- Historic Sites
The Terror of the Wilderness
Why have Americans perceived nature as something to be conquered?
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Yet now it is incontrovertibly established that these whites were not massacred but that instead they joined their friends, the Hatteras (or Croatan) Indians, and with them migrated steadily inland until at last they really were lost to white recall. Over the years as the legend grew and darkened, expeditions were sent out fruitlessly again and again to discover some least trace and so recover these civilized people to history. Finally, in the early eighteenth century when Scottish immigrants and French Hugenots began pushing into the interior of North Carolina, they found there, living in log cabins and tilling the soil, a peaceful, mixed-blood race which traced its lineage back to the coastlands and to the mingling of the English and the Hatteras. But still that possibility, that buried alternative, could not be accepted. Regarding these people, John Lawson, North Carolina’s pioneer historian, wrote that this was the mongrelized remains of
Their descendants are still there in what is now Robeson County, but the moral their history contains has as yet to be assimilated by their white neighbors.
Nor was the true meaning exhumed from the facts beneath the legend of Frances Slocum, the “Lost Sister of Wyoming.” She was kidnapped by the Delaware Indians in 1778 and was discovered living contentedly with the Miami tribe in Indiana Territory in 1835. Once her surviving brothers learned of her whereabouts, they hastened out to the territory to redeem the long-held captive.
They found the squalid settlement, as they would have to have regarded it, and within it the cabin where their sister lived. But one of the brothers recorded the deep shock that went through them all when they looked again upon the face of their blood kin: a face seamed and darkened by a lifetime out of doors. Oh, God! said one, gazing upon this. Is this my sister?
And yet, shocked as they were at her appearance, the rude neatness of her quarters, the terrifie strangeness of those dark relatives who moved about her, still more shaken were they when they learned—as they very soon did—that the Lost Sister in no way considered herself lost and refused to return with them to civilization. These were her people, she told them, and if she were to die in civilization, the Great Spirit would not know where to find her.
What a sensation her story then raised among the whites! A spate of pamphlets and books appeared, dwelling upon her tragedy. A special act of Congress exempted her from deportation with the rest of her people to the western shores of the Mississippi. Even the President, William Henry Harrison, became interested in her “case.”
All of which obscured the hard but simple truth that this woman, like Mary Jemison, Caty Sage, Cynthia Ann Parker, and uncounted others, most definitely did not regard herself, or her story, as tragic. Her life with the Indians had been a fulfilling one, and she made very clear how deeply she loved her husband, their children and relations, and her people—the Miami. Only when her white relations began to meddle, as they had to, did she begin to regret her condition. And at last, robbed of her fellow tribespeople, a lonely, isolated cultural freak in the midst of a new white settlement, she settled into her terminal illness. She steadfastly refused white medical aid, saying that her people had all gone away, and now she wished to go also.
She was betrayed, of course, by a Christian burial, nor could they allow her to sleep peacefully thereafter. More than seventy years after her death, her kinsman, Charles E. Slocum, M.D., LL.B., PH.D. , stood before a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and argued that Frances’ Christian background, her white blood, had protected her throughout her long captivity as with an impermeable shield. She was really always white.
Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, the members of the Lost Colony, and Frances Slocum are not, as I have said, isolated examples of this alternative to fear and fierce resistance: there are literally hundreds of such examples, though often these lie buried in out-of-the-way places, and many no doubt were totally unrecorded. But those we do have constitute one of the most remarkable and deeply interesting aspects of New World history. They must stand for the many, many lives lived silently with the tribes and in an intense relationship with the new lands. Standing for this, they can also speak to us of what should have been the American Dream: that of spiritual regeneration here in these vast, untamed lands, through learning to value differences, accepting our own limitations as well as those of others, and by marrying ourselves to an environment we have yet to learn to live with.