Native Americans in Early American Literature

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Early American literature was influenced by experiences of the times. The Colonists in America wrote stories of their travels from Britain to the New World. They also wrote stories of their experiences in the new land, America, and of nature versus man. A significant part of that experience was interactions between Native Americans and Colonists and the resulting conflict between the two populations. These stories included tales of how the Native Americans tried to assimilate with the colonists in the 18th Century. However, their assimilation into American culture was unsuccessful until many years later, due in large part to negative attitudes towards the Indians, as evidenced by the literature from that time period.

Prior to the 18th Century, traders, explorers, or prospective settlers generally authored stories of Native Americans, and their place in society was told from the perspective of these travelers (Bissell 7). The travelers had limited interactions with the Native American population, and Indians were generally regarded as a novelty because of the visible differences between the Indians and Americans. Accounts of Native Americans were filled with “wonder” and included detailed descriptions of their physical features and dress (Bissell 2). However, by the beginning of the 18th Century, as more and more settlers moved to the Americas, and their interactions with the population became more substantive, Native Americans in literature experienced a “metamorphosis” into a far different, and far more menacing literary figure (Bissell 8). Native Americans moved from being simply a novelty to a perceived threat to the settlers.

One popular genre of literature during the 18th Century was stories of captivity. One such example can be found in Col. James Smith’s Life Among the Delawares, 1755-1759 (Rowlandson and Kephart 1-45). In this narrative told in the first person by Col. James Smith, the Indians are referred to throughout as “savages” with behavior lacking in civility (Rowlandson and Kephart 2). The author describes the gruesome killing of his comrade and his own subsequent capture by the Indians (Rowland and Kephart 2-3). The remainder of the story details Col. Smith’s inhumane treatment suffered at the hands of his captors (including beatings and other mistreatment), as well as the delight displayed by the Indians because of his suffering (Rowlandson and Kephart 2-4). Stories such as these were prevalent during the 18th Century. However, Native Americans were not only featured in non-fiction and made appearances in other works, as well.

Stories of Native American Indians were also prevalent in fictional literature from the 18th Century. In Edgar Huntley, much like other authors from the period, the author uses the word “savages” throughout the book to describe Native Americans (Brown 185). The book even begins with an introduction “to the Public,” in which he explains that the story will depict incidents of Indian hostility, revealing the contentious relationship between the two groups (Brown 3). Comingled with other life events, the narrator tells the story of how his parents were murdered by Indians, and that he could not even cannot even think of Indians “without shuddering” (Brown 166). In the story, Native Americans are described as being “trained from their infancy to the artifices and exertions of Indian warfare” (Brown 185). Once again, Native Americans are consistently portrayed in a negative light in this novel. However, although this was far more common than not, Native Americans were not always described as bad during this time.

The American soldier George Croghan detailed his interactions with the Native Americans in a series of published journals. However, in contrast to Brown, Croghan’s stories were positive and described good relationships between the Native Americans and the Colonists. Croghan wrote that “the Indian tribes... were in strict friendship with the English in the several Provinces, and took the greatest care to preserve the friendship then subsisting between them and us” (Croghan 89). The efforts of the Native Americans to assimilate with the Colonists also seemed to be well-received, and the settlors encouraged fair trade with the Indians (Croghan 89-90). Most interestingly, other authors went so far as to praise the Native Americans, and criticize the Colonists.

A final example of the efforts of Native Americans to assimilate with Colonists can be found in Crèvecoeur’s Letter from an American Farmer. In this book, the author ridicules the Colonists by comparing them to the Native Indians, whose manners are described as respectable in comparison to the settlors (Crèvecoeur 77). The settlors are characterized throughout the book as amoral people who, instead of engaging in fair trade with the eager Indians (much like that described by Croghan), get the Indians drunk and proceed to take advantage of them (Crèvecoeur 79). The natives are later applauded in the book for being excellent “judges of the land,” and the author describes how the settlors need to rely on the Indians to succeed (Crèvecoeur 124).

A review of the literature of the 18th Century reveals that the Native Americans were clearly regarded as outsiders, and very separate from the Colonists. However, what varies from story to story is the perception of the Indians by the Colonists, and how they are portrayed to the reader. Some authors viewed the aboriginal population as dangerous and to be feared, justifying their alienation from colonial culture. Other authors embraced the Native Americans and applauded their efforts to assimilate with the Colonies. However, the hostility towards the American Indians appeared to be far more prevalent in 18th Century literature.

Works Cited

Bissell, Benjamin. The American Indian in English literature of the eighteenth century. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968. Print.

Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntley. Penguin ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Print.

Crèvecoeur, J. Hector. Letters from an American farmer. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1957. Print.

Croghan, George. A selection of George Croghan's letters and journals relating to tours into the western country - November 16, 1750-November, 1765. Cleveland: 1782. The Library of Congress, American Memory. Web. 4 Nov. 2013. <>.

Rowlandson, Mary White, and Kephart, Horace. “Col. James Smith's Life among the Delawares, 1755-1759.” The account of Mary Rowlandson and other Indian captivity narratives. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2005. 1-45. Print.