Tracing Lord Jeff, part 3

This post is part 3 of the “Tracing Lord Jeff” series. Click here for part 2.

In 1907, the sheet music for the “Lord Geoffrey Amherst”song was published, featuring the following cover art. According to Hamilton, this image, created by his peer W. E. Hill, “express[ed], jauntily and happily, the rather caricature idea from which the song first came.” [1]


This depiction of Amherst is likely the first cartoon rendering of him to be widely-distributed on the college campus. Though in this case, his jocularly dignified stance is simply designed to match the whimsy of Hamilton’s song, subsequent visual and written portrayals of his character reveal a complex interplay between the student body and the colonial history symbolized by Amherst’s figure. This essay will specifically explore Lord Jeff’s relationship with humor, and the ways in which the guise of “just a joke” communicates settler colonial attitudes towards Native people.

1920s: Lord Jeff Humor Magazine

Just prior to Amherst College’s centennial celebration in 1921, a new campus humor magazine was published, introducing Amherst’s now ubiquitous nickname: Lord Jeff. The editors of the publication took clear inspiration from Hamilton’s song, even referencing it in their inaugural issue. [2] During its 15 year run, the Lord Jeff frequently portrayed its namesake as a bumbling but endearing cartoon character. Archivist Mike Kelly has analyzed some of the comedic elements that influence this characterization, particularly the borrowed styling of the character Jeff from the early daily newspaper comic strip “Mutt & Jeff”, which ran during this time period.

The popularization of Lord Jeff’s image as an innocuous, bumbling figure normalized Jeff as a comical stand-in for the student body, working against a more serious understanding of his historical connection with genocide. This role as college representative, predecessor to his eventual status as mascot, develops as the Lord Jeff magazine and its student writers and readers begin to identify itself with his image.

From the release of its first issue in June 1920, the publication employed a sarcastically formal tone, especially when discussing its namesake. Instead of utilizing the editorial “we”, the writers of Lord Jeff describe themselves passively through a personification of the magazine itself. For example, in Lord Jeff’s inaugural issue, the introductory text states:

Lord Jeff regrets that he is placed under the necessity of springing forth full fledged, even as Minerva was said to have leaped forth from the brain of Jove. He would prefer to gently evolve into being a la Darwin. But Bulfinch wins and there is no help for it. Your average debutante generally likes to allow eighteen to twenty years between the day of her birth and the night of her debut. JEFF, perforce, is allowed no such interim, but must combine the two events as gracefully as he can. IF he has not succeeded he begs you to be lenient, as it is his first offense. In this entreaty JEFF makes but one reservation. In consideration of his Jovial origin he reserves the right to toss an occasional thunderbolt. [3]

The interesting choice to describe the magazine as a “he” has the effect of conflating its title, Lord Jeff, with its namesake, Lord Jeffrey Amherst. The tone of faux formality, here drawing upon the extended comparison to Jove and Minerva, is befitting of Amherst and upholds the idea that the Lord Jeff character is simultaneously proper and preposterous, formal and foolish.

issue-1-cover  may-1921-cover  lady-jeff-cover  june-1924-cover

Covers of the Lord Jeff humor magazine, 1921-9

In May 1922, the editors of Lord Jeff decided to release an issue entitled “Lady Jeff,” consisting entirely of comic contributions made by women (primarily from Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges, in addition to different nearby schools and other female friends of Amherst students). To mark this occasion, Lady Jeff the character made her debut, depicted on the magazine’s front cover as a muscled, domineering wife for scrawny, foolish Jeff. Yet her portrayals were varied; later in the issue she is shown as pretty and naïve, a damsel in need of Lord Jeff’s guidance.

Lord Jeff volume 3, no. 5, 1922
Lord Jeff volume 3, no. 5, 1922

Indeed, the creation of the persona of Lady Jeff as Lord Jeff’s delicate female companion codified the masculine identity formation of his character. Given the all-male composition of the campus, personified Lord Jeff thereby becomes a natural stand-in for the student body. In this cartoon, as Lady Jeff clutches Lord Jeff’s arm, they see “wild men” running naked, clad in feather headdresses and armed with bows and arrows off in the distance. More than just a militaristic defender, Lord Jeff is a civilizing gentleman, well-dressed, polite and upstanding. The contrast between him and the Native caricatures in the background is so stark that the artist does not even intend us to see it as a comparison. Hunched and dark, adorned in regalia never worn by the indigenous people who actually lived in the area, the Indians are not even the same species as Lord and Lady Jeff in the foreground. His resolute masculinity, her soft delicate femininity—these are concepts illegible to the savage Native shadows, the last of their kind who have not yet “disappeared”.

Scholars have documented how the time period from the 1880s through the 1930s, the “New Deal for Indians”, built off the familiar “vanishing Indian” trope to implement a new colonial policy designed to assimilate and dispossess indigenous nations of their communal land. In his text Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, Alan Trachtenberg comments that this new governmental strategy aimed to “destroy [the] allegiances and practices” and “‘smash the tribal mass’ (as [President] Theodore Roosevelt indelicately put it) in order, it was said, to prepare the Indians for U.S. citizenship, but also, and primarily, to pry loose for white ownership the lands that natives held collectively.” [4]

It was during this period, for example, that the Carlisle Indian School worked to assimilate indigenous youth living on reservations. The Lady Jeff cartoon cheekily reflects the idea that remaining Native people, who somehow survived the “extinction” of their tribes, are presently unfit for settler society. This logic implies that Indians must be “freed” from the chaos of communal land ownership and taught the cultured ways of Lord Jeff. While the native-settler relationship had always been marked a white supremacist belief in the need to educate and proselytize the Indian, this “New Deal” reflected a more centralized, government-directed attempt at achieving it, caused, perhaps, by the national equivalent of the cartoon’s acknowledgment that “well, they have not all disappeared”.

With this cartoon, Lord Jeff the character fulfills a two-fold purpose. He acts as a genuine source of cultural pride in the school’s Anglo-American ancestry at a time when an exclusionary construction of white national identity predominated across the country. During this period of nativism, scientific racism and craniology emerged in universities as a way of justifying racially discriminative politics, with Amherst being no exception. Embedded within a context of comic relief, Lord Jeff espouses this same racist and colonial ideologies while simultaneously naturalizing and minimizing their political implications. This duality in his representation is also evidenced by his role as an athletic symbol and later mascot throughout this time period.

A final example of Lord Jeff’s stealthy political-comedic function is the discourse within the Lord Jeff about the colleges annual spring dance. Capitalizing on Lord Jeff’s mock-chivalrous reputation, the dance is amusingly referred to as the “Lord Jeff Prom.” In a spring 1922 issue of the magazine, lavish descriptions and hyperbolic irony casts Jeff as a sort of mystical, omnipotent guardian for attendees of the Senior Hop:

Fair guests of youth, beauty, and grace, Lord Jeff welcomes you to the pleasures of Senior Hop. It is more than his privilege to do so; it is his duty. For what dance would be complete without the spirit of laughter, romance, feminine grace and charm, happiness–in a word, without the Spirit of Lord Jeff himself!..May the Spirit of Lord Jeff catch you unawares when you come to Amherst and hold you prisoner until you depart! We can wish you no better thing than this. [5]

Once again evoking the language of Roman gods, this nymph-like description of Lord Jeff’s spiritual presence represents a peak in his fictional development. The romantic, cupid-like Jeff couldn’t be further from his historical role and reputation; here, he has been fully purged of all genocidal connotations. Accordingly, by masquerading as a meaningless, bizarre school joke, Lord Jeff enables the student body to articulate nationalist, colonial sentiments without such attitudes or behaviors registering as political acts or settler ideologies.

2010s: Lord Jeff Jokes

Contemporary use of Lord Jeff in perennial polemical cartoon reveal that he fulfills a similar symbolic role in the 21st century. While misunderstandings of settler colonialism are still widespread in the present day, our current time period notably differs from the Lord Jeff era in our understanding and criticism of Lord Jeffery Amherst’s role in biological warfare. Despite this widespread knowledge that Amherst certainly “did a thing” to the Indians, students continue to engage with Lord Jeff’s character in a comedic way.

A cartoon published in the Amherst College Indicator in March 2012
A cartoon published in the Amherst College Indicator in March 2012

In 2012 alone, two public controversies arose over Lord Jeff jokes. In April, the Amherst College Indicator, a “journal of social and political thought,” published a comic about the student housing shortage with “Lord Jeff Approved” tipis as the punch line. UMass Amherst students wrote a complaint letter, criticizing its use of Native stereotypes and Lord Jeff’s violent history for easy laughs:

Why do we assert that your cartoon is racist? First, you depict tipis as substandard when compared to the social norm of Euro-American housing, which is not only offensive but quite inaccurate…Second, tipis were not even used in the Northeast! The cartoon appropriates a cultural object of many Plains Indian tribes and makes it the butt of a joke. In addition, the text on the depiction states “Lord Jeff approved.” Lord Jeff is known for his hatred of “Indians,” so those words imply Indians left empty tipis (through murder or displacement) that can now be occupied by non-Indians…Perhaps, this cartoon is intended to function as a sort of satire – a play on the well-known history of Lord Jeffery Amherst and the devastating impact he has had on the Native American communities even beyond this region. This is, at best, a horrible trivialization of the historical genocide of Native people — and at worst, a joke about it. [6]

The Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN) picked up the story, and the editors of the Indicator and President Martin released formal responses, advocating “discussion” and “conversation[s] we should have as a community”, but not explicitly condemning the cartoon. [7]

In December, Amherst College was back in the ICTMN news cycle when a student found a poster in a biology classroom alluding to Lord Jeff’s contaminated blankets in the context of sterilizing laboratory equipment. The student, Danielle Trevino, and others took specific offense at the potential mocking reference to the forced sterilization of Native American women. The biology department retracted and apologized for the cartoon, though some defenders of it assert that it was an attempt at “socially conscious” humor, making Amherst’s actions the butt of the joke. As expressed by Trevino in her original complaint and several Amherst College faculty members in a letter to the Student, these Lord Jeff inspired “witticism[s]” are dangerous, even and especially when they pretend to be implicitly critical of his thoughts and actions. [8] Constant joking references to genocide of the “distant past” make light of colonial violence and perpetuate stereotypical expectations about indigenous lifestyles and appearances.

A poster displayed in an Amherst College biology classroom in December 2012
A poster displayed in an Amherst College biology classroom in December 2012

The same lighthearted depiction of Amherst was employed in November 2014 by the writers of the Amherst chapter of Her Campus, a national website targeted to collegiate women. The Her Campus staff decided that the week’s “Campus Cutie” segment, which usually profiles popular students with a series of fun, casual questions, would highlight the “ever-lovely Jeffrey Amherst”. [9] Introducing the controversial subject, blogger Carina Corbin wrote, “The HC Amherst team lamented over this week’s cutie, inside and out. We realized there was one man who never let us down. One man that changed the worth of his homeland for better or for worst. One man who many of us would rather see a moose standing in his place. That man is the Lord Jeffrey.” [10]

Campus Cutie: Jeffery Amherst

“Campus Cutie” profile post on Amherst’s Her Campus blog, November 13, 2014

Invoking a hyperbolic, satirical tone, the piece juxtaposes historical paintings of Amherst with joking answers to what his “ideal date” and “spirit animal” are. The last questions of the article directly mention his historical role, reiterating the connection between Lord Jeff and Jeffrey Amherst. To “country you want to visit conquer,” Amherst responds “The First Nation aka The United States, for you future folk.” Finally, as for “Craziest Thing You’ve Ever Done,” Amherst playfully equivocates: “I’m not saying I did, but I may have been involved [sic] with a certain blanket scenario…” [11] The nonchalance of the joke is bizarre and dismissive, encouraging the compartmentalization of Lord Jeff and the genocide he is historically related to, such that he is simultaneously guiltless and the symbolic scapegoat.

According to their defenders, these jokes and images are in fact positive efforts against Native erasure, as they repeatedly assert the historic presence of Native people in Amherst and remind the community of its problematic past. Yet these references and representations, virtually always from the settler point of view, are still not subversive. In their depictions of nondescript, composite Native American victims, they in fact participate in the process of “lasting”. As expressed by Jean O’Brien, Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, Patrick Wolfe, and other scholars, the framing of indigeneity as “subtractive,” dilutable by racial mixing until no more “authentic” Natives remain, is a colonial mechanism for legitimizing the settler. [12] The consistent portrayal of tragic, dead, traditionally clothed Indians using tipis ignores the unique cultures of Native people in the valley and erases living Natives who do not possess all those characteristics. Lord Jeff jokes thereby enact an “adoption fantasy” script, familiar throughout United States history and literature.

The jokes and images provoke settler guilt over genocide, but of the same familiar form as is rehearsed in U.S. classrooms whenever primary and secondary schools address Native Americans and other historical “blemishes”, like slavery. These allusions to Amherst’s racism reinforce, rather than challenge, falsehoods about indigenous people. Just as the American government utilized blood quantum regulation and other strategies to “purify the landscape of Indians” and deny the possibility of a modern Native American, Lord Jeff jokes perpetuate a specific, controlled notion of indigeneity that cannot possibly exist in the 21st century.[13] They paint colonial violence as a centuries-old event and Native people as its lamentable, deceased victims. After all, a past genocide is sad, and perhaps a guilt-inducing “teachable moment,” but it demands no decolonial action on the part of the settler (or student) in the present moment.

These lampoons function as “the mythical trump card desired by critical settlers who feel remorse…absolv[ing] them from the inheritance of settler crimes…and bequeath[ing] a new inheritance of Native-ness and claims to the land.” [14] In the end, by flattening and historicizing the settler colonial context, this type of humor maintains and socially sanctions colonial narratives that limit understandings and conceptualizations of indigenous people.

This post concludes the “Tracing Lord Jeff” series.
Click here to read about Lord Jeff’s history as mascot.

[1] Olio. Amherst: Amherst College, 1950. Print.

[2] “Editorial.” Lord Jeff June 1920: 12-13 Print.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] Trachtenberg, Alan. Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans: 1880-1930. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. xvii-xviii. Print.

[5] Lord Jeff Spring 1922. Print.

[6] “Liberal Uneducation: Amherst College Publication Taken to Task for Housing Cartoon Depicting Tipis.” Indian Country Today Media N.p., 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2014.

[7] “Liberal Uneducation: Amherst College Publication Responds to Complaints About Housing Cartoon Depicting Tipis.” Indian Country Today Media N.p., 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.

[8] Various Authors. “American Indians Are Still Here.” Amherst Student. Amherst Student, 30 Jan. 2013. Web. 17 May 2015.

[9] Corbin, Carina. “Campus Cutie: Lord Jeffrey.” Her Campus Amherst. Her Campus, 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 1 May 2015.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Tuck, Eve, and K. W. Yang. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1.1 (2012): 12. Web.

[13] O’Brien, Jean M. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2010. 107. Print.

[14] Tuck and Yang, 14.