Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England with Jean O’Brien

On October 19, 2022, the Natick Historical Society welcomed Professor of History Jean M. O’Brien for a virtual lecture. She detailed the argument she makes in her book, Firsting and Lasting, that local histories written in the nineteenth century became a primary means by which Euro-Americans asserted their own modernity while denying it to Indian peoples. Click here for a 69-minute recording of her talk.

Erasing then memorializing Indian peoples also served a more pragmatic colonial goal: refuting Indian claims to land and rights. Drawing on more than six hundred local histories from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island as well as censuses, monuments, and accounts of historical pageants and commemorations, O’Brien explored how these narratives inculcated the myth of Indian extinction, a myth that has stubbornly remained in the American consciousness.

(Above) Monuments such as the one at the Massasoit Spring in Warren, RI and the one to Miantonomo in Norwich, CT, as well as an illustration of the First Thanksgiving, illustrate the notion of “Famous First Indians” promulgated in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Below) Similar monuments and celebrations such as the Uncas Memorial in Norwich, CT , an illustration in a book about John Eliot, and 250th anniversary events in Norwich continue the false narrative.

This is the second installment of a three-part speaker series called “Indigenous Histories and Futures in Natick, Massachusetts.” This series allows attendees to consider important questions about Indigenous experiences in Natick and beyond from the seventeenth century until today.