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Children's Story Garden  >  The White Feather

Girl standing in wild undergrowth, casting milkwood seeds to the breeze.

The Children's Story Garden

The White Feather

The White Feather

"ALL that I can say, man, is that you are crazy to risk it!"

Little Joseph Newlin ran to the door of the cabin to see who dared speak thus to his father. He thought he recognized the voice of a neighbor, Samuel Fuller, and was amazed to find that he was right. Samuel stood beside a cart, which was piled high with a queer array of household goods. Perched on the top, on a mattress, sat Samuel's wife and Joshua, their little boy.

"Hello, Josh!" piped Joseph, but Joshua only answered with an angry glare, very like neighbor Samuel's. Joseph was tremendously hurt and puzzled. He ran to his father, who glanced down at his son with his usual loving serenity. He continued, however, to talk to neighbor Samuel.

"I cannot feel as thee does, Samuel, and I am firmly convinced that I am doing right. For years we Quakers — and you, too, Samuel, thee and the others, have seemed to agree with us — we have said that so long as we ourselves acted and felt toward the red men as toward human brothers, they would not harm us. Now, at the first hint of danger ——" (Father's voice made Joseph tremble and yet feel strangely proud) "thee and the others forget all you have professed, and flee in unworthy terror ——"

"'Unworthy terror' indeed! Thomas Newlin, how can you it! I tell you, Kentville was burnt to the ground last night — not a man, woman or child remain — and the red savages dance their war-dance upon the ashes. From every side we have heard tales of murder and ravage. The Indians are on the war-path, and at any moment may descend upon Cincinnati. We are among the last to leave the town. The Hillers have just preceded us —' Unworthy terror!' You know not what you are saying!" Under the blazing and contemptuous eyes of Samuel Fuller, little Joseph clung close to his father's legs.

"Pardon me, Samuel, I realize well what I am saying. In Kentville the white people were fully armed and long ago roused the enmity of the Indians by suspicions, harsh treatment of their red brothers. Thee wastes words upon me, neighbor. Thy indignation grieves me, but much more it grieves me that we, of all the twenty families in the settlement of Cincinnati, are the only ones who will risk a test of our Christian principles. Do not think my wife and I have not thought of the danger our course involves. We are ready — so are little Sarah, and Joseph, here."

Samuel Fuller turned away with a look of speechless contempt. Then he paused again.

"Thomas, are you armed?"

"I am not — nor wish to be."

"You are mad!"

Joseph gasped and looked quickly at his father. With unruffled countenance the man stood gazing down the deserted street after the retreating cart, on the top of which balanced little Joshua. Anger filled Joseph's heart, and then all at once he felt unaccountably lonely. Though he tried hard to smother it, a hateful sob escaped him. Father leaned down quickly and gathered him into his arms.

"This is not the time to be sad, little son, but joyous and brave! Come, let us see what Mother and Sarah are doing."

Mother was spinning, and little Sarah was begging to be allowed to go blackberrying. Berries grew thick in the pasture back of the house, on the edge of the vast forest that surrounded the settlement of Cincinnati. "Let me go, too," cried Joseph, forgetting his misery.

Mother glanced at Father with an odd, questioning look, almost as though she were frightened. But immediately the look vanished as Father said, "Certainly they may go. Mother. Listen, children; forget not at any time, if Indians approach you, to speak courteously to them, as to our neighbors, and invite them for rest and refreshment to our home. They are our friends."

"Of course, Father," piped Sarah, and the two children ran off merrily to get the pail.

In a very few days Joseph and Sarah became quite used to being without other playfellows than each other. The street. with its empty houses from which all the neighbors had fled, made them feel queer, so they spent much time with Father in the fields, or playing near Mother in the kitchen. Occasionally a white man, always carrying a gun, would hurry through the village, stop as if amazed at the sight of them, talk in low, excited tones to Father, and hurry on again. But Father was never excited.

One morning Father was filling the wood-box and had just entered the kitchen, when Joseph, standing idly at the door, saw an Indian step out of the forest across the pasture — and after him another and another. "Father, come see!" he called, and together they stood in the doorway and watched a long line of red men, painted, feathered and carrying curious knives, clubs and tomahawks, thread their way across the field.

"Wife, our red brothers are approaching," said Father quietly, and Mother came to watch with them, her hand on Father's arm. Sarah jumped up and squealed with pleasure at the bright glitter of the beads they wore and the tall feathers in their hair. Joseph gazed at their dark faces and wondered why they looked so fierce and angry. They turned neither to right nor left, but came straight toward the cabin, each man clutching a tomahawk.

"When the first Indian had reached the little patch of grass around the house, Father stepped forward, his hand extended.

"Good day, brothers," he said in his kind, courteous voice.

The first Indian stopped suddenly, and all back of him halted as at a signal. The leader glanced at the open hand, but did not touch it. ("That is rude," thought Joseph.) The Indian looked at Mother smiling a welcome in the doorway, and at little Sarah and Joseph. When the black eyes met his, Joseph felt a little tremor of excitement run up the calves of his legs and his backbone, but it was not fear. The Indian pushed past Mother, the whole line following, and they crowded into the kitchen. Their moccasined feet turned up the edge of Mother's plaited rag rug, and Joseph darted to straighten it, but Father laid a restraining hand on his shoulder.

The Indian turned to Father. "Guns," he muttered very deep in his throat. Father spread out both hands: "None," he answered. Then with a gesture toward the best parlor and the stairs, "Go look."

The Indians trooped out of the kitchen into the hall, all except one, who remained standing at the outside doorway, Joseph set the rug to rights. Mother put wood in the stove and lifted the jug of molasses down from the shelf. Sarah stared at the Indian with fascinated eyes.

"Joseph," said Mother, "I think it likely that they are hungry. Bring the large loaf and the butter from the vault."

Joseph hurried eagerly, and by the time he had climbed up again from the vault with the butter, the kitchen was again full of Indians.

"Eat!" Father was saying questioningly, pointing to the bread and jug. Joseph was astonished at the change in the behavior of these men. Broad smiles spread over their faces, and instead of silence, they uttered queer, uncouth grunts and words that had no sense to a white boy's ears. One Indian grabbed the loaf and tore it to pieces with his hands, rapidly distributing great hunks among the others. Another seized the jug and poured the molasses on the bread, dribbling much upon the floor, as it passed from one to another. The neat pat of butter they bit into with their teeth as though it had been cheese. Sarah exclaimed at this in horror, but Mother silenced her.

And then — as suddenly as they had come — they were out of the kitchen and down the path. Mother, Father and the children hurried to the door to watch them go. Joseph thought be saw his mother wipe something from her eyes, and Father slipped his arm around her waist. At the edge of the woods the Indians, instead of disappearing, seated themselves in a circle on the ground. Mother stiffened suddenly, and Sarah asked, "Are the Indians tired, Father?" Father did not answer. He was watching them closely. One Indian stood in the center and talked excitedly, throwing his arms around a great deal and pointing often toward the house. Now and then he was interrupted by a chorus of grunts, in protest or agreement — it was impossible to tell which. As the little group at the doorway watched breathlessly, Joseph felt for the second time the shiver run up his legs and back.

"It is the Indians' sign of peace," said Father

The Indians settled into silence for a moment. Then one of their number — he who had led the line — sprang up and ran toward the house, a long white feather in his hand. The feather curved gracefully, and Joseph longed to smooth it. The Indian reached the doorway — his face was no longer dark and stern. "Ugh — brother — paleface," he said, with a large gesture which Joseph knew was meant for one of friendliness.

Quickly and deftly the Indian stuck the quill in the crack above the doorway, so that the feather stood upright, beautiful and glistening white in the sunshine. When Joseph turned from admiring it, not a sign of an Indian was to be seen. The place where they had sat was deserted, and he saw only his father and mother holding one another's hands quite tightly. Sarah was dancing up and down below the feather.

"It is the Indians' sign of peace," said Father. "All red men will respect it. Even so they have respected the peace in our hearts, to which we have been steadfast."

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From: The Children's Story Garden, Stories collected by a committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting — Anna Pettit Broomell, Emily Cooper Johnson, Elizabeth W. Collins, Alice Hall Paxson, Annie Hillborn, and Anna D. White. Illustrated by Katharine Richardson Wireman and Eugénie M. Wireman. Published in 1920 by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.

Notes and Links

The White Feather
Retold from "Christian Non-Resistance," by Adin Ballou. Also told in "The Arm of God," Dunkerley. The names and the children are imaginary, but the essential details are all true. (Historical Notes.)
Many variations
This story has several variations. A fairly well-accepted version tells of a Friends meeting for worship in Easton, New York, in 1775 (source). This version has a picture included, and goes on to tell a history of Quakers in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Christopher Klemek has written a recent review of many variations of this story, and its reception among modern-day Friends and others (available as a PDF).
A line of scripture in the above version is from Psalm 91:4, "He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust; his truth shall be thy shield and buckler."
Another version appears in a sermon told in Key West, Florida, mixing the above story with The Latchstring.
Then we have an absurd mismash given in a 1923 children's history, in a chapter on William Penn. (source)
On the web:
See also The White Feather - a symbol adopted by the Peace Pledge Union and sold as a badge in 1937.