In colonial America, American Indians experienced many different hardships and obstacles that obstructed their path toward assimilation. However, one of the most damaging forces to the plight was the ways in which they were depicted in literature in those days. In the vast majority of English literature, American Indians were depicted and described as being out-right savages that had more in common with animals than with civilized human beings (especially the white settlers). In all fairness, there was some literature that gave credit to the American Indians and depicted them as noble and brave warriors. However, even many of the positive accounts still tend to paint the American Indians as “savages”, as if they were somehow less evolved and therefore less human than their white oppressors. The majority of the literature of the time concerning American Indians was still terribly negative, totally bigoted, and its only purpose seemed to be to add to the already horrible mistreatment of the American Indians.
While a lot of the literature on American Indians of the time was based on stereotypes with little factual basis, there were also some fairly riveting first-hand accounts that describe actual encounters and experiences among the American Indians. These accounts are not only some of the most believable depictions, but they also serve to provide extremely valuable insight into some of the complexities and intricacies of American Indian culture, as well as helping to dispel the myth that Indians are somehow inferior to whites. In Letters From An American Farmer, the author describes some of his own first-hand observations of American Indians he encountered while at Martha’s Vineyard as appearing as such:
By the decency of their manners, their industry, and neatness, to be wholly Europeans, and nowise inferior to many of the inhabitants. Like them they are sober, laborious, and religious, which are the principal characteristics of the four New England provinces. (Crevecouer 166-167)
Not only does the author describe the American Indians as being religious, but he also describes how the American Indians on Martha’s Vineyard were somewhat assimilated in that even though they lived separate and on a different part of the island called Chapoquidick:
(They) were very early Christianised by the respectable family of the Mahews [. . .] they often go, like the young men of the vineyard, to Nantucket, and hire themselves for whalemen or fishermen; and indeed their skill and dexterity in all sea affairs is nothing inferior to that of the whites. (Crevecouer 166-167)
This account is particularly notable because it provides some solid insight into American Indians’ ability to assimilate into colonial culture. Clearly, what the author witnessed was not on-ly Indians attempting to live and work among white society, but their ability to be just as good as the whites. In fact, the author describes the white settlers to be amoral people when compared to the much more respectable Native Americans. The author further illustrates this point by telling about how the settlers would routinely get the Indians drunk only to take advantage of them, and then goes as far as to say that the settlers should look to the Indians if they wish to succeed in the new land (Crevecoeur 124). The fact is that the author, Crevecouer, spent a decade travel-ing America by himself, and spent years in the American wilderness, eventually even becoming an adopted member of the Oneida tribe in Connecticut. Given the authors particularly personal connection to the subject matter, it can be analyzed in different ways.
On one hand, due to his close proximity to American Indians (even becoming an honorary one himself), Crevecoeur’s letters could be looked at as being among the most valid and accurate analysis of the American Indians ever done by white men. On the other hand, due to Crevecoeur spending so much time with the Indians and becoming close with them, one could also choose to perceive his account as being slanted or biased in the favor of his Indian friends. No matter which way they are perceived, Crevecoeur’s letters have provided some of the most up close and personal insight into tribal life and culture than had previously been known.
Crevecoeur’s account includes many of his own personal musings, some of which highlight the differences between his own European culture and that of the Indians. One solid example of Crevecoeur comparing the Indian and European ways can be seen when he notes that he fears that his own children might be “mongrelized”, but then goes on to explain:
Children who have been adopted when young among these people can never be prevailed on to readopt European manners [. . .] There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become Europeans. (Crevecoeur 213)
This is powerful and not just because Crevecoeur makes an excellent point about the incredibly tight-knit community of American Indian tribes and how they possess much stronger bonds, but because he also brings up an excellent point about the fact that it is far more common for Europeans to choose to adopt the Indian way of life, not the other way around. Given these particular observations and opinions of Crevecoeur, it would seem that he would probably ridicule and laugh at the idea of Indians assimilating into white culture, as he himself went on to become an adopted member of the Oneida tribe.
One of the most incredible, up close and personal tales involving colonists and Indians is the story of Colonel James Smith. Smith went from fighting Indians to being captured by them. After which time the Indians ritually cleansed him, painted him the same as themselves, and taught and trained him their ways and customs. Through the many years he was with the Indians, Smith gained a profound sense of respect for Indian culture, which is more than evident based off of his many positive descriptions of life among them. His admiration can be seen almost right away, when he describes a promise that one of the chiefs made during his adoption ceremony:
My son, you are now flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone [. . .] My son you now have nothing to fear, we are now under the same obligations to love, support, and to defend one another; therefore, you are to consider yourself as one of our people. (Rowlandson 25)
Smith then goes on to describe that at the time he didn’t really believe much of the speech, but that he came to find out later that in fact, the tribe meant every word of it: “From that day, I never knew them to make any distinction between me and themselves in any respect whatever until I left them. If they had clothing, I had clothing. I had plenty; if we were scarce, we all shared one fate” (Rowlandson 26). Smith’s respect for the Indians and their kept promise is evident here, and it proves to him from the very beginning that they are a people that mean what they say, and that they actually will look out for him as long as he is one of them.
Another example of literature that portrays the Native Americans in a positive light can be found in A Selection of George Croghan’s letters and journals relating to tours in western country by George Croghan. Croghan’s account is extremely up close and personal, as he was a soldier, Indian agent and trader. Croghan describes how relations between the colonists and the Indians were actually quite good, and that “all the Indian tribes on the Ohio and the branches thereof, on this side of Lake Erie, 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 author then goes on to detail how wonderfully advantageous it had been to trade with the Indians in comparison with the French:
We carried on a considerable amount of trade with those Indians for skin and furs, no less advantageous to them than to us. We sold them goods on much better terms than the French, which drew many Indians over the Lakes to trade with us. (Croghan 89)
Here, the author does a great job of illustrating how the settlers and Native Americans were able to successfully do business together, in a way that benefitted both parties. Further examples of the positive working relationship between the white settlers and American Indians can be seen within Croghan’s letters and journals, where he includes some of the speeches that took place during a meeting in February of 1760 between the American settlers and the Wayondott, Putawatime, and Ottawa tribes. One excellent speech excerpt that does a great job of detailing the relationship and hopefulness between the two sides, states that:
Yesterday you renewed and brightened the Ancient Chain of Friendship between our ancestors the Six Nations and you. Brethren I am glad to hear that you our brethren the English and the Six Nations have renewed and strengthened the Ancient Chain of Friendship subsisting between them and us, and we assure you that if ever it will be broke it will be on your side. (Croghan 119)
However, despite there being some literary accounts bestowing praise upon the Native Americans, there is something to be said for the time periods in which the differing sentiments were appearing. For example, author Dr. Benjamin Bissell argues that during the 1700’s, the view of the American Indians was much more positive and heavily romanticized, and even influenced by French opinion as well. In The American Indian in English Literature of the Eighteenth Century, Bissell states that during the seventeenth century, many literary allusions concerning the American Indians viewed them as noble and skilled, while at the same time showing disdain and “disapproval of his impiety, and resentment at this cruelty” (Bissell 7). Bissell argues on behalf of his belief that the romanticized view of American Indians developed over a period over three centuries, and came into being due to the many different encounters, experiences, and writings of various European explorers and settlers that came into contact with them over the years.
Bissell’s account details just what many of the different perceptions of the American Indians were, and how they gradually changed over time. Bissell writes that to the first explorers and settlers of the 17th century, “people of the seventeenth century were not deeply interested in the Indian” (Bissell 7), and that the physical characteristics and appearance of the Indians was one of the most talked about and analyzed aspects of their existence. This can especially be seen by the way that Dr. Bissell describes the observations of the early explorers and settlers. “They seem to be most impressed with the color of the Indian, his strange dress, his beads, feathers and other striking adornments” (Bissell 2). The author goes on to also note:
Even the eighteenth-century travelers, when telling of their meetings with the Indians, seldom fail to note color, size, and physical appearance, all with as much care and exactness as though these had never been fully appreciated. (Bissell 2)
Another factor that played a role in both the potential of the Indians to assimilate and al-so was a point of interest and curiosity among the white settlers and explorers, was the religion of the Indians. The author explains how since some of the very first encounters with the Indian population, whites had remarked about the importance and necessity of converting them to Christianity (Bissell 2).
Of all of the different types of literature written on American Indians by the early settlers, perhaps none was as damaging to their reputation among the general population as was that of captivity stories. These were tales that went out of their way to attempt to paint the Indians as extraordinarily brutish and unspeakably cruel, and often times read more like one-sided propaganda than actual factual accounts. One of the most well-known tales of captivity was authored by a Puritan woman, named Mary Rowlandson. Bissell provides an excerpt that highlights the prejudice and hatred within the tale:
None can imagine what it is to be captivated and enslaved to such atheistical, proud, wild, cruel, barbarous, brutish, diabolical creatures such as these, the worst of the heathen; nor what difficulties, hardships, hazards, sorrows, anxieties, and perplexities do unavoidably wait on such a condition, but those who have tried it.” (Bissell 8)
Rowlandson’s one-sided account goes even further with her unrelenting racial hate-storm by also proclaiming and repeating that the Indians were “murderous wretches, bloody heathen, merciless heathen, infidels, wolves, hell-hounds, ravenous beasts, barbarous creatures, pagans, merciless enemies” (Bissell 8).
Stories like the captivity tale of Mary Rowlandson seemed to merely serve as a type of propaganda bent in a way that not only drove a wedge between American Indians and the settlers, but they also increased distrust and suspicion of one another among both sides. In other words, such negative portrayals made Indian assimilation and acceptance into American society much, much harder than it already was. As if it was not hard enough to adapt to an ever-changing landscape, with new settlers popping up all around them, but then add to the fact that there were people like Rowlandson going out of their way to paint the Indians as savage beasts, and it becomes much more clear just how difficult, if not impossible, it was for Native Americans to attempt to assimilate into white society.
Just as it took time for the romanticized view of the Native Americans to take shape, the ways in which Native Americans were depicted in literature changed with the times as well. While the 17th century depictions of Indians tended to be more positive and romanticized, large-ly based on their appearances and the mystery behind their culture and customs, the events and changing landscape of 18th century America had a profound effect on what was being written about Native Americans and how they were portrayed. America was developing very rapidly and many new settlers came to America during the 19th century, increasing the amount of contact (and tension) between settlers and Native Americans. The ever-increasing population of course meant that there was a need for more land, and therefore more and more confrontations devel-oped between the white settlers and the Indians. Due to the changing landscape, Indians began to be portrayed in a much less positive and violent light, and also began to be seen by many as being a menacing and imminent threat on the settler’s very existence.
The fictional book Edgar Huntley serves as a good example of literature that is full of negative stereotypes and slurs concerning Native Americans. Throughout the story, the author routinely and repeatedly refers to the Indians as “savages” as if it is their given name, a common feature among the captivity novels of the era. Such stories attempted to capitalize on such ignorance and outright hatred of the Indians among some settlers. Many of these types of narratives would depict “explicit gore, depicting the orgiastic delight of Indians meting out torture”, and in addition, the stories were told in a way “that readers devoured these tales as factual terrors people like themselves had lived through” (Brown xli). One such example of this type of depiction can be clearly seen when the author describes Edgar Huntly as coming across a young girl that was badly hurt and suffering from injuries sustained at the hands of the Indians:
Her features denoted the last degree of fear and anguish, and she moved her limbs in such a manner as shewed that the ligatures by which she was confined, produced, by their tightness, the utmost degree of pain. My wishes were now bent not only to preserve my-self, and to frustrate the future attempts of these savages, but likewise to relieve this miserable victim. (Brown 175)
In another similarly dark depiction, Edgar Huntly awakes in a pit after battling Indians and asks “Had I not been dragged hither by these savages, and reduced, by their malice, to that breathless and insensible condition?” (Brown 186). He then recounts his earlier murder of an Indian as “the death of the savage, whom I had dispatched with my hatchet, had not been remembered without some remorse. I was somewhat comforted in thinking that thus much of necessary vengeance had been executed” (Brown 186). This provides an excellent example of the contradictions and hypocrisy often at play when it came to much of the literature that attempted to defame the Native Americans. When the Indians killed it was savagery, but when the whites killed it was supposedly to be viewed as some sort of more civilized and reasonable justice.
In conclusion, it is clear and without question that such frightening and startling accounts of Native Americans had the complete opposite effect of supporting their assimilation into Colonial culture, and in fact, only served to alienate them even further from the white settlers. Based on the analysis of much of the literature at the time, it is clear that the ways in which American Indians were depicted had a very significant impact on the ways in which they were viewed among the colonists and early settlers and greatly affected their ability to assimilate.
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. < http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=lhbtn&fileName=th001/lhbtnth001.db&recNum=43&itemLink=r?ammem/lhbtnbib:@field([email protected](lhbtn+th001_0044).
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.