Early Anglo-American and British Descriptions of Native American Skin Color: Updating a Recent Paper

The Book of Mormon Studies Association is soon going to host its third annual conference, again in Logan, Utah at Utah State University from October 11–12, 2019. Having attended each of the two previous conferences I can simply state that the conference is growing and there have been many papers presented at the various sessions that have been thought-provoking, sparking ideas or at least responses to ideas I might not have considered if I had not attended.

One of those came the first year the conference was held, 2017, as a bright PhD student in the History department at the University of Utah, Jeremy Talmage, presented a paper entitled, “Black, White, and Red All Over: Race and the Book of Mormon.” In his presentation Talmage seemed to be arguing that readers of the Book of Mormon had for the previous 187 years had been misreading the text all along. While the Book of Mormon might describe the Lamanites as having a “skin of blackness” (2 Ne. 5:21) no one in early American history had called Native Americans “black” that he could find. He had searched all over in newspapers and books and had found nothing. So, early on in the book’s history readers of the Book of Mormon had imposed images of Native Americans onto the text’s description of the Lamanites and readers had been simply following that mistake ever since. The book never called them “red,” which is something you might expect in the early national period because that was the most common term used to describe Native Americans.

During the Q&A after the session the room seemed a little confused Talmage’s paper. He had argued based on one of the connections between Lamanites and Native Americans that the majority of readers since the book was published had mistakenly read the Lamanites as Native Americans, but what about all of the other connections? He claimed that the prevalent reading was mistaken but didn’t offer an alternative. I raised my hand and asked about other descriptions in the Book of Mormon that seem to be pretty clear connections to rhetoric used often in the early national period to describe Native Americans, like the constant reference to their “idleness” or being “idle” (cf. 1 Ne. 12:23; 2 Ne. 5:24; Alma 24:18), living “in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents” (Alma 22:28) and the counting of time as based on the number of “moons” (Omni 1:21). I asked that if you take the descriptions of the Lamanites holistically and include more than just the blackness or darkness (the more common phrase in the Book of Mormon) of their skin color doesn’t the book seem to intentionally be describing them in ways reminiscent of early nineteenth century Native Americans?

Although I failed to also include at the time the fact that Joseph Smith, Jr. believed that the Book of Mormon Lamanites were Native Americans, and that in Doctrine and Covenants 30:6 Oliver Cowdery and Peter Whitmer, Jr. are said to go on a mission to the nineteenth-century Lamanites (the Native Americans; see also Doctrine and Covenants 3:20; 49:24), Talmage agreed with me. The other descriptions of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon do make it pretty clear that the Lamanites were the predecessors to the Native Americans. I was dumbstruck and did not know how to follow up because it seemed so contradictory to his entire thesis, then the session ended and we all headed on our way.

Since then I have seen a few people reference Talmage’s paper as if his conclusions are set in stone, particularly that, as Thomas Wayment put it in the BYU Religious Education Review (Winter 2018): 7, Talmage showed “that early Americans, including Joseph Smith, consistently described American Indians as red-skinned, not black-skinned (as in the Book of Mormon).” Like most historical topics, the actual picture of early American descriptions of the color of Native American skin is much more complicated than what Talmage presented in his paper. After about the fourth or fifth time I saw another person share Talmage’s claim I decided to look a little closer at early American literature to see what I could find.

Unfortunately, as tends to happen in Mormon studies fairly often, rather than double and triple checking Talmage’s work others were simply accepting it and moving forward as if it was an established conclusion. This is one of the reasons why the Book of Mormon Studies Association’s annual conference has not really included the public (although it has not only been lay Mormons who have cited Talmage’s paper), because the papers share preliminary work and not necessarily well-established and publishable essays. Many of them are simply not yet at the stage where the scholars have engaged critically with other scholars in their field on what they have written, which is why they present at conferences like these.

I will update Talmage’s claim that no one in early America, as far as he could tell, ever described Native Americans as black or having a skin of blackness with only three sources that I found in my research in a relatively short amount of time. The first source comes from the travels to America in 1795, 1796, and 1797 of Irish explorer Isaac Weld. His travel accounts were published soon after his travels and sold so well that by 1799 there was a second edition already in print. In the ensuing decades Weld’s travels were reprinted in William Fordyce Mavor’s twenty-eight volume series A general collection of voyages and travels, including the most interesting records of navigators and travellers, from the discovery of America by Columbus, in 1492, to the travels of Lord Valentia, originally published between 1796–1801 in London and 1796–1803 in New York. In Weld’s description of the Native Americans he comments in Volume XXIV on some of the similarities and differences between their “complexion” and European complexions. He notes that Native Americans “commonly” have “a copper color” complexion, but he goes on to complicate this generalization. According to Weld the complexion of Native American skin is copper,

“but…varies in the most surprising manner; some of them having no darker skins than the French or Spaniards, while others are nearly black. The contemplation of this fact, has induced many French missionaries, and other persons, who have resided for a considerable time among the Indians, to suppose, that their colour does not naturally differ from that of the nations of Europe, but that the darkness prevalent among them is to be solely attributed to their use of unguents, and to their constant exposure to the ardent rays of the sun, and the smoke of wood fires. It is indeed a well known fact, that their complexion at their birth is much lighter than in their advanced years; and it is equally true, that they endeavour, by every means in their power, to render their skins dark, imagining it will contribute greatly to the improvement of their personal appearance;”

Mavor goes on to comment on Weld’s description by providing the example of, “The Missisaguis, residing in the vicinage of the lake Ontario, are represented as the darkest of any Indians seen by our traveller, in the course of his researches; yet, even among these, are several individuals, whose complexions are comparatively light, which seems to corroborate Mr. Weld’s assertion, that the variety of hues is more particularly confined to certain families than to the tribes. The least variety is among the females, few of whom are darker than what we term a dirty copper-colour” (Mavor, A general collection of voyages and travels, 144–145; this is also quoted in Christopher Kelly, A New and Complete System of Universal Geography [London: Thomas Kelly, 1819], 554.). In the second decade of the nineteenth century this popular traveler, Isaac Weld, wrote a nuanced description of Native Americans. Although his writings did not greatly influence popular rhetoric about the color of Native American skin, the fact that he was engaging with European views prior to his own writing, and soon after Mavor’s engagement with Weld’s description, highlights the fact that not all Europeans accepted the idea that all Native Americans were simply “red.” Some were actually viewed as having a similar tone as Europeans, and others were considered to be black.

Hugh Williamson, a resident of New York writing for The Philosophical Magazine and Journal in 1816, wrote an article entitled, “Observations on the Hypothesis of some modern Writers, that America has been peopled by a distinct Race of Men and Animals; with some Proofs arising from the Natural History and Appearances of the new Continent in favour of the Mosaic Account of the Deluge.” While it seems pretty certain that Williamson would have disagreed with some of Weld’s and Mavor’s descriptions of the Native Americans, he too complicates Talmage’s claim that early Americans simply described Native Americans as “red.”

After noting that the extreme differences in skin color found throughout Europe are not exactly found in America, Williamson bases his understanding on the effect geography can have on skin tone, stating that

“Although no part of America is fitted to the production of a black skin, nor would many parts of this continent be expected to produce a skin perfectly fair, among the original inhabitants; we are not to believe, as some writers have alleged, that the American Indians are all of one colour. Their skin is tinged with a variety of shades between white and black; but there are Indians, as we are told, above the latitude of 45 degrees north, who are nearly white; and there are Indians in Guiana and Brazil, at a distance from the coast, whose skins are very dark.”

Hugh Williamson, “Observations on the Hypothesis of some modern Writers, that America has been peopled by a distinct Race of Men and Animals; with some Proofs arising from the Natural History and Appearances of the new Continent in favour of the Mosaic Account of the Deluge,” in Alexander Tilloch, ed., The Philosophical Magazine and Journal: Comprehending the Various Branches of Science, the Liberal and Fine Arts, Geology, Agriculture, Manufactures and CommerceVol. XLVIII for July, August, September, October, November, and December, 1816 (London: Printed by Richard and Arthur Taylor, 1816), 205–207.

For Williamson the biological reality of the color of Native American skin is on a spectrum between white and black. Native American tones might not get as light or as dark as what Williamson says you might see in Europe, it is problematic to simply state that they are all of one color. There is much more of a variety than some of his contemporaries then, and clearly many today, seemed to believe.

The third and final source describes a Native American who likely had Vitiligo, a condition where an individual loses the pigment in their skin. According to the author, Mr. Benedict, the Native American was happy about his turn to white, although, as Benedict describes, there were still certain parts of his body that had remained black:

“The following is an extract of a letter from Mr. Benedict, of Lebanon, to the Rev. President Stiles of Yale College, giving an account of a remarkable change in the complexion of an Indian.“This Indian is about forty years of age; he calls himself by the name of Samuel Adams, and was born at Frammington in the State of Connecticut; he is tall and well made, his hair is long and coarse, and of the pure Indian black, but grows out of a skin as white as a lily. He tells me that he began to whiten about two years before I saw him, which was in July 1786; the white first appeared upon his breast, and gradually spread from thence. I carefully examined him, and found him to be entirely white, excepting the prominent parts of his face, viz., his forehead, cheek bones, nose, and about his chin, which were of the pure Indian colour, and I think darker than common for that nation; the colors in his face did not form a shade by running into each other, but were both of them entire to the very line of contact, and exhibited a very grotesque appearance. His arms were white, but his hands were pyed, and his fingers the natural Indian color; it was the same with his feet as with his hands, they were interspersed with the natural tawny; his toes were black, but his legs and thighs are wholly white: what is worthy of observation is, that the white is perfectly natural, and very fair for an Englishman. I compared him with fourteen or fifteen other persons who were at my house, of both sexes, and he was visibly the fairest: he told me, that he enjoyed an uninterrupted state of health both before and since he began to whiten. He appears pleased with his transmutation; but, alas! he is still Indian enough to disregard his promise, and to intoxicate himself with spirits. By information of others, who have seen him since these observations were made the remaining black still continues to disappear.””

“American News,” in The Literary Magazine and British Review (January, 1789): 72–73.

For all of the authors quoted above Native American skin tones were viewed in the early national period as more complex than Talmage’s paper suggested. For one author some Native Americans are as fair as some Frenchmen or Spaniards, and some others are black. This blackness of skin can be attributed to their habits, their standards of beauty (another connection to the Book of Mormon, although the Book of Mormon assumes the opposite; cf. 2 Ne. 5:21), or to their exposure to the sun.

For the second author most Native Americans fall somewhere on a spectrum of lighter or darker reddish-brown skin, but, as the author says, “Their skin is tinged with a variety of shades between white and black.” And, finally, the third author viewed the change in one Native American’s skin color from black to white as something of an oddity, mentioning often that his health continued to be okay throughout the change, and unaware that some people can lose skin pigmentation.

Each of these sources offer a counter-narrative to the one presented by Jeremy Talmage at the Book of Mormon Studies Association conference in 2017. It is unfortunate that several authors since Talmage presented his paper have treated it as if held set conclusions, and hope that scholars within Mormon studies would be more careful moving forward to not simply accept the claims of a conference presentation but constructively engage with them and seek to complicate them more thoroughly by more rigorous recourse to the historical record.

Edit: I was completely unaware until this morning that Jeremy Talmage’s paper, “Black, White, and Red All Over: Skin Color in the Book of Mormon,” was going to be published today in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 28 (2019): 46-68.

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