Wilderness

Sunday, June 25, 2006



Mary Ingles and Calamity Jane






When Constantinople fell to the Muslims and become Istanbul this continent was wilderness.

People today see westerners as only imperialists but I have to wonder what would have happened to the native tribes here if Genghis Khan or the Ottamans had been the ones to first lay eyes on the New World.

I never feel comfortable with the easy judgment of people who only see our history in terms only of plunder or genocide, as if given the chance we would give it back. It always seemed a bit trite to me, like some bad child who dislikes what Dad does for a living but damn well expects to be included in the will.

It took real courage for the settlers to come to this continent and risk their lives and fortune to build a life.

I have two favorite women from this history who I think represent the spirit of the pioneers who settled America.

The book Follow the River by James Thom is the tale of young Mary Ingles kidnapped by Shawnee warriors from her settlement in Virginia and taken along the Ohio river to present day Indiana. She saw things no white woman had ever seen. She was pregnant at the time of her capture and had her child in captivity. The Indians took her two young sons and new born daughter from her. She made her escape and walked the hundreds of miles through uncharted territory back to what was left of her settlement.

I met the author some years ago in Bloomington at the Monroe County Library and he discussed how as a former Marine he had put on a back pack and followed the Ohio river as Mary had done. He was so impressed by the woman's courage that he was inspired to write this book and has become an authority on Shawnee history.

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Another woman I always felt exemplified the American pioneer woman was Calamity Jane. As a scout for the US Army she was one of the first people to come across the scene at the Little Big Horn where Custer's 7th Cavalry had been massacred by Indians. I read her diary years ago and in it she stated it was such a sight as she hoped never to see again. How she came to have her name became part of her legend, from her diary:

"It was on Goose Creek, Wyoming, where the town of Sheridan is now located. Captain Egan was in command of the Post. We were ordered out to quell an uprising of the Indians, and were out for several days, had numerous skirmishes during which six of the soldiers were killed and several severely wounded. When on returning to the Post, we were ambushed about a mile and a half from our destination. When fired upon, Captain Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and, on hearing the firing, turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall. I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Captain Egan, on recovering, laughingly said: 'I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.' I have borne that name up to the present time.

One of my favorite stories about Calamity Jane was her encounter in the streets of Deadwood with a man she saw whipping an Indian boy with a buggy whip. She told him to leave the boy the hell alone. The man used that whip to take the hat off her head and send it flying into the muddy street. She pulled her gun and told him to pick up that damn hat or she would fill him full of so many holes he would not shed water. He picked up the hat.

We should be proud of people like this, not ignore them or forget them or judge them.

10 comments:

Skookumchuk said...

terrye:

We should be proud of people like this, not ignore them or forget them or judge them.

You should read The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier

It talks about how quickly the West was civilized, not by the Army or the government, just by the people, acting on their own. Tons of folks in the middle of this country - and to be fair, on the coasts, too - do remember these stories and are proud.

Yes, in PC-conscious, fashionable academic circles this is all contradicted or at least is deliberately ignored history.

But remember, there is nothing more beguiling than a story that authority wishes you didn't know.

Buddy Larsen said...

Yep, the American identity is almost synonymous with the myth of the Wild West. Except it ain't a myth, and it happened just a lifetime or three ago. Revisionists have worked it hard--anti-Americans especially zero in on the least-flattering details--but the uber-story remains one of strong-spirited people staking their lives on their own gumption, and going after a dream that included trading backbreaking labor and intense danger for a chance to live free.

terrye said...

Imagine the courage it took just to come here.

Skookumchuk said...

When my great-grandfather's brother moved West as a young bachelor, he had six horses and built himself a sod house.

The first winter, there was a really bad blizzard. He brought all the horses inside and survived the night by chopping wood to keep himself warm.

You don't mess with people like that.

Buddy Larsen said...

No weather reports, either. Ready at all times, or die.

terrye said...

skook:

No you don't. Sometime I will tell you about my father's mother, we called her Mammy. She had a crow with a forked tongue. She talked to that damn bird like it was a baby.

truepeers said...

People today see westerners as only imperialists but I have to wonder what would have happened to the native tribes here if Genghis Khan or the Ottamans had been the ones to first lay eyes on the New World.
I never feel comfortable with the easy judgment of people who only see our history in terms only of plunder or genocide, as if given the chance we would give it back.


-Yes, and I also have a logical problem with them: if the European-Americans were to have respected the indigenous culture, and played by its rules, then the outright defeat of a tribe in war would have entailed its survivors' full assimilation into the Euros.

Our sin is perhaps that we never found a way to keep two worlds apart, or joined but only in multiculti harmony, or to well assimilate the losers, since we wanted, at least some of the time, to keep them alive as "noble savages". We had already moved beyond the time-tested mode of total extinction or fully assimilating the survivors of losing tibes, only in turn to be criticized for destroying cultures (which included harsher rules of warfare).

The Euros might have stayed at home and eventually been conquered; they might have gone abroad and removed all traces of the native peoples; or they might have built a society with a lot of loose ends, unhappy survivors, and a nascent ideology of multiculturalism. So the only possible flaw I can see, is that the multiculti ideology emerged too late for the multiculti ideologues. It should have existed in a world that could not yet have well imagined it beyond a sentimental regard for aboriginals that led them to treat them neither for complete assimilation nor extinction. In other words, the settlers were half-assed multiculturalists before the word. What a sin!

truepeers said...

Of course, the failure of assimilation was not just about noble savage sentimentalism, but also had much to do with Euro-American racial ideologies. But if we want to be really cyncial about the left - but it isn't that cynical actually - we might say that 19th and 20th C. racism was also a kind of multiculturalism before the word.

Skookumchuk said...

...since we wanted, at least some of the time, to keep them alive as "noble savages".

We did. But you notice the true Marxists didn't.

Buddy Larsen said...

The ole prez sure says a mouthful with "the soft bigotry of low expectations".