to confirm those statements.

The village seal shows White wrestling a Native man—a friendly wrestling match, it’s said. In 1838 William Tracy published this story in Notices of Men and Events Connected with the Early History of Oneida County:
Another anecdote of Judge White, may not be uninteresting in this connection. An Oneida chief, of rather an athletic form, was one day present at his house with a number of his companions, and at length, for amusement, the party commenced wrestling. After a number of trials had been made, the chief came forward and challenged the settler to a clench with him.

This was done in a manner, and with a degree of braggadocio, which convinced him, that if he refused to encounter him it would subject him to the constant inconvenience of being brow beaten by the Indian, and cost him the trouble of being believed a coward. In early manhood he had been a wrestler, but he had now become quite corpulent, and for years unused to any athletic feats. He felt conscious, however, of great personal strength, and he concluded, that even should he be thrown, yet as a choice of evils, the being thrown would be a lesser one than the acquiring a character of cowardice by declining.

He therefore accepted the challenge and took hold with the Indian, and by a fortunate trip, succeeded almost instantly in throwing him. As he saw him falling, in order to prevent the necessity of ever making another trial of his powers, and of receiving any new challenge, he contrived to fall with all his weight, he then constituting an avoirdupois of some 250 lbs., and as heavily as possible, upon the Indian. The weight, for an instant, drove all breath from the poor fellow’s body; and it was some moments before he could get up. At length he slowly arose, shrugged his shoulders with an emphatic—“Ugh! you good fellow, too much!”

I need not add, that he was never again challenged to wrestle with an Indian.
Whitesboro has used an illustration of that story on its seal since the 1890s or earlier.

In 2009 the Utica Observer-Dispatch noted that ten years before a mayor had proposed changing the seal to something less likely to cause offense. Furthermore, some Native Americans had complained about the image twenty years before that—or earlier. The newspaper added:
Whitesboro historian Judy Mallozzi said the current seal was adopted sometime in the 1970s after the village was sued by an Indian group over the depiction at that time.

“The hands of Hugh White were on his neck area,” she said of the earlier image. “So after the lawsuit, it was determined it’s part of our history, so we didn’t have to stop using the seal. We just had to move it, so it’s down on his shoulders.”
Curiously, images of the previous seal show that the new version moved White’s hands closer to the other man’s neck.

So does the Whitesboro, New York, seal reflect a history of white men overpowering Natives by force or simple weight and taking their land? No more than the existence of Whitesboro, and New York, and the U.S. of A. Which is to say, of course it does.

This particular cartoon represents one cross-cultural experience that White and his family chose to remember as a friendly moment. Indeed, the Oneida were allies of the U.S. of A. during the Revolution and in the years immediately after. But given the larger history of colonial European and American appropriation of Native territory, it’s very hard to interpret that image as just about a wrestling match between two community leaders.


RoJa said...

Yeah, because it doesn't look like a friendly wrestling match!

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Not only does the seal look like a straight out depiction of Native dispossession, the current iteration looks appears to have been drawn by a ninth-grade cartoonist manque! An embarrassment on several levels, I'd say.

J R "States" Manship said...

So maybe the PA town nearest the Battle of Jumonville should show an Indian ally of Major Washington planting a tomahawk into the skull of the French captives?

J. L. Bell said...

UPDATE: In January 2016, the town of Whitesboro voted to retain its seal, but the mayor announced a change of course the day after a report on the seal aired on The Daily Show.

J. L. Bell said...

UPDATE: In September 2017, the town of Whitesboro unveiled a new seal. This posting from the Smithsonian shows the new and replaced seals. Te new drawing depicts the wrestling match, but now the wrestlers are symmetrically posed, neither with his hands on the other man’s neck. The draftsmanship is better. I can’t say that the portrayal of Hugh White makes him look anything like “250 lbs.,” though.