Native Americans as a Part of the American Frontier Zack Powell



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Native Americans as a Part of the American Frontier

Zack Powell

When a person thinks of the American frontier it is likely that they think of cowboys and Indians and duels in the street. However, the American frontier goes back a lot farther than that, all the way to the first Spanish conquistadors who wandered around what would become the southern part of the U.S., one theme that connects the first explorers to the cowboys is Natives. From the very first writing about America it was clear the unknown parts were dangerous and most of this danger came from the Indians who were the original inhabitants. This theme can be seen played out in various ways from Cabeza de Vaca living among the Indians to the captivity narrative found in writings by Mary Rowlandson. As the landscape of America changed so did the frontier, people moved west and found that the Natives were in the way. This change is paralleled in the evolution of America literature.

The first writing about exploring the southern U.S. comes from Cabeza de Vaca, his book The Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition describes his nine-year journey from Florida through Texas and into Mexico. The original crew numbered 600 men when they left Spain in 1527. Through a combination of Indian attacks, starvation and bad weather only 4 men managed to return to Spain in 1536. Cabeza de Vaca’s account gives a good early picture of what it was like on the American frontier especially in relation to the Natives. Because he had to live amongst the Indians as a trader, slave, and eventually shaman he gives a portrayal of the culture that most of his contemporaries did not. There is a strong contrast between how Cabeza de Vaca feels about the Indians at the end of the book and how he originally felt. It can be seen at the end of the book that Cabeza de Vaca was sympathetic towards the Indians, he says “Thereupon we had many and bitter quarrels with the Christians for they wanted to make slaves of our Indians, and we grew so angry at it that we forgot to take along many bows , pouches, and arrows," (de Vaca, 95). The compassion that Cabeza de Vaca shows in this passage is a direct function of living with the Indians for a long period. He realizes that they live a pretty good life and has grown to respect them.

As a result of this respect Cabeza de Vaca gives a much more humanizing portrait of the natives, again in contrast to other explorers of the time who thought of them as animals. One particular aspect of this story is the detail with which De Vaca describes each new tribe he encounters. On example of this comes from page 90: “But when it pleased God our Lord to take us to those Indians, the respected us and held us to be precious, as the former ones had done, and even a little more so. This astonished us somewhat, while it clearly shows how, in order to bring these people to Christianity and obedience unto Your Imperial Majesty, they should be well treated, and not otherwise” (de Vaca, 90). Just the fact the Cabeza de Vaca thought that they natives should be treated fairly is something that sets him apart and further emphasizes the respect he had for them after living with them for nine years. However, this treatment is generally something that is not continued with the future exploration of America.

Almost 250 years after Cabeza de Vaca was wandering around Texas, Lewis and Clark set out on what is now one of the most famous expeditions in American history. Traveling from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back over the course of 2 years the men encountered many different Indian tribes most of which treated the expedition with respect and were willing to trade. A reading of their journals reveals that they had many of the same experiences as Cabeza de Vaca granted without the constant hunger and threats of slavery. Both Lewis and Clark kept good journals of the expedition that give a day to day account of hunting, interacting with natives and surviving a hostile environment. Lewis and Clark also treated the Natives the same way that Cabeza de Vaca did, giving detailed accounts of each tribe and how they responded to contact with the white man. An example of this devotion to detail is seen in Clark’s journal entry from November 9, 1804: “The Mandans Graze their horses in the day on Grass, and at night give them a Stick [NB: an arm full] of Cotton wood [NB: boughs] to eate, Horses Dogs & people all pass the night in the Same Lodge or round House, Covd. with earth with a fire in the middle.” (2). As well as treating the Natives fairly well when they first met the men thought that it would be more responsible to try and trade with the Natives rather than conquer them.

There is one thing that relates both of these stories and at the same time makes them atypical when it comes to frontier literature. The fact that both of the pieces are about exploring a new frontier rather than settling it shows how those two situations are different. When simply exploring a new place, the people who live there already are more likely to be seen as a resource and treated nicely, whereas when people are settling that same new territory it is more likely that the Natives will be seen as a nuisance and at the same time primitive. This contrast explains the difference between pieces of literature like Cabeza de Vaca and Lewis and Clark and more familiar tales of the Indians being exploited and eventually destroyed. A primitive civilization needs to be improved and helped progress towards what is “the right way to do things.” This is partly what motivates the settlers of the American Frontier to treat the Natives as animals. This is not a particularly new way to view a new culture but it is responsible for the horrific mistreatment of Native Americans in the 19th century.

This more prominent view of the Indians as in the way is evident in anything written about a place where settlers are moving into previously Indian territory, whether that is eastern Massachusetts in the 17th century or the Dakotas in the 19th. One famous way that this frontier was explored in American literature is the captivity narrative, a type of writing in which a settler is taken captive by the natives and is forced to live with them for some period of time. Due to the circumstances of their interaction the people who are taken captive usually have a negative opinion of the Indians, which is understandable. Through these stories we are given a different perspective of the Indians that is in sharp contrast to what was explored above. Instead of respecting the Indians and remaining curious about their culture the captives are usually appalled by the violence they encounter and the “savageness” of their captors.

In early 1675 the stage was set for a famous early example of this captivity narrative, Mary Rowlandson and her family had moved to Lancaster, Massachusetts which was then the frontier in America. Being on the edge of civilization was dangerous and the Rowlandson family paid the price for being some of the first white people into this area. Their home was attacked and many people were killed with the rest taken captive, Rowlandson writes, “On the tenth of February 1675, came the Indians with great numbers upon Lancaster: their first coming was about sunrising; hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven.” Even though Cabeza de Vaca and Lewis and Clark had harrowing experiences with the Natives, this is one of the first accounts of the Natives attacking the white settlers who were taking their land. It is hard to imagine what the people of Lancaster must have been thinking when a horde of Indians attacked their small village. Rowlandson describes the Indians in a very different way than the two earlier stories when describing the attack itself she writes; “One of my elder sisters' children, named William, had then his leg broken, which the Indians perceiving, they knocked him on [his] head. Thus were we butchered by those merciless heathen, standing amazed, with the blood running down to our heels.” It is important to note that she describes the Indians as “merciless heathen,” this stresses the difference of opinion between Mary Rowlandson and Cabeza de Vaca.

Throughout the rest of her captivity Mrs. Rowlandson continues to describe the Indians as uncivilized beasts, “Little do many think what is the savageness and brutishness of this barbarous enemy”(Rowlandson). Even though she is eventually reunited with what is left of her family, her story is a fine example of the other side of the frontier story, the Indians as evil people who were in the way of the “march of civilization.” As America continued to expand ever westward these types of incidents became more frequent until it escalated into all-out war in the 19th century.

There is one book that we read in class that walks the line between Cabeza de Vaca and Mary Rowlandson. The Deerslayer by James Cooper romanticizes the Indians but also portrays them as savages who were below Europeans in the natural order of things. Cooper is one of the first authors to popularize the “noble savage,” a type of person who is remembered fondly only because he does not exist anymore. In this book the main character, Deerslayer, spends a lot of time talking about “gifts “ and how white men have different talents than the “savages.” The book is set in the mid-18th century during a time in which the Indians of New England were fighting their last battles to protect their homeland. This is also the beginning of the end for Native Americans after this point they are constantly in retreat until they are all on reservations. An example from the text that combines the noble savage idea with the encroachment of white civilization can be found on page 432.

“Rivenoak had escaped with life and limb, but he was injured and a prisoner. As Captain Warley and his ensign went into the ark, they passed him, seated in dignified silence in one end of the scow, his head and leg bound, but betraying no visible sign of despondency or despair. That he mourned the loss of his tribe is certain; still he did it in a manner that best became a warrior and a chief”

(Cooper, 432).


This passage shows Cooper’s sympathy towards the Indians and his respect for their customs while at the same time showing what happens when the white man gets his hands on new territory.

While Cooper does not seem to promote or condemn the mistreatment of the Indians, his book has parallels to all the books previously mentioned. On one side there are the Hutters who are white settlers living on the frontier, the good guys of the story, and on the other there are the Indians who are portrayed as savages. Cooper is essential neutral towards the Natives, he respects their culture but he recognizes that they will inevitably be worn down by the aforementioned “march of civilization.”

Frontier authors dealt with Native Americans in a variety of ways as America changed from unexplored wilderness to a flourishing country. Early explorers generally treated the Natives nicely which can be seen in the writings of Cabeza de Vaca and Lewis and Clark. However, as people started moving into Indian territory the relationship became more contentious as seen in Cooper and Rowlandson. An important thing to consider in in this evolution of public perception is the increase in literacy in America. When Cabeza de Vaca was writing not many people, in America at least, were capable of reading his work. However, when Cooper was writing, a majority of people could read meaning that his portrayal of the natives is the one that was more engrained in the public consciousness. It is not apparent whether life influenced literature or vice-versa, but it is apparent that the enduring perception of Native Americans is that of the “noble savage” first popularized by James Fenimore Cooper. This picture may or may not have something to do with the brutality inflicted on the Indians but is irrevocably the legacy that American frontier literature left for the native people of America.

Works Cited

1. Cooper, James Fenimore. Deerslayer. New York: Dover, 2007. Print.

2. Lewis, Meriwether, Clark, William, et al. November 9, 1804. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Ed. Gary Moulton. Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 2002.The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 2005. U of Nebraska Press / U of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center. 30 Nov. 2012.
3. Rowlandson, Mary The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/rownarr.html.

30 Nov, 2012.


4. Vaca, Cabeza de. Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition. New York: Penguin Group. Print.


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