- Americans Recaptured: Progressive Era Memory of Frontier Captivity by Molly K. Varley
This book by Molly K. Varley argues that some Progressive-era people used eighteenth- and nineteenth-century captivity narratives for their own purposes. They often did so by publishing new editions of old texts and constructing monuments like statues and other kinds of physical memorials in public places. Building on Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory that the frontier experience molded American identity, this generation of Americans embraced white captives who lived among Indians as the perfect symbols representing the best of both the frontier and the Native worlds. By resurrecting these stories, Progressives hoped to project the past onto the future, perpetuating a national collective identity while alleviating any doubts about the morality of conquest. Captives’ experiences, they believed, “embodied the Turnerian process” by which European immigrants became Americans (p. 179). Meanwhile, the suffering those captives endured helped justify Indian extinction.
Memorializing white captives served other purposes as well. It valorized rural, small-town America at a time of rapid urbanization and helped blend conservation of natural places with cultural landscapes. It spoke to unsettled concerns about changing gender relations by celebrating women captives who exhibited the supposed female attributes of maternalism and a community orientation but who, in captivity, gained the masculine virtues of independence, individualism, strength, and self-sufficiency. Thus, with victory over the Indians behind them, Progressives could promote the adoption of some aspects of Indian cultures into a wholly American identity. Indians could vanish and become assimilated, while their virtues and knowledge would be incorporated into the larger culture.
One of Varley’s main examples is Quaker and Progressive activist William Pryor Letchworth, who wanted to conserve a lovely stretch of New York’s Genesee River. Concerned that the idea of conserving the land’s natural values would not alone suffice, Letchworth used the story of well-known Seneca captive Mary Jemison to cement the land’s significance and help preserve it from development. Eventually, Letchworth retrieved Jemison’s remains when Buffalo’s expansion threatened her gravesite and reburied them on a bluff above the Middle Falls of the Genesee. He also helped erect a statue of her and moved the Jemison log cabin to the site, thus marrying the scenic and historic. Later, Letchworth donated the property to the state for a park, hoping the Jemison story would encourage visitors to “incorporate Indian characteristics…[and] apious connection to the land, an internal quietness, and an anti-modern mentality” into their own lives (p.74).Of course, Varley also notes, contemporary Indians were a different matter, and conservationists displayed no qualms about removing Native people from parklands. [End Page 707]
Historians have long understood that representations of Indians—or, in this case, their captives—reveal much more about the creators of those texts, images, and monuments than they do their subjects. By zeroing in on a particularly unsettled period in American history, Varley finds that some Anglo-Americans turned to captivity narratives to assure themselves that the frontier “creation story” continued to inform nation-building as the United States adjusted to new realities, especially the waves of immigrants who supposedly threatened to upend it (p. 15). However, not all shared these views or turned to these narratives. Nevertheless, Varley’s evidence, which comes completely from east of the Mississippi River, is convincing regarding a segment of the nation. The decision to organize the book by case study leads to much repetition, and a bit more acknowledgment of alternative visions (whether those of people such as anthropologist Franz Boas or non-Anglos) would have strengthened the volume. But the attention paid to monument building contributes to the genre of memory studies and adds a welcome eastern Native American element to that literature.