Nineteenth-Century Representations of Native Americans Essay - Critical Essays

Nineteenth-Century Representations of Native Americans


Nineteenth-Century Representations of Native Americans

Native Americans in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America were most commonly represented by Euro-Americans as either dangerous barbarians or as the embodiment of Rousseau's idealized noble savage. Despite the wide variety of nations and indigenous cultures existing across the United States and its territories, Native Americans were most often depicted in monolithic terms, their differences elided into a handful of stereotypes that concentrated on their interactions with whites more than on their pre-contact cultural identities.

Native American characters were considered an essential part of nineteenth century fictional works on colonial and early American life. The United States would have to develop an original and uniquely American literature if the new country were ever to free itself from cultural dependence on Europe, the reasoning went, and what could be more uniquely American than the native population, their cultures, and their interaction with white settlers. Writing about Indians became such an established convention that Nathaniel Hawthorne felt alienated from his peers because he had produced no stories on the subject. He was convinced that “no writer can be more secure of a permanent place in our literature, than the biographer of the Indian chiefs.” By his own estimation, though, Hawthorne was “shut out from the most peculiar field of American fiction, by an inability to see any romance, or poetry, or grandeur, or beauty in the Indian character.” He was not alone in this prejudice; many writers who were producing fictional representations of Native Americans shared his view. While many depictions of Indians and Indian life were idealized and romantic, there were an equal number that vilified the Indian as a brutish creature little better than an animal. Often the two representations existed side by side.

For many writers, as for Americans in general, the native population became synonymous with the wilderness and all the dangers it entailed. The desperate struggle for survival that characterized early attempts at colonization remained fresh in the minds of white settlers and their descendants. The first towns and villages seemed to have a tenuous hold on civilized life as opposed to the surrounding forests which came to be associated with savagery and barbarism. Religion played an important role in extending the wilderness/civilization dichotomy to portray Native Americans as agents of Satan versus the settlers' status as God's chosen people. If Puritans were engaged in God's work in establishing and expanding colonies in New England, then any obstacle to their success must necessarily be inspired by the devil. That Indians were the color traditionally associated with Satan added to the myth according to Joseph B. McCullough and Robert K. Dodge, who have explored the connection between Puritan mythology and early American fictional representations of Indians.

The American writer most closely associated with incorporating Indian characters into his fiction was James Fenimore Cooper, who, having had little personal experience with the native population, used historical accounts produced by white writers as his source material. Cooper's most famous tales were the five books that make up the Leatherstocking series, but he portrayed Indians in several other novels as well. In his earlier work, Indians tended to be one of two possible types—either noble savage or red devil—but in one of his later works, Wyandotté (1843), both characterizations are present in one man, alternately called Wyandotté and Saucy Nick. Louise K. Barnett has studied this representation of the Indian as a complex “split personality,” and claims that this is a more sophisticated and less simplistic approach to Indian identity than Cooper's earlier division of characters into neat categories of good and bad. Cooper's work also contributed to the stereotype of the drunken Indian; Randall C. Davis claims that Cooper's numerous uses of this character-type throughout his fiction suggests that Cooper considered alcoholism to be an inevitable consequence of contact between Indians and whites.

Some authors' assessments of Native American character and identity changed over the course of their writing careers. One such writer was Henry David Thoreau, who initially saw the traditional wilderness/civilization dichotomy between Indians and Euro-Americans as a clash between nature and culture, but his version of the dualism valued the first term over the second. Thoreau considered Native Americans natural and spiritual compared to the over-civilized, materialistic inhabitants of the towns and cities of the Northeast. Once he established contact with actual Indians, however, his notions of the noble primitive who was unsullied by cultural constraints began to break down. In particular, his Penobscot guide in Maine, Joe Polis, challenged his preconceptions; Polis lived in a house in town, could read and write, and was well versed in the ways of white civic and religious institutions. Linda Frost has studied the relationship between the two men and claims that Thoreau's “opposition between nature and culture effectively crumbles” during his travels with Polis. Frost repeats a popular story of the time that suggests Thoreau was reluctant to publish the piece he was writing during his association with the guide because he was afraid the very literate Polis might read it.

Mark Twain's writing also demonstrates a change in attitude toward Native Americans over time. According to Lynn W. Denton, Twain was intolerant of Indians while he was living in the West, claiming they were first cousins of coyotes and “prideless beggars.” Denton reports, though, that Twain's “prejudice eventually changed to toleration and then finally to idealism.” She believes that as Puritans in the East became the favored targets of Twain's rage, he began to sympathize with Indians as the victims of extermination by the Puritans. In his later writing, as he became more and more critical of white America, Twain began to refer to Indians as “red angels,” completely reversing his early assessment of them. Conversely, Washington Irving's change of heart was in the opposite direction. His idealized approach and apparent sympathy with the loss of rich native cultures changed to a more pragmatic belief in westward expansion as he grew older. Rather than romanticize the indigenous population, he began to romanticize the Anglo-American fur trade, which had contributed greatly to the loss of native culture he had mourned at an earlier stage in his life.

The writer with the most extensive personal contact with Native Americans was Helen Hunt Jackson, whose carefully researched report, A Century of Dishonor, was published in 1881. The following year Jackson was appointed by the Department of the Interior to investigate the living conditions of California's Mission Indians, and her travels among the native population led to Ramona (1885), in some ways a fictionalized version of her earlier report. John R. Byers, Jr. has compared the two works and found numerous similarities between them; places, events, and sometimes even conversations reported in the first text were woven by Jackson into a narrative that proved enormously popular and far more compelling than the original factual account of the government's wrongdoing. According to Byers, by locating the suffering of an entire people at the level of the individual, Jackson made a stronger case against governmental policies and turned her novel into “a work that spoke for the Indian as Uncle Tom's Cabin had earlier spoken for the Negro.”

As native populations were pushed farther and farther west by expanding settlement in the eastern half of the United States, a peculiar sub-genre of the frontier tale arose called “Indian hater” literature. The character of the Indian hater is a white male who has suffered a serious wrong at the hands of Native Americans, most often the massacre of his family. He becomes obsessed with revenge and is, ironically, more adept at the wilderness skills associated with natives—hunting, tracking, surviving in the forest—than the natives themselves. Although the Indian hater professes to seek justice for his slain family, he does not stop with the slaughter of the responsible individuals; it becomes his mission to kill all Indians whenever and wherever he encounters them. The Indian hater's position in relation to the white frontier settlement is ambiguous. He is both an outsider whose actions are considered far beyond the limits tolerated by any civilized society, and a hero who performs a valuable function for the community that shares his hatred of Native Americans. The conventions and standardized tropes of Indian hater fiction have been studied and documented by Louise K. Barnett, who includes such novels as Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods (1853), Emerson Bennett's The Forest Rose (1850), and Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man (1857) in the genre. Stephen Matterson has studied Melville's novel within this same context, but disagrees with the many critics who assume Melville's approval or complicity with the Indian hater's program of extermination. According to Matterson, Melville considered the Indian hater central to American culture's view of native populations, and by associating the character with various institutions of white America—both civil and religious—the author was implicating the culture as a whole in the attitudes and activities of the Indian hater.

Representative Works

James Nelson Barker
The Indian Princess; or, la Belle Sauvage. An Operatic Melo-drame (drama) 1808

Emerson Bennett
The Renegade (novel) 1848
The Forest Rose (novel) 1850

Robert Montgomery Bird
Nick of the Woods (novel) 1853

Charles Brockden Brown
Edgar Huntly (novel) 1799

James Fenimore Cooper
The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757 (novel) 1826
The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (novel) 1829
The Deerslayer; or The First War-Path. A Tale (novel) 1841
Wyandotté; or, The Hutted Knoll (novel) 1843

Helen Hunt Jackson
A Century of Dishonor (nonfiction) 1881
Ramona (novel) 1885

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Song of Hiawatha (poem) 1855

Herman Melville
The Confidence-Man (novel) 1857

John Muir
Travels in Alaska (travel essay) 1915

Francis Parkman
The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada (history) 1870

Frederic Remington
John Ermine of the Yellowstone (novel) 1902

Catharine Sedgwick
Hope Leslie (novel) 1827

William Gilmore Simms
“Lucas de Ayllon: A Historical Nouvellette” (short story) 1845
“Oakatibbe, or the Choctaw Sampson” (short story) 1845
The Yemassee: A Romance of Carolina (novel) 1878

Ann S. Stephens
Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (novel) 1860

Henry David Thoreau
The Maine Woods (travel essays) 1864

Mark Twain
The Innocents Abroad (travel essay) 1869
Roughing It (travel essay) 1872
“Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven” (short story) 1909

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Wynette L. Hamilton (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Correlation between Societal Attitudes and Those of American Authors in the Depiction of American Indians, 1607-1860,” in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1974, pp. 1-26.

[In the following essay, Hamilton presents an overview of fictional representations of Native Americans by Anglo writers.]

The problem in this research is to identify the changing attitudes of American fictional authors toward the American Indian and the roles they attributed to the natives from early America to the Civil War, and to explore the relationship of these attitudes and prescribed roles to changing societal views about the native Americans.


(The entire section is 9689 words.)

Joseph B. McCullough and Robert K. Dodge (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “The Puritan Myth and the Indian in the Early American Novel,” in Pembroke Magazine, Vol. 7, 1976, pp. 237-44.

[In the following essay, McCullough and Dodge examine the Puritans' belief in themselves as agents of God, and how this conviction helped justify their destruction of the “heathen” Native Americans. The authors also investigate the manner in which this belief system informed early American fiction.]

William Bradford relates that on November 16, 1620, Miles Standish and fifteen other “well armed” Pilgrims left the Mayflower anchored off Cape Cod and set out to explore the new land. The next day they discovered a deserted Indian...

(The entire section is 4148 words.)

Karl Kroeber (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “American Indian Persistence and Resurgence,” in Boundary 2, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 1-25.

[In the following excerpt, Kroeber examines the idea of “writing Indians” in the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper and John Rollin Ridge.]


What I have called the ethnological phase of Indian post-Columbus experience began to emerge in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when Washington Irving wrote sympathetically of King Phillip in his war with the New England colonists in the seventeenth century; when Henry Schoolcraft, after composing an epic poem on the Creek wars, began something like scientific...

(The entire section is 3583 words.)

Criticism: Native American History

Philip Gould (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Catharine Sedgwick's ‘Recital’ of the Pequot War,” in American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 641-62.

[In the following essay, Gould discusses Puritan and revisionist versions of the Pequot War, suggesting that one such revisionist account is found in Sedgwick's novel Hope Leslie.]

The Pequot War has caused more than its share of historiographic controversy. Revisionist historians have questioned the reliability of Puritan accounts of Captain John Mason's attack upon a Pequot fort in 1637, pointing out a regional bias which, the argument goes, has distorted an entire historiographic tradition. Francis Jennings, for one, has argued that...

(The entire section is 8468 words.)

Helen Jaskoski (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “‘A Terrible Sickness Among Them’: Smallpox and Stories of the Frontier,” in Early Native American Writing: New Critical Essays, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 136-57.

[In the following essay, Jaskoski compares Native American accounts of the smallpox epidemic in the Great Lakes region to Francis Parkman's version of events.]


Histories of North America have largely ignored, marginalized, or discounted the contributions of Native North American historians. As a result, the official story has been, as Annette Kolodny says, “univocal and monolingual, defining origins by what later became the tropes of the dominant or...

(The entire section is 8474 words.)

Criticism: The Indians Of The Northeast

Louise K. Barnett (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Cooper's Wyandotté: The Indian as Split Personality,” in Cimarron Review, Vol. 46, January, 1979, pp. 25-31.

[In the following essay, Barnett explores the character of Wyandotté/Saucy Nick, who embodies both of Cooper's stereotypes of Native Americans: the noble warrior and the debased drunkard.]

Perhaps prompted by criticism of his Leatherstocking Indians,1 Cooper attempted a more ambitious Indian characterization in his late novel Wyandotté (1843). For the mature Cooper the absolutes of the Leatherstocking world dissolve into ambiguities: the earlier neat division between red and white gifts is replaced by a broader outlook of...

(The entire section is 2961 words.)

Linda Frost (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “‘The Red Face of Man,’ the Penobscot Indian, and a Conflict of Interest in Thoreau's Maine Woods,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1993, pp. 20-46.

[In the following essay, Frost examines Thoreau's romantic notion of Native Americans and the inevitable disappointment he felt when confronted with actual Indians who could not live up to his expectations.]

In his introduction to The Indians of Thoreau: Selections from the Indian Notebooks, Richard Fleck interprets Thoreau's fascination with the American Indian:1

If [Thoreau] could only gain insight during his life...

(The entire section is 10131 words.)

Randall C. Davis (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Fire-Water in the Frontier Romance: James Fenimore Cooper and ‘Indian Nature,’” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 2, Autumn, 1994, pp. 215-31.

[In the following essay, Davis claims that one of Cooper's underlying themes is that alcohol addiction was the inevitable outcome of contact between Native Americans and Euro-Americans. This theme is partly developed in the author's numerous depictions of the “drunken Indian” stereotype.]

There is something painful in the reflection that these people were once numerous, and that by our approach they have been reduced to a few. It is natural that we should feel averse to the...

(The entire section is 6751 words.)

Criticism: The Indians Of The Southeast

Elmo Howell (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “William Gilmore Simms and the American Indian,” in South Carolina Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, June, 1973, pp. 57-64.

[In the following essay, Howell discusses the attitude of William Gilmore Simms, the preeminent Southern writer of his time, toward the American Indian and compares it to that of James Fenimore Cooper.]

The history of the white American's attitude towards the Indian ranges the full gamut of human emotions. He hated the red man while he was still a threat to his existence and idealized him when the threat was removed, and in some cases heaped on the white man bitter accusations for the rape of a continent. The Puritan settler of New England saw...

(The entire section is 3378 words.)

Eliana Crestani (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “James Nelson Barker's Pocahontas: The Theatre and the Indian Question,” in Nineteenth Century Theatre, Vol. 23, Nos. 1-2, Summer, 1995, pp. 5-32.

[In the following essay, Crestani examines Barker's The Indian Princess as the first American drama to explore the relationship between Euro-Americans and Native Americans.]

April 6, 1808. Philadelphia theatregoers witness at the Chestnut Street Theatre the première of James Nelson Barker's The Indian Princess; or, la Belle Sauvage. The play excites curiosity for its complete novelty: it is the first play on a North-American Indian subject written by an American-born playwright and performed on a...

(The entire section is 11148 words.)

Peter G. Murphy (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Colonization and the American Indian in Simms's ‘Lucas de Ayllon,’” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 37, Nos. 3-4, Spring, 1999, pp. 277-82.

[In the following essay, Murphy contends that although Simms's treatment of the Indian in his short story “Lucas de Ayllon” focuses primarily on physical characteristics, it should still be considered a positive representation of the Combahee people.]

William Gilmore Simms's fictional history “Lucas de Ayllon: A Historical Nouvellette” (1845) offers a unique and sympathetic perspective of the American Indian as a tragic victim of colonization. While utilizing a form of colonial language which treats the human...

(The entire section is 3237 words.)

Criticism: The Indians Of The West

Lynn Denton (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Mark Twain and the American Indian,” in Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1971-72, pp. 1-3.

[In the following essay, Denton traces Twain's attitude towards Native Americans from his vilification of them early in his career to his more sympathetic treatment of them as he grew older.]

Twain's colorful attitudes toward the Chinese, Arabs, Turks, various Europeans, and Negroes (and one is tempted to include the self-righteous Puritans as an ethnic group) are well-known. Less familiar are his collective views of the American Indian, of both the savage primitive and the Noble Red Man.1 A survey of references to the Indian in Twain's writings...

(The entire section is 1863 words.)

John R. Byers, Jr. (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “The Indian Matter of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona: From Fact to Fiction,” in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4, Winter, 1975, pp. 331-46.

[In the following essay, Byers discusses how Helen Hunt Jackson took the factual information from her report on the Mission Indians of California and fashioned it into the novel Ramona.]

In 1881 Helen Hunt Jackson published her A Century of Dishonor, one of the most scathing indictments of the United States Government on the treatment of the Indian population, or on any other charges, ever put forth. The work was the outgrowth of a rising feeling, beginning in 1872 when she traveled in California and...

(The entire section is 7331 words.)

John Randall (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Frederic Remington's Anglo-Saxon Indian” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 22-27.

[In the following essay, Randall discusses painter Frederic Remington's ambivalent view toward the western Indian in his novel John Ermine of the Yellowstone.]

Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, in which he “tried to fashion a narrative of the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it,”1 suggests in his introduction that his white American audience, who are accustomed to looking westward, read this book facing eastward. This good advice is perfectly consonant with our modern fashion...

(The entire section is 5293 words.)

Criticism: Indian Hater Fiction

Louise K. Barnett (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Nineteenth-Century Indian Hater Fiction: A Paradigm for Racism,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 224-36.

[In the following essay, Barnett provides an overview of Indian Hater fiction and discusses the conventions associated with the genre.]


Pre-Civil War frontier fiction is predominantly concerned with the Indian-white confrontation along the frontier as background for the development of a conventional genteel love story. Within this category, the subgenre of Indian hater fiction has a different emphasis. Using as protagonist the familiar frontier figure of the Indian hater, this group of novels and...

(The entire section is 4673 words.)

Robert D. Newman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Indians and Indian-Hating in Edgar Huntly and The Confidence Man,” in Melus, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 65-74.

[In the following essay, Newman discusses the figure of the Indian Hater in novels by Charles Brockden Brown and Herman Melville, and suggests that in both works, savagery is attributed to both Indians and whites.]

“Hate the evil, and love the good.”

Amos 5.15

“We cannibals must help these Christians.”

Queequeg in Moby-Dick

Grounded in a contrast between a white civilization based on religious morality and the primitive savagery of the Indians, the...

(The entire section is 4212 words.)

Stephen Matterson (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Indian-Hater, Wild Man: Melville's Confidence-Man,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 21-35.

[In the following essay, Matterson discusses Melville's use of the Indian Hater character, claiming that Melville considered him a central figure in American attitudes toward Native Americans and implicated the government, the judicial system, and organized religion as participants in these attitudes.]

The last novel Herman Melville published in his lifetime has been considered his most problematic. The Confidence-Man (1857) is especially difficult because four chapters, 25-28, are concerned with Indian-hating, and offer a...

(The entire section is 5194 words.)

Criticism: The Indian As Exhibit

Sarah Blackstone (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Simplifying the Native American: Wild West Shows Exhibit the ‘Indian,’” in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 9-17.

[In the following essay, Blackstone examines the Wild West Show of 1880-1920 in which Native Americans were exhibited as examples of both the noble savage and the bloodthirsty barbarian.]

The dominant white culture in American has long been content to view the Native American as a representative of a single homogeneous culture (Indian), and within the binary construct of noble savage/barbarian. Native Americans have not often been portrayed as, or considered...

(The entire section is 3587 words.)

Paul Gilmore (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “The Indian in the Museum: Henry David Thoreau, Okah Tubbee, and Authentic Manhood,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 25-63.

[In the following essay, Gilmore suggests that Native Americans were represented in nineteenth-century museums as masculine and unsubmissive—which corresponds to Henry David Thoreau's mythologized image of them.]

In the February 27, 1843, edition of the New York Herald, P. T. Barnum advertised his American Museum as a “Combination Of Unequalled And Unprecedented Attractions.” An “Ethiopian Extravaganza” and “The Indian Chiefs, Warriors, And Squaws” headline the list of attractions Barnum...

(The entire section is 14319 words.)

Further Reading


Brickhouse, Anna C. “‘I Do Abhor an Indian Story’: Hawthorne and the Allegorization of Racial ‘Commixture.’” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 42, No. 4 (Fourth Quarter 1996): 233-53.

Discusses Hawthorne's discomfort with literary representations of Native Americans.

Fleck, Richard F. “John Muir's Evolving Attitudes Toward Native American Cultures.” American Indian Quarterly 4, No. 1 (February 1978): 19-31.

Traces the evolution of Muir's negative preconceptions about Native Americans into an attitude of sympathetic concern for their plight.

Gemme, Paola....

(The entire section is 556 words.)