The Enchanted Frontier
Sometimes, insights come from the juxtapositions that happen when you read books in the context of a crowded life.
I must have been one of the last five people on earth to read Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I’d put it off because the book was such a doorstop. But last spring a friend gave me a loaner copy just as I was leaving on a research trip, so I took it along. I no longer had an excuse not to read it.
I should explain that my day job as a museum curator takes me around North America and Europe tracking down dispersed collections of books, manuscripts, maps, artworks, curios, antiquities, and downright bizarre and enigmatic stuff. I get paid to talk my way into the closets where museums keep the things they’re a little embarrassed by, like the shrunken heads and witches in bottles. For the last two years, I’ve been scouring the world for material relating to the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys between about 1750 and 1800, in order to produce an exhibition and book on the American Revolution on the Frontier. This was an era when the American Midwest was a contested zone, a place that would have seemed very alien to all of us who live in it today. It was inhabited by a complex blend of peoples—multilingual, multiethnic, multinational. Native Americans, French habitants, British soldiers, American settlers, African slaves, all struggled to define and control one another and the land where they wanted to live.
On this particular trip, I was investigating something fairly normal: the manuscript collection of an eccentric 19th-century scholar named Lyman Draper. He was obsessed with the subject I am working on, and devoted his life to acquiring every relevant scrap of paper he could lay his hands on. He was willing to go beyond the ends of the earth for a good interview; when he ran out of manuscripts to collect, he employed a medium to raise the spirits of the historical figures he studied.
So there I was, spending the day immersed in the collection of an obsessive dead scholar, then going to my hotel room at night to read a novel that actually made obsessive scholars sound interesting. This was an extraordinary feat in itself. But even more extraordinary to me was the way that Clarke managed to bring to life a set of European folk traditions about the supernatural. She managed to put me in a world where other-than-human beings present a real and present danger, where cozy normality is a mere lacquer over a perilous mystery that obeys rules we can only distantly sense.
And suddenly I understood the minds of the American frontiersmen I was reading about.
This is not so far-fetched a leap as it might seem. To begin with, I think Clarke’s book is based on some serious research into traditional beliefs about the nonhuman world. Whether she has invented or distorted details for fictional purposes is not important, because she has remained true to the overall picture. By that I mean the sense that magical power emanates from the land itself; that a vast hidden reality exists beneath the everyday world; that the worlds intersect at particular geographical points; that animals act as messengers or conduits between the worlds.
Moreover, the other world is inhabited by beings we cannot understand. They are simultaneously childlike and immensely powerful. They meticulously obey rules we cannot fathom, and trap us when we violate them. They can be physically beautiful and even grand. In negotiation they are deceptive, and in war treacherous. They are cowardly, but also formidable enemies. They are ruthless and have no regard for human life. They are lazy and feckless, incapable of becoming productive members of society, but glory in wealth and finery when they can get it. They love to cast spells over human beings and carry them off to their own realm, where the captives live in an entranced state, forgetting their homes and families.
This last paragraph, written to describe fairies as portrayed by Clarke, matches point by point Euro-American beliefs about American Indians in the late 18th century.
The existence of American Indians seriously staggered European intellectuals, and in the 18th century debate raged over how to account for them. Were they different in nature from Europeans (the French philosophes’ view), or were they simply at a different stage of cultural development (the argument of Scottish intellectuals)? Did they constitute a separate sub-species (as Carolus Linnaeus believed), or did they have the capacity to become “civilized” (as Thomas Jefferson argued)? On this debate hung questions about human origins and social evolution—questions with urgency for an impending colonial age.
So intellectuals wrote a lot about their reactions to Indians, but we know much less about the reactions of ordinary people who based their beliefs about the world on tradition and tale, not theory. Most of the people who actually came into contact with Indians on the frontier at this time were of Celtic extraction, often straight from Highland crofts or rural Ireland. They brought to America their clannish allegiances, their martial traditions, their fondness for ecstatic religion—and their folk traditions. They had certain expectations about the way other-worldly beings behaved and acted. When they were pushed or moved onto the frontier, they found themselves sharing space with incomprehensible and unpredictable beings. It only stands to reason that their pre-formed expectations about the Other were projected onto the Indians.
When we enter the world of the frontier through the gateway of Celtic traditional belief, and try to see what the settlers saw, America looks like a very different place.
People moving west before the Revolution had to cross a line that separated the predictable world of Europe from the wilderness. It was called the Proclamation Line, after the Proclamation of 1763, in which George III had forbidden settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains in order to preserve the West as “a Desert for the Indians to hunt and to inhabit.” Once beyond the line, settlers were beyond protection.
When people entered the West, what they encountered first was the forest. Not the little patches of woodland we have set aside to cherish in a paved-over world—this forest was endless, impenetrable, unmapped. It stretched uninterrupted from the foothills of the Appalachians to the rumored shores of the Mississippi 800 miles away—a forest four times larger than all of Britain and Ireland combined. To newcomers, it seemed primeval, unchanged since the dawn of time, mile upon endless mile of dank moss and tangled vine under the uninterrupted shadow of ancient trees. “Who can tell how far it extends?” wrote one American in 1782. “For no European foot has as yet travelled half the extent of this mighty continent!”
Things grew to immense sizes in the West. American chestnuts (a species now almost extinct) had trunks that rose fifty feet before branching, and a surveyor in 1774 measured a sycamore thirty-seven feet in circumference. Boatmen hauled hundred-pound catfish from the river. There were flocks of neon-colored Carolina parakeets flashing through the trees (yes, even in Ohio). Watching from the overhead branches were the huge tawny cats most people called panthers. Rumor told of “the ivory-bill wood-cock” whose beak was pure ivory—“a circumstance very singular in the plumy tribe.” More amazing to them than to us were the buffaloes that ranged as far east as the border of West Virginia. One astonished traveler described them as a sort of mythic beast assembled chimera-like from the parts of other animals: the body of a cow, the eye of a goat, the grunt of a hog.
But these living behemoths were dwarfed by the mysterious bones found at a salt spring just past the Kentucky River. Here, wrote one eyewitness,
very large bones are found, far surpassing the size of any species of animals now in America. The head appears to have been about three feet long, the ribs seven, and the thigh bones about four; one of which is reposited in the library in Philadelphia, and said to weigh seventy-eight pounds….These bones have equally excited the amazement of the ignorant, and attracted the attention of the philosopher….Whence is it that the whole species has disappeared from America?…These are difficulties sufficient to stagger credulity itself….Can then so great a link have perished from the chain of nature?
The mystery posed by the great bones was coupled with another one, even more troubling to accepted wisdom. As soon as they started to cross the mountains, Americans came upon evidence that this land had been inhabited by an advanced civilization at some ancient time in history. The discovery of a mysterious race of builders and engineers, unmentioned in the Bible or any history, posed such a dilemma that American intellectuals quickly entered into a state of denial about their existence, an attitude that persists today. But the ancient landmarks must have evoked a different response from Celtic immigrants—one of familiarity. Here were huge barrows marking the graves of neolithic chieftains. When broken open, they revealed coffins assembled from stone slabs, holding gigantic skeletons arrayed in shell beads and copper weapons. Hauntingly beautiful sculptures had been left as grave goods.
Undiscovered species, extinct monsters, a fallen civilization—who could doubt that the West was a land of mystery and magic? But we would be wrong to imagine that 18th-century Americans reacted to it with the same confidence and curiosity we would. Our positive view of wilderness was thoroughly alien to them. To them, the silent forest was an ominous realm. We think of external dangers, but to them the greatest threat was an internal one. For they believed that living in such a forest would change them. First would come a type of disorientation they called “bewilderment.” Then, by a slow and subtle process, the wilderness would rob them of the morals and manners of the civilized world. They would forget European ways and degenerate, step by inevitable step, into savages.
This belief was based on a legitimate scientific theory of the day; but then as now, science became distorted and exaggerated when it entered the popular culture. The theorists held that the differences in culture and lifestyle being discovered all around the globe were not racial—or as we would say, genetic—but the result of adaptation to different environments. Ordinary Americans heard this and reasoned: if character was formed by environment, would not a European transplanted to a new environment take on a different character? Would not a person who went to live in the forests that produced the Indians become like the Indians?
In fact, that was exactly what they believed. Pseudo-scientific “proofs” showed that the character traits of savagery were produced by the darkness and damp of the forest, by sleeping on the moist ground, or by eating wild game. Indian maize was disdained as a starvation food for this reason. Journalist Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur described what happened to people who went to live in forests: “Their actions are regulated by the wildness of the neighbourhood…. The chase renders them ferocious, gloomy, and unsocial…. Their wives and children live in sloth and inactivity;…they grow up a mongrel breed, half civilized, half savage.” Hunting was “a licentious idle life” that would “pervert good dispositions” and lead to “rapacity and injustice.”
The most terrifying proof of the susceptibility of civilization was the phenomenon of captivity. Gallons of ink were expended on this subject in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the captivity narrative became one of the first indigenous genres of American popular literature. Scores of these homespun tales gorged the market, filling roughly the same slot as horror does today. The central mystery that confronted Americans was, why did so many people captured by Indians adapt so quickly to their new lives, forget their own cultures, families, languages, and religions, and blend seamlessly into Indian society?
It was a well documented phenomenon. In 1764, at the end of Pontiac’s War, Col. Henry Bouquet “liberated” hundreds of European captives in Ohio, only to have a large proportion of them decline to be rescued. When the redcoats forced them to march back east, sure that they would soon recover their senses, dozens escaped to return to their Indian villages. Those who stayed behind eventually became known as “white Indians,” feared and vilified for combining the enterprize and discipline of Englishmen with the treachery and ruthlessness of Indians. One of them, Simon Girty, achieved such a legendary reputation fighting for the Indians that Stephen Vincent Benet made him a prominent member of the Devil’s jury in The Devil and Daniel Webster. Nineteenth-century engravings portrayed him as a shriveled, twisted creature with a maddened expression.
Today we notice with suspicion that women, African Americans, and other marginalized groups were particularly likely to “succumb” to Indian life. Girty himself was an abused child. But these are our explanations, not theirs. At the time, it was such a baffling phenomenon that they struggled to account for it as a universal human tendency to degenerate into a savage state from a hard-won pinnacle of civilization. Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1753,
when an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.
The settlers on the frontier had a less detached attitude than Franklin. They believed that the Indians were exercizing a mysterious power over their captives. Significantly, they did not call it captivity; they called it “captivation.” They regarded it with terror and mistrust. The most famous frontiersman of all, Daniel Boone, succumbed to captivation during a six-month sojourn as Sheltowee, adoptive son of the Shawnee chief Blackfish, in 1777-78. When he returned to Boonesborough, the town he had founded, the residents put him on trial for collaboration with the enemy. He was tainted with suspicion ever after, because he had shown the moral weakness of failing to resist.
All of this is far more understandable when one minds the beliefs underlying the settlers’ reactions. They had long experience with captivity, after all; fairies had been ensnaring Britons for centuries, almost always with tragic results. With Tam Lin echoing in their minds, is it any wonder that they reacted to Indian captivity the way they did?
All of this leaves an interesting dilemma for historians like me. If we acknowledge the role mythology played in the surviving first-hand accounts of Native Americans, how are we ever going to learn the truth about the people themselves? What I want to know is, what were the Indians really like?
People like the wily but nearly illiterate George Croghan, who lived with the Shawnee and Delaware for years and achieved enormous power representing the Crown at their tribal councils, swore they had cultural and character traits that we find eerily similar to the traditions of the Sidhe he had doubtless learned growing up in Ireland. Should we discount his testimony, or could there have been some reality underlying his claim?
The truly interesting question here is the chicken or the egg. That is, did Celtic frontiersmen see only what they expected to see, so that their perceptions (and the historical record they produced) were irretrievably tainted with an overlay of myth? If so, then we will never know what the Indians were actually like in the 1770s. Since they left no written record of their own, no plausible evidence survives. I, who study American Indian history, might as well be studying fairies.
Or could it be the other way around— that Europeans’ earliest experiences of non-European peoples actually gave rise to stories about the nature of supernatural beings, perhaps overlaid on earlier and less detailed traditions? Could the folk tales reflect a literary means of coping with real-world experiences of the Other?
Or could the tales reflect something universal about the reality of human nature when it is unrestrained by society and custom? I’m not sure I even want to go there, since it smells of determinism, but in the interest of objectivity we have to ask the question.
The fact is, these were and are still dangerous ideas. This made the reading of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell an uncomfortable and double-visiony thing for me. It was impossible for me not to think of the fairies as the indigenous, colonized peoples of the British Isles, and I actually suspect this was Clarke’s intent. At the same time, she does make you really long to smack those fairies down, or exile them to fairy reservations. Maybe this is the cleverest thing the book does—it makes you realize that, presented with a different balance of power, even you and I, enlightened liberals though we are, might react much as our ancestors did to Indians.
Carolyn Ives Gilman is the author of Halfway Human, a novel, a great deal of short fiction, and a body of work of 18th- and 19th-century American history, particularly Native and frontier history. She has published two volumes in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces Series, Candle in a Bottle: A Novella and Aliens of the Heart: Short Fiction.