Recasting the Tribe of Ishmael

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2008-03
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American English
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Indiana Magazine of History
Abstract

The Tribe of Ishmael is a biblically derived moniker for hundreds of impoverished late-19th-century immigrants in Indianapolis whose applications for unrestricted public relief during an era of organized charity reform brought them special attention from clergy, politicians, and social scientists. Rev. Oscar C. McCulloch, of Plymouth Congregational Church in Indianapolis, named the Tribe and made its members the focus of his campaign to reform charity and eradicate pauperism. McCulloch and other observers conflated the Tribe as a loosely organized, mixed-race band of vagrants whose lifestyles and intermarriages perpetuated crime, wanderlust, and dependence on charity. Records show, however, that many of the families migrated to the Midwest from eastern and southern states in search of freedom and opportunity, living in the city and holding jobs at least part of the year. A family pedigree study of the Tribe that McCulloch began in the 1880s eventually became valuable to civic leaders seeking public support for selective reproduction laws. Arthur H. Estabrook, a caseworker for the Eugenics Record Office 1910–1929 and a biologist with particular interest in mixed-race genetics, edited the Tribe of Ishmael materials after World War I for use in support of anti-miscegenation, compulsory sterilization, and other negative-eugenics-based legislation intended to prevent reproduction by individuals deemed degenerate, unfit, or feebleminded. This paper compares the rhetoric of Estabrook’s edited and expanded version of the notes with McCulloch’s original materials in order to demonstrate the ways both narratives were crafted to further social policy agendas.

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Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008) © Trustees of Indiana University
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0019-6673
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