Betsey Guppy Chamberlain, a half-Algonquian mill girl, published some of the first – if not the first — criticisms of the way Native Americans were treated. In short stories she wrote from 1841 to 1848, she put forth such radical ideas as Indians are people and women should be paid the same as men.
Little is known about her early life. One source places her birth on Dec. 29, 1797 in Wolfeboro, N.H. According to another, she was born in Brookfield, N.H. She was part European, though it’s unclear whether she was Flemish or Scottish or English, Abenaki or Narragansett.
She married Josiah Chamberlain, a farmer, in 1820 and they had three children. Her husband died in 1823. Betsey sold their farm and went to work in the Lowell textile mills to support herself and her children.
Lowell Mill Girls
In the early days of the mills, the Lowell mill girls were paid well though they worked long hours. The early mill owners created educational and cultural opportunities for the mill girls, including libraries, concerts and lectures. The mill girls wrote for magazines published in town called the Lowell Offering and the New England Offering. Betsey Guppy Chamberlain wrote for both.
Harriet Hanson Robinson, a Lowell Offering contributor, described Betsey Guppy Chamberlain in her book Loom and Spindle:
Mrs. Chamberlain was a widow, and came to Lowell with three children from some ‘community’ (probably the Shakers), where she had not been contented. She had inherited Indian blood, and was proud of it. She had long, straight black hair, and walked very erect, with great freedom of movement. One of her sons was afterwards connected with the New York Tribune.
She wrote 37 stories and poems for the magazines. In them, she embraced themes of Indian gods and spirituality while satirizing Christian hypocrisy.
Not Your Usual Indian Stories
In The Indian Pledge, which she wrote in 1842, a hungry, thirsty Native American seeks help at the door of a white man. The white man turns him away harshly, but his wife secretly helps him. Later the white man gets lost in the woods and is rescued by the Indian he turned away. The Indian says to him:
Five moons ago when I was faint and weary, you called me an Indian dog, and drove me from your door. I might now be revenged; but Cantantowwit bids me kindness, to him as you have been done by. Farewell.
The white man, abashed, went home purified in heart, having learned a lesson of Christianity from an untutored savage.’
In another story, A Fire-Side Scene, an old man tells his nephew about burning and killing an entire Indian village. The nephew asks his uncle, ‘do you think Uncle Sam is a Christian, to give you a pension for being in that scrape?’ The uncle says, yes, because ‘they were heathen.’
She Had A Dream
Betsey Guppy Chamberlain also wrote about gender and class injustice. In a story called A New Society she wrote of her dream where new rules of living are adopted. Among those rules:
- Resolved, That every father of a family who neglects to give his daughters the same advantages for an education which he gives his sons, shall be expelled from this society, and be considered a heathen.
- Resolved, That no member of this society shall exact more than eight hours of labour, out of every twenty-four, of any person in his or her employment.
- Resolved, That, as the laborer is worthy of his hire, the price for labr shall be sufficient to enable the working-people to pay a proper attention to scientific and literary pursuits.
- Resolved, That the wages of females shall be equal to the wages of males, that they may be able to maintain proper independence of character, and virtuous deportment.
Betsey Guppy Chamberlain left the mills in 1843 after her marriage to a widowed farmer. They moved to Illinois, but she returned to the Lowell mills – and to her writing – in 1848. She went back to Illinois two years later.
During her lifetime, Betsey Guppy Chamberlain had four husbands. She died in her late 80s.
Harriet Hanson Robinson called her the most original, prolific and noted of all the Offering writers.
With thanks to Dissent Along the Borders of the Fourth World: Native American Writings as Social Protest by Annalyssa Gypsy Murphy.