Current Issue Article Abstracts

April 2021,  Vol. 145, No. 2

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The Death of Captain Big Tree: Suicide and the Perils of US–Iroquois Diplomacy in the Early 1790s
Robert M. Owens

Many works examine how murder complicated Indian–White diplomacy, but historians have largely ignored the impact of suicide. Suicide challenged intercultural relations because of differing interpretations. For Whites, it was a shameful result of mental defect. Prior to 1800, Indians tended to see individuals who died by suicide as sympathetic, tragic figures. When an Indian confederacy north of the Ohio killed Gen. Richard Butler at the Battle of the Wabash in 1791, Big Tree, a Seneca war chief allied to the US, claimed Butler as a "friend of my heart," a virtual kinsman, and vowed blood vengeance. He asked to fight the confederates, but in early 1794, Gen. Anthony Wayne grudgingly agreed to a ceasefire. Big Tree, furious and mortified, killed himself. Stunned, Wayne honored him with a military funeral but later tried to exploit the chief. The American response to Big Tree's death revealed both desperation and an inability to understand his act.


A Precarious Freedom: The 1820 Philadelphia Kidnapping Crisis
Elliott Drago

In 1820, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed the nation's first liberty law. Over the course of debating this legislation, state legislators identified specific cases of free African American kidnapping victims, whose harrowing stories conjured questions related to freedom, slavery, and geographic borders. By analyzing these Philadelphia-based cases at the street level, this paper argues that the connections between and among local, state, and national politics necessitated determining whether these victims were legally enslaved or illegally kidnapped. The kidnapping crisis in Philadelphia emerged as a result of the perpetual inability of White politicians to distinguish between fugitive slave retrieval and the kidnapping of free African Americans. Yet African Americans worked with allies, White and Black, to assert their freedom at the local, state, and national levels in a country that all too often reified their status as enslaved people, despite being free or emancipated. This intriguing and complex interracial effort forced state officials to debate the stakes of Black freedom in Pennsylvania and thus revealed the inherent tensions of living as a free African American in a slaveholding republic.


Strikes, Prohibition, and the Politics of Policing in Pennsylvania Coal Country during the 1920s
Thomas R. Pegram

During the 1920s, progressive Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot relied on the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) to bring professionalism and efficiency to state law enforcement. Pinchot hoped to use the state police to cut into the power of the coal and iron police, a state-sanctioned force controlled by private corporations that enforced laws and company policies in corporate-owned mining towns. Pinchot also used the PSP to enforce prohibition against the decentralized and often reluctant authority of county and local law enforcement. Both attempts to advance public interest against private and localized power faltered during coal strikes between 1922 and 1928. Coal companies hired troopers from the state police to organize private police forces, PSP officers joined coal and iron police on strike duty, and state troopers acted violently against strikers. Prohibition enforcement became another method of strikebreaking, and miners feared the PSP as much as the coal company police.