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Pulitzer winner 'Covered With Night' explores differing views of justice and grief in early America

The cover of  "Covered with Night" (Courtesy)
The cover of "Covered with Night" (Courtesy)

Here & Now‘s Scott Tong speaks with New York University professor Nicole Eustace about her book “Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America,” which looks at the ramifications of a violent encounter between two white fur traders and an Indigenous hunter in 1722.

Book excerpt: ‘Covered with Night’

By Nicole Eustace

INTRODUCTION

Toward the end of 1721, a Quaker man named Isaac Norris discovered an alarming prediction in The American Almanack for the Year of Christian Account, 1722. A local magistrate, successful merchant, and gentleman farmer, Norris had stepped into the printshop at the Sign of the Bible on Second Street in Philadelphia looking for weather predictions, not astrological speculations. More than a century after the first permanent English settlements were established in Jamestown and still half a century before a then-​unimaginable break from the British Empire, colonists of Norris’s era believed they were living in a new age of prosperity and rationality. Few could have expected that 1722 would usher in a crisis so severe that it would transfix the eastern seaboard from Native communities to colonial capitals and lead to debates that still echo today. But the pages of the 1722 American Almanack did provide certain clues about imminent events.

Scanning the almanac pages in the weak December light, perhaps Norris felt no shiver of anticipation over its prediction of a “Total Eclipse of the Moon” sure to be “visible, if the Air be clear, on the 17th day of June.” Illustrated with a woodcut of a dark-​faced moon, the book warned that this celestial event “portends much evil.” Specifically, the author Titan Leeds claimed, the year would bring “Consumptions, Feavors, Fears, Exiles.” The list of coming catastrophes grew longer and ever more dire as Leeds predicted the “Death of the Elder People.” Most ominous of all, Leeds called for the “Murder of some,” adding, “and because the Eclipse falls in the 12th house near the Dragons Tail i’ll predict Imprisonment too.” Isaac Norris, sensible Quaker, likely took little alarm at first. What he could not know, as he requested his own personal printing of the almanac—​asking the shopkeeper and publisher Andrew Bradford to interleave his copy with blank pages on which he could jot personal notes and to bind the whole thing with a sturdy paperboard cover—​was that every one of Leeds’s predictions would soon come to pass.

The book you now hold in your hands tells the story of that fateful year. Before another twelve months went by, the colony would be convulsed by a murder case involving two colonial fur traders and an Indian hunter. After a drunken night of bargaining beside a winter campfire in the woods near the Susquehanna River, two brothers named John and Edmund Cartlidge would assault a Seneca man named Sawantaeny and leave him for dead. Rival investigations by Indian leaders, including a Native spokesman known as “Captain Civility,” and colonial officials, including Isaac Norris, resulted in fierce debates about the nature of true justice.

Many feared the attack might become just the first act of a full-​scale war. The crisis created by the confrontation grew so grave that news of it reached the king’s closest counselors on the British Board of Trade. It fueled urgent concern not only among the members of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee, including the Seneca Nation to which Sawantaeny belonged, but also among all the various Native peoples of the Susquehanna River valley, from Iroquois groups such as the Susquehannock (who were affiliates but not official members of the Five Nations) to Algonquian ones such as the Lenape and the Shawnee. Resolving the case required a region-​wide treaty conference, including the governors of three colonies and the leaders of over a dozen Native nations. The Great Treaty of 1722, signed in Albany, New York, in September of that year, brought the case to a close, but it could not put to rest the questions about savagery, civility, and justice it raised.

Today, when people think of the founding documents of the United States, nothing from 1722 is likely to come to mind. Most people, of course, remember the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Those who have a longer arc of justice in view may think of the “Emancipation Proclamation” of 1863 or, perhaps, the related Civil War–​era constitutional amendments that outlawed slavery, guaranteed equal citizenship, and secured the right to vote regardless of race or previous freedom status. Perhaps some will cast their minds still further forward to the Nineteenth Amendment of 1920, granting women the right to vote. A small number may even call up the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which first offered Native people rights as citizens of the United States. But very few people will ever have found reason to stop to think of an obscure piece of parchment signed at Albany in 1722. Rare are those who have even heard of this agreement between members of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and representatives from the colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Yet this is the oldest continuously recognized treaty in the history of the United States. Much more than a simple diplomatic instrument, the treaty records a foundational American debate over the nature of justice, one with guidance still left to give.

The Great Treaty of 1722 entered into general obscurity almost as soon as it was written. The colonists who traveled to Albany for cross-​cultural discussions that autumn believed they were averting a war, but they could not have known that they were enacting a key moment in American culture. Because they regarded the Native leaders they conferenced with as simple “savages,” colonial magistrates could not imagine the possibility that the Indigenous ideas they were encountering would endure for generations, dormant seeds awaiting the right moment for renewal.

Eighteenth-​century Europeans and the settler colonists they sent to North America thought that the world could be neatly divided between savage peoples and civilized ones. As the French political philosopher Montesquieu summed things up in his masterwork, The Spirit of Laws, guiding legal principles arose from the character of the people who created them, “influenced by the climate, by the religion, by the laws, by the maxims of government, by precedents, morals, and customs; from whence is formed a general spirit of nations.” Montesquieu, in common with his European contemporaries, was quite sure that “nature and the climate rule almost alone over the savages.” Assuring themselves that “savages” existed in a state of nature almost entirely removed from culture, European theorists gave little credence to the possibility of Native American philosophy.

Excerpted from Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America. Copyright (c) 2021 by Nicole Eustace. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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