- Historic Sites
The Terror of the Wilderness
Why have Americans perceived nature as something to be conquered?
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Most people who have reflected at all upon the known history of the Americas, particularly North America, have been impressed one way or another with its dominant quality of fierceness. After that early, first blush of paradisial imaginings, stained by the lush colors of the tropic islands and the defenseless peoples found thereon, a somber mood of misgiving settled over the questing Europeans, filtered their perceptions, filtered at last into the bleached bones of their accounts of exploration. This was not paradise after all, but a tangled, hostile wilderness which had to be savaged to the extent that it was itself savage.
By the time of the establishment of the English colonies it was simply standard to describe America as a “fierce and howling wilderness” peopled by the skulking, interchangeable forms of wolves and savages, and it is not the mere tribute of chronological antiquity that has made William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation a classic of our literature: Bradford’s narrative bristles like a wilderness itself with the adjectival reactions of a civilization’s enraged, baffled disappointment with the lands it had found. What could they see, as Bradford so rightly asks, “but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men?” No solace to be had from such lands, such peoples, a whole country “full of woods and thickets, represent[ing] a wild and savage hue.”
Later observers, coming after Bradford, after the settlements had been perilously established, then defended, and finally extended ever deeper into the wild gloom, remarked not only on that gloom but on the fierceness of the settlements and the settlers themselves. Astonished Britishers and Frenchmen described the wild haste and abandon with which these New World pioneers pursued their work as well as their sports, bolting gigantic quantities of steaming food, draining flagons of fiery punch or rum. Before the spectacle of New World civilization the representatives of the Old flinched in awe.
And then, of course, there was that fierce hand-to-hand combat always joined on the edges of the settlements, the combat with the vast, untamed wilderness itself. Foreign observers and American witnesses alike were astonished by the incredibly rapid transmogrification of a Stone Age landscape into that of a “civilized” nation—as Westerners had come to define that: settlements almost monthly hacked out of seemingly endless groves of timber; raw, palisaded stockades and cabins; towns hammered together on rolling grasslands like some ghostly precursors of instantly assembled movie sets; and, finally, in what Lewis Mumford has so rightly termed the ultimate assault on the natural world, the continent’s rocky bed blasted and quarried; rivers dammed and bridged; railroad ties laid and clinched.
In addition, while all of this was changing the face of the continent, there was the ongoing, fiercely unremitting struggle with the aboriginal inhabitants, who resisted with equal ferocity the white incursions into their homeland.
All of which is now a commonplace assumption of our cultural heritage. We accept as natural our fierce history and its manifest consequences—our landscape, our popular heroes and sports, even our current position as gunrunners to the arsenals of the world.
Like so much else in the history of the West this response to the New World and its aboriginal inhabitants is in part the bequest of Near Eastern antiquity. Living their hard, narrowly marginal existence in an environment that gave so little, and that but grudgingly, those ancient desert peoples naturally developed an abiding notion that Nature was in itself hostile to man’s efforts to live. Particularly was this so of the seminomadic herdsmen whose deep ponderings and parched, leathered yearnings gave vent to the sacred traditions that were to be the spiritual lifeblood of Western civilization. Beyond their small settlements, their water, shade trees, and arable, improved land, lay darkness, dry desolation, death. Thus Genesis , which commences our spiritual history, dramatizes the adversary relationship of man and environment: man placed in a paradise strongly suggestive of a Mesopotamian walled garden and ordered to subdue his natural surroundings and establish dominion over them; man punished by expulsion from the lush garden into the inhospitable, threatening outer world where only sweat can mean bread. And thus also throughout the Old Testament—particularly in the Pentateuch where the mythology’s basic creed is stated—wilderness is consistently used as a metaphor for spiritual decay, the darkness of nonexistence beyond the Lord’s way, death itself: the Scapegoat, bearing its intolerable burden of collective guilt, is sent to the wilderness, that wilderness itself out of which the Lord will deliver His people into the light and life of His protection. When Moses speaks to the nation, huddled on the plains of Moab and poised for an attack upon the pagan Canaanites, he reminds them that their God, His way, is life and civilization, all else wilderness, for it was the Lord who found Jacob in a desert land,
Even that other biblical tradition of the wilderness as a place of spiritual refuge, retreat, to which eremitical holy men repaired to purify themselves and prepare the way—even this fed the stronger and older tradition of resistance to the wilderness, for in this case the wilderness was a testing ground and a place of temptation where the faithful must win out. It was not a locale that could be accepted on what might be its own terms, and certainly it held no secrets of the spirit for the Lord’s people. Indeed, in Jewish folklore the wilderness as a place of temptation carries within it a strong sexual component, as in the passage from Isaiah where it is seen as the abode of Ullith, a wild-haired nymphomaniac prone to visiting unwary wanderers and tempting them into terrible, unholy alliances. Here again, the force of resistance must be at least as strong as the force of temptation if God’s way was to win out. And so, if God did send His people out into these places of desolation, acceptance—or worse, surrender—meant death, the eternal rot of decay that was divine judgment against a fatal embrace. The mission then was more obviously to conquer and prevail out there and, in doing so, to harmonize these places with the rest of God’s kingdom, i.e., civilization.
If from this ancient Near Eastern well we inherited a mythology that enjoined fear of and resistance to the wilderness, from our Greco-Roman inheritance we learned how to create both history and geography in our own image —not that these civilizations invented ethnocentristic images of the world (as a glance at the Pentateuch would surely show), but they did indicate with considerable brilliance how ethnocentrism could become the ordering principle in descriptions of the world, its past, present, and future. History becomes what Western civilization makes happen. History is thus also that which happens to the primitive others that civilization encounters. They themselves can have no history—and no future, either.
Herodotus, that ceaseless old traveler, his ear to every wind of rumor as of fact, tells us that the Persians had themselves developed something of this principle, honoring their nearest neighbors (those most like Persians) the most, then those nearest these, and so on, “their respect decreasing as the distance grows.…” And so it was with the beginnings of our historiography and geography with the Greeks and Romans, in which development old Herodotus is himself deeply implicated. His respect for truth, not to say plausibility, decreased as he described lands and peoples farther and farther outside the Greek world.
Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, in their monumental work on Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity , concentrate on Greco-Roman notions of the admirable, even paradisial qualities of the primitives of the wilderness, and, of course, it is true that this is an ancient dream that man has not easily released: that somewhere else, back there in the precivilized past, harmony and spiritual peace lie buried and waiting. Yet in historical perspective it seems clear that these lingering, latent paradisial notions always yielded to the greater strength of the imperative to conquer the wilderness and to subdue its peoples.
And so, although Herodotus himself, the Father of History, betrays some primitivistic longings in his descriptions of the world, still more strongly do his histories demonstrate the ethnocentric bias, using Greek civilization as the reference point, the norm and apex, in relation to which the faraway lands and peoples become progressively monstrous. Thus we find that there are Indian tribes that rut in open fields like cattle, their sperm as black as their skins; a race of goat-footed men that inhabits a snarled mountain range beyond the farthest reaches of Scythia; a Libyian tribe that hunts a race of troglodytes in four-horse chariots. And still farther toward the dark, unknown West, scarcely a geographical direction really, there were horned asses, dog-headed men, headless men with eyes in their chests, wild women, a race with no individual names, only the tribal one, and men who squeaked like bats. “I don’t vouch for this,” Herodotus wrote, “but merely respect what the Libyans say.”
Such, in brief, are the words our ancient mentors spoke to us. Such, skeletally, was the equipment with which Europeans had been provided for yet further thrusts outward into the West, into its girdle which the Arab geographers and mathematicians called “the Green Sea of Darkness” and of which they were themselves so mortally frightened. For it was the Arabs who were the conduit through which so much of that ancient bequest came to us, and learning through them we learned how to draw up maps that neatly divided the world into three sections, with “Europa” at the center. We learned, too, to draw up deeper, mental maps of existence in which, again, Europa was central, the barbarians at the borders, and the savages and their lands entirely off the edges. Beyond the walls of the city as locus of the light of civilization lay the azoic zones of darkness, anticivilization, nonhistory, death. Or, if not this last, then a mode of existence so free and unsponsored by God as to be terrible, irrational, insane.
Regarding this spiritual map, it seems useful to think of Freud and Jung, both of whom hypothesized that the radical experiences of a people’s far past could be encoded within the minds of succeeding generations—though, of course, Freud could not accept Jung’s theory of how such inheritances might be transmitted, preferring “memory traces” to Jung’s “collective unconscious.” Yet whatever these great minds’ theoretical disagreement, it appears in this regard at least that the general thrust of their speculations is unassailable. Looking at Western civilization’s historiography, cartography, iconography, and folk traditions during its Middle Ages, it seems clear that Westerners were critically, crucially unprepared for the looming encounter with the New World—unprepared by their very preparation. The experiences and the reactions of the old desert peoples, of the Greeks, of the Romans and their encounters with the savage tribes of Germany, the fenny landscape of Britain—all this had entered the mind and marrow of Western men, preparing them, captains and spear-carriers alike, to resist the New World and its inhabitants, insisting fiercely that every newness be made over into an older image or else be obliterated.
As just one example, though a crucial one to be sure, of what is meant here, let me mention the mental phenomenon of the Wild Man of the Middle Ages as he is described by Richard Bernheimer in his book of that title.
This hirsute figure of medieval folklore is a direct descendant of those ancient, shaggy satyrs and night demons who haunted the uncharted spaces of the mind of the Near East, and his image was strengthened in the folklore of Greco-Roman writers and their disciples, the early Christian cosmographers. The Wild Man, like the satyrs and demons, lived far from the light of civilization, lurking amidst the twisted shadows of the European outback. His life therein was so brutish as to be all but animalistic, and like the animals he was free of restraints and trammels, so free as to be insane. He had no knowledge of the True God—which is just a more precise definition of insanity—and he was darkly sexual in intention and inclination, desiring nothing so much as to carry off the fainting white maiden to his woody lair and marry her (in Bernheimer’s euphemistic description). So large did this figure loom in the imagination of that time that his presence can be discerned in places as various as French romances, German minstrel songs, the words of Spenser and Cervantes, the tops of love caskets, on stove tiles, tapestries, candlestick holders, and drinking cups.
His significance here is simply this: that shocking and depraved though he is, bestial as may be his behavior, yet he bears some terrifying relationship to civilized man. Thus he must be either civilized or murdered.
Of course, it is clear now that the Wild Man was but the imaginary precursor of the very real American aborigines, and the spring festivals of a Europe as yet ignorant of those it would style “Indians” are dark with the promise of real capture and real genocide: for in them the symbolic pursuit and killing of the Wild Man prepares the way for the advent of spring itself. In a grotesque parody of primitive seasonal rituals, the civilized Westerner here paid unwitting tribute to his inherited belief that the death of wildness meant also the regeneration of life. The joyous dance of triumph over the remains of the Wild Man becomes the civilized analogue of the loathsome scalp dance.
Speculations such as these lead one almost inescapably to the conclusion that the truest way to regard the whole phenomenon of discovery and conquest here in the Americas is as a clash of mythologies. It is for this reason that the New World’s first major historian, Flemish engraverpublisher Théodore de Bry, remains so significant a source of information about those first moments when whites stumbled across something they were not looking for. De Bry’s engravings are crammed with the iconography of sixteenth-century Christian mythology. For example, in his justly celebrated engraving of Columbus on his first voyage out, the explorer’s feet are planted resolutely on the planks of his ship, itself the culminating artifact of over a century of accelerated technological ingenuity, and he is shown armed with the other artifacts—the charts, armor, guns—that would make discovery and conquest possible, and armed also with the West’s accumulated mythology, which would make conquest and destruction inevitable. In the setting history provided de Bry there is nothing really contradictory in the appearance here, on the flag the Admiral holds, of the Christian savior hanging from the cross of our regeneration, and the sea nymphs and sea monsters, the satyrs and griffins, who dance in the cross-hatched waves. Though there is nothing in the attitudes of these mythic figures to indicate a resistance to newness, yet in the posture of the Admiral himself there is a resoluteness, a settled sternness that could know nothing of surrender or even of humbled acceptance. Perhaps de Bry invests his central figure with the attitude he sensed in his civilization, or perhaps he simply had the. benefit of a century of hindsight (the engraving appeared in 1594) and knew already how it had turned out with the New World, knew how perfectly appropriate it had been to have had this stiff-necked Genoese lead the first shocking assault upon those unsuspected, unsuspecting shores.
It is an expression of neither neoromanticism nor twentieth-century primitivism to remark that by contrast the mythologies of aboriginal America counsel acceptance of the natural world, wild or cultivated, and that though often in the presence of a newness that was terrifying, the aborigine was apt to find his salvation in surrender rather than in resistance. That, of course, is the essence of their myths of culture heroes, those men and women who set their faces and their steps away from the camps or towns, who went into the wildernesses of other worlds wherein they found themselves and so found the gods and their secrets of living. These myths, so central to the lives of the tribes, had their everyday analogues in the puberty rites and in the vision quests of individuals. In these, the questers faced their inner anxieties in isolation, drawing support and strength from their traditions which told them how spiritual triumph must come from within.
In this connection I have for some time been drawn to a myth of the Iroquois, that six-nation confederacy that has so much to tell us of the virtues, the high excellences, of the American aborigines, as it does also of the blackest depths of the human heart where cruel vengeance waits for release. In the tribal past, these fierce lords of the north woods probably practiced cannibalism, but they also had marvelous theories of dreams, grand statecraft and statesmen, and artistry in their beautiful embroidery. And this:
Once there was a young hunter lost in a snowstorm in the woods. Blinded by snow-flakes and darkness falling through twisted tree trunks, he stumbled into the yet deeper blackness of a sheltering cave to wait there for light and the end of the storm. But suddenly out of its deepest recesses came the confused sounds of a demon: sounds of a singing stream suddenly changed to the mad tumble of a cataract; soft and then mournful sighs of wind. And then a huge, cavernous voice spoke to the awed hunter crouched at the cave’s entrance. He had chanced into the abode of the last of the Stone Giants, cannibalistic predators who in the mythic past had all but destroyed the Iroquois with their carnivorous raids but who had themselves been destroyed through the intervention of Ta-hahia-wa-gon, Upholder of the Heavens. All but one. This one had crept away to this cave of desolation to live on in acts of monumental destructiveness, rearranging the Allegheny landscape in his fits of abandoned passion. None had seen him and lived to tell of it, for his very glance would turn one to stone. And yet the words he now spoke to the lone hunter, the words booming out of impossible depths, were not a death sentence but instead words imbued with life.
I shall spare you, the giant said, for I know you have come here in trouble and not to kill. And therefore I shall teach you great secrets. “From here you will go forth, free to live with the animals, the birds, and the fish. All these were your ancestors before you were human, and hereafter it will be your task to dedicate your life to their honoring!” The Stone Giant sent him on his way with these words:
It is perhaps impossible to make too much of such a narrative, for its fellows are found in the traditions of tribes all over the Americas, witnesses to the majesterial beauties, the tones, tempers, and moods of two vast and unscarred continents.
And yet these same features caused the newcomers to fear and resist this New World, its flora and fauna, and its inhabitants who succeeded—God knew how!—in living apparently unaided in the very heart of wildness.
Another fear must be added which is not primitive, only misguided—the betrayal of history. By this I mean that any real acceptance of the New World, any acceptance of the aborigines’ independent existence, or, far worse, any desire to merge, mingle, marry the New World and its inhabitants—any of these attitudes or desires—were nothing less than surrenders to the temptations of the wilderness. Thus they had to be seen as betrayals of God’s plan for human activity. They were betrayals of thousands of years of civilization, reversions from the path of history (that is, the record of the achievements of Western whites) into the jungle of pre- or anti-history.
And so no more loathsome object could be imagined in this New World phase of civilization’s triumphant march than an individual who seemed to have surrendered to the call of the wild, to have met the New World on its turf, not on the geography of Europe.
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.
No. White civilization’s salvation here in the Americas, its chance for a spiritual regeneration through the confrontation with newness, would have been to accept and understand the Indians: to appreciate their unique, often beautiful adjustments to their lands of living. And regeneration might also have come through a selective borrowing of aboriginal cultural traits, especially habits of mind, most especially that crucial humility before the vast space of the continents, and a sense of the fragile interconnectedness of all life. Furthermore, a mingling of the races might in time have produced a truly new race considerably unlike the one that Crèvecoeur and countless others never tired of claiming we already were.
In fact, examples of such mingling do exist, not in folklore but in history. They exist in the captivity tradition, and in those dread, cautionary tales of vanished expeditions.
Cabeza de Vaca, one of the four survivors of that fantastically bungled Narváez expedition of 1527, wrote what might be the first New World captivity narrative. In it he told in sparse words of survival during eight years of wandering, and of slavery and starvation among the tribes of the Gulf Coast. And yet well as such a narrative might have served white ends, it seems clear that de Vaca’s redemption occurred some time before he re-emerged into the light of civilization in 1536. You have to look carefully for it in his Relación addressed to “His Sacred Caesarian Majesty,” Charles v. But it is there, as Haniel Long divined it in his interlinear companion to the Relación . For this man and his companions survived that eight years sojourn by transforming themselves from conquistadores into healers. They started out indiscriminately murdering the natives and laying waste the landscape, and were reduced at last to eating the putrescent corpses of their own dead. Later, however, the men moved among the tribes as life-bringers, life-enhancers. And once they had accomplished this transformation, the closed thickets and dense marshlands of the wilderness opened as if by magic. The whole country opened, revealing to their startled eyes complete tribes singing their praises, dancing their arrivals and departures. Unwittingly and perhaps even against conscious intention, de Vaca and his companions had tapped the uncharted spiritual reservoir of the New World, insuring their way through what would otherwise have been impenetrable hostility. Where once they would have been met by arrows, now they were greeted with offerings of food.
And so, by the time de Vaca and his companions reemerged out of the interior darkness of the wilderness into the light of Nueva España , they had become convinced of something few of their countrymen would have been prepared to see: that the Indians like the whites were children of one Great Spirit. Not many years after this the Spaniards would hold a full-dress debate at the royal court at Valladolid where this proposition was actually the issue, though as Lewis Hanke writes in his account of that remarkable cultural phenomenon, a decision was never rendered. Here in America in 1536 such a notion of spiritual brotherhood could not even have been a question, for as de Vaca and the others stepped out of the woods they saw their countrymen at their accustomed work, driving a slave coffle through a ruined landscape that had once been home.
Then, too, beneath the bones of the legend of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, still popularly assumed to have been butchered to the last infant by Powhatan’s savage henchmen, we can also glimpse what might have been.
When Governor John White finally returned to the forbidding coasts of Roanoke Island in 1590, three years after having gone back to England for supplies, he ordered a trumpet sounded across the water to the island in the agreed-upon signal. But its tinny echo went lonely and unanswered. Some English airs were then struck up on deck, their foreign sounds sent toward the only bit of land on that whole, huge coastline where they could hope to strike familiar ears. Nothing.
When they finally could get ashore through the heavy swell, they found the sure signs of destruction, desolation: an empty palisade, discarded boxes and cases, muskets with their locks rusted into inutility, books busted open and swollen as if infected by the land with some fatal disease. Nothing else but the deeply incised letters on the palisade: CROATOAN .
But on that nearby spit, there was nothing, either, and now the full, horrid gloom of the wilderness seemed to swoop down about the searchers: the wilderness, its savage inhabitants, had swallowed whole and without trace this entire colony of civilization. Sickened and terrified by this, White weighed anchor and turned his back on such a land, and at that moment the Lost Colony entered legend as one of those grim, cautionary tales that powerfully conditioned succeeding efforts at settlement.
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.
COPYRIGHT © 1977 BY FREDERICK TURNER