The History of 'Ten Little Indians'

Julianne Jennings

Many of us remember learning and singing the bubbly little pre-school nursery rhyme "Ten Little Indians" as we sat in a circle with our legs crossed, Indian style. And what appeared to be an innocent way to educate and stir young imagination through “comic” song was also a peculiar way of mental conditioning. The coded historical narratives, found in many children’s nursery rhymes, were to circulate an ideology that followed generations; intended to define Indians as “inferior” and “backward.” The song coupled the Anglo-constructed definition of “savage” with American Indian consciousness, but the ultimate legacy of this children’s nursery rhyme was the systematic murdering of Indians, leaving “One little Indian boy livin’ all alone":

Ten little Injuns standin’ in a line, One toddled home and then there were nine; Nine little Injuns swingin’ on a gate, One tumbled off and then there were eight. One little, two little, three little, four little, five little Injun boys, Six little, seven little, eight little, nine little, ten little Injun boys. Eight little Injuns gayest under heav’n. One went to sleep and then there were seven; Seven little Injuns cuttin' up their tricks, One broke his neck and then there were six. Six little Injuns all alive, One kicked the bucket and then there were five; Five little Injuns on a cellar door, One tumbled in and then there were four. Four little Injuns up on a spree, One got fuddled and then there were three; Three little Injuns out on a canoe, One tumbled overboard and then there were two. Two little Injuns foolin’ with a gun, One shot t’other and then there was one; One little Injun livin’ all alone, He got married and then there were none (Septimus Winner, 1868).

The original version was written by songwriter Septimus Winner in 1868 and performed at minstrel shows—a form of American entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music. The traditional folk tune has a Round Folk Song Index number 13512 to establish the traditional origin of the work. However, today’s modern lyrics are believed to be in public domain, allowing for various renderings of the song to be created, especially in nursery schools. Sure you can change the words to "Ten Little Indians" to "Ten Little Puppies," but it is still degrading when trying to compare spilled milk to spilled blood.

In 1869, Frank J. Green adopted the song as Ten Little Niggers which became a standard of the blackface minstrel shows, especially after the Civil War and later into the 1920’s lampooning black people as “dim-witted,” lazy, “buffoonish” and “musical.” Eventually the song became widely known in Europe, where it was used by Agatha Christie. The song was included in the first film version of And Then There Were None (1945), which largely took Green’s lyrics and replaced the already sensitive word “nigger” with “Indian” (in some versions “soldiers”) as African Americans began to score legal and social victories at the turn of the 20th century:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine. Nine little Indian boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight. Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon; One said he'd stay there and then there were seven. Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in half and then there were six. Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five. Five little Indian boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four. Four little Indian boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three. Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two. Two Little Indian boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one. One little Indian boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none (Frank J. Green, 1869).

In 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets did a rock 'n’ roll version of the song for Essex records. Haley and his Brylcreem split curl and electric hollow-body Gibson guitar, crooned, “John Brown had a little Indian . . . One little Indian boy.” And in 1962, The Beach Boys released their version on their album, Surfin' Safari. Three Little Indians was the second single from their record; and where the Indian word “Squaw,” originally meaning female or young woman, now a racist and sexist term meaning vagina, is repeated throughout the tune: “The first little Indian gave squaw pretty feather; The second little Indian made her an Indian dollar (Fighting over a squaw); Well the third little Indian gave her moccasin leather; The squaw didn't like em’ at all.” The song became The Beach Boys’ lowest charting single (number 49), on American radio.

Now, the song is called to attention by recent conversation at a local espresso shop. The waitress, an Italian and speaks perfect English, asked me how my Italian language lessons were going. I said, “Today I am learning how to count numbers.” She replied, “I learned how to count numbers in English by being introduced to the "Three Little Indians" song by my instructor.” She continues, “They are using that song in many Italian schools teaching students how to count.”

Some have argued if you erase the song, you erase a part of history. The thought that songs, poems, and couplets that belittle or denigrate a group of people have no place in today’s global world; and should be eradicated from the languages of humanity. The idea that whites still degrade people of color—any color—with the same centuries old stereotypes of inferiority is demeaning. It is also demeaning to whites as well. Any notion or behavior that has to tear down one portion of the human race for the superiority of another is detrimental to all; and that we can all count on.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.

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drudwy's picture
We didn't learn this song in my school in the '60's, but my grandmother from England sang something similar to me once when I was very small (she was born at the end of the century before last). My nation is made of the remnants of the original tribes of Britain, known as 'Cymry' (the People who Belong) in our own ancient language. We were here thousands of years before the English invaders took our lands, driving us into the hills and continuing to rob and cheat us over centuries, into these times. The name 'Welsh' which they call us by means 'foreigner', 'barbarian' - and we have to call ourselves this when speaking English in our own country! We have only just passed a law giving equal official status to our native language ('Cymraeg') in our territories and already the UK government and businesees in England are trying to get the law declared unconstitutional, because it mentions the English language as being the other official language! We also have had a song taught to children and sung for hundreds of years, which is still used to racially insult us. It uses an insulting anglicized version of a common Welsh name (which we hold as an honored and sacred name): 'Taffy is a Welsh man / Taffy is a thief! / Taffy came to my house / And stole a side of beef' It goes on to be even more insulting and racially abusive. The sentiments of the song became so powerful in forming the view of the majority English about us, that to this day and to our faces they use the verb 'welch' (i.e. Welsh) to mean breaking your word, deliberatey not honoring a deal, etc We have to tell these things to our children, not so they will return hate with hate, but so they understand that they have every reason to take pride in their own heritage and that such insults demean those who make them. Sorry to write such a long post!
niijii's picture
Oh he 's out there (Obama) cutting deals with coal companies and wall st. Coal thats on Crow and Cheyenne land ,or is it federal land? anyway its being sold for a song. The earth mother strip mined and raped once more so they can make a killing selling that coal to the asian market. Oh, how does that benefit the middle class ? haha.
gsevalikova's picture
Well said ,Niijii. It may be if the same old disappointments are the only ones running for Pres. that there won't be any more elections-yes,sad to say he is pandering to foreign interests both inside andoutside the country. He's another International Man. They have loyalty to their wealth, and those to whom they obey. It is SO upsetting to see this country make a fool of itself in the world's eyes,even as they suck America dry without objection on an organized scale. Please take a look at foreign news sites and you'll see what I mean here. like stevequayle.com/atimes.com/ukdailymail.com/rt.com.
andre's picture
We have a choice much like in every presidential election of two poor choices. Obama or Romney. For all the talking points Obama has become noted for. When I look out to Indian Country and see the chronic problems that still have not been addressed. I like many of you wonder. When will Obama really spend time in Indian country? I still see Natives hauling around water, some of the poorest primitive dirt roads in the BIA inventory, little to no economic development. People still using "out-houses" due to no plumbing. The passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act, but with no funding to make it work. I have yet to see Obama engage the Indian community, I have yet to see Obama on the largest reservation in north America, the Navajo Nation. Talking points aside. We have really experienced little in substantive change or funding for initiatives for the BIA to make a real difference. The bureaucracy is still as slow and as top heavy as ever. America is only 236 years old, perhaps she needs more time to really implement many of her Treaty obligations and prioritize local versus foreign and overseas needs.
Anonymous's picture
That song sounded to me as a dead count at a massacre.
Anonymous's picture
well, change the line to "ten little jewboys" and the message is instantly clear, even to the daftest. stoke the ovens. how could this be funny, why should it be considered humorous, and why should any little kiddies in the world "have to" learn such trash? why should IT be allowed to continue to poison the collective unconscious, when thousands of great works of art, philosophy and other worthy expressions of human endeavour have been tossed into oblivion?
Anonymous's picture
I have never heard all those lyrics but it is appoling to hear them, it is also appoling that they though that it was ony racist to use the word 'nigger' but not to have the little indians in the song. We will neverget beyond the pain and harshness that society has put on trying to destroyed and wipe out the native indian population. Many times I want to express my feelings to others regarding such things but tend to not because it only causes more uproar and then people tend to become more bias and racist and use it more. Thanks for the historical incite to this song. Rennae "Rosebud" Tatokan
Anonymous's picture
I had the feeling that there might be a bigger story to the plainest version of the catchy ditty! I am wondering about the expression,"Indian Summer" and also "Indian Giver"! I have figured it is safer just to leave them alone. I am old enough to remember when they were casually used. Would you please enlighten?
Sandy Hoskins's picture
The only thing I ever remember was the one little two little three little indians, four little five little six little indians. Seven little eight little nine little indians. Ten little indian boys. And than it was sang counting backward.
Sandy Hoskins