Science, Religion, and the Natural Order of Things

Andy McKee

In preparing for various conferences this spring (obligatory SECSOR shout-out) I have been reading over brains, bodies, warfare, frontiers, and the (apparent) severe lack of heads in American history. In the expansion of American identity across new borders and boundaries, the history of phrenology played a formative role in how a certain kind of knowledge of bodies and "true religion" was collected and circulated. Following the "Age of Revolutions" across the world, slave bodies, Indian bodies, gendered bodies, and bodies of all colors became sites of the intense contestation over citizenship. For consideration today, I want to think through how these bodies became heightened markers of the struggle over the identity of the frontiers of the Second Seminole War period and what that struggle can help "uncover" about Indian religion in antebellum America.

    During this era, say, roughly 1835 until 1842, phrenologists drove an interest in bodies as a specific cranial material makeup of one's self came to be used as a marker of one's place in society's hierarchy. Or, as Ann Fabian argues about the famed phrenologist and writer of Crania America, Samuel George Morton, "He turned an unwieldy collection of skulls into information he could exchange with collectors, naturalists, and scholars." Creating this natural of things was a paramount concern of cataloging the "new world." It was this process that took the deaths of displaced peoples (Native Americans, Africans, slaves, criminals, and the poor, especially) and re-purposed their bodies so that in death, they became a central feature of how human existence could be measured, divided, marked, and then re-stitched back together. From the Florida frontier, Morton received several dozen skulls he identified as being part of the Seminole tribe. These skulls often traveled to Morton's base of operations in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania via U.S. Army soldiers and surgeons.
    As such, in engaging the great questions of natural scientists, Morton found that the Natives of the American geography were "perhaps less swayed by superstitious fears than most other savages; and their religion, if it merits the name, is more remarkable for its poverty than its grossness." Indeed, Indian religion, as it existed in and on the brain, was "simply theism" and the Indian "hears God in the winds…and acknowledges his presence in all the phenomena of the elements; yet these are always attributed to the same element, and not, as with more barbarous people, to a multiplicity of spiritual agents." Morton, it appears, was more than happy to place the Natives of America above the other indigenous groups for which he possessed skulls. One of his favorite comparisons was to read the skulls of Seminoles against the "flat heads" of the Pacific. So, while local natives appeared to have better faculties than their more distant brethren, it was the combination of religion (see: Christianity) and science (see: phrenology) that gave the Natives of America little hope of escaping their own primitive fascinations.

    Yet, the cranial measurements of the American Indians, according to Morton, also reflected an unusual mental capacity. In Crania and elsewhere, Morton comment on Indians as such noting, "It must be in truth be confessed that the Indian is least to be admired at home; for in him the domestic virtues are but partially expanded. War and chase, on the other hand, call forth all this energies." Natives, it appeared, wanted to become part of white Christian civilization, at least on the surface. However, Morton was even quicker to note that surfaces were in fact the problem. By studying certain Native skulls, he noted the "seductive character of the American savage" which reflected their nature "much depraved by vice and sensuality as most other barbarous nations." Five years later, in 1842, in a speech given to the Boston Society of Natural History, Morton echoed the claims of his book and remarked that Indians were "savage people" with a "peculiar and eccentric moral constitution."
    As phrenologists worked to uncover the foreign, yet domestic, heathen's true monstrous nature and "true religion," stories of violence to the dead of the on-going Seminole and various Indian wars, helped influence how Americans understood these conflicts and their aftermaths. In identifying the Indian as "other" and gaining control over the enemies of the United States, the image of the wild savage became part of the America that was suppose to be left behind.


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