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Puritan Daughters and "Wild" Indians: Elizabeth Oakes Smith's Narratives of Domestic Captivity.

She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest.... Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter 217)

Elizabeth Oakes Smith's critical reputation has suffered the fate of many of those "scribbling" women writers Hawthorne disparaged whose prolific publications were well received by a vast audience yet rejected by later critics as too didactic or sentimental. [1] Today Oakes Smith is remembered primarily for her essays on the topic of women's rights, collected in Woman and Her Needs (1851); her notoriety as a feminist reformer seems to have eclipsed her achievements as a writer of poetry and fiction. [2] It may seem surprising, then, that in The Prose Writers of America (1847) Rufus W. Griswold described Oakes Smith as "a woman of a most original and poetical mind, who has succeeded, perhaps better than any other person, in appreciating and developing the fitness of aboriginal tradition and mythology for the purposes of romantic fiction" (38). Oakes Smith was in fact widely recognized for her representations of Native Americans. Her work was included in Henry R. Schoolcraft's The American Indians, Their Histor y, Condition and Prospects, from Original Notes and Manuscripts (1851), and she was believed to have influenced writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. [3] But the "purposes" of white writers' romantic portrayals of Native Americans to which Griswold alludes are varied and complex, and thus Oakes Smith's Indian fiction offers an opportunity both to explore her feminist ideas in a new context and to expand our understanding of the genre of nineteenth-century "Indian" fiction itself.

In choosing this form, Oakes Smith recognizes the captivity tale's power to place readers in what Gary L. Ebersole describes as "an ultimate boundary situation where human existence, identity, and ultimate meaning are called into question as the captive's world is turned topsy-turvy" (7). Use of the word "captivity" implies a state from which someone in this boundary situation would seek to be liberated, yet many authors were intrigued by the potential freedoms that white women could discover by assuming the perspective of "wild" Indians. In contrast to Mary Rowlandson's struggle for her physical and spiritual redemption in America's first published captivity narrative (1682), stories of transculturated women such as James Seaver's A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison (1824) challenged authors and readers to consider the appeal of Indian life to once "proper" Christian women. Captive Mary Jemison actively chose not to return to "civilized" life, and this loyalty to her Indian husband and adopted culture se emed an affront to white society. Oakes Smith uses this familiar captivity narrative form subversively, creating novels that are "exploratory" in the way that Susan K. Harris has interpreted mid-nineteenth-century women's fiction. By allowing her heroines to make Indian territory their home, Oakes Smith's narratives illustrate the function that Harris describes in texts where women venture beyond the domestic sphere: "Exploratory novels undermine cultural ideologies, expanding readers' horizons of acceptable female behavior as they posit alternatives to conventional roles" (200). For nineteenth-century fiction writers, captivity provided a testing ground to reevaluate the place of white women in a society grappling with issues of human rights: feminism, abolitionism, and Indian removal.

An example of the way "boundary situations" and their "wildness" are utilized to test the place of white women in society appears in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), which connects the woodland setting to Hester's ability to escape the confines of Puritan codes and imagine a new identity. The intellectual freedom Hester enjoys there represents a disruptive force that must be contained: ultimately, she chooses to return from roaming in this "moral wilderness" and lead the life of penitence prescribed for her by the same authorities she dared to challenge. Hawthorne's imagery invokes the rhetoric of his Puritan ancestors by treating the forest and its Indian inhabitants as threats to the white community's social order. Although he understands the lure of this other world to a woman who has been treated harshly by white society, Hawthorne defers the possibility of Hester's finding self-fulfillment outside the role the Puritan community assigned her. Hawthorne, of course, was not the first to acknowledge th e willingness with which white women might reject white society and explore forbidden forest regions. The genre of Indian fiction inspired by James Fenimore Cooper likewise recognizes the potential attraction that white women could feel toward Native Americans, as illustrated by Cora Munro's attachment to Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans (1826). At the same time that Hawthorne and Cooper acknowledge these cross-cultural bonds, however, they warn that women who trespass into Indian territory might endanger established social hierarchies.

Oakes Smith's own writing seems to have been inspired in part by Cooper, as evident from her depiction of noble Indians and one novel's dedication to Cooper. [4] Her heroines are often motivated by the same ambivalence toward marriage and "civilization" that Coopers Natty Bumppo exhibits, preferring the forest realm to the white settlement. In reconstructing traditional Indian captivity narratives, Oakes Smith and other women writers such as Lydia Maria Child (Hobomok, 1824) and Catharine Maria Sedgwick (Hope Leslie, 1827) create female characters who, like Leather-stocking, feel trapped by domesticity, becoming "captives" of their own culture. Child's and Sedgwick's portrayals of marriages between white women and Indian men broach the same question that John Demos asks in The Unredeemed Captive (1994), the story of John Williams's daughter Eunice who remained with the Indians after her father was redeemed. Reflecting upon the slippery meaning of Eunice Williams's story, Demos asks, "Was there not a kind of ' redemption' here as well?" (252). By siding with and in some cases mingling their blood with Indians, these transculturated characters embody shifting spiritual and political ideals: they find redemption by rejecting the prescribed "manifest" destiny of women and Indians. Though all these writers portray the freedom and simplicity of a romanticized life in the forest, Cooper's novels tend to preserve distinct boundaries of race, class, and gender, whereas Oakes Smith's, Child's, and Sedgwick's narratives challenge rigid hierarchies and envision the potentially positive consequences of social change.

Analyzing the cultural work of American fiction, Jane Tompkins argues that in Cooper's Last of the Mohicans "the ideal form of human society consists neither in the obliteration of all distinctions nor in the jarring of savage races, but rather in a proper respect for the 'natural' divisions that separate tribe from tribe and nation from nation" (116). Cooper's ideal society also preserves a "natural" division separating men and women into prescribed gender roles. As an advocate of women's rights, Oakes Smith creates her own version of the Indian tale, rewriting Cooper's narrative in order to question its political content. While critics have long recognized elements of racist propaganda in the captivity narrative, studies such as Joy S. Kasson's Marble Queens and Captives (1990), June Namias's White Captives (1993), and Christopher Castiglia's Bound and Determined (1996) have begun to re-evaluate the ways in which these narratives also engage in gender politics. Oakes Smith's Indian fiction follows earlier w omen's novels depicting captivity and enslavement, a theme Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola observes in the works of writers from Susanna Rowson to Sedgwick: "Through the sentimental or domestic novel (the tale of captivation) and the Indian captivity narrative (the tale of captivity) female authors explored the concepts of captive and slave within a gendered context. They implied that another Revolution needed to take place in which female sentiment would depose male intellect" (167). Women's fictional captivity narratives may share a sense of enslavement with ethnic minorities, but white heroines who develop a new consciousness by living among Indians tend to be more preoccupied with relationships between white men and women than with issues of racial injustice.

Of particular concern to Oakes Smith was the threat that marriage posed to a woman's spiritual state and sense of identity. Nineteenth-century America attached no stigma to bachelorhood, but Oakes Smith laments that "every woman must marry if she can--must give up the name so dear and sweet to her girlhood--must merge her being, be absorbed and annihilated in marriage--be an extinct world, a gone-out soul..." (Woman 43). When man and woman marry, she argues, the husband benefits while the wife's identity is merely subsumed into his. Writing when policies of Indian removal had been in effect for decades, Oakes Smith subtly links this loss of identity to that suffered by Native Americans. Significantly, Oakes Smith's description of the self-effacement accompanying a woman's marriage echoes the rhetoric used to describe the fate of "vanishing" American Indians. The "merging" of the two cultures could more accurately be described as a struggle by Native Americans to resist cultural annihilation.

Oakes Smith explicitly links the clash of European and Indian cultures to conflicts between women and patriarchal law, and it is in this context that I propose we read her work. Both her autobiography and fiction situate white women between these two cultures, which metaphorically represent nineteenth-century women's conflicting desires. Living among Indians, Oakes Smith's white heroines escape the effacement of identity that comes with marriage, but their empowerment is costly. Like the mixed-blood or "half-breed" Indian whose literary representation symbolizes a cultural hybrid who cannot be embraced by either white or Indian societies, these white-women-turned-Indian-princesses discover that their freedom puts them at odds with both cultures. By renouncing marriage and traditional gender roles, Oakes Smith's heroines also loosen the bonds of sisterhood, alienating themselves from both white and Indian women. Her Indian fiction shows the thematic and political connections between the process of racial assim ilation and the feminist struggle for gender equality, recognizing the gains and losses involved in each. While the romantic fantasy of life as an Indian may "captivate" Oakes Smith and her characters, these narratives reflect an awareness of racial inequality and the paradoxes of feminist thought.

In her autobiography, Oakes Smith situates her own conflict between a self-effacing sense of duty and a desire for individualism within the framework of an uneasy Puritan heritage. Her paternal grandfather traced his ancestry back to a settler who crossed soon after the Mayflower and established himself in Maine after purchasing land from the Indians. As a child, Oakes Smith felt herself caught between this grandparent of Puritan lineage and her mother's father, a free-thinker descended from French Huguenots: "[M]y miniature judgment inclined to the Pilgrim side of the family as more in accordance with my turn of mind, though the clever, handsome Huguenot ancestor quite captivated my taste" (Selections 14-15). In contrast to the Puritan family branch, Oakes Smith's maternal grandmother had "a wider knowledge of books than women about her" and "was able to discuss theological points like a veritable Anne Hutchinson" (Selections 15). Oakes Smith's character incorporated the influences of her various grandparent s, as she inherited both a Puritan work ethic and an insatiable desire to read. The autobiography describes a precocious child who can read when she is only two or three years old and who begins challenging the Calvinist principles of her upbringing as early as age five. [5]

If we consider captivity to be a state of forced assimilation, then Oakes Smith's story of her childhood suggests that she began to associate captivity with the demands of a Christian home when still very young. At age six she suffered a nervous collapse, finding herself suddenly unable to decipher written language. Staring at the schoolmaster's primer under the threat of his rod, Elizabeth fainted away and then awoke at home in bed with "a delicious feeling of ease, of content--no books, no prayers, only my dolls." She was committed to a type of rest cure and allowed to live "as wild as a young Indian" on her grandfather's farm (Selections 25). For several months she enjoyed "new and beautiful experiences" and improved health by playing outdoors without the care of studies or chores, a way of life opposed to her Puritan background. Compared to the rituals of her Puritan upbringing, life as a "young Indian" is described as a liberating experience. This pattern reverses the imagery of captivity narratives such as Rowlandson's in which "freedom" implies a return to Christian community.

When she describes being forced to abandon plans for a teaching career in favor of marriage, Oakes Smith likewise portrays herself as a "captive" to her Puritan heritage. Her mother preferred that she become a wife rather than a "schoolma'am," and, as Oakes Smith relates, the dutiful daughter yielded reluctantly: "With a weird feeling of 'what's the use,' I felt myself impelled, and yet cast longing eyes toward idealisms, vast and undefined, which I was not permitted to grasp. I was Puritan, blood, bone and soul; by long descent trained to obedience (Selections 42). Oakes Smith frames her experience with descriptions of Puritan maidens who had no choice but to marry and be submissive. Perhaps reflecting upon her own mysterious longings, she speculates that "the passion of a Puritan maiden existed, but was buried under a vast substratum of Duty" (Selections 42). Yielding to the Puritan dichotomy of Christian saints and Indian heathens, Oakes Smith represses the passions associated with so-called savages. Inspi red by her study of Fox's Book of Martyrs, the young Oakes Smith went so far as to test her ability to submit to physical pain as well, inflicting self-torture such as holding her fingers in a candle flame because she feared she ad grown "too giddy and fond of praise" (Selections 35).

These meditations upon the lives of Puritan omen and Christian martyrs provide a fitting prologue to Oakes Smith's account of her marriage, which she describes as "a melancholy spectacle and a sad wedding" (Selections 43). A sixteen-year-old bride who was still two inches short of being fully grown, she was married in 1823 to Seba Smith, a spectacled, bald man nearly twice her age. Oakes Smith wistfully chronicles her rapid metamorphosis from girl to wife: "I did not shirk my responsibilities... but set myself to learn like a perfect little drudge... I learned to patch and mend and make, and transformed myself to an utterly different creature from what had been native to me" (Selections 45). Guided by the overriding sense of duty learned as a child, Oakes Smith dedicated herself to becoming a good housekeeper and mother. Her transformation recalls the Puritan spirit of Rowlandson as she is forced to adapt to the ways of her Indian captors, bearing the drudgery of shouldering burdens on her back and foraging f or meager food.

The stifled desires accompanying Oakes Smith's youthful acts of submission became manifest in her outspoken defense of the women's rights movement. In describing the rewards of publishing a feminist tract, Oakes Smith again frames her autobiography as a narrative of captivity: "I was reaping the benefit of stepping outside of my Puritanic bondage. Brought up as I had been, I had so much to renounce and so much to do that I almost danced over my freedom" (Selections 153). In Woman and Her Needs, Oakes Smith adamantly condemns the practice of sending teenage girls "from the baby-house to the altar" and argues for a marriage contract in which both parties are mature equals (64-65). She repudiates the notion of marriage as a mere "household arrangement for thrift or economy, where a woman is selected for her domestic points, in the same manner that a housekeeper is secured" Oakes Smith contends that marriages exist most often in corrupted form, whereas matrimony should in fact be elevated to the state of a sacred union. [6] Although she asks readers of her autobiography not to conclude that "I was a miserable wife, my husband a miserable man" (Selections 44), Oakes Smith most often depicts marriage as a miserable institution denying women the same opportunities as men. In spite of social expectations to the contrary, she asserts, "marriage no more fills up the sum of her whole being than it does that of a man" (Selections 156). If Oakes Smith's autobiography highlights her inherited sense of duty, it also tells of her resistance to the bonds of this Puritan heritage. Stepping out of the submissive role prescribed for women becomes a subversive act, one that her novels explicitly connect to the freedom she experienced "playing Indian" as a child.

Rowlandson's experience ultimately reinforced her Christian worldview and acceptance of her own submissive role, but Oakes Smith's conversion to the role of traditional wife was short lived. When her husband lost all his assets to land speculation, Oakes Smith's identity changed once again--this time to that of breadwinner as she industriously took up her pen to support the family. These circumstances allowed Oakes Smith to realize many of her girlhood ambitions and to escape, at least in part, the conventions established in her youth. Because of her husband's financial disaster, she was able to expand the scope of her education and influence. The perspective she gained by earning her own income led her to argue that women be granted equal citizenship. Citing the statistic that at least one-half of the nation's women were employed outside the home, Oakes Smith declares in her autobiography that "it is useless to talk about the sphere of woman" (Selections 154). If women can work and have their property taxed, she reasons, then they should also share the privileges of male citizens. In contrast to Rowlandson, Oakes Smith rejects the binary thinking that polarizes Christians and Indians, women and men.

The haunting influence of her Puritan ancestors also arises in Oakes Smith's fiction: she repeatedly turned to the topic in much the same way that Nathaniel Hawthorne was compelled to do. Yet while Hester Prynne's ability to roam "as freely as the wild Indian" leaves her lost in "a moral wilderness" (Scarlet Letter 217), Oakes Smith's "Indian" heroines find spiritual transcendence. In her stories of women's confrontations with Puritan authority, Oakes Smith depicts radical alternatives to the patient submission with which Hester accepts her fate. The Western Captive; or, the Times of Tecumseh (1842) and The Sagamore of Saco (1868) both relate stories of young women who prefer their adopted Indian tribes to white society. These two narratives are versions not only of one another, but also of Oakes Smith's own autobiography. In her fiction, Oakes Smith imagines captivity among the Indians as a means to the liberty she experienced during her childhood rest cure. But as her white heroines find themselves face to face with "real" Indians, the freedom Oakes Smith once imagined becomes problematic. This privilege is contingent upon the very fact that these women are white rather than Indian. Racial inequality thus uplifts white women while leaving their Indian "sisters" unempowered.

The title of Oakes Smith's The Western Captive proves to be ironic since the novel's female captive finds so much freedom among the Indians that she abhors returning to white society. Margaret Durand is adopted as a child by the tribe of Indians that murdered the rest of her family, with the exception of one sister, Alice, who is taken into the Christian home of her neighbors. The two sisters provide a study in contrasts: the "captive" Margaret enjoys her liberty in the woods while Alice remains confined to the domestic sphere. When a white friend of the Indians offers to take Margaret back to the settlement, she explains the reasons for her contentment: "The Swaying Reed is beloved by the tribe, and none may dare to take her away. She is her own mistress, and goes and comes at the bidding of none" (7). Like Natty Bumppo, Margaret shuns marriage because it signals a return to civilization that would obliterate her identity. As a white male, however, Leatherstocking's privileged status does not depend upon liv ing among Indians, as Margaret's does. Margaret's race earns her power in the tribe, but her gender relegates her to the margins of white society.

In creating a female counterpart to Leatherstocking, Oakes Smith challenges the notion that women must be fulfilled within the domestic sphere. The woods grant Margaret new responsibilities and allow her to prove herself. Tecumseh's plea to Alice, who wants her sister to return to white society, suggests that Margaret stands to lose a great deal by becoming more "civilized":

Margaret is brave and beautiful--her step is light as the fawn's upon the hill. She has the eye of the hunter, and the heart of the warrior. Wisdom is upon her lips. Why should she be confined to the toil of the white man's cabin? Her free soul would spurn the thraldom. Leave her, maiden, to the freedom and happiness of the life she leads. Why should the bird be imprisoned? Why would you stop the freedom of its song? Margaret is a daughter of the woods, let her remain. (17)

Margaret, or the Swaying Reed, has been raised with a strong sense of pride and independence. She enjoys prestige among the Indians due to her wisdom and beauty, and both her counsel and her affections are sought by the tribe's chiefs--including Tecumseh and his brother Kumshaka. In spite of her love for Tecumseh and the attractiveness of Kumshaka's proposals, Margaret renounces marriage in favor of her solitary freedom. When a jealous Indian woman questions her intentions, she declares, "I shall never be a wife. The Great Spirit has so decreed" (8). [7] With the heroine's resistance to her own passions and those of her suitors, Oakes Smith's novel develops a theme that Karen Tracey identifies in nineteenth-century women's "double-proposal" novels, the idea that "rational [or spiritual] love is more likely to promote women's welfare than romantic or sentimental love" (36). Margaret's independent status separates her not only from Alice and most white women, but also from the Indian women of the tribe, who are chained by the type of domestic servitude she deplores. Margaret thus assumes the identity stereotypical of an Indian princess rather than an Indian "squaw" or drudge: she embodies the exotic, noble, and privileged character of a white Pocahontas mediating two cultures.

Margaret and Alice represent the conflicting identities of Oakes Smith's own self--the "wild Indian" who played outdoors and the Puritan daughter bent over her books and domestic chores. Alice's submissive manner reflects the strict religious upbringing she received under the patriarchal authority of Mr. Mason, whose household is representative of "the white man's cabin" disdained by Tecumseh in which women patiently face the trials of housekeeping and childraising. In contrast to Margaret's bold character, Alice is known for her delicacy and gentleness. Moreover, Alice holds sacred the ideals of Christian marriage and motherhood that Margaret rejects. Although sisters, Margaret and Alice are guided by opposed conceptions of their roles as women. Their differences reflect some of the rifts separating white women during the nascent nineteenth-century feminist movement, especially the desire to reconcile political rights and influence with the religion of domesticity.

As narrator, Oakes Smith is split between the ideals embraced by these characters, unable to condone or condemn either. Instead of a melodramatic victory of "true" womanhood, the two characters are forced to reconsider their values and beliefs. Alice's gentle ways make an impression upon her sister: she begins to display a certain "softness" as opposed to the cold, proud manner that had earned her respect among the Indians. Encouraged by this change, Alice pleads, "[Y]ou must leave this wild life, and go with me, and become gentle and womanly; you will learn to sit quietly in the house and read and sew, and we shall be so happy.." (23). Margaret, however, refuses to live indoors and perform what she sees as "useless work." She instead tries to persuade Alice to adopt her own way of life: "[L]et us be free here in this great wilderness, and rejoice in the beauty around us, but let us not be chained down by the opinions of others. I cannot go with you to your poor life; stay with me, and we can be happy" (23). Margaret's rhetoric at times evokes Emersonian themes of self-reliance, framing women's issues in transcendentalist arguments that appeal to Alice.

Whereas Margaret is swayed by her sister's sensitive nature, Alice admires Margaret's freedom of thought. Living apart from the strict dogma that guided her sister, Margaret cultivates a privileged relationship with nature and the Great Spirit that earns her the status of a prophetess. Contrary to what she has been taught from Mr. Mason's readings of the bible, Fox's Book of Martyrs, and other inspirational texts, Alice finds that Margaret's lack of Christian religion does not preclude spiritual rectitude:

[S]he was astonished to perceive how Margaret's strong and elevated faith, divested from all dogmatisms, and human creeds, helped to relieve her from the terrors and hesitancy engendered by the stern doctrines in which she had been educated. She learned from Margaret, to estimate the character of the soul by the purity and elevation of its desires, and to take comfort from a consciousness of a growth of goodness in herself. (26)

Yet, like Margaret, Alice remains unable to reconcile herself to her sister's way of life. She wonders whether Margaret's feelings are "primeval and chaste like the freshness of undegenerate man, or only those of the crude demi-savage" (27). The two women try to compromise by staying in the woods and attempting to be more alike. Margaret teaches Alice to adapt to forest life while she herself learns to sit quietly, read, and do needlework. In this manner, they serve as each other's alter egos: Alice recognizes her desire to be free from social conventions, and Margaret renews forgotten ties to her white, Christian origins.

In their search for personal dignity, both women discover that it requires self-sacrifice. Alice eventually comes to believe that the urge to live in the woods is a selfish impulse that conflicts with her duty to society. When returning to Mr. Mason's house, she is disappointed that Margaret does not feel a similar call. Unknown to Alice, Margaret is not acting for herself alone: she has volunteered to give her life in lieu of her sister's in answer to the Indians' demand for a sacrifice to the Great Spirit. Although Margaret is first tempted "to put herself at their head, and, by the force of her own will, awe them to submission" (26), she instead saves Alice by offering herself as a victim. As a convenient plot device and stereotypical representation of Indians, the proposed human sacrifice seems to negate Margaret's experience as a free and powerful member of the tribe. Oakes Smith distinguishes, however, between Margaret's martyrdom and the spirit of Christian submission commonly associated with sentiment al heroines. Margaret's "submission" is a calculated, strategic act to save her sister's life rather than an attempt to win her own salvation. And when Margaret begins to read her sister's Bible, she does not experience the traditional conversion. Instead, she seems to find comfort because the book links her to Alice and their lost mother.

The Western Captive ends with a validation of both the white and Indian sides of Margaret's identity. Margaret's willingness to face death grows from both love for her sister and loyalty to her adopted Indian family. The perceived need for a sacrifice arises from the unfortunate state of the tribe's affairs. While an absent Tecumseh pursues his efforts to create a confederation of Indian tribes, his people suffer devastating losses in the battle of Tippecanoe. Margaret returns to the scene of destruction with a heavy heart--as one connected to both sides of the conflict--and sees her execution as an act that might maintain tribal unity. At the last moment, Tecumseh reappears and prevents the ritual. Already ill from her journey and sorrows, Margaret nevertheless slips into a type of coma that ends with her death. Alice, now a wife and mother, remains ignorant of her sister's fate. Because of the resemblance between Margaret and Alice's own daughter (also named Margaret and born near the time of her aunt's dea th), Indian legend tells how the Swaying Reed's spirit lingered long enough to enter the body of the child. While the Indians immortalize Margaret with stories of her love for their people, Alice eventually learns the truth of her sister's devotion and looks up to her as a model of goodness. Such a resolution departs from traditional captivity narratives in which women are happily restored to white society, a convention often translated into nineteenth-century fiction. Rather than affirming the values of white society, Margaret's death vindicates her way of life and guarantees that her ideals will survive.

Like the first wave of American feminists in Oakes Smith's own day, Margaret does not live to see the consequences of her self-sacrifices and necessary compromises, but her spirit guides the next generation of women. In addition to questioning nineteenth-century gender conventions, Oakes Smith tentatively addresses the issue of American racism. The novel's opening alludes to a larger struggle for freedom with this commentary upon Tecumseh's plight:

Patriots have struggled and fallen, having accomplished nothing, it may be, in their career, except to add one more impulsive throb to the great beating of the universal heart for freedom--yet time may fail to reveal how essential was that one throb to the high interests of humanity....[S]lowly but surely is the race advancing to a goal where the chain shall of itself fall from the free limb; and the eye, wandering backward through the long vista of despotism and revolution, shall behold how strong men were stricken in the race, that they might become heralds and guide-marks for others. (1)

The Western Captive contains a subversive bond between its heroine and Tecumseh, a figure of rebellion against white society. Oakes Smith presents Tecumseh as an American patriot rather than an Indian enemy, suggesting that his labors to enfranchise the Indians and preserve their lands would have been glorified had he been fighting any foe other than the United States government. Margaret shares Tecumseh's devotion to the higher cause of liberty in defending both her individual freedom as a woman and the sovereignty of her adopted Native American people. Oakes Smith's novel illustrates a strategy described by Nina Baym. Instead of creating a heroine who takes part in historical events "as somebody's girlfriend," Oakes Smith creates one who is a central character herself: "The solution to this problem did not consist of introducing her as a rebel inclined to subvert the course of American history--in which case she would have been both unpatriotic and unsuccessful--but in making her act to preserve or forward some historical trend that was only embryonic in her own time" (Baym 155). Margaret accepts Tecumseh as her spiritual double, and their corresponding political union parallels the common ground that nineteenth-century feminists, Indian rights activists, and abolitionists often shared in fighting for civil rights. Though the story takes place before and after the struggle at Tippecanoe in 1811, Margaret's transcendentalist, feminist, and multi-cultural ideals identify her as a kind of "prophet" anticipating future social and political movements.

Despite the sense of equality shared by Margaret and Tecumseh, the novel does not envision a utopia in which gender or racial difference can be erased. Indian life functions as an arena in which the heroine can test the limits of her power and liberty, but even there we find few opportunities for women's advancement. In contrast to Margaret, the women of the tribe are guided by gender conventions that bind them to marriage and domestic labor just as women in white society are bound. Margaret's privileged status is a consequence of her race, and although she does not want to be considered "white" by fellow members of her adopted tribe, Margaret's race creates hostility. In rejecting Kumshaka's romantic overtures, she makes enemies of both him and Ackoree, an Indian woman jealous of his attentions. Margaret enjoys sitting with men during tribal councils, but she never establishes a strong sisterhood with the women of the tribe. Her racial identity also creates resentment among the Indians when they suffer bitte r losses in struggles against European settlers. Even Tecumseh senses that his people cannot withstand the onslaught of white civilization and that this stirs the tribe to demand that a life be sacrificed. In the end only Margaret's death can ease the tensions arising from her mixed racial and gender identities. Oakes Smith denies her readers any illusions that white feminists will triumph without personal sacrifices, despite their own white privilege in a racist society.

Oakes Smith's other fiction writes variations of the same story, often linking women's struggles for individual identity to the larger conflict between Europeans and Native Americans. In The Sagamore of Saco, Hope Vines is also characterized by her independence; like Margaret, she insists that she is not meant to be a wife. [8] She remains aloof from the women in her Puritan community, for, being somewhat "incomplete in mind," though not insane, Hope is allowed to roam outdoors "like a wild Indian" (12, 19). Qakes Smith recreates her own conflicts with Puritanism, yet dramatically heightens them: Hope's singular character puts her in danger of being burned as a witch. At the precise moment that the Puritan authorities seize Hope, however, Indians wrest her away for their own purposes. Though taken captive, Hope is thus freed from the persecution of the Puritans by good-intentioned Indians who revere her as a medicine woman. She is attended by Acashee, the daughter of Samoset, but although Samoset loves Hope a s a father would, Acashee resents her as a rival for John Bonyton's affection. Hope also resembles Margaret in her refusal to marry John: she is content with a purely ideal union of their souls.

Acashee's antagonism toward Hope and her bloody death at the hands of John's allies would seem to reinforce the dichotomy between Indian and white women established in The Western Captive. On the other hand, Oakes Smith's fiction often reflects an essentialist point of view linking women of different ethnicities. Though they are portrayed as cruel and vengeful women, Ackoree in The Western Captive and Acashee in The Sagamore of Saco nevertheless appear as victims: both women's unrequited love brings the pain of rejection. Oakes Smith writes, "Human passions are the same everywhere, whether amid the splendors of a palace or the homeliness of a savage wigwam. ... Love is everywhere the tyrant, and his supremacy is everywhere acknowledged" (The Western Captive 7). Indian women, like white women, are understood as being ruled by their emotional attachments. Nor are they always driven to the violent measures taken by Ackoree and Acashee, for in other stories Oakes Smith depicts Indian women who confront their misf ortunes with quiet dignity.

In fact, Oakes Smith has a tendency to bracket racial issues in order to emphasize the plight of "all" women, a tactical move for which white feminism has been criticized. Rather than serving as foils for white characters, several of Oakes Smith's Indian heroines are cast in similar roles. The title character of "Indian Traits: The Story of Niskagah" (1840) anticipates that of Margaret: captured by a Pawnee Loup, Niskagah is to be offered as a human sacrifice to the Great Spirit. Oakes Smith again redefines captivity using bonds of love and marriage, asserting that abductions such as Niskagah's in fact resemble rites of marriage in which brides often become separated from their kin and old ways of life. Ironically, the Pawnee Loup treats his hostage with affection, while his wife becomes the one who feels alienated in her own home. Oakes Smith concludes, "With woman, love is ever the same, whether in the halls of elegance and refinement, or the simple cabin of the savage--it is still true to its nature--still self-sacrificing and enduring; twining flowers and verdure about the shrine of its idol, while its own heart is desolate and broken" (144). Likewise, Oakes Smith's "Kinneho: A Legend of Moosehead Lake" (1851) focuses upon the unhappiness of an Indian woman who is forced to marry against her will, combining Indian legend with conventions of sentimental fiction.

"Kinneho" more explicitly shows how the latent subject of these "Indian" tales is Oakes Smith's own struggle to reconcile her ambitions with society's gender codes. She relates this legend within a narrative of her own visit to nearby Mount Kinneho (or Kineo) as the "first white woman" to reach the summit. Although she hears the story from an Indian guide, Oakes Smith insists that she must tell it in her own words. Her authorship becomes an issue in the narrative when she digresses to discuss the situation of women writers. Oakes Smith first defends women authors against various stereotypes: they are not unfeminine, but "elegant" and adept at tasks ranging "from darning a pair of hose to the writing of an ode" (175). She goes on to acknowledge that "each lady writer understands the power of her sister author...and foresees great good to her kind from the accumulating power of womanmind; but she does see that the chances for her own selfish individual distinction are lessened by the numbers in the field..." (1 75). These asides on the topic of female authorship explicitly reveal the anxieties encoded in her other stories: like many of her heroines, Oakes Smith finds herself negotiating between the desire to be considered "feminine" and the wish to set herself apart from other women. Moreover, in pursuing her own achievements, she competes with other women for public recognition. As in The Western Captive, Oakes Smith grapples with the fear that greater personal ambitions might alienate women from one another and dissolve familiar bonds of sisterhood.

The Western Captive and The Sagamore of Saco juxtapose Euro-American women with American Indian women so that the white heroines can maintain their femininity while they rebel against traditional gender conventions. Margaret's and Hope's "wild" behavior offends the sensibilities of Christian society, but they stand out as refined and virtuous women when compared to the Indians. Ackoree and Acashee exhibit spiteful cruelty that shows how little the white women have in common with "wild Indians." Oakes Smith makes a case for her heroines' independence while acknowledging that power can be abused by women. Margaret and Hope are presented as exemplary women who recognize their advantage over the Indian tribes but do not misuse their authority. In contrast to many patriarchal rulers, these women characters created by Oakes Smith invoke their spirit of selflessness to resolve social conflicts.

As a white author writing about Indians, Oakes Smith finds herself in a position to manipulate her Native American subject matter and, consequently, her predominantly white audience. Her representations of Native Americans vary between noble and ignoble stereotypes, but with a specific narrative function: they provide her with rhetorical tools to construct arguments against the oppression of women through marriage. Traditional dichotomies between whites and Indians, civilization and wilderness, become paradigms for the conflicting sides of a woman's identity. In her interpretations of the captivity narrative, Oakes Smith denies that a white heroine necessarily belongs in a Christian home as a wife and mother, even if the alternative involves an isolated existence and early death. While Indian fiction such as Cooper's Leatherstocking tales often reinforces traditional gender codes, Oakes Smith and other female authors question these prescribed roles in their literature "about" Indians. By depicting women and I ndians fighting together for their liberty, her fiction also alludes to the complex relations between white women and America's ethnic minorities. Oakes Smith shows how white feminism can be united with other egalitarian movements and yet remain in conflict with them: her heroines begin to discover their own empowerment only to realize the distance separating them from less privileged women and races. While her Indian fiction celebrates the freedom of these white heroines, Oakes Smith also cautions that individual fulfillment cannot be achieved apart from a larger sense of responsibility for the common good of all humanity.


(1.) Oakes Smith was a frequent contributor to journals such as the Ladies' Companion, Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book, the Southern Literary Messenger, and Graham's Magazine; she also gave lectures on the lyceum circuit and published novels, poetry, children's literature, and essays on womens issues. For a bibliography of her publications, see Wyman, Two Pioneers 237-42.

(2.) Oakes Smith's name reflects her own resistance to the convention of being known by her husband's name. Born Elizabeth Oakes Prince, she was first known as Mrs. Seba Smith after her marriage, giving up a maiden name that connotated privilege and distinction. Because both she and her husband were widely published, however, she appended the name "Oakes" and began signing her work "Elizabeth Oakes Smith." While this was allegedly done to prevent confusion over authorship, Oakes Smith also objected to her husband's name as being too common. Therefore, she had her children's names legally changed to "Oaksmith," although her husband insisted upon keeping his name unaltered. As a writer who first published her work under pseudonyms, Oakes Smith came to place considerable importance upon being recognized as an individual apart from her husband and any other of the many "Smiths."

(3.) Oakes Smith's "Machinito, The Evil Spirit; from the Legends of Iagou" appears in Schoolcraft's study with other Indian stories and legends. "Machinito" relates how an evil god was accidentally created by Chemanitou, the master of life, in his first attempt to make a creature in his own human-like form. In addition to this transcription of Indian legend and the works discussed in this essay, Oakes Smith included Indian material in Stories for Good Children (1847) and Bald Eagle: or, The Last of the Ramapaughs (1867).

Wyman argues that Oakes Smith's characterization of Iagou in The Salamander (1848) is echoed in Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha (1855) and cites evidence that her work also influenced Whittier's "The Little Vanishers" (Two Pioneers 183). Although he does not write in reference to Native American subject matter, Edgar Allan Poe contends that Longfellow was inspired by Oakes Smith's work. In a review for the Broadway Journal, Poe in fact accuses Longfellow of outright plagiarism, quoting stanzas from Oakes Smith's "The Water" and then comparing them to Longfellow's "Rain in Summer." He concludes, "If this is not a plagiarism, and a very bold one, on the part of Professor Longfellow, will any body be kind enough to tell us what it is?" (103)

(4.) Oakes Smith dedicated The Salamander (1848) to Cooper, perhaps because the novel begins with a nostalgic description of the Ramapo valley and the Indians who lived there. This introductory chapter is the only part of her novel that focuses on Cooper's familiar subjects; The Salamander tells the story of the French, German, and Dutch ironworkers who later establish themselves in the area. Because the novel invokes European legend and depicts the supernatural, it seems to have more in common with Washington Irving's sketches than with Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales.

(5.) Cheryl Walker notes that precocity was often emphasized in nineteenth-century accounts of women poets' lives, citing such examples as Lucretia Davidson, Frances Harper, Emma Lazarus, and Rose Terry Cooke. Walker's composite portrait fits Oakes Smith well, for she concludes that "the typical nineteenth-century American woman poet was well educated and spiritually keen, showed unusual intellectual promise before she was out of her teens, either remained single or found married life frustrating, suffered intensely and relatively early from the deaths of loved ones, turned to writing to ease financial burdens or a troubled heart, and sought the support of an influential male" (xxxii).

(6.) Margaret Fuller also argues this point in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), ranking different forms of marriage from "the household partnership" to "the religious" (281-96).

(7.) Such a renunciation of marriage also takes place in Oakes Smith's The Sinless Child (1842). The poem tells of a remarkable girl named Eva, who lives in a transcendental state of oneness with nature and God until she gives her first kiss to a man. Eva becomes his "spirit-bride" since her death immediately follows this call to womanhood: rather than engaging in the physical consummation of human love, she rises to a type of guardian angel. Throughout the poem, the narrator emphasizes the gulf between Eva and those who surround her--including her own mother--due to their inability to understand her intuitive powers. Her mother suggests that she take a suitor, a course of action opposed to Eva's vision of her own destiny: "Alone must be the pure in heart, / Alone the great in mind" (128).

(8.) A much shorter version of the novel was published only six years after The Western Captive. Hope's character undergoes significant development in the novel, whereas the short story tends to focus upon John Boynton as a figure in Maine's history. See Elizabeth Oakes Smith, "The Sagamore of Saco. A Legend of Maine," Graham's Magazine 33 (1848): 47-52.


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-----. "Kinneho: A Legend of Moosehead Lake." Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book (1851): 175-79.

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-----. The Salamander: A Legend for Christmas. Found Amongst the Papers of the Late Ernest Helfenstein. Ed. Elizabeth Oakes Smith. New York: Putnam, 1848.

-----. Selections from the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Ed. Mary Alice Wyman. Lewiston: Lewiston Journal Company, 1924.

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-----. Woman and Her Needs. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1851.

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Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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