Stereotyping of the Native Americans in the 1820's and 1830's
For Americans moving west in the 1820's and 30's there was little firsthand knowledge of what the frontier would be like when they arrived. There was a lot of presumption about the Indians. Many felt, through the stories they heard and read, that they had sufficient information to know what the Indians would truly be like and how to respond to them. Unfortunately, as is described in James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, white settlers stereotyped the Native Americans as savage, heartless beasts.
There was a rushing out of men, women, and children, with the cracking of rifles, the crashing of hatchets, the lunge of knives, with yells and shrieks such as would turn the spirit into ice and water to hearI saw the weakest of them all- the old grandma, with the youngest babe in her arms, come flying into the cornwhen the pursuercaught up with her and struck her down with his tomahawk. Then friend, he snatched the poor babe from the dying woman's arms and struck it with the same bloody hatchet. (qtd in Myers 48)
Cooper's romanticizing of the Old West, created an inaccurate picture of Native Americans, but he was not the only one. Eighteenth and Nineteenth-century literature shows us many incorrect representations of Native Americans. With passages like the one above, captivity narratives, and the descriptions of Indian wars, is it any wonder that people were afraid of the Indians they would encounter out west? When people moved out into the frontier all the biased opinions they had been fed went with them. They took the mental pictures that the media of the day proposed and made them real in their minds eye. But the fear they took with them was almost completely unfounded and the prejudices they had usually disappeared as they watched and learned firsthand what the Indians were really like.
The interest in the Native American culture was great and far-reaching. According to Sandra Myers in her book Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, Indians were popular topics in "literature, drama, and informational books." She says that, "novels, poems, plays, school texts, newspapers, and magazines all contained a great deal of information, and misinformation, about the Indian's physical appearance, intellectual capacity, morals, and character." (49) Lodisa Frizzell in her book Across the Plains to California in 1852 describes them this way: " tall, strongly made, firm features, light copper color, cleanly in appearance, quite well dressed." (18) The description generally given was more in line with the one Sallie Maddox gives in Myers' book. She describes them as "naked, disgusting, and dirty looking." (qtd in Myers 56) Where their 'intellectual capacity, morals, and character' are concerned some people thought they were unintelligent because they refused to learn English and that they had no morals and lacked character because they didn't fit into "civilized"...