- Historic Sites
The Terror of the Wilderness
Why have Americans perceived nature as something to be conquered?
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
In this light an apparently trivial incident recorded by Bernai Díaz del Castillo takes on the aspect of a key moment in the unfolding history of the Americas. This old soldier-turned-chronicler tells us that Cortés, moving toward the destruction of the Aztecs, stumbled across two Spaniards from an earlier, abortive, expedition. They were living with the Indians. One was brought to him, but before Cortés would recognize him he ordered him dressed in European clothing. So shocking was it how reduced this civilized man appeared. The other man, however, one Gonzalo Guerrero (“warrior” in Spanish), utterly refused to come before the leader, his own countryman. Instead he sent word out of the woods by way of the Indianized Spaniard Jerónimo de Aguilar that he was married and had three sons, that his body was tattooed and his lower lip pierced, and that the tribe considered him very brave. Worse, he was well pleased with his Indian life and had no desire to return to civilization. And, Jerónimo de Aguilar added, this Guerrero had actually advised his tribesmen to attack an earlier expedition at Cape Catoche. When Cortés learned all this he exclaimed that he wished he could get his hands on Guerrero, “for it will never do to leave him here.” At this remove, one feels here a greater anguish and a greater resonance in these spare words than in that much more obviously impassioned, urgent lament Cortés was later to send up on the Noche Triste when he had to leave behind some of the loot from Montezuma’s treasury.
Is it surprising then that there was a speedy and vigorous development of a folklore of capture and captivity? Only by being forcibly taken and held could a civilized white live the existence of nonexistence with the primitives. No thinking white could choose this alternative.
This folklore of captivity was infused both in statement and in veiled suggestion with fears of torture, rape, forced Indianization. In oral tradition as in print the newcomers dwelt almost fondly on narratives of sudden attack, the pioneers peacefully dropping seed in their cleared and muddy fields, the red fiends bursting from the dark verges; on the swift swooping up into savage hands—stained with who knew what horrid crimes against nature—of innocent babes and virtuous women; on the trackless retreat through a wilderness that seemed to harbor these savages as it resisted the pursuing whites; on torture at the stake, the white guts being wound and wound and wound about the pole, the flagging captive staggering slowly, ever more slowly. And, near the center of the tradition, the ruthless violation of white womanhood by the blackened savage in the guttering light of the campfire.
Yet, horrible as this is to contemplate, this is not the worst. The worst is this innermost core: that whites, having been captured, should then fail to attempt escape; refuse to return when ransomed; actually consent to penetration; marry into a tribe.
The only other equally horrifying occurrence was to vanish utterly into the huge maw of the wilderness, leaving no single trace, to be thus lost forever to history.
So capture and loss became the terrible fables of America: women like Frances Slocum, who voluntarily lived with the Indians for more than sixty years after her capture, or Mary Jemison, who after more than seventy years with the Shawnee could still speak reverently of them, of the love she bore them; and the vanished, destroyed expeditions and settlements—the Narvaez expedition to Florida in 1527 in the course of which all but a handful of the original six hundred were lost, and Raleigh’s “Lost Colony” of Roanoke.
Thus it is neither accident nor mere historical circumstance that made the captivity narrative America’s first form of popular literature and allowed it to pass almost simultaneously into the status of a folk genre, complete with its conventions, tale types, motifs. Its peculiar virtues were precisely those that were needed: in its detailed descriptions of savage tortures it reconfirmed the hideous, satanic character of the enemy; in its descriptions of savage life it reconfirmed the immeasurable superiority of civilization; and in the resistance of the captive—for Frances Slocum and Mary Jemison were awful exceptions—whites found the New World equivalent of the old Biblical injunctions (which explains the unvarying use of the term “redeemed” to describe the safe return of captives).
Nor is it accident that the heroes and heroines of American folk legend are those whose resistance was so singular, so bloody, that their stories were endlessly retold. Hannah Dustin was one. She not only resisted and escaped, but went back to kill and scalp her abductors and so claim the bounty their scalps would bring. And the Johnson lads of West Virginia, captured in 1788, had an irresistible tale. By the lurid glow of a campfire these mere children slew their grown male captors and made their way home.
Yet despite the remarkable way in which the captivity narrative served as a concise, complete, symbolic guide to the wilderness and to civilization’s mission in it, there was another alternative, another sort of response than this terrible, fierce fear of the wild New World. And this was precisely what Robert Frost in “The Gift Outright” called salvation in surrender, though he was wrong to think this could be achieved through blood spilled, wars fought.