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"Jim Fergus knows his country in a way that's evocative Dee Brown and all the other great writers of the American West and its native peoples. But One Thousand White Women is more than a chronicle of the Old West. It's a superb tale of sorrow, suspense, exultation, and triumph that leaves the reader waiting to turn the page and wonderfully wrung out at the end." —Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump
"The best writing transports readers to another time and place, so that when they reluctantly close the book, they are astonished to find themselves returned to their everyday lives. One Thousand White Women is such a book. Jim Fergus so skillfully envelops us in the heart and mind of his main character, May Dodd, that we weep when she mourns, we shake our fist at anyone who tries to sway her course, and our hearts pound when she is in danger." —Colorado Springs Gazette
"An impressive historical...terse, convincing, and affecting." —Kirkus Reviews
A Train Bound for Glory
“Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called ‘civilized’ people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the ravages.”
(from the journals of May Dodd)
[NOTE: The following entry, undated, appears on the first page of the first notebook of May Dodd’s journal.]
I leave this record for my dear children, Hortense and William, in the event that they never see their loving mother again and so that they might one day know the truth of my unjust incarceration, my escape from Hell, and into whatever is to come in these pages …
23 March 1875
Today is my birthday, and I have received the greatest gift of all—freedom! I make these first poor scribblings aboard the westbound Union Pacific train which departed Union Station Chicago at 6:35 a.m. this morning, bound for Nebraska Territory. We are told that it will be a fourteen-day trip with many stops along the way, and with a change of trains in Omaha. Although our final destination was intended to have been concealed from us, I have ascertained from overhearing conversations among our military escort (they underestimate a woman’s auditory powers) that we are being taken first to Fort Sidney aboard the train—from there transported by wagon train to Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, and then on to Camp Robinson, Nebraska Territory.
How strange is life. To think that I would find myself on this train, embarking upon this long journey, watching the city retreating behind me. I sit facing backwards on the train in order to have a last glimpse of Chicago, the layer of dense black coal smoke that daily creeps out over the beach of Lake Michigan like a giant parasol, the muddy, bustling city passing by me for the last time. How I have missed this loud, raucous city since my dark and silent incarceration. And now I feel like a character in a theater play, torn from the real world, acting out some terrible and as yet unwritten role. How I envy these people I watch from the train window, hurrying off to the safety of their daily travails while we are borne off, captives of fate into the great unknown void.
Now we pass the new shanties that ring the city, that have sprung up everywhere since the great fire of’71. Little more than cobbled-together scraps of lumber they teeter in the wind like houses of cards, to form a kind of rickety fence around the perimeters of Chicago—as if somehow trying to contain the sprawling metropolis. Filthy half-dressed children play in muddy yards and stare blankly at us as we pass, as if we, or perhaps they, are creatures from some other world. How I long for my own dear children! What I would give to see them one last time, to hold them … now I press my hand against the train window to wave to one tiny child who reminds me somehow of my own sweet son William, but this poor child’s hair is fair and greasy, hanging in dirty ringlets around his mud-streaked face. His eyes are intensely blue and he raises his tiny hand tentatively as we pass to return my greeting … I should say my farewell … I watch him growing smaller and smaller and then we leave these last poor outposts behind as the eastern sun illuminates the retreating city—the stage fades smaller and smaller into the distance. I watch as long as I can and only then do I finally gain the courage to change seats, to give up my dark and troubled past and turn around to face an uncertain and terrifying future. And when I do so the breath catches in my throat at the immensity of earth that lies before us, the prairie unspeakable in its vast, lonely reaches. Dizzy and faint at the sight of it, I feel as if the air has been sucked from my lungs, as if I have fallen off the edge of the world, and am hurtling headlong through empty space. And perhaps I have … perhaps I am …
But dear God, forgive me, I shall never again utter a complaint, I shall always remind myself how wonderful it is to be free, how I prayed for this moment every day of my life, and my prayers are answered! The terror in my heart of what lies ahead seems of little consequence compared with the prospect of spending my lifetime as an “inmate” in that loathsome “prison”—for it was a prison far more than a hospital, we were prisoners rather than patients. Our “medical treatment” consisted of being held captive behind iron bars, like animals in the zoo, ignored by indifferent doctors, tortured, taunted, and assaulted by sadistic attendants.
My definition of LUNATIC ASYLUM: A place where lunatics are created.
“Why am I here?” I asked Dr. Kaiser, when he first came to see me, fully a fortnight after my “admittance.”
“Why, due to your promiscuous behavior,” he answered as if genuinely surprised that I dare to even pose such a query.
“But I am in love!” I protested, and then I told him about Harry Ames. “My family placed me here because I left home to live out of wedlock with a man whom they considered to be beneath my station. For no better reason than that. When they could not convince me to leave him, they tore me from him, and from my babies. Can you not see, Doctor, that I’m no more insane than you?”
Then the doctor raised his eyebrows and scribbled on his notepad, nodding with an infuriating air of sanctimony. “Ah,” he said, “I see—you believe that you were sent here as part of a conspiracy among your family.” And he rose and left me and I did not see him again for nearly six months.
During this initial period I was subject to excruciating “treatments” prescribed by the good doctor to cure me of my “illness.” These consisted of daily injections of scalding water into my vagina—evidently intended to calm my deranged sexual desires. At the same time, I was confined to my bed for weeks on end—forbidden from fraternizing with the other patients, not allowed to read, write letters, or pursue any other diversion. The nurses and attendants did not speak to me, as if I did not exist. I endured the further humiliation of being forced to use a bedpan, although there was nothing whatsoever physically wrong with me. Were I to protest or if I was found by a nurse out of my bed, I would be strapped into it for the remainder of the day and night.
It was during this period of confinement that I truly lost my mind. If the daily torture weren’t enough, the complete isolation and inactivity were in themselves insupportable. I longed for fresh air and exercise, to promenade along Lake Michigan as I once had … At great risk I would steal from my bed before dawn and stand on a chair in my room, straining to see out through the iron bars that covered the tiny shaded window—just to catch one glimpse of daylight, one patch of green grass on the lawn outside. I wept bitterly at my fate, but I struggled against the tears, willed them away. For I had also learned that I must not allow anyone on staff to see me weep, lest it be said in addition to the doctor’s absurd diagnosis of promiscuity, that I was also victim of Hysteria or Melancholia … which would only be cause for further tortures.
Let me here set down, once and for ever, the true circumstances of my incarceration.
Four years ago I fell in love with a man named Harry Ames. Harry was several years my senior and foreman of Father’s grain-elevator operations. We met at my parents’ home, where Harry came regularly to consult with Father on business matters. Harry is a very attractive man, if somewhat rough around the edges, with strong masculine arms and a certain workingman’s self-confidence. He was nothing like the insipid, privileged boys with whom girls of my station are reduced to socializing at tea and cotillion. Indeed, I was quite swept away by Harry’s charms … one thing led to another … yes well, surely by the standards of some I might be called promiscuous.
I am not ashamed to admit that I have always been a woman of passionate emotions and powerful physical desires. I do not deny them. I came to full flower at an early age, and had always quite intimidated the awkward young men of my family’s narrow social circle.
Harry was different. He was a man; I was drawn to him like a moth to flame. We began to see each other secretly. Both of us knew that Father would never condone our relationship and Harry was as anxious about being found out as I—for he knew that it would cost him his job. But we could not resist one another—we could not stay apart.
The very first time I lay with Harry I became with child—my daughter Hortense. Truly, I felt her burst into being in my womb in the consummation of our love. I must say, Harry behaved like a gentleman, and assumed full responsibility. He offered to marry me, which I flatly refused, for although I loved him, and still do, I am an independent, some might say, an unconventional woman. I was not prepared to marry. I would not, however, give up my child, and so without explanation I moved out of my parents’ home and took up residence with my beloved in a shabby little house on the banks of the Chicago River, where we lived very simply and happily for a time.
Naturally, it was not long before Father learned about his foreman’s deception, and promptly dismissed him. But Harry soon found work with one of Father’s competitors and I, too, found employment. I went to work in a factory that processed prairie chickens for the Chicago market. It was filthy, exhausting work, for which my privileged upbringing had in no way prepared me. At the same time, and perhaps for the same reason, it was oddly liberating to be out in the real world, and making my own way there.
I gave birth to Hortense and almost immediately became pregnant again with my son William … sweet Willie. I tried to maintain contact with my parents—I wished them to know their grandchildren, and not to judge me too harshly for having chosen a different path for myself. But Mother was largely hysterical whenever I arranged to visit her—indeed. it is she, perhaps, who should have been institutionalized, not I—and Father was inflexible and refused to even see me when I came to the house. I finally stopped going there altogether, and kept up only a tenuous contact with the family through my older married sister, also named Hortense.
By the time I gave birth to Willie, Harry and I had begun to have some difficulties. I wonder now if Father’s agents were already working on him, even then, for he seemed to change almost overnight, to become distant and remote. He began to drink and to stay out all night, and when he came home I could smell the other women on him. It broke my heart, for I still loved him. Still, I was more than ever glad that I had not married him.
It was on one such night when Harry was away that Father’s blackguards came. They burst through the door of our house in the middle of the night accompanied by a nurse, who snatched up my babies and spirited them away as the men restrained me. I fought them for all I was worth—screaming, kicking, biting, and scratching, but, of course, to no avail. I have not seen my children since that dark night.
I was taken directly to the lunatic asylum, where I was consigned to lie in bed in my darkened room, day after day, week after week, month after month, with nothing to occupy my time but my daily torture and constant thoughts of my babies—I had no doubt they were living with Father and Mother. I did not know what had become of Harry and was haunted by thoughts of him … (Harry, my Harry, love of my life, father of my children, did Father reward you with pieces of gold to give me up to his ruffians in the middle of the night? Did you sell your own babies to him? Or did he simply have you murdered? Perhaps I shall never know the truth … )
All of my misery for the crime of falling in love with a common man. All of my heartbreak, torture, and punishment because I chose to bring you, my dearest children, into the world. All of my black and hopeless despair because I chose an unconventional life …
Ah, but surely nothing that has come before can be considered unconventional in light of where I am now going! Let me record the exact events that led me to be on this train: Two weeks ago, a man and a woman came into the ladies dayroom at the asylum. Owing to the nature of my “affliction” —my “moral perversion,” as it was described in my commitment papers (a sham and a travesty—how many other women I wonder have been locked away like this for no just cause!), I was among those patients strictly segregated by gender, prohibited even from fraternizing with members of the opposite sex—presumably for fear that I might try to copulate with them. Good God! On the other hand, my diagnosis seemed to be considered an open invitation to certain male members of the asylum staff to visit my room in the middle of the night. How many times did I wake up, as if suffocating, with the weight of one particularly loathsome attendant named Franz pressed upon me, a fat stinking German, corpulent and sweating … God help me, I prayed to kill him.
The man and woman looked us over appraisingly as if we were cattle auction, and then they chose six or seven among us to come with them to a private staff room. Conspicuously absent from this group were any of the older women or any of the hopelessly, irredeemably insane—those who sit rocking and moaning for hours on end, or who weep incessantly or hold querulous conversations with their demons. No, these poor afflicted were passed over and the more “presentable” of us lunatics chosen for an audience with our visitors.
After we had retired to the private staff room, the gentleman, a Mr. Benton, explained that he was interviewing potential recruits for a government program that involved the Indians of the Western plains. The woman, who he introduced as Nurse Crowley, would, with our consent, perform a physical examination upon us. Should we be judged, based on the interview and examination, to be suitable candidates for the program, we might be eligible for immediate release from this hospital. Yes! Naturally, I was intrigued by the proposal. Yet there was a further condition of family consent, which I had scant hope of ever obtaining.
Still I volunteered my full cooperation. Truly, even an interview and a physical examination seemed preferable to the endless hours of agonizing monotony spent sitting or lying in bed, with nothing to pass the time besides foreboding thoughts about the injustice of my sentence and the devastating loss of my babies—the utter hopelessness of my situation and the awful anticipation of my next “treatment.”
“Did I have any reason to believe that I was not fruitful?”—this was the first question posed to me by Nurse Crowley at the beginning of her examination. I must say I was taken aback—but I answered promptly, already having set my mind to passing this test, whatever its purpose. “Au contraire!” I said, and I told the nurse of the two precious children I had already borne out of wedlock, the son and daughter, who were so cruelly torn from their mother’s bosom.
“Indeed,” I said, “so fruitful am I that if my beloved Harry Ames, Esq., simply gazed upon me with a certain romantic longing in his eyes, babes sprang from my loins like seed spilling from a grain sack!”
(I must mention the unmentionable: the sole reason I did not become with child by the repulsive attendant Franz, the monster who visited me by night, is that the pathetic cretin sprayed his revolting discharge on my bedcovers, humping and moaning and weeping bitterly in his premature agonies.)
I feared that I may have gone too far in my enthusiasm to impress Nurse Crowley with my fertility, for she looked at me with that tedious and by now all too familiar expression of guardedness with which people regard the insane—and the alleged insane alike—as if our maladies might be contagious.
But apparently I passed my initial examination, for next I was interviewed by Mr. Benton himself, who also asked me a series of distinctly queer questions: Did I know how to cook over a campfire? Did I enjoy spending time outdoors? Did I enjoy sleeping out overnight? What was my personal estimation of the western savage?
“The western savage?” I interrupted. “Having never met any western savages, Sir, it would be difficult for me to have formed any estimation of them one way or another.”
Finally Mr. Benton got down to the business at hand: “Would you be willing to make a great personal sacrifice in the service of your government?” he asked.
“But of course,” I answered without hesitation.
“Would you consider an arranged marriage to a western savage for the express purpose of bearing a child with him?”
“Hah!” I barked a laugh of utter astonishment. “But why on earth?” I asked, more curious than offended. “For what purpose?”
“To ensure a lasting peace on the Great Plains,” Mr. Benton answered. “To provide safe passage to our courageous settlers from the constant depredations of the bloodthirsty barbarians.”
“I see,” I said, but of course, I did not altogether.
“As part of our agreement,” added Mr. Benton, “your President will demonstrate his eternal gratitude to you by arranging for your immediate release from this institution.”
“Truly? I would be released from this place?” I asked, trying to conceal the trembling in my voice.
“That is absolutely guaranteed,” he said, “assuming that your legal guardian, if such exists, is willing to sign the necessary consent forms.”
Already I was formulating my plan for this last major hurdle to my freedom, and again I answered without a moment’s hesitation. I stood and curtsied deeply, weak in the knees, both from my months of idle confinement and pure excitement at the prospect of freedom: “I should be deeply honored, Sir, to perform this noble duty for my country,” I said, “to offer my humble services to the President of the United States.” The truth is that I would have gladly signed on for a trip to Hell to escape the lunatic asylum … and, yet, perhaps that is exactly what I have done …
As to the critical matter of obtaining my parents’ consent, let me say in preface, that although I may have been accused of insanity and promiscuity, no one has ever taken me for an idiot.
It was the responsibility of the hospital’s chief physician, my own preposterous diagnostician, Dr. Sidney Kaiser, to notify the families of those patients under consideration for the BFI program (these initials stand for “Brides for Indians” as Mr. Benton explained to us) and invite them to the hospital to be informed of the program and to obtain their signatures on the necessary release papers—at which time the patients would be free to participate in the program if they so chose. In the year and a half that I had been incarcerated there against my will, I had, as I may have mentioned, been visited only twice by the good doctor. However, through my repeated but futile efforts to obtain an audience with him, I had become acquainted with his assistant, Martha Atwood, a fine woman who took pity on me, who befriended me. Indeed, Martha became my sole friend and confidante in that wretched place. Without her sympathy and visits, and the many small kindnesses she bestowed upon me, I do not know how I could have survived.
As we came to know one another, Martha was more than ever convinced that I did not belong in the asylum, that I was no more insane than she, and that, like other women there, I had been committed unjustly by my family. When this opportunity presented itself for me to “escape,” she agreed to help me in my desperate plan. First she “borrowed” correspondence from Father out of my file in Dr. Kaiser’s office, and she had made a duplicate of his personal letterhead. Together we forged a letter in Father’s hand, written to Dr. Kaiser, in which Father explained that he was traveling on business and would be unable to attend the proposed meeting at the institution. Dr. Kaiser would have no reason to question this; he was aware of Father’s position as president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, for which Father had designed and built the entire grain-elevator system—the largest and most advanced such warehouse in the city, as he is forever reminding us. Father’s job involved nearly constant travel, and as a child I rarely saw him. In our forged letter to Dr. Kaiser, Martha and I, or I should say “Father,” wrote that the family had recently been contacted directly by the government regarding my participation in the BFI program and that Agent Benton had personally guaranteed him my safety for the duration of my stay in Indian territory. Because Martha had been privy to the entire interview process, I knew that I had passed all the necessary requirements and had been judged to be a prime candidate for the program (not that this represents any great accomplishment on my part considering that the main criterion for acceptance was that one be of child-bearing age and condition, and not so insane as to be incapacitated. It is, I believe, safe to say that the government was less interested in the success of these matrimonial unions than they were in meeting their quota— something that Father, ever the businessman and pragmatist could appreciate).
Thus in our letter, Father gave his full blessing for me to participate in, as I believe we wrote “this exciting and high-minded plan to assimilate the heathens.” I know that Father has always viewed the western savages primarily as an impediment to the growth of American agriculture—he detests the notion of all that fertile plain going to waste when it could be put to good Biblical use filling his grain elevators. The truth is, Father harbors a deep-seated hatred of the Red Man simply for being a poor businessman—a shortcoming which Father believes to be the most serious character flaw of all. At his and Mother’s endless dinner parties he is fond of giving credit to his and his wealthy guests’ great good fortunes by toasting the Sac Chief Black Hawk, who once said that “land cannot be sold. Nothing can be sold but for those things that can be carried away”—a notion that Father found enormously quaint and amusing.
Too—and I must acknowledge this fact—I believe that secretly Father might actually have appreciated this opportunity to be rid of me, of the shame that my behavior, my “condition” has brought on our family. For if the truth be known, Father is a terrible snob. In his circle of friends and business cronies the stigma of having a lunatic—or, even worse, a sexually promiscuous daughter—must have been nearly unbearable for him.
So he went on in his letter, in his typically overblown but distracted manner—in the same tone he might employ if he were giving permission for me to be sent off to finishing school for young ladies (perhaps it is simply due to the fact that the same blood flows through our veins, but it was almost diabolically simple for me to imitate Father’s writing style)—to state his conviction that the “bracing Western air, the hearty native life in the glorious out-of-doors, and the fascinating cultural exchange might be just what my poor wayward daughter requires to set her addled mind right again.” It is an astonishing thing, is it not, the notion of a father being asked (and giving!) permission for his daughter to copulate with savages?
Enclosed with Father’s letter were the signed hospital release papers, all of which Martha had delivered by private messenger to Dr. Kaiser’s office—a tidy and ultimately perfectly convincing little package.
Of course, when her part in the deception was discovered, as it surely would be, Martha knew that she faced immediate dismissal—possibly even criminal prosecution. And thus it is, that my true, intrepid friend—childless and loveless (and if the truth be told rather plain to look upon), facing in all probability a life of spinsterhood and loneliness—enlisted in the BFI program herself. She rides beside me on this very train … and so at least I do not embark alone on this greatest adventure of my life.
24 March 1875
It would be disingenuous of me to say that I have no trepidations about the new life that awaits us. Mr. Benton assured us that we are contractually obligated to bear but one child with our Indian husbands, after which time we are free to go, or stay, as we choose. Should we fail to become with child, we are required to remain with our husbands for two full years, after which time we are free to do as we wish … or, at least, so say the authorities. It has not failed to occur to me that perhaps our new husbands might have different thoughts about this arrangement. Still, it seems to me a rather small price to pay to escape that living Hell of an asylum to which I would quite likely have been committed for the rest of my life. But now that we have actually embarked upon this journey, our future so uncertain, and so unknown, it is impossible not to have misgivings. How ironic that in order to escape the lunatic asylum I have had to embark upon the most insane undertaking of my life.
But honestly, I believe that poor naive Martha is eager for the experience; excited about her matrimonial prospects, she seems to be fairly blooming in anticipation! Why just a few moments ago she asked me, in rather a breathless voice, if I might give her some advice about carnal matters! (It appears that, due to the reason given for my incarceration, everyone connected with the institution—even my one true friend—seems to consider me somewhat of an authority in such matters.)
“What sort of advice, dear friend?” I asked.
Now Martha became terribly shy, lowered her voice even further, leaned forward, and whispered. “Well … advice about … about how best to make a man happy … I mean to say, about how to satisfy the cravings of a man’s flesh.”
I laughed at her charming innocence. Martha hopes to carnally satisfy her savage! “Let us assume, first of all,” I answered, “that the aboriginals are similar in their physical needs to men of our own noble race. And we have no reason to believe otherwise, do we? If indeed all men are similarly disposed in matters of the heart and of the flesh, it is my limited experience that the best way to make them happy—if that is your true goal—is to wait on them hand and foot, cook for them, have sexual congress whenever and wherever they desire—but never initiate the act yourself and do not demonstrate any forwardness or longings of your own; this appears to frighten men—most of whom are merely little boys pretending to be men. And, perhaps most importantly, just as most men fear women who express their physical longings, so they dislike women who express opinions—of any sort and on any subject. All these things I learned from Mr. Harry Ames. Thus I would recommend that you agree unequivocably with everything your new husband says … oh, yes, one final thing—let him believe that he is extremely well endowed, even if, especially if, he is not.”
“But how will I know whether or not he is well endowed?” asked my poor innocent Martha.
“My dear,” I answered. “You do know the difference between, let us say a breakfast sausage and a bratwurst? A cornichon and a cucumber? A pencil and a pine tree?”
Martha blushed a deep shade of crimson, covered her mouth, and began to giggle uncontrollably. And I, too, laughed with her. It occurs to me how long it has been since I really laughed … it does feel wonderful to laugh again.
27 March 1875
My Dearest Sister Hortense,
You have by this time perhaps heard news of my sudden departure from Chicago. My sole regret is that I was unable to be present when the family was notified of the circumstances of my “escape” from the “prison” from which you had all conspired to commit me. I would especially have enjoyed seeing Father’s reaction when he learned that I am soon to become a bride—yes, that’s right, I am to wed, and perforce, couple with a genuine Savage of the Cheyenne Nation!—Hah! Speaking of moral perversion. I can just hear Father blustering: “My God, she really is insane!” What I would give to see his face!
Now, truly, haven’t you always known that your poor wayward little sister would one day embark on such an adventure, perform such a momentous deed? Imagine me, if you are able, riding this rumbling train west into the great unknown void of the frontier. Can you picture two more different lives than ours? You within the snug (though how dreary it must be!) confines of the Chicago bourgeoisie, married to your pale banker Walter Woods, with your brood of pale offspring—how many are there now, I lose track, four, five, six of the little monsters?—each as colorless and shapeless as unkneaded bread dough.
But forgive me, my sister, if I appear to be attacking you. It is only that I may now, at last—freely and without censor or fear of recriminations— voice my anger to those among my own family who so ill-treated me; I can speak my mind without the constant worry of further confirming my insanity, without the ever-present danger that my children will be torn from me forever—for all this has come to pass, and I have nothing left to lose. At last I am free—in body, mind, and spirit … or as free as one can be who has purchased her freedom with her womb …
But enough of that … now I must tell you something of my adventure, of our long journey, of the extraordinary country I am seeing. I must tell you of all that is fascinating and lonely and desolate … you who have barely set foot outside Chicago, can simply not imagine it all. The city is bursting at its very seams, abustle with rebuilding out of the ashes of the devastating great fire, expanding like a living organism out into the prairie (well, is it any wonder then that the savages rebel as they are pushed ever further west?). You cannot imagine the crowds, the human congress, the sheer activity on what used to be wild prairie when we were children. Our train passed through the new stockyard district—very near the neighborhood where Harry and I lived. (You never did come to visit us, did you, Hortense? … Why does that not surprise me?) There the smokestacks spew clouds of all colors of the rainbow—blue and orange and red—which when they enter the air seem to intermingle like oil paints mixed on a palette. It is quite beautiful in a grotesque sort of way, like the paintings of a mad god. Past the slaughterhouses, where the terrified cries of dumb beasts can be heard even over the steady din of the train, their sickening stench filling the car like rancid syrup. Finally the train burst from the shroud of smoke that blankets the city, as though it had come out of a dense fog into the clear-plowed farm country, the freshly turned soil black and rich, Father’s beloved grain crops just beginning to break ground.
I must tell you that in spite of Father’s insistence to the contrary, the true beauty of the prairie lies not in the perfect symmetry of farmlands, but where the farmlands end and the real prairie begins—a sea of natural grass like a living, breathing thing undulating all the way to the horizon. Today I saw prairie chickens, flocks of what must have been hundreds, thousands, flushing away in clouds from the tracks as we passed. I could only imagine the sound of their wings over the roar of the train. How extraordinary to see them on the wing like this after the year I spent laboring in that wretched factory where we processed the birds and where I thought I could never bear to look at another chicken as long as I lived. I know that you and the rest of the family could not understand my decision to take such menial work or to live out of wedlock with a man so far beneath my station in life, and that this has always been spoken of among you as the first outward manifestation of my insanity. But, don’t you see, Hortense, it was precisely our cloistered upbringing under Mother and Father’s roof that spurred me to seek contact with a larger world. I’d have suffocated, died of sheer boredom, if I stayed any longer in that dark and dreary house, and although the work I took in the factory was indeed loathsome, I will never regret having done it. I learned so much from the men and women with whom I toiled; I learned how the rest of the world—families less fortunate than ours, which, of course constitutes the vast majority of people—lives. This is something you can never know, dear sister, and which you will always be poorer in soul for having missed.
Not that I recommend to you a job in the chicken factory! Good God, I shall never get over the stink of it, my hands even now when I hold them up to my face seem to reek of chicken blood, feathers, and innards … I think that I shall never eat poultry again as long as I live! But I must say my interest in the birds is somewhat renewed in seeing the wild creatures flying up before the train like sparks from the wheels. They are so beautiful, fanning off against the setting sun, their tangents helping to break the long straight tedium of this journey. I have tried to interest my friend Martha, who sits beside me, in this spectacle of wings, but she is very soundly asleep, her head jostling gently against the train window.
But here has occurred an amusing encounter: As I was watching the birds flush from the tracks, a tall, angular, very pale woman with short-cropped sandy hair under an English tweed cap came hurrying down the aisle of our car, stooping to look out each window at the birds and then moving on to the next seat. She wears a man’s knickerbocker suit of Irish thornproof, in which, with her short hair and cap it might be easy to mistake her for a member of the opposite sex. Her mannish outfit includes a waistcoat, stockings, and heavy walking brogues, and she carries an artist’s sketch pad.
“Excuse me, please, won’t you?” the woman asked of each occupant of each seat in front of which she leaned in order to improve her view out the window. She spoke with a distinct British accent. “Do please excuse me. Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed, her eyebrows raised in an expression of delighted surprise. “Extraordinary! Magnificent! Glorious!”
By the time the Englishwoman reached the unoccupied seat beside me the prairie chickens had set their wings and sailed off over the horizon and she flopped down in the seat all gangly arms and legs. “Greater prairie chicken,” she said. “That is to say, Tympanuchus cupido, actually a member of the grouse family, commonly referred to as the prairie chicken. The first I’ve ever seen in the wilds, although, of course, I’ve seen specimens. And of course I have studied extensively the species’ eastern cousin, the heath hen, during my travels about New England. Named after the Greek tympananon, ‘kettledrum,’ and‘echein,’ to have a drum, aluding both to the enlarged esophagus on the sides of the throat, which in the male becomes inflated during courtship, as well as to the booming sound which the males utter in their aroused state. And further named after the ‘blind bow boy,’ son of Venus—not, however with any illusion to erotic concerns, I should hasten to add, but because the long, erectile, stiff feathers are raised like small rounded wings over the head of the male in his courtship display, and have therefore been likened to Cupid’s wings.”
Now the woman suddenly turned as if noticing me for the first time, and with the same look of perpetual surprise still etched in her milk-pale English countenance—eyebrows raised and a delighted smile at her lips as if the world itself were not only wonderful, but absolutely startling. I liked her immediately. “Do please excuse me for prattling on, won’t you? Helen Elizabeth Flight, here,” she said, thrusting her hand forward with manly forthrightness. “Perhaps you’re familiar with my work? My book Birds of Britain is currently in its third printing—letterpress provided by my dear companion and collaborator, Mrs. Ann Hall of Sunderland. Unfortunately, Mrs. Hall was too ill to accompany me when I embarked on my tour of America to gather specimens and make sketches for our next opus, Birds of America—not to be confused, of course, with Monsieur Audubon’s series of the same name. An interesting artist, Mr. Audubon, if rather too fanciful for my tastes. I’ve always found his birds to be rendered with such … caprice! Clearly he threw biological accuracy to the wind. Wouldn’t you agree?”
I could see that this question was intended to be somewhat more than rhetorical, but just as I was attempting to form an answer, Miss Flight asked: “And you are?” still looking at me with her eyebrows raised in astonished anticipation, as if my identity were not only a matter of the utmost urgency but also promised a great surprise.
“May Dodd,” I answered.
“Ah, May Dodd! Quite,” she said. “And a smart little picture of a girl you are, too. I suspected from your fair complexion that you might be of English descent.”
“Scottish actually,” I said, “but I’m thoroughly American, myself. I was born and raised in Chicago,” I added somewhat wistfully.
“And don’t tell me that a lovely creature like you has signed up to live with the savages?” asked Miss Flight.
“Why yes I have,” I said. “And you?”
“I’m afraid that I’ve run a trifle short of research funds,” explained Miss Flight with a small grimace of distaste for the subject. “My patrons were unwilling to advance me any more money for my American sojourn, and this seemed like quite the perfect opportunity for me to study the birdlife of the western prairies at no additional expense. A frightfully exciting adventure, don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” I said, with a laugh, “frightfully!”
“Although I must tell you a little secret,” she said, looking around us to see that we were not overheard. “I am unable to have children myself. I’m quite sterile! The result of a childhood infection.” Her eyebrows shot up with delight. “I lied to the examiner in order to be accepted into the program !
“Now you will excuse me, Miss Dodd, won’t you?” said Miss Flight, suddenly all business again. “That is to say, I must quickly make some sketches and record my impressions of the magnificent greater prairie chicken while the experience is still fresh in mind. I hope, when the train next stops, to be able to descend and shoot a few as specimens. I’ve brought with me my scattergun, especially manufactured for this journey by Featherstone, Elder & Story of Newcastle upon Tyne. Perhaps you are interested in firearms? If so, I’d love to show it to you. My patrons, before they ran into financial difficulties and left me stranded on this vast continent, had the gun especially built for me, specifically for my travels in America. I’m rather proud of it. But do excuse me, won’t you? I’m so terribly pleased to have met you. Wonderful that you’re along! We must speak at greater length. I have a feeling that you and I are going to be spiffing good friends. You have the most extraordinarily blue eyes, you know, the color of an Eastern bluebird. I shall use them as a model to mix my palette when I paint that species if you don’t terribly mind. And I’m fascinated to learn more of your opinion on Monsieur Audubon’s work.” And with that the daffy Englishwoman took her leave!
While we are on the subject, and since Martha is proving at present to be exceedingly dull company, let me describe to you, dear sister, some of my other fellow travelers, who provide the only other diversion on this long, straight, monotonous iron road through country that while beautiful in its vast and empty reaches, can hardly be described as scenic. I’ve barely had time yet to acquaint myself with all of the women, but our common purpose and destination seems to have fostered a certain easy familiarity among us—personal histories and intimacies are exchanged without the usual period of tedious social posturing or shyness. These women—hardly more than girls really—are all either from the Chicago area or other parts of the Middle West, and come from all circumstances. Some appear to be escaping poverty or failed romances, or, as in my case, unpleasant “living arrangements.” Hah! While there is only one other girl from my asylum, there are several in our group from other such public facilities around thecity. Some are considerably more eccentric even than I. But then it was my observation in the asylum that nearly every resident there took solace in the fact that they could point to someone else who was madder than they. One, named Ada Ware, dresses only in black, wears a widow’s veil, and has perpetual dark circles of grief beneath her eyes. I have yet to see her smile or make any expression whatsoever. “Black Ada” the others call her.
You will, perhaps, remember Martha, whom you met on the sole occasion when you visited me in the asylum. She is a sweet thing, barely two years younger than I, though she seems younger, and homely as a stick. I am forever indebted to her, for it was Martha who was so invaluable in helping me to obtain my liberty.
As mentioned, one other girl from my own institution survived the selection process—while a number of others declined to accept Mr. Benton’s offer. It seemed remarkable to me at the time that they would give up the opportunity for freedom from that ghastly place, simply because they were squeamish about conjugal relations with savages. Perhaps I will live to regret saying this, but how could it be any worse than incarceration in that dank hellhole for the rest of one’s life?
This young girl’s name is Sara Johnstone. She’s a pretty, timid little creature, barely beyond the age of puberty. The poor thing evidently lacks the power of speech—by this I do not mean that she is simply the quiet sort—I mean that she seems unable, or at least unwilling, to utter a word. She and I had, perforce, very little contact at the hospital, and therefore hardly any opportunity to get to know one another. I have a suspicion that this will all change now, for she seems to have attached herself to me and Martha. She sits facing us on the train, and frequently leans forward with tears in her eyes to grasp my hand and squeeze it fiercely. I know nothing of her past or the reason why she was originally confined in the institution. She has no family and according to Martha had evidently been there long before I arrived—ever since she was a young child. Nor do I know who supported her there—as we both know that wretched place was not for charity cases. Martha has intimated that Dr. Kaiser himself, the director of the hospital, volunteered the poor girl for the program as a way of being rid of her—what Father might recognize as a cost-cutting measure—for according to Martha, the girl was treated very much like a “poor relation” in the hospital. Furthermore, though we are hardly free to discuss the matter with the poor thing sitting directly in front of us, Martha has suggested that the child may, in fact, have had some familial connection with the Good Doctor—possibly, we have speculated, she is the product of his own romantic liaison with a former patient? Although one must wonder what kind of man would send his own daughter away to live among savages … Whatever the child’s situation, I find it troubling that she was accepted into this program. She is such a frail little thing, terrified of the world, and so obviously ill prepared for what must certainly prove to be an arduous duty. Indeed, how could she be prepared for any experience in the real world, having grown up behind brick walls and iron-barred windows? I am certain that, like Martha, the girl is without experience in carnal matters, unless the repulsive night monster Franz visited her, too, in the dark … which I pray for her sake that he did not. In any case, I intend to watch over the child, to protect her from harm if it is within my power to do so. Oddly, her very youth and fearfulness seem to give me strength and courage.
Ah, and here come the Kelly sisters of Chicago’s Irish town, Margaret and Susan, swaggering down the aisle—redheaded, freckle-faced identical twin lassies, thick as thieves, which in their case is somewhat more than an idle expression. They take everything in these two; their shrewd pale green eyes miss nothing; I clutch my purse to breast for safekeeping.
One of them, I cannot yet tell them apart, slips into the seat beside me. “’Ave ya got some tobacco on ye, May?” she asks in a conspiratorial tone, as if we are the very best of friends though I hardly know the girl. “I’d be loookin’ to roll me a smoke.”
“I’m afraid I don’t smoke,” I answer.
“Aye,’twas easier to get a smoke in prison, than it is on this damn train,” she says. “Isn’t that so, Meggie?”
“It’s sartain, Susie,” Meggie answers.
“Do you mind my asking why you girls were in prison?” I ask. I tilt my notebook toward them. “I’m writing a letter to my sister.”
“Why, we don’t mind at-tall, dear,” says Meggie, who leans on the seat in front of me. “Prostitution and Grand Theft—ten-year sentences in the Illinois State Penitentiary.” She says this with real bravado in her voice as if it is a thing of which to be very proud, and as I write she leans down closer to make sure that I record the details correctly. “Aye, don’t forget the Grand Theft,” she repeats, pointing her finger at my notebook.
“Right, Meggie,” adds Susan, nodding her head with satisfaction. “And we’d not have been apprehended, either, if it weren’t for the fact that the gentleman we turned over in Lincoln Park’appened to be a municipal jeewdge. Aye, the old reprobate tried to solicit us for sexual favors. ‘Twins!’ he said. ‘Two halves of a bun around my sausage’ he desired to make of us. Ah ya beggar!—we gave him two halves of a brick on either side of his damn head, we did! In two shakes of a lamb’s tail we had his pocket watch and his wallet in our possession—thinking in our ignorance what great good fortune that he was carryingsech a large soom of cash. No doubt His Jeewdgeship’s weekly bribe revenue.”
“It’s sartain, Susie, and that would’ve been the end of it,” chimes in Margaret, “if it weren’t for that damn cash. The jeewdge went directly to his great good pal the Commissioner of Police and a manhoontthe likes of which Chicago has never before seen was launched to bring the infamous Kelly twins to juicetice!”
“’Tis the God’s own truth, Meggie,” says Susan, shaking her head. “You probably read about us in the newspaper, Missy,” she says to me. “We were quite famous for a time, me and Meggie. After a short trial, which the public advocate charged with our defense spent nappin’—the old bugger—we were sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary. Aye, ten years just for defendin’ our honor against a lecherous oldjeewdge, with a pocket full of bribe money, if you can believe that, Missy.”
“And your parents?” I ask. “Where are they?”
“Oh, we ‘ave no idea, darlin’,” says Margaret. “We were foundlings, you see. Wee babies left on the steps of the church. Isn’t that so, Susie? Grew up in the city’s Irish orphanage, but we didn’t really care for the place. Aye, we been living by our wits ever since we roon away from there when we were just ten years old.”
Now Margaret stands straight again and scans the other passengers with a certain predatory interest. Her gaze comes to rest on the woman sitting across the aisle from us—a woman named Daisy Lovelace; I have only spoken to her briefly, but I know that she is a Southerner and has the distinct look of ruined gentry about her. She holds an ancient dirty white French poodle on her lap. The dog’s hair is stained red around its butt and muzzle, and around its rheumy, leaking eyes.
“Wouldn’t ’appen to’ave a bit of tobacco, on ye, Missy, would ya now?” Margaret asks her.
“Ah’m afraid naught”, says the woman in a slow drawl, and in not a particularly friendly tone.
“Loovely little dog, you’ve got there,” says Margaret, sliding into the seat beside the Southerner. “What’s its name, if you don’t mind me askin’?” The twin’s insinuating manner is transparent; it is clear that she is not interested in the woman’s dog.
Ignoring her, the Lovelace woman sets her dog down on the floor between their feet. “You go on now an’ make teetee, Feeern Loueeese,” she coos to it in an accent as thick as cane molasses, “Go wannow sweethaart. You make teetee for Momma.” And the wretched little creature totters stiffly up the aisle sniffling and snorting, finally squatting to pee by a vacant seat.
“Fern Louise, is it then?” says Meggie. “Isn’t that a grand name, Susie?”
“Loovely, Meggie,” Susan says. “A loovely little dog.”
Still ignoring them, the Southern woman pulls a small silver flask from her purse and takes a quick sip, which act is of great interest to the twins.
“Is that whiskey you’ve got there, Missy?” Margaret asks.
“No, it is naught whiskey,” says the woman coolly. “It is mah nuurve medicine, doctor’s order, and no, you may not have a taste of it.”
The twins have met their match with this one I can see!
Now here comes my friend, Gretchen Fathauer, bulling her way down the aisle of the train, swinging her arms and singing some Swiss folksong in a robust voice. Gretchen never fails to cheer us all up. She is a big-hearted, enthusiastic soul—a large, boisterous, buxom rosy-cheeked lass who looks like she might be able to spawn single-handedly all the babes that the Cheyenne nation might require.
By now we all know Gretchen’s history almost as well as our own: Her family were immigrants from Switzerland, who settled on the upland prairie west of Chicago to farm wheat when Gretchen was a girl. But the family farm failed after a series of bad harvests caused by harsh winters, blight, and insect attack, and Gretchen was forced to leave home as a young woman and seek employment in the city. She found work as a domestic with the McCormick family—yes, the very same—Father’s dear friend Cyrus McCormick, who invented the reaper … isn’t it odd, Hortense, to think that we probably visited the McCormicks in our youth at the same time that Gretchen was employed there—but of course we would never have paid any attention to the bovine Swiss chambermaid.
Gretchen longed to have a family of her own and one day she answered an advertisement in the Tribune seeking “mail-order” brides for western settlers. She posted her application and several months later was notified that she had been paired with a homesteader from Oklahoma territory. Her intended was to meet her at the train station in St. Louis on an appointed day, and convey her to her new home. Gretchen gave notice to the McCormicks and two weeks later boarded the train to St. Louis. But alas, although she has a heart of gold, Gretchen is terribly plain … indeed, I must confess that she is rather more than plain, to the extent that one of the less kind members of our expedition has referred to the poor dear as “Miss Potato Face” … and even those more charitable among us must admit that her countenance does have a certain unfortunate tuberous quality.
Well, Gretchen’s intended had only to take one look at her, with which he excused himself under pretense of fetching his baggage, and Gretchen never laid eyes on the miserable cur again. She tells the story now with great good humor, but she was clearly devastated. She had given up everything—and was now abandoned at the train station in a strange city, with only her suitcase, a few personal effects, and the meager savings from her former employment. She could not bear the humiliation of going back to Chicago and asking the McCormicks for her old job. Nor was the possibility of returning to her family, shamed thusly by matrimonial rejection, any more appealing to her. No, Gretchen was determined to have a husband and children one way or another. She sat on the bench at the train station and wept openly at her plight. It was at that very moment that a gentleman approached her. He handed her a small paper flyer on which was printed the following:
If you are a healthy young woman of childbearing age, who seeks matrimony, exotic travel, and adventure, please present yourself to the following address promptly at 9.00 a.m., Thursday morning on the twelfth day of February, the year of our Lord, 1875.
Gretchen laughs when she tells the story—a great hearty bellow—and says in her heavy accent, “Vell, you know, I tought this young fellow must be a messenger from God, I truly do. And ven I go to to displace, and dey ask me if I like to marry a Cheyenne Indian fellow and have his babies, I say: ‘Vell, I tink de savages not be so chooosy, as dat farmer yah? Sure, vy not? I make beeg, strong babies for my new hustband. Yah, I feed da whole damn nursery, yah?’” And Gretchen pounds her massive breast and laughs and laughs.
Which causes all the rest of us to laugh with her.
Unable to break the Southern woman’s steely indifference to them, the Kelly sisters have moved on to try their luck in the next car. They remind me of a pair of red foxes prowling a meadow for whatever they might turn up.
Just now as I was writing, my new friend, Phemie, came to sit beside me. Euphemia Washington is her full name—a statuesque colored girl who came to Chicago via Canada. She is about my same age, and quite striking, I should say nearly fierce, in appearance, being over six feet in height, with beautiful skin, the color of burnished mahogany—a finely formed nose with fiercely flared nostrils, and full Negro lips. I’m sure, dear sister, that you and the family will find it perfectly scandalous to learn that I am now fraternizing with Negroes. But on this train all are equal, at least such is the case in my egalitarian mind.
“I am writing a letter to my sister at home,” I said to her, “describing the circumstances of some of the girls on the train. Tell me how you came to be here, Phemie, so that I may make a full report to her.”
At this she chuckled, a rich warm laugh that seemed to issue from deep in her chest. “You are the first person who has asked me that, May,” she said. “And why would your sister be interested in the nigger girl? Some of the others seem quite distressed that I am along.” Phemie is very well spoken, with the most lovely, melodic voice that I’ve ever heard—deep and resonant, her speech like a poem, a song.
It occurred to me that, truth be told, you, dear sister, probably would not be interested in hearing about the nigger girl. Of course, this I did not say to Phemie.
“How did you happen to go to Canada, Phemie?” I asked.
She chuckled again. “You don’t think that I look like a native Canadian, May?”
“You look like an African, Phemie,” I said bluntly. “An African princess!”
“Yes, my mother came from a tribe called the Ashanti,” Phemie said. “The greatest warriors in all of Africa,” she added. “One day when she was a young girl she was gathering firewood with her mother and the other women. She fell behind, and sat down to rest. She was not worried, for she knew that her mother would return for her. As she sat, leaning against a tree, she fell asleep. And when she woke up, men from another tribe, who spoke a tongue she did not understand, stood round her. She was only a child, and she was very frightened.
“They took her away to a strange place, and kept her there in chains. Finally she was put in the hold of a ship with hundreds of others. She was many weeks at sea. She did not know what was happening to her, and she still believed that her mother would come back for her. She never stopped believing that. It kept her alive.
“The ship finally reached a city the likes of which my mother had never before seen or imagined. Many had died on route but she had lived. In the city she was sold at auction to a white man, a cotton shipper, who owned a fleet of sailing vessels in the port city of Apalachicola, Florida.
“My mother’s first master was very good to her,” Phemie continued. “He took her into his home where she did domestic duties and even received a bit of education. She learned to read and write, a thing unheard of among the other slaves. And when she became a young woman, her master took her into his bed.
“I was the child born of this union,” Phemie said. “I, too, grew up in that house, where I was given lessons in the kitchen by the tutor of Master’s ‘real’ children—his white family. Eventually the mistress discovered the truth of my parentage—perhaps she finally saw some resemblance between the kitchen nigger’s child and her own children. And one night when I was not yet seven years old, two men, slave merchants, came and took me away—just as my mother had been taken from her family. She wept and pleaded and fought the men, but they struck her and knocked her to the ground. That was the last time I ever saw my mother, lying unconscious with her face battered and bleeding …” Phemie paused here and looked out the train window, tears glistening in the corners of her eyes.
“I was sold to the owner of a plantation outside Savannah, Georgia,” she continued. “He was a bad man, an evil man. He drank and treated his slaves with terrible cruelty. The first day that I arrived there he had me branded on the back with his own initials … Yes, he burned his initials into the flesh of all his slaves so that they would be easily identified if ever they ran away. I was still just a child, eight years old, but after the first week that I was there, the man began to have me sent to his private quarters at night. I do not need to tell you what happened there … I was badly hurt …
“Several years passed this way,” she went on in a softer voice. “Then one day a Canadian natural scientist came to visit the plantation. He came under the guise of studying the flora and fauna there—but he was an abolitionist and his true purpose was to spread the word to the slaves about the underground railroad. He carried excellent letters of introduction and was unwittingly welcomed at all the plantations. Because I had a little education, and because I had always been fascinated with wild things of all kinds, my master charged me with accompanying the naturalist on his daily excursions to collect specimens. Over the several days of his visit, the man spoke to me often of Canada, told me that every man, woman, and child lived free and equal there—that none was owned by another. The scientist liked me and took pity on me. He told me that I was too young to attempt to escape alone but that I should encourage some of the older slaves to take me with them. He showed me maps of the best routes north and gave me the names of people along the way who would help us.
“I spoke to some of the others, but all were too terrified of the Master to attempt such an escape. They had seen what Master did to runaway slaves who were returned to him.
“One night a week or so after the man left, after I had returned weeping and in great pain to the slaves quarters from Master’s bedroom, I made a bundle of a few clothes and what little food I could gather and I left alone. I did not care if I died trying to escape. Death seemed welcome compared to my life.
“I was young and strong,” Phemie said, “and over the next several nights I ran through the forest and swamps and canebrakes. I never stopped running. Sometimes I could hear the hounds baying behind me, but the naturalist had instructed me to wade up streambeds and across ponds, which would cause the dogs to lose the scent. I ran and I ran.
For weeks I traveled north, moving by night, hiding in the undergrowth during the day. I ate what I could scavenge in the forest and fields, wild roots and greens, sometimes a bit of fruit or vegetables stolen from farms or gardens. I was hungry and often I did not know where I was, but I kept the North Star always before me and I looked for landmarks which the scientist had described to me. Often I longed to go into the towns I passed to beg a little food, but I dared not. Upon my back I still wore Master’s brand, and if captured I would surely be returned to him and terribly punished.
“In those weeks alone in the wilderness, I began to remember the stories my mother had told me of her own people, of the men hunting and the women gathering from the earth. I would never have survived my journey to the land of freedom were it not for what my mother had taught me about the wilds. My grandmother’s knowledge, passed down through my mother, saved my life. It was as if, all these years later, my mother’s mother came back for me just as she had always believed she would come for her …
“It was several months before I finally crossed into Canada,” Phemie continued. “There I called on people whose names the naturalist had given me and eventually I was placed in the home of a doctor’s family. I was well treated there and was able to continue my education. I lived with the doctor and his family for almost ten years—I worked for them and was paid an honest wage for my labors.
“One day I happened to see a small notice in the newspaper requesting young single women of any race, creed, or color to participate in an important volunteer program on the American frontier. I answered the advertisement … and, here we are … you and I”
“But if you were happy with the doctor’s family in Canada,” I asked Phemie, “why did you wish to leave there, to come on this mad adventure?”
“They were fine people,” Phemie said. “I loved them and will be forever grateful to them. But you see, May, I was still a servant. I was paid for my work, that is true, but I was still a servant to white folks. I dreamed of more for myself, I dreamed to be a free woman, truly free, on my own and beholden to no others. I owed that to my mother, and to my people. I know that as a white woman, it must be difficult for you to understand this.”
I patted Phemie on the back of her hand. “You’d be surprised, Phemie,” I said, “at how well I understand the longing for freedom.”
But now an ugly thing has occurred, spoiling the moment. As Phemie and I were sitting together, the Southern woman Daisy Lovelace, seated across the aisle, set her ancient miserable little poodle down on the seat beside her and said in a voice so loud that we couldn’t help but turn to look. “Feeern Loueeese,” she said, “would you rather be a niggah, or would you rather be daid?” upon which cue the little dog teetered stiffly and then rolled over on its back with its little bowed legs sticking straight in the air. Miss Lovelace shrieked with mean-spirited laughter.
“Wretched woman!” I muttered. “Pay no attention to her, Phemie.”
“Of course I don’t,” Phemie said, unconcerned. “The poor soul is drunk, May, and believe me, I’ve heard far worse than that. I’m sure that such a parlor trick was a source of great amusement to her plantation friends. And now she finds herself among our motley group, where she must at least assert her superiority over the nigger girl. I think we should not judge her just yet.”
I have dozed off, with my head on Phemie’s shoulder, only to be rudely awakened by the shrill voice of a dreadful woman named Narcissa White, an evangelical Episcopalian who is enrolled in the program under the auspices of the American Church Missionary Society. Now Miss White comes bustling down the aisle of the train passing out religious pamphlets. “‘Ye who enter the wilderness without faith shall perish’ said the Lord Jesus Christ,” she preaches, and other such nonsense, which only serves to further agitate the others—some of whom already seem as skittish as cattle going to the slaughterhouse.
I’m afraid that Miss White and I have taken an instant dislike to one another, and I fear that we are destined to become bitter enemies. She is enormously tiresome and bores us all witless with her sanctimonious attitudes and evangelical rantings. As you well know, Hortense, I have never had much interest in the church. Perhaps the hypocrisy inherent in Father’s position as a church elder, while remaining one of the least Christ-like men I’ve ever known, has something to do with my general cynicism toward organized religion of all kinds.
The White woman has already stated that she has no intention of bearing a child with her Cheyenne husband, nor indeed of having conjugal relations with him, and she assures us that she signed up for this mission strictly as a means of giving herself to the Lord Jesus—to save the soul of her heathen intended by teaching him “the ways of Christ and the true path to salvation,” as she puts it in her most pious manner. Evidently she intends to distribute her pamphlets among the savages, and seemed not in the least deterred when I pointed out to her that very likely they won’t be able to read them. It may be blasphemous for me to say so, but personally, I believe that our Christian God as He is represented by the likes of Miss White may be of somewhat limited use to the savages …
I will write to you again soon, my dearest sister …
31 March 1875
We crossed the Missouri River three days ago, spending one night in a boardinghouse in Omaha. Our military escort, or “guard” as I prefer to call them, treat us more as prisoners than as volunteers in the service of our government—they are contemptuous and snide, and have a gratingly familiar air that suggests some knowledge of the Faustian bargain we have struck with our government. None of us was permitted to go abroad in Omaha, nor even allowed to leave the boardinghouse—perhaps they fear that we might have a change of heart and seek to escape.
The next morning we boarded another train, which for the past two days has followed along a bluff overlooking the Platte River—not much of a river really—wide, slow-moving, and turgid.
We passed through the little settlement of Grand Island, where we took on supplies but were not permitted to disembark, westward through the muddy village of North Platte, where we were once again forbidden to so much as stretch our legs at the station. We did witness a remarkable spectacle yesterday morning at dawn—thousands, no I would more accurately guess, millions of cranes on the river. As if by some signal, perhaps simply frightened by the passing of our train, they all suddenly took flight, rising off the water as one being, like an enormous sheet lifted by the wind. Our British ornithologist, Miss Flight, was absolutely beside herself, rendered all but speechless by the spectacle. “Glorious!” she said, patting her flat chest. “Absolutely glorious!” Truly I thought the woman’s eyebrows were going to shoot right off the top of her head. “A masterpiece,” she marveled. “God’s masterpiece!” I found this at first to be an odd remark, but soon realized how accurate a description it really was. The birds made a noise we could hear even over the roar of our locomotive. A million wings—imagine it!—like the sound of rumbling thunder or a waterfall, punctuated by the strange, otherworldly cries of the cranes, their wingbeats at once ponderous and elegant, their bodies so large that flight seemed improbable, legs dangling awkwardly beneath them like the rag tails of a child’s kite. God’s masterpiece … and perhaps after my long, spartan confinement behind four walls and a locked door such a spectacle of freedom and fecundity seems even more wonderful. Ah, but on this morning the earth seems like an especially fine place to be alive and free! I think that I shall not mind living in the wilderness …
I have no true sense of this strange new country yet. Compared to Illinois, the vast prairies hereabouts seem more arid, less productive, and the few farms that we pass down in the river floodplain appear poor—boggy and undeveloped. The people working in the fields look gaunt-eyed and discouraged as if they have given up already any dreams of success or prosperity. We passed one poor fellow trying futilely to plow a flooded field with a team of oxen; it was clearly a hopeless endeavor, for his oxen were mired up to their chests in the mud, and the man finally sat down himself and put his head dejectedly in his arms, looking as though he was going to weep.
I suspect that the uplands are better suited to the cattle business than are these marshy lowlands to agriculture. Indeed, the further west we move the more bovines we encounter—a variety of cattle that is quite different from anything I have ever seen back in Illinois, longer-legged, rangier, and wilder, with long, gracefully arced horns. Yesterday we saw a colorful sight—a herd of what must have been several thousand cows being driven across the river by “cowboys.” The engineer had to stop the train for fear of a collision with the beasts, thus giving us a wonderful opportunity to observe the scene. Of course, I have read about the cowboys in periodicals and I have seen artists’ renderings of them and now I find that they are every bit as colorful and festive in the flesh. Martha blushed quite crimson at the sight of them—a charming habit she has when excited—and an exciting scene it was, too. The cowboys make a thrilling little yipping noise as they drive their charges, waving their hats in the air cheerfully. It all seems rather wild and romantic, with the herd splashing across the river, urged along by these gay cowboys. We are told by one of the soldiers that these men are on the way from Texas to Montana Territory, where a prosperous new ranching industry is springing up. Who knows, perhaps we “Indian brides” will also visit that country in time—we have been forewarned that the savages are a nomadic people, and that we are to be prepared for frequent and sudden moves.
3 April 1875
Today our train has been stopped for several hours while a number of the men aboard indulge in a bit of “sport”—the shooting of dozens of buffalo from the train windows. I fail to see myself where exactly the sport in this slaughter lies as the buffalo seem to be as stupid and trusting as dairy cows. The poor dumb beasts simply mill about as they are knocked down one by one like targets at a carnival shooting gallery, while the men aboard, including members of our military escort, behave like crazed children—whooping and hollering and congratulating themselves on their prowess with the long gun. The women for the most part are silent, holding handkerchiefs to their noses while the train car fills with acrid smoke from the guns. It is a grotesque spectacle and seems terribly wasteful to me—the animals are left where they fall, many of those that aren’t killed outright, mortally wounded and bellowing pitifully. Some of the cows have newborn spring calves with them and these, too, are cheerfully dispatched by the shooters. I have noticed during the past day that the country we are passing through is littered with bones and carcasses in various stages of decay and that a noticeable stench of rotting flesh often pervades the air. Such an ugly, unnatural thing can come to no good in God’s eyes or anyone else’s for that matter. I can’t help but think once again what a foolish, loutish creature is man. Is there another on earth that kills for the pure joy of it?
Now we are finally under way again, the bloodlust of the men evidently sated …
8 April 1875—Fort Sidney, Nebraska Territory
We have reached our first destination, and are being lodged in officers’ homes while we await transportation on the next leg of our journey. Martha and I have been separated, and I am staying with the family of an officer named Lieutenant James. His wife Abigail is tight-lipped and cool and seems to have adopted the superior attitude with which those of us enrolled in this program have been treated by virtually everyone with whom we have come in contact since the beginning of our journey. Although “officially” we are going among the heathens as missionaries, everyone seems to know the real truth of our mission, and everyone seems to despise us for it. Perhaps I am naive to expect otherwise—that we might be accorded some measure of respect as volunteers in an important social and political experiment but of course small-minded souls like the Lieutenant’s wife must have someone to look down upon, and so they have cast us in the role of whores.
Shortly after our arrival, my hostess knocked on the door to my room, and when I answered, refused to enter but demanded in a haughty tone that I not speak of our mission in front of her children at the dining table.
“As our mission is a secret one,” I answered, “I had no intention of discussing it. May I ask why you make such a request, madam?”
“The children have been exposed to the drunken, degenerate savages who frequent the fort,” the woman replied. “They are a filthy people whom I would not invite into my home, let alone allow to sit at my dinner table. Nor will I permit my children to fraternize with the savage urchins. We have been ordered by the fort commander to house you women and to feed you, but it is not by our choice, nor does it reflect our own moral judgment against you. I shall not have my children corrupted by any discussion of the shameful matter. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly,” I answered. “And may I add that I would rather starve to death than to sit at your dining table.”
Thus I spent my short time at Mrs. James’s home in my room. I did not eat. Early one morning I went out to walk on the fort grounds, but even then I was leered at by a group of soldiers and by some very rough-looking brigands in buckskin clothes who frequent the fort. Their lewd remarks caused me, however reluctantly, to give up even the small diversion of walking. Our mission appears to be the worst-kept secret on the frontier, and seems to threaten and terrify all who know of it. Ah, well, this is of scant consequence to me; I am rather accustomed to doing the unconventional, the unpopular … clearly to a fault … Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called “civilized” people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages. I should hope that at the very least they might appreciate us.
11 April 1875
We are under way again, on a military train to Fort Laramie. We have lost several more of our number at Sidney. They must have had a change of heart with our destination now so close, or perhaps the army families with whom they were lodged convinced them to abandon this “immoral” program.
Or perhaps—and most likely of all—they took to heart the pathetic sight of the poor savages who inhabit the environs of the fort. I must admit that these are as scurvy a lot of beggars and drunkards as ever I’ve witnessed. Filthy and dressed in rags, they fall down in the dirt and sleep in their own filth. My God, if I were told that one of these poor unfortunates was to be my new husband, I, too, would reconsider. How they must stink!
While at Fort Sidney, my friend Phemie was put up by the Negro blacksmith and his wife. Many of our women have refused to be housed with Phemie during our journey because she is a Negro. As we are all of us off to live and procreate with heathens of a different race and a darker color, such fine distinctions strike me as especially pointless—and I wager that they will become less and less pronounced once we are among the savages themselves. Indeed, I suspect that Phemie will come to seem more and more like one of us … like a white person.
The blacksmith and his wife were very kind to Phemie and gave her extra clothing for her journey. They told her that the “free” Indians with whom we will be living are not at all like these “fort sitters,” and that the Cheyennes are regarded as among the most handsome and cleanly of the various plains tribes, and their women considered to be the very most virtuous. We were all greatly relieved by this news.
The new train is a considerably more spartan affair, the seats mere benches of rough wood; it is as if we are being slowly stripped of the luxuries of civilization. Martha seems increasingly anxious; the poor mute child Sara practically hysterical with anxiety—she has chewed her finger nearly raw … even the usually boisterous and cheerful Gretchen has fallen oddly silent and apprehensive. And all the others are in various states of distress. The Lovelace woman drinks her “medicine” furtively and silently from her flask, clutching her old white poodle to her bosom. Miss Flight still wears her perpetual expression of surprise, but it is now tinged with a certain anxiety. Our woman in black, Ada Ware, who rarely speaks, looks more than ever like an angel of death. The Kelly sisters, too, seem to have lost a good measure of their street-urchin cheekiness in the face of these endless, desolate prairies. The twins have stopped prowling the train and sit across from each other like mirror images, quietly staring out the window. Of great relief to all, the evangelist, Narcissa White, who is usually preaching loudly enough for everyone to hear, is now lost in fervent, silent prayer.
Only Phemie, God bless her, remains, as always, calm, unperturbed, her head held high, a slight smile at her lips. I think the trials and tribulations of her life have given her a nearly unshakable strength; she is a force to behold.
And just now she has done a very fine thing. Just as we have all sunk to our lowest ebb, exhausted from the long journey, discouraged and frightened of what lies ahead; riding silently, and staring out the window of the train, and seeing nothing but the most dreadfully barren landscape—dry, rocky, treeless—truly country with nothing to recommend it, country that increases our anxieties and seems to presage this terrible new world to which we are being born away. Just then Phemie began to sing, in her low melodic voice, a Negro slave song about the underground railroad:
This train is bound for glory, this train.
This train is bound for glory, this train.
This train is bound for glory,
Get on board and tell your story
This train is bound for glory, this train.
And now all eyes were watching Phemie, and some of our women smiled timidly, listening spellbound while she sang:
This train don’t pull no extras, this train,
This train don’t pull no extras, this train,
This train don’t pull no extras,
Don’t pull nothing but the midnight special,
This train don’t pull no extras, this train …
The proud brave sorrow in Phemie’s lovely voice gave us courage, and when she took up the first verse again: “This train is bound for glory, this train” … I, too, began to sing with her … “This train is bound for glory, this train … .” And a few others joined in, “This train is bound for glory, Get on board and tell your story” … and soon, nearly all the women—even I noticed “Black Ada”—were singing a rousing and joyous chorus, “This train is bound for glory, this train” Ah, yes, glory … isn’t it fine to think so …
ONE THOUSAND WHITE WOMEN. Copyright © 1998 by Jim Fergus. All rights reserved.
For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.
Bird drawings by Loren G. Smith
First eBook Edition : December 2010
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
One thousand white women : the journals of May Dodd / Jim Fergus.—1st St. Martin’s Griffin ed. p. cm.
ISBN 0-312-18008-X (hc)
ISBN 0-312-19943-0 (pbk)
1. Cheyenne Indians—Fiction. I. Title. PS3556.E66054 1998 813’.54—dc21
2. In 1875, rebellious or unorthodox women were sometimes considered "hysterical" or insane. Is this still true in some circumstances today?
3. Does May Dodd remind you of a modern-day woman?
4. What would be today's equivalent of traveling west to an unknown part of the country with a group of strangers?
5. Did you feel the Native Americans were accurately portrayed in the novel?
6. If the "Brides for Indians" program were actually put into effect in 1875, do you feel it would have been effective?
7. What circumstances would prompt you to undergo a journey like the one May Dodd took?
8. Do you consider One Thousand White Women a tragic story? If so, why? If not, why not?
9. Of the supporting female characters, who did you find the most likeable?
10. Were any of May Dodd's actions unsympathetic? Would you find it difficult to leave your children behind in order to escape a horrendous situation?
I just finished re-reading this book, something I rarely do. Jim Fergus has created a rich, lush, story filled with enduring characters and thought provoking themes. I am an avid reader and this is certainly one of my all time favorites and one I always recommend.
One Thousand White Women is a fictional account of a would be cultural experiment. It is based on the true fact that in 1854 at a peace conference a Cheyenne chief requested the gift of 1,000 white women as brides for his men. The Cheyenne were/are a matrilineal society...children belonging to their mother's tribe. This would have allowed for the Cheyenne to begin assimiliating into white culture. Of course this request was not met in real life but Fergus vividly paints for us a portrait of what might have happened.
This novel gives us female characters that inspire, motivate and break our hearts. White women, and one escaped African American slave, who risk everything for the opportunity to choose their own destinys. The main character, May Dodd was commited to an insane asylum by her family for, "Moral perversion" after living with and having children out of wed lock with a man beneath her social status. She chooses to volunteer to go west and be married to a "Savage" as a way of gaining her freedom and hopefully one day reconnecting with the children she bore out of wedlock. The book, One Thousand White Women, is her journal and letters to her children and others. We learn of her love for an American soldier she meets along the way and her marriage to a Cheyenne chief named Little Wolf. I think the center of the story though is the bond between Mary and the other white women who make the journy with her. Humorous, touching and inspiring...the tale of their friendship and support truly makes this book the treasure it is.
20 out of 21 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 5, 2007
'Bought this book brand new and have lent it out so much that the cover is extremely tattered. After 7 years of first reading this book it is one that is at the top of my recommendation list for people to read if they are ask if I can recommend anything good to read. I think it will appeal to not only women but men. The author did great research and writes so well that I have to remind some of my friends that the book is fiction and based on a 'what if?' notion.'
16 out of 19 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 30, 2009
I really enjoyed this book. I thought the whole premise of the story was very original and fascinating. My only complaint about the book is that the main characters are female - who despite the author's attempts - are unlike any women I have ever met. They think like men, have sex like men, process violence and sexual assault like only a man could, etc. I read this book with my bookclub - all female - and our opinion was unaminous that only a man would think that gang-raping a woman would "tame" her. Still, despite this annoying issue, the story was fascinating and the plot well written.
12 out of 15 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 16, 2011
I did find this very interesting, and the early references to "strong" women taking charge of their lives was enjoyable, also the "history" of what it could have been like was a page turner.
HOWEVER, there are many parts that I had to skim over, keeping in mind it is about savages and there are parts that are hard to read. The cruelty to animals and the "savage" treatment of other tribes.
10 out of 13 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 4, 2009
The characters draw the reader into their world. A world where they do not fit the typical role expected of women in the 1860's. Each of the characters brings their own set of strenghts and fears to the group. I look forward to reading other books by this author.
7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 13, 2009
The women in my book club all agreed that this book was not worth the read. I was rolling my eyes nearly every page at some corny piece of dialog or overly romantic view of women/frontier life/women's private lives. While the concept of the plot is interesting, the novel never quite overcomes its characters or writing (too expected, too cliche, and too idealized). Read more of my reviews on twitter!
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This is a fantastic book and easy read. Although fiction, it read like a non-fiction book. It gave a very realistic account of how it would be like to live with the Cheyenne Indians as a white woman in the late 1800's. It gave information about the choices, or lack thereof, women had at that time. It was exciting and pretty well researched.
I highly recommend it for those who would like to know more about that time period and place and American Indians.
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Posted April 26, 2010
1000 White Women
By Jim Fergus
Written in a female voice, this is a novel about injustice and betrayal. It is an imaginative fictional account of May Dodd's travel west to marry a Cheyenne warrior. Along with a cast of "brides" that include a mute, a nurse, an English naturalist, a Southern belle, a black woman, a Swiss and lusty Irish twins, May takes part in Ulysses S.Grant's program to trade women for horses. Whose idea was this? Was it clandestine? This book will make you want to find the answers to what actually happened in 1854.
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
It's 1875, and the dwindling tribes of Plains Indians are seeking creative solutions for peace with the white men and the US Government (which has broken promise after promise with the Indians, but grows daily in numbers and strength, regardless of the number and increasing intensity of Indian attacks and attempts at pushing back the White men).
Seeking an "honorable" way to assimilate into White society, respected Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf approaches the "Great White Father," President Ulysses Grant with a proposal. The proposal was for the US government to trade 1000 white women for 1000 horses. They Cheyenne are a matriarchal tribe and believe that children belong to their mothers. The Cheyenne men would take as wives the white women, breed with them and thereby mingle the races, leading to a natural assimilation. Well, the mere suggestion of handing over white, Christian women to red-skinned savages is enough to cause a near-riot in the hall where the meeting took place. All rejected it summarily - publicly.
The plan, however, was secretly agreed upon and the trades began...
May Dodd had grown up in a wealthy Chicago family. Her rebellious nature brought her into a relationship with one of her father's employees. She moved out of her comfortable home, married the man and had two children with him. May's father was so outraged by her behavior (which he deemed inappropriate in her and humiliating to himself) that he had her committed to a mental asylum, charging her with Promiscuity. Her children were taken away, and she was left to the inhuman "treatments" meant to cure her of her affliction. You can only imagine.
When an opportunity arose to break free from the asylum (through the "Brides for Indians" program of the US Government) May jumped at it... This book is a record of her adventures, and what adventures they were! Did you ever wish you'd not read a particular book... just so you could experience the pleasure of reading it again - for the first time? This is one of those books. I highly recommend it!
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Posted March 14, 2012
Very exciting - well written. Reader MUST remember that this is really fiction based on one statement in history. Just one statement. The book really sticks in your mind.
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Posted July 4, 2009
One Thousand White Women was a great book to read. I couldn't put it down. I found myself peaking into the next chapter so I could see what happened to the characters. It was very suspenseful and I would highly recommend it. I passed it on to my sister for her plane ride back home.
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Posted May 3, 2012
The author wrote this so well and did such great research that I had to remind myself that this book was fiction and based on a "what if?" notion. This story will make you think about how the American Indians were treated!!!
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Posted March 31, 2012
Posted February 9, 2011
Posted February 2, 2011
This was one fabulous book, wish it didn't end! Tried to keep reading as long as possible. Wish there was a series about these women!
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Posted January 30, 2011
I love books that give you every description needed to create your own visualization of the places, people and events. One Thousand White Women is just that ... a story that unfolded, giving you the words to create every scene with great detail, and making the reading of the story even more intense. I was amazed at how much the author captured the feelings from a female perspective, giving true definition to both the main character as well as her fellow tribe-mates. One Thousand White Women gives me reason to read more from this author.
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Posted April 6, 2009
Posted October 4, 2013
All the time I was reading this book I thought it was a true story. I'm thinking, how come I never heard about this. In the end I find the true facts. I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it. Yes I would read something written by Jim Fergus.
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Posted December 13, 2012
Posted January 19, 2012