The Life and Writings of Betsey Chamberlain: Native American Mill Worker (review)

The Life and Writings of Betsey Chamberlain: Native American Mill Worker (review)

Studies in American Indian Literatures
Volume 24, Number 3, Fall 2012
pages 138-141
DOI: 10.1353/ail.2012.0035

Margaret M. Bruchac

By reconstructing the life history of Betsey Guppy Chamberlain (1797–1866), historian and librarian Judith Ranta has done some fine detective work that illuminates an otherwise little-known aspect of women’s lives in nineteenth-century New England. This compilation will be useful for scholars of social history, yet there is one significant flaw. Ranta champions Chamberlain as a Native American author, and she has organized the collected works to emphasize this point.

We need not retroactively adjudicate degrees of Indian blood, but we must weigh real and fictive kin affiliation when discerning social identities. Betsey’s paternal grandmother, Sarah Loud Guppy, was said to have some Indian blood, but no specific tribal nation was ever recalled. Betsey’s parents, William and Comfort Guppy, who lived in Brookfield and Wolfboro, New Hampshire, near Lake Winnepesaukee, identified as white people. Given their locale, in Central Abenaki homeland, Ranta assumes that Betsey’s grandmother was Abenaki Indian. There is no evidence, however, to indicate that Loud, her son, or her granddaughter ever self-identified or were counted among members of any Abenaki (or other Native American) community.

Chamberlain’s publications began only after the death of her first husband, Josiah Chamberlain, when she left an intentional community (likely Shaker) in New Hampshire. She worked in the textile mills around Newmarket and Lowell, Massachusetts, and ran a boarding house, while publishing dozens of articles in the mill’s journal, the Lowell Offering. In 1843 she married Charles Boutwell and moved to Illinois, but she returned to Lowell to work two more years in the mills and publish more stories in the New England Offering before settling in Illinois.

Ranta convincingly demonstrates that Chamberlain had ready access to popular literature, so it is no surprise that her narratives reproduced prevalent social and ethnic stereotypes. Along with hundreds of her fellow female textile workers, she partook of Lowell’s public libraries, lectures, and events and attended “Improvement Circles” featuring amateur readings at local churches. Chamberlain was sensitive to anti-Indian prejudices, and her style resembles that of Lydia Maria Child, with its feminine sensitivities and calls to justice for the downtrodden. Yet, as Siobhan Senier has observed, Chamberlain’s melodramatic short fiction and vignettes of home life matched popular genres, and her “dream visions” resembled transcendentalist ramblings (Senier 673). None of this suggests tribal heritage.

Ranta claims that Chamberlain tapped Algonkian storytelling practices, but I see no trace of Indigenous oral traditions, cultural practices, or environmental knowledge in any of her writings. Curiously, Ranta censored the collection by omitting Chamberlain’s lurid stories of Indian attacks against white settlers, perhaps because these might undermine assertions of identity. Chamberlain’s anecdotes of Indian encounters on the colonial frontier employ sharp gender and racial divisions with satirical overtones and Christian messages; Native voice and agency are absent or marginalized. For example, “The Indian Pledge” recounts the rescue of a racist young white man by a “savage” Indian, in exchange for the gentle white wife’s earlier kindness to the poor Indian. “A Fire-Side Scene” features an old Yankee veteran recalling, with some pride, the mass burning of a Native village on the western Miami frontier (125–26). Chamberlain’s pseudonymous “Tabitha” (presented as the author of these tales) seems to be an alternate identity, rooted in ethnic masking or cultural appropriation.

Chamberlain’s creative work must be seen as a commercial transaction; whether paid or not, she trafficked in productions that elevated her own social position. She earned high wages in the mills, but she also found time to compose more than forty stories for the Lowell Offering and the New England Offering in a few years’ time. Exotic narratives containing Indians, scripted by a woman of mysterious ancestry, would have been an easy sell, but what was her inspiration? Was her favorite literary character, the “old maid,” based on some older woman who befriended the mill girls? Who…

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