Friday, October 20, 2023

On Ribs and the Bible: The Implications of Christianity and Colonialism for Native Women

“I find very great Profit by having the other Rib join’d to my Body for it hath taken away all my Housework from me. But I had very hard spell geting it up here Rocks and Hills almost broke it into Peices two or three Times”.

Eleazar Wheelock created Moor’s Charity School in 1754. The goal for this school is apparent through Wheelock’s writings - the objective was to “civilize and Christianize” the Native American students as well as make them instruments of Christ, but also of Wheelock. The instruction of this school focused on Native young men and taught them reading, math, and geography, as well as putting them to work on his farm. Around the late 1750s, Wheelock concluded that when the Native men left his school they would resume the path of a ‘savage’, he had to figure out a way to keep them from turning Indian.

Wheelock began to admit young Native women into his school in 1761. Hannah Garrett was a Pequot resident and student at the school from 1763 to 1766. Based on Wheelock’s intention and goal for his female students to marry to “...prevent a Necessity of their [Native male students] [from] turning savage in their Manner of Living…”, Garrett was the only successful student. In this post, I will discuss one of the only remaining accounts about Hannah Garrett and deconstruct the gender and religious stereotypes placed upon her, as well as how she navigated these factors. The lens through which we’re viewing her is that of her husband David Fowler since her accounts are greatly limited.

At the time of their marriage, Garrett was around 17 years old while Fowler was around 30 years old. Fowler had succeeded in finding a wife, however, Garrett was the third woman who attended Moor’s Charity School that he tried to marry. Fowler wrote to Wheelock in search of a wife whom he could take on missions; Fowler had his hopes set on Amy Johnson. He wrote: “I know you love her as much as you do me, all she desires will be given… (if Mr Wheelock, Don’t love my Rib as well as my whole Body”. The reference to her as a Rib is a Biblical allusion to Genesis 2:22-23.

22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. 23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

By referring to Johnson as “my Rib” he describes how he believes his wife should act – as a fixed extension of himself. The visual of the rib is a staple that Fowler held onto during his search for a wife and its prominence in his writing is a testament to the Christian influences of Wheelock. 

After Fowler had moved on from Johnson, he set his mind on another female student at Moor’s Charity School, Hannah Pyamphcouh. He wrote to Wheelock “If she won’t let her Bones be joined with mine. I shall pick out my Rib from your House”. He’s determined to follow Wheelock’s plan and marry a Native woman. His use of words like “pick” and “rib” objectifies the woman he wants to marry, creating a bond that ultimately engulfs his partner. In the end, Hannah Pyamphcouh doesn't marry him and Fowler is forced to look for a new rib.

A short time later, in a letter to Wheelock after Fowler has left for his mission with his new wife, Hannah Garrett, Fowler writes:

“I find very great Profit by having the other Rib join’d to my Body for it hath taken away all my Housework from me. But I had very hard spell geting it up here Rocks and Hills almost broke it into Peices two or three Times”.
The language used is objectifying while also lacking compassion and a sense of companionship. From this moment on, Fowler almost exclusively refers to her as his wife or rib. By not calling her by name, he exerts ownership over Garrett: there’s no autonomy in a rib as it serves to protect and support the body of which it’s a part. In the same breath, however, Garrett is forever cementing her name in history and is now attached to her husband's legacy. This begs the question of what it says about women in that period and how they were valued in their communities. Garrett was made to move between the culture of her tribe to adapt to the often demanding and demoralizing pressures of Wheelock’s school.

The juxtaposition between Garrett being successful and the struggle for autonomy brings up the question of how Garrett viewed her experiences. Returning to the biblical verse, God took the rib out of man to make woman, removing her from the inner workings of man. They’re still united but God gave her form, no longer assigning her to the role of supporter and protector. The line “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” adds to this commentary because it’s saying that the woman’s bone and flesh are the same as the man’s. However, given the context of the time and views on women, the phrase “my” in the verse allows for the assertion of beliefs of how a woman should act and how they should serve their male counterparts. In Fowler’s letter to Wheelock, he writes the phrase “joined to my Body” which takes on the meaning of ownership instead of realizing partnership, inadvertently moving away from the message of God to fulfill a socially constructed gender role reinforced by religion. Although no pieces of writing authored by her exist today, she still survives in history and her life is an example of the complex effect of colonialism and the spread of Christianity in the 1700s and 1800s.

To read the letters quoted in this post, visit Rauner Library and ask for Mss 766652.2, Mss 765302.2, and Mss 766313.1; or read the letters about Amy Johnson and Hannah Pyamphcouh on the Occom Circle website. For a compilation of letters like these, see The Letters of Eleazar Wheelock's Indians by James Dow McMcCallum. To read about Moor's Charity School in Wheelock's own words, request A Plain and Faithful Narrative... (1763).

Posted for Sydney Hoose '25, recipient of Historical Accountability Student Research Fellowship for the 2023 Fall term. The Historical Accountability Student Research Program provides funding for Dartmouth students to conduct research with primary sources on a topic related to issues of inclusivity and diversity in the College's past. For more information, visit the program's website.