Richard Pointer is Professor Emeritus of History at Westmont College. This interview is based on his new book, Pacifist Prophet: Papunhank and the Quest for Peace in Early America (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Pacifist Prophet?
RP: As sometimes happens, this book, and more specifically Papunhank, found me rather than the other way around. I was doing some research on Pennsylvania-Native American relations in the 1750s and ‘60s and he kept popping up in a range of Quaker, Moravian and government source materials. I also began to notice his name briefly mentioned in a few recent secondary accounts. But it quickly became clear that no one had yet put together the various pieces of his life. Two considerations eventually persuaded me to attempt a biography: first and foremost, I discovered his to be an utterly fascinating and important story that should change some of what we think about Indigenous peoples in early America; and second, reconstructing his life offered a chance to put a small dent in the ongoing preoccupation of early American biography with white men.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Pacifist Prophet?
RP: In a mid-eighteenth century world filled with political turmoil, racial hatred, and deadly violence, Papunhank, like most Native Americans, sought a secure homeland for his people. But unlike most Indigenous leaders and prophets, he rejected warfare and promoted a principled pacifism that kept hundreds of his followers alive and contributed to a longer and wider Indian peace tradition.
JF: Why do we need to read Pacifist Prophet?
RP: In reconstructing Papunhank’s remarkable story, Pacifist Prophet reveals a heretofore largely overlooked Indigenous peacemaking tradition and in the process, widens our vision of the possibilities and limits Native peoples encountered in pre-Revolutionary America. In other words, it recovers an essential piece of Native American heritage and American history. As we consider our own cultural moment, Papunhank’s leadership model of self-sacrificial, dignified, morally-grounded service may be worth a look, especially in a world so much in need of being reminded that as Papunhank himself put it “when God made Men he never intend[ed] they should kill or destroy one another.” Moreover, the typical impression in the popular mind continues to be that Indians everywhere and always (or at least until 1890) were warlike. Either by nature, cultural inclination, or political necessity, they had to be. But it turns out that most Native peoples across the long span of early American history avoided war whenever they could. Instead, they, more quietly, pursued peaceful ways to cope with the new realities facing them after the Europeans’ arrival. Few did more or tried harder along those lines than Papunhank. His life, though extraordinary in the choices he made, was far more typical of what most Natives experienced in early America than the handful of Indians from this era (think Pocahontas and Squanto) familiar to Americans today.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RP: When asked this question, I always point back to childhood family vacations to historic sites along the East Coast that left me equating history and fun. That seed was then nurtured by excellent junior high and high school American history teachers, enough so that I went to college certain that I wanted to major in history. There my love of the subject and especially early American history grew. Completing a major research project on seventeenth-century Connecticut during my senior year gave me a much better idea of what historians actually do and helped persuade me to pursue graduate school in history. So, too, did the example of my older brother, Steve, who by that point was working on a PhD in history. When the opportunity came along for me to study at Johns Hopkins University, I grabbed it, not quite knowing what I was in for or where I was headed but convinced that a life in academia teaching and writing American history would be a worthy calling.
JF: What is your next project?
RP: Well, I’ve just retired in the last few months from my faculty position at Westmont College so my main project at the moment is figuring out what retirement will look like. So far it is feeling very good, even in the midst of the pandemic. The latter, of course, is making research much more difficult. But I have begun preliminary work on the question, how did the Seven Years’ War shape or re-shape religion in America? Over the past couple of decades, early American historians have come to see that war as far more pivotal in “making America” than previously thought. I’m curious to see if that was true for religion as well. Historians of religion in mid-eighteenth century America have tended to be preoccupied with the First Great Awakening and then the American Revolution, typically skipping over the Seven Years’ War. Yet I suspect that long conflict did much to set the trajectory of religion in America toward disestablishment, anti-Catholicism, evangelical expansion, racial exclusivity, and apocalyptic hope. Perhaps someday we’ll even say that it was the war that “made American religion.”
JF: Thanks, Rick!