- "Do We Reverse the Medal?"Settler Guilt, the Indian Speech, and the Untold Side of the Story
The first story of nineteenth-century American author Emerson Bennett's collection, Forest and Prairie or Life on the Frontier (1860), presents an interesting paradox. This book of stories about settler heroes begins with a pronouncement about the evils of white settlers' treatment of Indians.1
We talk of the ferocity, the vindictiveness, the treachery, and the cruelty of the native savage; and, painting him in the darkest colors, tell how, when his hunting grounds covered the sites of our now proudest cities, he was wont to steal down upon a few harmless whites, our forefathers, and butcher them in cold blood, sparing neither sex nor age, except for a painful captivity, to end perhaps in the most demoniac tortures; and we dwell upon the theme, till our little innocent children shudder and creep close to our sides, and look fearfully around them, and perhaps wonder how the good God, of whom they have also heard us speak, could ever have permitted such human monsters to encumber His fair and beautiful earth. But do we reverse the medal and show the picture which impartial Truth has stamped upon the other side—and which, in a great measure, stands as a cause to the opposite effect—stands as a cause for savage ferocity, vindictiveness, treachery and cruelty? Do we tell our young and eager listeners that the poor Indian, living up to the light he had, and not unfrequently beyond it, knew no better than to turn, like the worm when trampled upon, and bite the foot that crushed him? That we had taken the land of his father's graves and driven him from his birthright hunting grounds? That we had stolen his cattle, robbed him of his food, destroyed his growing fields, [End Page 25] burned his wigwams, and murdered his brothers, fathers, wives and little ones, besides instigating tribe to war against tribe—and that, knowing nothing of the Christian code, to return good for evil, he fulfilled the law of his nature and education in taking his "great revenge" upon any of the pale-faced race he should chance to meet?(Bennett 15–16)
In fact, the rest of "The Mingo Chief," that first story in Bennett's collection, tells of settlers committing treachery and murder, as a hunting party of settlers tricks a small group of Indians into trusting them, only to cruelly murder the Indians to collect their scalps. In opposition to the other tales in Bennett's book, tales with titles like "A Kentucky Hero" and "The Daring Scouts," this story paints settlers as cruel, calculating, and definitely guilty.
Moreover, in this passage Bennett not only asks for sympathy for Native Americans but also, by listing settler crimes and using the inclusive "we," asks his readers to consider their own complicity in causing the violence and in perpetuating the one-sided historical narrative. The issue becomes, then, not just guilt for the past crimes against the Indians but the continued guilt produced by not representing the Indians' perspective on events and the reasons for their violence. With this statement, Bennett sums up the deep ambivalence of his book, which both shows settlers as heroes battling Indians and, in its inaugural story, questions settler morality. And by showing a narrator aware of this guilt, the story asks readers likewise to become aware and to admit their own participation.
This meditation on both types of settler guilt, unusual for its time, forms the subject of this essay, which reads Bennett's "The Mingo Chief" alongside two nineteenth-century novels about American settlers, Charles Kenyon's The Young Ranchmen; or, Perils of Pioneering in the Wild West (1891) and William Gilmore Simms's The Yemassee: A Romance of Carolina (1835), in order to illustrate an underdiscussed ambivalence about the settler colonial frontier evident in some works of literature, especially those chronicling first-generation settlement. These early settlers of what Mary Louise Pratt has called the "contact zone" I refer to as "contact settlers," meaning those doing the messy work of carving a colony out of the...