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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Wannuaucon Quinney (Mahican)

In a speech at Reidsville, New York, on July 4, 1854, John W. Quinney (The Dish) sought to prick the consciences of his listeners by reminding them of the epidemic diseases, warfare, broken treaties, and land appropriations that had characterized Indian history throughout the eras of European colonialism and American domination on the continent. He recognized the irony of a grand sachem of the Stockbridge Indians as the featured speaker on Independence Day. Instead of the American promise of freedom, equality, progress, and self-determination, Stockbridge history was marked by genocide, injustice, displacement, and removals, and Quinney appealed for justice for the American Indians, no matter how long it might be delayed.

When Quinney was born at New Stockbridge, New York, in 1797, the Stockbridges, of which the Mahicans were a part, were in the second major phase of their development as a social group forged by more than a century and a half of contact with non-Indians. At first contact, the Mahicans occupied territory on both sides of the Hudson from Lake Champlain south to the Catskills and had close ties to the Esopus, Wappinger, and other Munsee groups, their southern neighbors. By 1700 they had been reduced to about 500, and amalgamation with other tribes had begun, mainly as a result of epidemic diseases, warfare, and the encroachments of Europeans. They continued to decline and disperse to other regions, and in the early 1730s missionaries went among the Mahicans and Housatonics on the Housatonic River in western Massachusetts and established a mission town called Stockbridge. By 1738 remnants of various tribes in the region had moved to Stockbridge, but the Mahicans dominated. It was during this period that the Quinney name became associated with Stockbridge affairs. By the close of the Revolutionary War, the Stockbridges were inclined to move because of continued attrition of numbers, the effects of the war, takeover of the Stockbridge community by whites, and the Stockbridges’ propensity for the vices of nearby white neighbors. Thus, at the invitation of the Oneidas, in the mid-1780s they removed to Oneida Creek, New York, where they established New Stockbridge. There they formed the stable farming community into which John W. Quinney was born.

By that time, however, Stockbridge leader Hendrick Aupaumut was convinced that they must abandon New Stockbridge. He feared the disruptive influence of both the neighboring whites and the Oneidas, the former because of their vices and the latter because of their encouragment of Stockbridge men to abandon farming and their attempts to introduce Handsome Lake’s religion into the community. From the 1790s onward, Aupaumut encouraged removal to the West, an idea that had become a plan by the time Quinney reached his mid-twenties; Quinney’s role in carrying out that plan was his first step toward Stockbridge leadership.

When Quinney delivered his Independence Day address in 1854, he was near the end of a long career as a well-known Stockbridge diplomat, lobbyist, and political leader. In 1822 he was one of three agents who went to Green Bay to purchase land on which New York Indians who wished to remove could resettle. They bought land from the Menominees, and the Stockbridges began removing in groups, one each year, until removal was completed in 1829. By then, however, their future in Wisconsin was doubtful. In 1827, U.S. commissioners had met with the Indians ostensibly to settle their boundaries but instead had bought a tract from the Menominees, including the land on the Fox River they had previously sold to the Stockbridges. Quinney represented the Stockbridges in Washington in 1828 and 1830, attempting to secure a valid title to their lands, but in 1831, the Menominees repudiated their sale to the New York Indians. The Stockbridges and Munsees then separated from the rest of the New York Indians and negotiated on their own; thus Quinney returned to Washington in 1831 and was instrumental in securing a treaty in 1832 that granted them two townships on the east side of Lake Winnebago, where they settled and reestablished their community.

Their affairs did not remain settled very long. In 1837 Quinney drafted a constitution, which a majority of the Stockbridges adopted, giving up their system of governance by hereditary leadership. With each removal, beginning with the first one from their small villages to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, amalgamation had continued and the process of acculturation had accelerated. Among a part of the population, however, some of the old ideas were slow to die and retained considerable force. Thus contention resulted between the constitutional faction and those who were reluctant to give up traditional governance practices. The result was an agreement to sell half of their land so that those who wished to remove farther west could do so. During the next five years, Quinney represented the Stockbridges before Congress, where he sought settlement of their various claims for losses during their removals. In 1843 the Stockbridges were divided once more when Congress made them U.S. citizens and individual landowners. Quinney once again represented them in Washington, seeking a return to tribal status for those who wanted it. Restoration came in 1846, though not before much Stockbridge land had been lost through sales. In order to prevent further difficulties for his people, Quinney helped negotiate a treaty in 1848 by which they agreed to remove farther west if suitable land could be found. By 1852, however, no selection had been made. By then, Quinney concluded that he was too old and poor to face another removal, and he pleaded with Congress to grant him title to his home at Stockbridge. His plea, which Congress granted in 1854, meant that he was willing to accept U.S. citizenship. Quinney died at Stockbridge, Wisconsin, on July 21, 1855. The following year, a new treaty with the Menominees granted lands to the Stockbridges and Munsees in Shawano County, to which those who had not become citizens removed for the last time between 1856 and 1859.

In his memorial to Congress in 1852, Quinney called himself “a true Native American,” the first use of that term, some scholars believe, in reference to the indigenous peoples of America. The term refers to more than racial or cultural identity. Quinney’s memorial, like his speech, reflects his intense awareness of the Mahican presence in American history from King Philip’s War to Manifest Destiny. His personal history—his education, life style, acceptance of citizenship, even the popular oratorical style in which he delivered his public statement—attested to the acculturation that had been necessary for survival in the face of Euro-American expansion. It attested as well to the extinction or near extinction of many of the peoples who once inhabited the northeastern region of the new American nation. When he died, the Mahican nation had all but disappeared, and he was aptly referred as one of the “Last of the Mohicans.”

In the Heath Anthology
Quinney's Speech (1854)

Other Works

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Beginnings of the Stockbrige-Munsee
More historical material, but focused on including Quinney's role in internal tribal politics.

Mahican Who, What, When, Where, and How?
A general history of Mahican/Mohicans, with a portrait of John Wannuaucon Quinney.

Secondary Sources

T.J. Brasser, "Mahican," Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15 Northeast, ed. Bruce G. Trigger, 1978: 198-212

"Death of John W. Quinney," Wisconsin Historical Society Report and Collections 1857-58 4 (1859): 309-311

Frederick J Dockstader, Great North American Indians, 1977: 227-228

Levi Konkapot, Jr., "The Last of the Mohicans," Wisconsin Historical Society Report and Collections 1857-58 4 (1859): 303-307