New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Historical Research

How 19th Century Indian Philanthropy Changes the Narrative of American Giving

Editors’ Note: Anelise Shrout contributes a new post on 19th century Cherokee and Choctaw transnational philanthropy and how it re-shapes our understanding of the giving of marginalized groups.

The people gathered at Fort Gibson in the Western Cherokee Nation in March of 1847 were a diverse group. Cherokees, U.S. soldiers, local missionaries and traders passing through Indian Territory pressed together, eager to hear the speakers. Lieutenant Colonel Gustavus Loomis, Fort Gibson’s second in command, quieted the crowd. He introduced a “gentleman,” who had been invited to “read some newspaper accounts of the famine” that was then decimating Ireland. After “a few selections” had been read, Loomis asked the crowd to contribute. He later reported that they had raised over one hundred dollars. Ten days later, and less than twenty miles away, a similar meeting took place in the Choctaw Nation. There, Major William Armstrong read a report prepared by the “Memphis Committee” for Irish famine relief. In response, “all” who attended the meeting – a “considerable portion” of whom were Choctaws – gave.

For those of us who study philanthropy today, these instances of Cherokee and Choctaw participation in overseas charity are remarkable. Native peoples in the 1840s generally – and these native peoples in particular – do not match the “nineteenth-century philanthropist” conjured in popular imagination. In large part, this is because much of the work on nineteenth-century philanthropy has tended to see charity’s primary utility as a bourgeoisie tool for social control – and basically as a carrot that rich, middle class and mostly white donors used to shape the poor, “pagan,” and “uncivilized” into their image of respectability.

If anything, the Cherokees and Choctaws who raised famine funds in the spring of 1847 fit our models of ideal recipients of aid. They had been “removed” via the Trail of Tears from their lands in the American Southeast only a decade before. In the process, the U.S. Government had stripped them of their land and resources, and in the years that followed most had only begun to rebuild their polities and lives in Indian Territory. These native donors had little enough resources to support themselves, let alone to send overseas to people they had never met.

Cherokee and Choctaw famine relief was as remarkable for nineteenth-century Americans as it is for us today – though for slightly different reasons. The Arkansas Intelligencer, a paper published only miles from Indian Territory, reported on the meetings and described the native donors as having only recently escaped from “benighted ignorance and heathen barbarism.” This framing was indicative of many white Americans’ views in the 1840s, which cast Cherokees and Choctaws as only minimally capable of humane impulses. In order to reconcile the view of “benigted” and “barbar[ous]” native peoples with the philanthropy on display at the famine relief meetings in Indian Territory, the Intelligencer concluded that Indian famine relief must be credited to “the Christian[s] and the Philanthropist[s]” who had inclulcated “civilization and Christian spirit among [their] red neighbors.”

Histories of native America have recognized the Intelligencer’s perspective as a part of the United States’ imperialism – both military and cultural – among native peoples. Historians (including Theda Perdue, Andrew Denson, Circe Strum and Timothy Sweet) have demonstrated that in order for the disenfranchisement and expropriation of Cherokees and Choctaws to work, they had to be cast as insufficiently civilized, and therefore insufficiently American.

However, despite these interventions, claims like those made in the Intelligencer that Indian philanthropy was anomolous and uncharacteristic have unfortunately persisted in the historical literature. In large part, this is because studies of philanthropy have tended to cast native peoples as recipients of aid rather than as philanthropists themselves. Much profitable work has been done on collective cultures and redistributive practices among native peoples and within native polities, but much remains to be done on out-group native giving practices.

Refocusing our attention on the ways in which native peoples thought about their philanthropic obligations to strangers dramatically changes how we see the history of philanthropy. My work argues that rather than merely a vehicle for the imposition of middle-class values on those who have been found wanting, philanthropy practiced by non-elites and marginalized peoples was a way to critique local politics and dominant power structures. In the case of the Cherokee and Choctaw donations, this kind of philanthropy highlighted Indian morality and capacity for fellow-feeling in contrast to prevailing American ideas that Indians required white guidance in order to act humanitarianly. We know this because Cherokee and Choctaw writers explicitly challenged the idea that their donations were merely evidence of successful Christian missionizing. An anonymous editorial published in July of 1847 in the Cherokee Advocate proclaimed that “Among the many noble deeds of disinterested benevolence which the present famine in Europe has called forth, none can be more gratifying to enlightened men than the liberality of our red brethren.” The writer went on to note that Native philanthropy was “the more acceptable that it comes from those upon whom the white man has but little claim. It teaches us that the Indian, made like as we are, has a humanity common among us.”

Enjoinders like these undermined claims that Native donations were the consequence of the uncritical adoption of Christian charity. They also open up the possibility of alternate meanings of Native famine philanthropy. In particular, if we choose to look for other instances of marginalized groups giving, nineteenth century philanthropy begins to look less like a tool for social control, and more like a flexible strategy for asserting sovereignty in a time when many political avenues were closed.

-Anelise Shrout

Anelise Hanson Shrout holds a PhD in Atlantic history from New York University. She is currently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in digital studies at Davidson College, and will start as an assistant professor of history at Cal State Fullerton in Fall 2016.   Her book project – Aiding Ireland, Saving Ourselves: Famine and the Politics of Global Philanthropy – locates the origins of modern global philanthropy in the politicization of nineteenth-century responses to famine in Ireland. Her article on the Cherokee and Choctaw famine donations, “A ‘Voice of Benevolence From the Western Wilderness’: Native Philanthropy and Political Critique in the Trans-Mississippi West” appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic. She can be found tweeting at @anelisehshrout and writing at


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