18. A Letter From the Reservation

By Heidi Katter

The letter pictured above, penned in 1877, comes from the hand of a clerk working for the Indian Agency upon a Native American reservation in the United States. Over five hundred pages of letters survive from either the head agent or his clerk, both of whom the federal government charged to oversee operations on the reservation.

The letters from the clerk more often color in the details of daily life. In this letter, the clerk divulges views of Native Americans, expressing relief that “there has been no suffering” among the Native community that winter and pleasure for hosting “an entertainment [over] the Holidays” at the “school house for the children.”  Without historical framing, such details cast the writer as innocuous and even bearing good will towards the Indigenous peoples forcibly moved to the reservation. Yet other letters by the head agent and clerk impart disdain for Native culture. One argues that the school “is the only hope for the Indian race in my opinion,” lest Indigenous peoples follow their forebears “in ignorance and heathen superstition.” The clerk’s paternalistic tone stresses the attentive work a historian must do to read between the lines and perceive the voices of those who are too often silenced in the archive. [1]

Turning to the identity of the clerk complicates the value of this historical source. The clerk’s signature, “M.A. Stowe,” obscured the gendered identity of the writer until a family tree was discovered in the archives. In reality, the clerk was none other than the twenty-three-year-old daughter of the reservation’s head agent. Tasked with reading and responding to confidential correspondence from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., this young woman hardly fits modern perceptions of government employees from the era. This letter, then, also reminds us to recognize the multiple identities assumed by those whose writings find their way to the archive. The archive communicates more than meets the eye in what it hides and disguises in plain sight. [2]

[1] Lewis Stowe, Letter Book, 1876-1877, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

[2] “Family of Lewis Stowe + Hannah Babcock,” Genealogical and Biographical Files, Lewis Stowe and Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 1, Minnesota Historical Society.

Image Credit: Author’s own.

1 thought on “18. A Letter From the Reservation

  1. Going through this article makes me finally realize that there are still lots of work to be done to acknowledge the dark history surrounding the native Indian community due to the oppression by the white men centuries ago, especially in terms of educating the youngsters so they won’t forget this matter. My kids plan to visit a nearby reservation area to pay some respect to the elders there this weekend. I’ll ask them to go through this info first before making any further arrangement.

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