The explosion of internet sources for American history makes it possible to explore topics way beyond the obvious. Only a few years ago online historic investigations were limited to a few major archives (the Making of America, American Memory at the Library of Congress, and a few others). If you were willing to tailor your research to the topics available, you could investigate the writing of Thomas Jefferson or some other high-profile topic. And that was it.
How far have we come in the last few years? As an experiment in researching a secondary character in American history let us look for John Beeson. Beeson was an abolitionist and preacher, born in England in 1803 he migrated to America in 1832 and settled on a farm in Illinois--which he eventually turned into a station on the Underground Railroad. In 1853 Beeson, his wife, and son walked (!) to southern Oregon. There he became an outspoken proponent for the Indians during an era when Americans northwesterners did not particularly want to hear it. They ran him out of the state and he did not dare return for ten years.
Beeson was unloved in his day and has not received his due from modern historians--though he gets mentioned a lot. The internet, however, loves Beeson.
His brief, obscure, but wonderfully passionate 1857 book A Plea for the Indians is online, one of a number of historic documents hosted courtesy of the Friends of the Talent Library. A Plea for the Indians is a unique and compelling primary source in northwest history. "I would offer a few thoughts upon a subject which, as I conceive, has not heretofore received that just and impartial consideration which its importance demands," Beeson begins in a typically understated nineteenth century book introduction. Then he gets going. Beeson heaps scorn on his fellow immigrants, "many who have never been refined by either mental or moral culture" and their casual brutality "men are heard to declare their determination to shoot the first Indian they see."
Beeson's account is largely devoted to a condemnation of the Rogue River War and the treatment of Indians in the Oregon Country. "There were scores of men, assuming the prerogatives of sovereigns, who could not read, and yet made and executed law, and whose only idea of the Constitution of the country is, that is was made to keep down the 'Niggers.' Of course they understood it to have the same bearing upon Indians, and all others except 'white male American citizens,'" Beeson wailed.
Beeson is most powerful when writing about the gradual dehumanization of the settlers themselves as they grow hardened in their treatment of the Oregon natives:
The majority of the first Emigrations to Oregon were from Missouri, and among them it was customary to speak of the Indian man as a Buck; of the woman as a Squaw; until at length, in the general acceptance of these terms, they ceased to recognize the rights of Humanity in those to whom they were applied. By a very natural and easy transition, from being spoken of as brutes, they came to be thought of as game to be shot, or as vermin to be destroyed.
Other Beeson items online include four letters he wrote to the government and to newspapers to publicize the oppression of the Oregon Indians. These letters are a part of the California State University-San Marcos Native American Documents Project. The fabulous Oregon History Project has another Beeson letter to an eastern newspaper. In 1858 Beeson had fled east and delivered a sermon titled "The Natural Interests and Christian Duties Involved in Our Treatment of the Indians" according to this contemporary article from the New York Times.
Beeson has a brief Wikipedia page with a one paragraph outline of his life. Find-A-Grave.com knows where Beeson is buried and povides the photo on the right. And while Google Books surprisingly does not have a full text version of A Plea for the Indians but a search for John Beeson uncovers every reference to Beeson by scholars.