Sidis Archives Home The Tribes and the States
Did the Indians Teach the Pilgrims Democracy?
Yes, says manuscript uncovered by local man―and therein lies a tale
by Cathy Spence
Ipswich (MA) Chronicle, Sept. 5, 1984, 14b - 16b.
WILLIAM JAMES SIDIS was a 'boy wonder who could speak five languages at age five and who graduated from Harvard at sixteen. But he went on to live a seemingly obscure life, working at menial jobs, and when he died in 1944 Time magazine called him a "prodigious failure." But now Ipswich resident Dan Mahony has discovered a book by Sidis that shows the opposite was true―and also puts forth a startling theory about the influence of the New England Indians on the early colonists. This is the only known photo of Sidis as an adult.
At the age of 5, William Sidis could speak five languages and read Plato in the original Greek. At the age of 8, he passed the entrance exam into Harvard but had to wait three years to be admitted, whiling away the time by taking mathematics courses at Tufts. In 1909, at age 11, he was finally admitted as Harvard's youngest scholar, and graduated cum laude at the age of 16. But when he died 30 years later, Time magazine ran a full-page obituary of Sidis that called him "a prodigious failure," and for all his adult life he was hounded by a media that called him "a burnt-out genius."
Nearly four decades later, an Ipswich man, Dan Mahony, has found the most conclusive evidence to date that William Sidis was not as the press portrayed him. In a battered suitcase in a Brookline attic, Mahony uncovered a manuscript that he says "should revolutionize New England history."
Sidis wrote a 600-page manuscript that talks mainly about "what is missing from New England history: an account of what was already here when the White Man got here," according to Mahony.
What was here in New England was a federation of 200,000 Indians. Sidis says that not only were they here, but that they were an important influence, and that "the characteristics of the various parts or the country (can be) treated as directly traceable to the varying characteristics and customs of the early tribes of the same regions."
A Classless Society
In contrast to many other Indian cultures, among the dozen tribes that made up the local Penacook federation "there was nothing known which could remotely correspond to, or give any inkling of, any division of caste, class, or rank―probably the only completely democratic governments that ever existed in the history of the world." This was a true democracy and equality which might well prepare their country (now known as New England) for being, "at all times down to the present, the cradle of the spirit or liberty," wrote Sidis. What he calls Sidis' "Continuity Theory" has been "transforming my life," according to Mahony. But if what he found in the manuscript was startling, his search for it came from the feeling that "no matter what the press said, Sidis was a man that had changed minds, would change minds, with the force or his intellect."
"I guess I'm what you could call a Sidis enthusiast," he says, grinning broadly. His search for Sidis' work goes back seven years to when Mahony had a research grant in child development from Columbia University. In the card catalogue, he found 17 books by a Harvard physician named Boris Sidis. "He was the first one in this country to advocate strong pre-school education and he believed the ages of two to five were crucial, almost a heresy back around the turn of the century when he wrote."
By chance, Mahony came across a mention of Boris Sidis' son in The New York Times. When he followed it up, he found "an astonishing amount of material. There were more than 150 articles on William Sidis. He was in 'Ripley's Believe It or Not' many times. He made the front page of The New York Times 19 times."
There were basically two kinds of articles. As a child, William Sidis made good copy as a Boy Wonder. "Reporters used to go in teams to corner him on his way back and forth to school: Some would grab him while others got his picture." But when he graduated from Harvard, there was a change in the media coverage. "The New York Times ran a piece saying it would be interesting to see if Sidis lived up to his early promise, or 'whether he would go the way of so many like him.'"
From then on, everything Sidis did seemed to confirm the media's gloomy expectations of him. Sidis took a series of low-paying jobs, and with each one, the press was on the scene to report his "failure." When he published a book on trolley-car transfers, a hobby he named "peridromophilly," he was ridiculed as trivial-minded. When he died of a brain hemorrhage at 46, public opinion seemed unanimous: He was a washout.
"But the more I read about him, the more I felt something was missing," says Mahony. "I finally realized it was Sidis himself who was missing. What was he thinking all this time? What was he doing when he wasn't at his part-time jobs?" To Mahony, reports like the one in the Times that Sidis was earning $23 a week as a clerk in 1924 did not mean much: "Einstein did his best work while he was working at a routine job in a patent office. The great poet Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company. The question to me was, what was he doing with the rest of his time?"
Then, in a book by Abraham Sperling titled "Psychology for the Millions," Mahony found what he was looking for. In a chapter on Sidis, Sperling said that Sidis was not a burnt-out genius, but a great thinker, and that he himself had seen a dozen manuscripts in a trunk that Sidis had written.
By this time, Mahony had found out more about Sidis, accomplishments: He'd perfected the perpetual calendar, taught study groups on the Okamakammesset Indians, and had a book called "The Animate and the Inanimate" privately printed; a theory of the universe that predicted black holes 30 years before they were discovered. Under a pseudonym, he even wrote a weekly column called "Meet Boston," containing little-known facts about the city.
When he searched out people who had known Sidis before he died in 1944, Mahony found "they all remembered the same man―not the media's 'failure,' but a brilliant man with a natural dignity, actively studying and writing until the end of his life." When Mahony met Sidis' sister, Helena, she knew about the trunk Sperling had mentioned in his book. But when they tracked it down, it was empty.
Months later, following a lead from Helena Sidis, Mahony found "The Tribes and the States" in a distant cousin's attic. In 1981, Mahony turned the copyright over to the Wampanoag Nation, although Helena Sidis retains royalties of authorship. A shortened version will be published later this year by Penacook Press of Scituate.
According to Sidis, white men in New England picked up politics from the Penacook Federation in the same way the Penacooks had learned from their neighbors, the Iroquois. Five separate Iroquois tribes banded together to attempt "a permanent peace conference." Sidis says, "It is the Iroquois Federation that started all this train of ideas―federation of nations, disarmament of borders, written constitutions (wampums), limitations of the powers of government―in short, it was this which laid the foundation for most of the modem advances in the art of government." So successful was this political union that the New England Indians had to band together as protection from the combined strength of the more aggressive Iroquois, But while the Iroquois Federation had drawn together the separate councils of the five nations, "the Penacook federal council was an independent body composed of representatives selected by the members of the tribes, both men and women voting, and both men and women being eligible to the council, without regard to heredity―the first time such a form of federation had ever been attempted anywhere in the world." One of the tribes, the Penacook, gave its name to the entire federation, which also included the Wampanoags of Cape Cod, the Saugus and Agawam from the North Shore, the Naumkeag from Salem, and seven other tribes. Collectively, they were known as The Pine Tree People.
"The emblem of the Penacook Federation was the Pine Tree, the totem which was sacred to the Penacook people, and which represented and symbolized the federation. This emblem, in later American history, reappears repeatedly in the Penacook country as denoting liberty," according to Sidis.
Pine Tree Symbolism
Dan Mahony points out that the Massachusetts Bay Colony flag shows two pine trees and an Indian. The flag flown at Bunker Hill was a pine tree flag, as was the first U. S. Navy flag. For many years the Massachusetts state flag had a pine tree on the back of it.
Within the federation, the council of the Pine Tree people controlled the dams built as fishing weirs which later supplied the power for New England's mill towns. They were also overseers for what Sidis calls "the system of public and neutral couriers" along regular routes. The couriers were used by the white men, even in times of war with the Indians because of their neutrality, and the routes became roads like the local Route 1A, one of the first paved roads in the Western hemisphere.
Sidis also says that the New England Indians of each town also met not merely to keep check on their representatives, but to settle important public questions directly, and over the representatives' heads; this furnished a prototype for the 'town meeting' which was and still is the chief form of local government among the white settlers in the same part of America." As the capital of the Saugus nation, Agawam, which later became Ipswich, must have been the site of many such meetings.
Sidis knew he was presenting many things which "will doubtless be difficult for the average reader to swallow." But he offers them openly, honestly: "But let us also hope that the new point of view will make the reader 'think it over'―that it will excite his interest, and make him reconsider much that he has taken for granted about his country."
Says Mahony, "I think you can admire the resourcefulness and adaptability of the first settlers more in " Sidis' version than you can in some glossy picture book that pretends the white man always bad it all together."
Founding of Plymouth
In fact, says Sidis, the Pilgrims were equipped with a map from "The Plymouth Company. . . printed in a style similar to the modern 'sucker' real estate literature, showing a town every few miles along the coast, all named after English communities." The towns never materialized, except for "Plymouth," which the settlers themselves founded. And an agreement was drawn up "whereby all the passengers on the ship agreed to abide by whatever government should be established among them as soon as they should settle down. This 'Mayflower Compact,' as it is commonly called, is generally given as one of the original instances of a democratically written constitution; but it was actually hardly more than a recorded oath of allegiance to the future rulers of the colony."
But the first ruler they chose didn't last out the rough winter. And the next they chose in the Spring, John Carver, had no experience with government, "So the church had to handle the government of the colony for the time being. . . but it was reorganized and democratized under Wampanoag influence."
If that first winter was hard on the Pilgrims, it was harder on the Indians, who were not immune to the white men's diseases. Sidis estimates that of over 200,000 Indians in the Penacook Federation, fewer than 50,000 survived that first winter.
According to John Grimes, curator at Salem 's Peabody Museum, lndians are not usually considered as an influence in New England because "so many of them were wiped out so quickly by diseases, and the ones that were left became scattered."
What seems surprising is that the Indians who were left were friendly to the white men despite the many deaths. Dan Mahony points to early deeds and treaties as evidence or the New England Indians' interest in democratic government among the white men.
"Here is a copy of the Penacook deed for Rockingham County," he says, producing an ornate document. "It specifies that all allotments be granted 'by vote of a major part of the inhabitants.' The word 'lot' is said to have originated with the Indian leader Massasoit who, when asked by the English about how to apportion the land they'd been given, recommended that they draw lots to be fair"
Absorption of Values
Mahony interprets Sidis "not as saying the white men deliberately copied the red, but as saying there was an absorption of the values around them. Sidis is showing that the American political system is a blend of two influences, the European. with an emphasis on hierarchy and property, and the New England Indian culture, which was one of great political insight and democratization. It 's only been in the '80s with books like Howard Russell's 'Indian New England Before the Mayflower,' that we're beginning to realize politics was an art form to New England Indians."
Sidis even claims that the members of the Penacook Federation in what is now Middlesex County, the Okamakammessets, although nearly extinct by the time of the American Revolution, passed on many of their principles to the Sons or Liberty, including their idea of "leaderless rebellions," and their preference for tactics that did not involve loss of life. Typical of several early skirmishes was "The Boston Tea Party." The identity of of the white men was a well-kept secret, but they were dressed as Mohawks, enemies of the Penacooks, in a dig at the British, who were their allies. Sidis surmises that the regalia may "have come from the supply captured by some Penacook tribe during the last war."
The legacy of the Indians lives on in sometimes strange ways in the names of places and things all around us. The tribe that Sidis claims was influential in the early days of the Revolution, the Okamakammessetts, supplied the name for a fire engine in Marlborough. When the fire engine was bought by the town of Marblehead in 1800, the firemen thought it might be bad luck to change the name, like changing the name of a ship. There is still a group of "Okoes" in Marblehead who look after the old hand-drawn pump fire engine and take it out on parade.
A Private Man
But if Indian names are a reminder of the Indians who once lived here, another example of Penacook influence might be the life of William Sidis himself, who, according to Mahony, came to absorb many of their values as he studied them. "One of the reasons Sidis didn't take issue with the press was that he came to value his independence, his privacy, above all else," Mahony says. "He didn't care if he was ridiculed for his plain lifestyle, for not earning more money. Many white men treated the Indians with contempt for living simply. The Penacooks genuinely did not understand the white man's idea of 'owning' property and this was really exploited,"
Sidis also learned a lot about detachment and tolerance from the Indians, according to Mahony, "The Indians came up with the idea of incorporating dissent within a system The Indian enlightenment was eclecticism: include everything. Accept all the tribes in a federation, have respect for each other's ways."
As proof, Mahony cites the record of an interview with Masconomet, sagamore of Agawam (Ipswich), who is buried in Hamilton Cemetery. Asked by white questioners in 1644, "1st. Will you worship the only true God, who made heaven and earth, and not blaspheme?" Masconomet replied, "We do desire to reverence the God of the English and to speak well of Him, because we see He doth better to the English, than other gods do to others." Asked, "Will you allow your children to learn to read the word of God?" he replied, "We will allow this as opportunity will permit, and, as the English live among us, we desire so to do."
Like Passaconaway, the chief of the Penacook Federation, Masconomet seems to have agreed to all the English asked of him, not under threat of force, but with a gentle reasonableness.
Tolerance of Dissent
Even conservative history books record the influence of Massasoit on Roger Williams, a friendship which may have led to Williams' ejection from his colony for what Sidis calls "the heresy of freedom of belief in religious tolerance." Massasoit gave land to Williams and to another dissenter, Anne Hutchinson, to found what are now Providence and Newport.
"The Indians never thought controversy was bad. They had a great tolerance for dissent, for beliefs that were different from their own, Sidis really identified with this. People who knew him said he would never argue with anyone who disagreed with him. He automatically accepted their right to think differently about things. He calls 'The Tribes and the States' "an interesting alternative version of history," saying he hopes 'the truth will move you,' but that "I attempt to explain rather than advocate,'" according to Mahony.
It was typical of Sidis, Mahony says, not to quote sources in his manuscript other than the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier (an Amesbury resident) and that or the Okamakammessetts, but Mahony has found some clues about other sources: "We know, for instance, that Sidis himself spoke 32 Algonquin languages, those of the Penacooks. He also read virtually every known early newspaper. And we have the testimony of friends that Sidis could read wampum belts. Sidis talks about these as important 'written' records, but he never says that he could read them. That's typical of Sidis, who would hate to be treated as an authority on anything."
Mahony bears out Sidis' Continuity Theory of people absorbing the characteristics of others they become involved with. Reluctant to have his photo taken or reveal much about himself, he asked. "Do I have to be in this at all? Shouldn't this just be about Sidis?" Like Sidis, he supports his research by taking diverse part-time jobs: He works half a week with alcoholic derelicts In Boston, something he began to do on the Bowery when he was in graduate school in New York.
He gives computer lessons, specializing in working with children, and is currently tutoring several handicapped children on the computer.
"This might be a very good time to reconsider the legacy of the local Indians," Mahony says. "We might learn some things from them that could really help us now."
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