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Why we like 19th century newspapers

February 26, 2009

Via Lara Mann, a small gem from the Boston Daily Advertiser, May 23, 1883:

In General

–The skeleton of an Indian has been found in Athens, Penn., his face looking east, his feet drawn up under him, and his right arm raised to his shoulder. He was probably pitching for the local base-ball nine when he met his fate.

She says: Although the newspaper humor of late 19th-century Boston could not be mistaken for cleaver or quick, it is one thing—telling. The occurrence of 1) finding the remains of an Indian, and, 2) familiarity with Indians in baseball, were commonplace enough to have a joke made. The print record of Indians in baseball is slim, and what is there is highly suspect. Games are described as minstrel shows and Indian ballplayers are described as either savages (in name and disposition), alcoholics, or bewilderingly neither of these things. The papers harp on the apparent phenomenon of a sober Indian ballplayer, able to navigate even white society. They speak as if it as a rarity, again and again.

In today’s mainstream society, it is not uncommon to find schoolchildren, and sadly adults too, who think “all the Indians died off” and were completely eradicated sometime around the turn of the 20th century. But this familiarity with Indian remains in Pennsylvania was reported as everyday. Sometime within the last 125 years, Indians got erased from modern history. But through this small disclosure buried in the section of the paper reserved for jokes and small pieces of information, history shows its hand: the greater population was used to Indians playing baseball. They were so used to it, in fact, that it was common enough knowledge to make a joke.

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