Thoreau and the American Indians

Thoreau and the American Indians

by Robert F. Sayre


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ISBN-13: 9780691609881
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #585
Pages: 260
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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Thoreau and the American Indians

By Robert F. Sayre


Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06330-0



Any study of Thoreau and American Indians must begin with a description of savagism, the nineteenth-century white men's idea of Indian life. With its intricate and influential relationships to other American ideas of civilization and manifest destiny, Christianity and the purpose of Europeans in the New World, savagism was the complex of theories about Indians held by nearly all Americans of Thoreau's time. His use of it, his testing of it in various ways, and his eventual liberation from it are the story of this book.

In his widely approved American Dictionary, Noah Webster defined savagism as "the state of rude uncivilized men; the state of men in their native wildness and rudeness." The definition was broad enough from the European-American point of view to cover everyone from children to rustics, or anyone in the "uncivilized" parts of the world. But primarily, it referred to the condition of American Indians, who, in turn, were thought to be like children and rustics in many respects. All were "savage" in some ways, and Webster defined the savage as "a human being in his native state of rudeness, one who is untaught, uncivilized or without cultivation of mind or manners." Giving an illustration, he wrote, "The savages of America, when uncorrupted by the vices of civilized men, are remarkable for their hospitality to strangers, and for their truth, fidelity and gratitude to their friends, but implacably cruel and revengeful toward their enemies."

Thus Webster and his contemporaries did not think of savagism as an idea. To them it was an actual, verifiable condition, the way "the savages of America" lived. I am insisting on calling it an idea for several reasons, however. All states or conditions of life may, from an epistemological point of view, be ideas rather than, or as well as, realities. But savagism, as we will soon see, was not a very accurate description of reality. It was not based on how the natives of America described themselves but on how the white conquerors and missionaries and travellers described them. These descriptions, moreover, had been written and repeated so many times that they developed a history and existence of their own, shaping later men's judgements and perceptions.

In Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind, Roy Harvey Pearce has written the intellectual history of the idea of savagism from 1609 to 1851. He shows how the European-American ideas of the Indian combined European preconceptions and American experience and were constantly associated with European-American self-images. It is an informative book. Yet by the nature of its contents, it is, unavoidably, a rather repetitious one. The missionaries, explorers, and Indian agents who supplied the direct observations were almost monotonous in their reports on the deficiencies of savage life and its differences from civilization. The more detached philosophical speculators on the subject, writing from their libraries in eastern cities or in England, Scotland, and France, were equally repetitious. The differences among them were in the emphases which they gave to "savage" vices or virtues, weakness, and strength. They also supplied sometimes ingenious reasons for the Indians' being as they were. But they all agreed that savage life was rude and unrefined, natural, and uncivilized.

The contents of savagism thus can be summarized very briefly. The Indian is a hunter. He has the virtues of the hunter, like fortitude and self-reliance, but also the vices, like cruelty and cunning. After his success in hunting, he is generous and hospitable to strangers, but when he is destitute, he is untrustworthy. He has not learned the farmer's skills of planting and saving for the morrow. Nor does he have a sense of private property and ownership of land. The Indian no more owns the land he hurries over in his hunts than do the animals he chases. He has not improved it.

This lack of improvements must stem from laziness and lack of mental curiosity. Such basic arts as the Indian possesses — in weaponry, dress, and ways of building the wigwam — are ingenious and show that he may be capable of improvement, but his failure to adopt the higher arts of civilization is a melancholy proof of his noble adherence to his traditions. He and his people are also much under the spell of their chiefs and sachems and their necromancers (called powwows), who are powerful orators. He holds the Hebrew and pagan laws of an eye for an eye, and of helping friends and harming enemies; he finds it hard to comprehend Christian revelation and the abstractions of civil law. Lost in the darkness of the forest, the Indian goes his accustomed way.

This simple and childlike life is admirable in some ways. It is hardy, and the savage hunter is a brave warrior. But this life has not withstood the inroads of civilization. It has melted like dew before the morning sun, and the simple inhabitants of the forest have fled like deer into the protecting shadows. Or they have acquired the vices of civilization — rum, deceit, and greed — and destroyed themselves. Unfortunately, they have been more attracted to the white man s vices than to his virtues of thrift, industry, and mechanic skill. They usually come in contact with only the lower sort of representatives of civilization — trappers, unscrupulous agents, and other riffraff of the frontier who spread corruption and disease. Europeans have been dishonest and unfair with these children, but there is really little that can be done. The history of mankind is one of progress from hunting to the agricultural estate. The land which will barely support one family of hunters in filth and miserable subsistence will support forty families of farmers in comfort and decency, and thence smiths and tradesmen. The Indian has not learned this. Having it shown him, he has rejected it. In God's providence he is doomed, and in a few more generations he will be extinct.

I have composed this summary and imitation of savagism in order to compress its major ideas into a manageable space and to suggest the tone and favorite metaphors of its believers. The major stereotypes in savagism were that Indians were (1) solitary hunters, rather than farmers; (2) tradition-bound and not susceptible to improvement; (3) childlike innocents who were corrupted by civilization; (4) superstitious pagans who would not accept the highest offerings of civilization like Christianity; and, therefore, (5) doomed to extinction. The dominant attitudes, as Pearce has said, were pity and censure. The white American pitied Indians, Pearce wrote, "because in his yearning for a simpler life, he could identify with them. He censured them, because he was ashamed to be tempted and he refused to deny his higher nature." But pity and censure are also very close to the classical tragic emotions of pity and terror, and "the Indian" was the most popular tragic figure in early nineteenth-century America. He was, according to these stereotypes, solitary and ancient, simple and heroic, and doomed by a fate he could but rarely see. Pity responded to these qualities, acknowledging the Indian's childlike simplicity and heroic virtues; censure was a balancing attitude which condemned the Indian for his childish recalcitrance, his brutality in warfare, and his refusal to be like white men. Pity was a concession to the Indian's loss of his land, his ancient customs, and his former grandeur. Censure was an expression of civilized superiority over this dying race. Provided with such a picture of the Indian and with these attitudes about it, "civilized Americans" could honor him as a noble predecessor and at the same time justify their conquest and usurpation of his land.

Savagism contained, therefore, a great deal of vain interpretation of truth and error combined. The native Americans, who called themselves simply "the people," were not merely hunters. They grew corn, beans, melons, squashes, tobacco, and many other crops. They had, in fact, domesticated a larger number of plants and foods than had the Europeans. In most communities, to be sure, the farming was done by the women, the hunting by the men. But there is also ample evidence that both men and woman were frequently quick to adopt European farm implements (as well as guns and knives) and that, when they did, their productivity exceeded the Europeans'. Even with stone and wooden tools they had repeatedly had sufficient surpluses to supply the hungry first immigrants. They were hunters and farmers, as the immigrants learned to be also. Thus the notion that they were tradition-bound does not square with reports that we have now of Iroquois-country farms — destroyed in Sullivan's Expedition during the Revolution — which had log cabins, barns, abundant orchards, and fields with better crops than those of the soldiers who burned them. The reports were in the soldiers' own diaries, which were not published until years later. But even in the 1820s and 1830s, during the controversy over the removal of the Cherokees, white Americans could read of the large numbers of wagons, cattle, hogs, plows, and mills which were owned by these supposed simple hunters.

The same reports on the Cherokee people mentioned schoolhouses and churches, nor were these unusual. Earlier, in all parts of eastern North America, many people had been converted to Christianity. Yet these "praying Indians" were the most likely to be killed by diseases like smallpox and cholera. They, and other "friendlies," were also the most likely to be shot by mobs, like the Paxton Boys of Pennsylvania in 1763, or hanged by courts, because they did submit to European laws. They were "children" only in the sense that they accepted the benefits of civilization and trusted the missionaries and treaty commissioners with whom they bargained. They had a sense of honor, even though it was "corrupted" — in the Europeans' interest — by European trade and alcohol. The savagist philosophers did not speak so loudly about the profits from such corruption. Instead, after a ritualistic reproof of the unprincipled white traders who were the agents of it, they went on to pity and censure the victims. For once an Indian had been corrupted by whiskey and white ways, the savagists believed, he could never be the same. The only real and true Indians, still living in their "natural state," were those beyond the range of civilization. This was the benevolent argument, in fact, for removal of the eastern tribes west of the Mississippi!

Thus the truest element of savagism was not in its descriptions of the Indians but in its prophecies of their extinction. So long as white influence and conquest continued, as all white men assumed would happen, extinction was certain. Yet in another sense this was also the cruelest error. With their superior numbers, weapons, and technology, the European Americans were largely responsible for the Indians' fate. Believing this to be fate, an inevitable destiny ordained by God or some divine principle of progress, was a way of just letting it happen without bearing responsibility. The prophecies of extinction made the wish for white conquest and domination into a cosmic inevitability.

Our understanding of savagism and of Thoreau's relation to it will be increased if we look briefly at some of its principle theorists and popularizers. The derivation of the word savage, as Thoreau knew (and told readers in The Maine Woods), was the Latin sylva "woods." Inhabitants of the woods were selvaggia, which in Old French and Middle English became salvage and sauvage respectively. Etymologically, therefore, the word savage simply meant "woods-person," as civilized meant "of cities"; but attached to such etymologies were, of course, all the prejudices and fantasies of city people about the woods. After the European discovery of America, and the discovery of people thought to be "Indians" because they lived in "India," beyond the Indos or Indus River, speculations on the nature of these new savages began to occupy European minds. The New World (with its people) was, to Montaigne, one that had known "neither letters, nor weights and measures, nor clothes, nor wheats, nor vines. It was still quite naked at the breast, and lived only on what its nursing mother provided." The debate thus began (or intensified) over what the meaning and values of such a natural life might be, and over whether the savage was a pure and noble unspoiled child of nature or an ignorant and rude beast, a Caliban. There is reason to believe, since Montaigne and later Locke and Rousseau were compiling their portraits of the so-called noble savage from the first relations of the earliest missionaries and explorers, that the Noble Savage was not a myth. The original inhabitants of America apparently were very handsome and intelligent, hospitable and kind. Yet in the context of the debate, this scarcely mattered, since such an ideal was bound to bring to life its opposite, the image of an appalling and degenerate ignoble savage. The images of noble savage and ignoble savage were the European predecessors and later the contemporaries of the American images of the good Indian and the bad Indian.

In European literature, however, the figure of the noble savage was primarily a device for criticism, satire, and imaginary escape from civilization. The noble savages of Rousseau, Diderot, and Chateaubriand were expressions, in one form or another, of a sophistication in which the authors and readers were so secure that they could step back from it and view its injustices and extravagances critically. Nature was an idea cultivated for its freshness or sentiment. Benjamin Franklin, while living in Paris, successfully adopted this primitivist manner in his "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America." In the 1790s Philip Freneau attempted the same in Tomo-Cheeki, the Creek Indian in Philadelphia. But most white Americans, not wanting to promote such fictitious Indians as artful or penetrating critics of their own young civilization, were not so sophisticated. They did not believe that their country was as corrupt as Europe. And they could read criticism of their behavior in the printed speeches of real Indians like Logan and Red Jacket. What they needed from Indian cultures was assistance, not criticism. For even to acquire Indian land they needed Indian help. Once they had the land, they needed and adopted Indian methods of farming, hunting, travel and dress. Then they looked again to the Indians for the traditions and history of the land, for human figures who would personify and represent what otherwise was unknown, a raw wilderness. Savagism was the white idea out of which the figures were born.

We can find a good illustration of this myth-making in an early essay by Washington Irving. In "Traits of Indian Character," published in 1813 in the Analectic Magazine (which Irving was then editing), and later in The Sketch-Book, Irving began by identifying "the character and habits of the North American savage" and "the scenery over which he is accustomed to range, its vast lakes, boundless forests, majestic rivers, and trackless plains." Both the savage and his scenery were "sublime," Irving thought, and he tried to present Indian character in as positive a way as he could. White writers had wronged Indians. Indians were not properly represented by the "miserable hordes which infest the frontiers ... corrupted and enfeebled by the vices of society." Wars and broken treaties had been the result of white misunderstanding of the Indian character, which was not stoical and unfeeling but proud and acute.

"How different was their state while yet the undisputed lords of the soil!" Irving exclaims. Then nature supplied all their needs, everyone shared equally in bounty and hardship, and they were generous and compassionate — until deprived of this birthright. "They resembled those wild plants, which thrive best in the shades of the forest, but shrink from the hand of cultivation, and perish beneath the influence of the sun." It is the same, Irving says, with all other traits: courage, rigid adherence to moral law, vengeance, superstition, filial piety, and stratagems in war and the hunt. These all have a basis in the conditions of the Indian's close patriarchal life in the dark and dangerous and yet sublime and bountiful forest. The Indians are to be explained by wild nature.

By an unstated reversal of this formula, Irving also symbolized and ennobled wild nature in the character of the Indian.

He traverses vast forests, exposed to the hazards of lonely sickness, of lurking enemies, and pining famine. Stormy lakes, those great inland seas, are no obstacles to his wanderings: in his light canoe of bark he sports, like a feather, on their waves, and darts, with the swiftness of an arrow, down the rapids of the rivers. His very subsistence is snatched from the midst of toil and peril. He gains his food by the hardships and dangers of the chase; he wraps himself in the spoils of the bear, the panther, and the buffalo, and sleeps among the thunders of the cataract.


Excerpted from Thoreau and the American Indians by Robert F. Sayre. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Acknowledgements, pg. xvii
  • References, pg. xix
  • CHAPTER I. Savagism, pg. 1
  • CHAPTER II. "As Long as Grass Grows and Water Runs", pg. 28
  • CHAPTER III. The Vision Quest—Walden, pg. 59
  • CHAPTER IV. A Book about Indians?, pg. 101
  • CHAPTER V. Beyond Savagism, pg. 123
  • CHAPTER VI. Maine—The Lessons of the Forest, pg. 155
  • CHAPTER VII. On the Sky-Tinted River, pg. 194
  • APPENDIX. On the Name and Number of the "Indian Books", pg. 217
  • Notes, pg. 221
  • Index, pg. 233

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