On Saturday, February 14, C-19 (The Society for Nineteenth-Century Americanists) held what will hopefully be the first of many circuit events, which will help members of the organization meet on a local level and promote the study and discussion of nineteenth-century American culture.
Members of C-19 joined other scholars and the general public for a dramatic reading of a play recently unearthed by the Newberry library’s acquisitions staff. That play was “Philip, or the Indian Chief (1838),” a play script written by Jehiel Lillie, a cadet at Norwich military academy in Vermont.
The script contained many of the themes and imagery that one would expect of a play written about Native Americans in the nineteenth century. Philip and his warriors are portrayed as brave but ultimately doomed to extinction at the hands of colonists as they “civilize” the land. At one point near the end of the play, Philip’s spiritual counselor, Francis the Prophet, directly references the myth of the “Vanishing Indian” in words that would not have been out of place in one of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels.
What surprised me, however, was the dialogue between the commander of the Colonial Militia (Church) and the Missionary (Elliot) and Surgeon (Cooper). These two civilian professionals attempt to convince the military leader that violence is not the answer to resolving the land disputes between the Wampanoag tribe and the colonial settlers. Although their argument ultimately falls on deaf ears, the fact that it is present in a play written and performed by military cadets is fascinating. It suggests that in 1838, a period dominated by wars with the Native tribes and racist populism, a group of potential army officers were concerned about the relationship between the army and the people it was supposed to serve.
More research has yet to be done on this play. I hope to see scholarship both from Native Americanist researchers as well as historians of the Jacksonian era that references this intriguing work.
This newly acquired play script is part of the Rudy Lamont Ruggles collection at the Newberry Library in Chicago and is housed in their Special Collections on the 4th floor. Call slip information can be found here.
Many thanks to the Newberry Library and Karen Sánchez-Eppler, the President of C-19, for hosting and organizing this event.