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  • The "Forgotten Era"Race and Gender in Ann Stephens's Dime Novel Frontier

In the summer of 1860 the House of Beadle and Adams (HBA) launched their first dime novel, starting a genre filled with sensational, typically Western adventure stories woven with a delicate layer of romance and lessons about Victorian morality and racial stereotypes. The first among many rival dime novel publishers, HBA's inaugural novel, Malaeska, Indian Wife of the White Hunter (June 9, 1860) by Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens, chronicles the relationship between Malaeska and her mixed-blood son. Two days before Malaeska's release, the publishing house ran an advertisement in the New York Tribune: "BOOKS FOR THE MILLION! A dollar book for a dime."1 Before they shut down their printing presses in 1898, HBA alone published 3,158 separate dimes.2 Despite their significant contribution to the genre of Western literature, dime novels were replaced as quickly as they started by the cloth-bound book, leading some scholars to term the dime novel era from 1860 to 1900 the "forgotten era."3

Stephens contributed six more dime novels between 1860 and 1864, ending with The Indian Queen, the third novel in a trilogy about a mixed-race woman who returns to the Seneca Nation to assume leadership after the chief (her father) dies. On the surface, Stephens's first and last novels are extraordinarily similar: they are about Native American tribes in the Northeast during the colonial period, center on women, and discuss interracial sex. Since HBA published them in 1860 and 1864 respectively, one might even link them to Civil War era racial ideologies. However, this connection elides a more probing read of the racial subtext. Malaeska actually originated in 1836, not 1860, as a short story called "The Jockey Cap," published in Stephens's first magazine, Portland Magazine. Comparing Malaeska to The Indian Queen highlights the cultural and social shifts that occurred in mid-nineteenth-century America. Between the 1830s and the 1860s, racial theories began shifting away from the [End Page 121] belief that Native Americans could assimilate into "civilized" white society, favoring instead the idea that no amount of social uplift could separate Native Americans from their "savage" blood.4 While Malaeska reflects more of the 1830s mentalité, The Indian Queen reflects the growing emphasis on scientific racism. These two dime novels tell a national story as they reveal dominant American attitudes toward Indigenous peoples. They also illuminate the cultural importance of female authors who used the power of suggestion in their narratives, both to challenge and to confirm the confines of Victorian gender roles, using Native Americans as proxy stand-ins for white women's liberation.

ann stephens and the history of the dime novel

Before we can understand the narratives, we must first understand the author and the period in which she wrote. It is no coincidence that HBA chose Stephens's work as their first dime novel. Her prolific writing career with a wide audience made her the ideal choice to boost their immediate popularity and success. Stephens grew up in a solid middle-class family. Her father, John Winterbotham, worked a steady job at Humphreysville Manufactoring Company in Connecticut, which ensured that Stephens would receive an excellent education. She read voraciously at the public library in what her biographer Paola Gemme calls a "self-imposed literary apprenticeship." She married Edward Stephens, a local merchant, in 1831. The couple moved to Maine in 1834 and started their own regional magazine called Portland Magazine. Edward served as publisher, Ann as editor and main contributor.5 Stephens's initial foray into editing, literature, and writing launched her career. The couple moved to New York City in 1837, where she became the associate editor of publisher William Snowden's Ladies Companion, a monthly magazine. In addition to contributing literature to the magazine, Stephens increased circulation from 3,000 to 17,000 readers per month. Her work for Ladies Companion further propelled her success: she went on to hold an associate editor position at Graham's Magazine alongside Edgar Allan Poe in 1841; co-edited Lady's World of Fashion, which later became Peterson's Magazine (1842–53); edited Frank Leslie's Lady's Gazette of Fashion (1854–56); and published her own magazine, Mrs. Stephens' Illustrated New Monthly (1856–58). By 1858 her monthly merged with the widely circulated Peterson's Magazine.6

In 1846 Stephens joined the ranks of Edgar Allan Poe's literati. Her brief biographical sketch under the heading "Minor Contemporaries" was hardly a glowing tribute, as Poe arrogantly asserted that she contributed little to the actual editing process of her magazines.7 But just the mention in Poe's comprehensive list was testament enough to her literary skill. Poe's assessment of her [End Page 122] work oscillated between fondness and contempt. "Her plots are not so good as are their individual items. Her style is what the critics usually term 'powerful,' but lacks real power through its verboseness and floridity." He continued, "Her sentences are, also, for the most part too long; we forget their commencements ere we get at their terminations. Her faults, nevertheless, both in matter and manner, belong to the effervescence of high talent, if not exactly of genius." In true Poe fashion, he also unnecessarily noted her propensity toward plumpness, yet her beautiful eyes and luxurious blond hair.8 Her serials ran next to the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The publisher behind Peterson's Magazine, Charles J. Peterson, even paid her a higher wage than other authors (both male and female) in order to secure the exclusivity of her works.9 Stephens had earned her place among the elite authors of her time.

Her "high talent" and clear success made Stephens an ideal choice for HBA's inaugural publication. Using a distinctive saffron cover, HBA launched their dimes in what the public would later call "yellow-backs," though company officials insisted the covers were orange.10 Malaeska sold half a million copies, which more than recouped the $250 copyright fee they paid Stephens.11 In the introduction HBA explained their choice (and echoed Poe's tentative compliments), stating that the "novel chosen to begin the list, is a proof of the high standard which the publishers have adapted. It is one of the best stories ever written by a lady universally acknowledged to be the most brilliant authoress of America, and cannot fail to insure the success of the series, and amply sustain the reputation of the writer."12

Readers consumed dime novels at unprecedented rates, mainly because 90 percent of American citizens were literate by the mid-nineteenth century, allowing dime novels to cross class boundaries.13 But literacy did not necessarily translate into loyalty, so HBA established their company brand in the wake of Malaeska through their vibrant, illustrated "yellow-back" covers that attracted the eye, cashing in on a relatively new cultural innovation, the newsstand. The booklets were cheap and portable, which appealed to the increasingly mobile American population.14 Standard orders for dimes were 60,000 to 70,000 copies, and publishers often reprinted new editions on a near monthly basis.15 As a point of comparison, even Elizabeth "Libbie" Custer's novel-length biography of her husband, Boots and Saddles (1885), originally contracted for only 20,000 copies.16 During HBA's printing and literature revolution, they sold approximately five million novels in the first five years of operation alone and reached audiences across the country.17

Scholars have argued that the working class, more than any other group, may have consumed the most dime novels and fueled their publication (and [End Page 123] later that of pulp fiction). Literature scholar Michael Denning argues that the working class, those "whose metaphoric centers of gravity were the 'honest mechanic' and the virtuous 'working girl,'" comprised the vast majority of readership in the Gilded Age.18 Nan Enstad similarly argues that these "ladies of labor" purchased dime novels at a higher rate than their middle-class counterparts.19 Both authors note that the rags-to-riches, Cinderella-esque dime novel narratives allowed the working class to live out fantasies of wealth, romance, and acceptance in middle-class society. Denning further asserts that the Western, the most popular of all the genres, empowered the working class because the class-ambiguous representations of the West provided an escape from "the narrative paradigms of middle-class culture."20 Erin Smith also suggests that dime novels were valuable because they were consumed by the lower classes: "African Americans, recent immigrants, the poor, the working classes—those customarily denied meaningful access to advanced literacy or the means of cultural production—have left few traces in the historical record." Noting that "the hole in the archival record is here to stay," she argues that their mass consumption of pulp fiction at least tells us something of their lives.21 Indeed, dime novelists catered to their working-class market by directly addressing issues of class—both subtly and not—through their plotlines.

However, other scholars, particularly Christine Bold, suggest that while dimes novels were wildly popular among the working class, they also received favorable review among elite readers.22 Stephens herself was elite. For instance, she hosted the first salon in New York City and was "described as a woman of unusual attainments and fascinating personality." HBA's selection of Stephens as their premier author opened access to three important demographics: the elite, the working class, and the working class's newest subset: women.23 This broad readership demonstrates how powerful Stephens's novels were. They reached millions, prompting dime novel historian and enthusiast Albert Johannsen to note that the publishing house achieved their goal to "reach all classes, old and young, male and female."24

For the early period of the dime novel (1860–70), a female audience dominated the readership, in part because female authors contributed a significant proportion of published novels, penning approximately one-fifth of all dimes.25 Shelly Streeby asserts that from 1860 to 1865, that percentage was even higher. Citing the Civil War as the leading cause in the decline of male authors, Streeby notes that women penned one-third of the novels during this five-year span.26 Authors such as Metta Victor, Frances Fuller Victor, and Mary Denison joined Stephens's ranks as dime novelists. Calling this first decade "a more varied, complicated gender world," dime novel scholar June Johnson Bube asserts that the stories shifted from female-to male-centric [End Page 124] narratives as men returned to writing after the war.27 "Women writers brought different ideas to the sensational western adventure tale and did not settle on one working formula that could be easily reproduced," states Bube.28 As subsequent dime novels shifted away from established authors like Stephens, publishing houses featured lesser-known male authors who wrote in formulaic, cookie-cutter fashion. Edward S. Ellis's popular serials about Seth Jones, a heroic Indian fighter in western New York, epitomize the prevailing template after 1870 when male readers and writers dominated the market. Historian Henry Nash Smith would later term the dime novel genre "subliterary" as "the unabashed and systematic use of formulas strips from the writing every vestige of the interest usually sought in works of the imagination."29 Yet while format and speed eventually overrode individuality and style, Stephens, an esteemed writer and high-society socialite, was the first in the line of hundreds of dime novelists, initially legitimizing the dime novel genre as one deserving of respect.

In this first decade of dimes, Stephens, like other female authors, was concerned with social reform, primarily stemming from the wealth disparities she saw in New York City. Her non-dime novels Fashion and Famine (1854) and The Old Homestead (1855) juxtaposed lavish wealth with abject poverty, critiquing the lack of concern the upper class demonstrated toward the poor. But as her biographer points out, Stephens was not advocating for a revolution. Her middle-class stature meant that she found fault "not in their wealth but their stinginess."30 Gemme continues, "Indeed, when in The Old Homestead she defines 'gentle words' and 'kind acts' as 'the wealth of the poor,' and maintains that they are 'more precious than worldly wealth,' her words seem to be fostering the preservation of social inequalities rather than their reparation."31 She posits that the contradiction between Stephens's rather conservative statements and her social reform may have had more to do with pleasing her readership than her own ideals. Stephens continued this challenge to dominant cultural norms (particularly with regard to gender) in Malaeska and Mahaska through the power of suggestion, ultimately wavering in the conclusion by reinforcing the same norms to which she originally suggested the challenge.

By infusing her dime novels with a strict moral code, despite suggestions to do otherwise, Stephens and many other female dime novelists quelled early public fears that the accessibility of cheap literature might encourage the cheap behavior of the lower class. As a rule, dime novels maintained such widespread publication because they were wholesome and reinforced societal standards. For example, in July 1864 a review of HBA novels appeared in the North American Review: "The novels as a whole . . . were 'unobjectionable morally, whatever fault be found with their literary style and composition. [End Page 125] They do not even obscurely pander to vice, or excite the passions.'"32 The careful praise, however, did not prevent future attacks on the dime novel genre. When Jesse Pomeroy was put on trial for murder in 1874, the prosecution claimed that "Pomeroy might have been prompted to his offenses by cheap 'literature of the dime novel type.'"33 While Pomeroy held that he had never read a dime novel, the insinuation is clear: the dime novel had such a hold on the minds of the American public that questions of its morality even entered into the judicial system. Indeed, some female authors like Frances Fuller Victor were unapologetic in their challenges. An active dime novelist in the 1860s, she wrote Judith Miles; or, What Shall Be Done with Her?, a novel made widely popular by feminists and suffragists. Judith Miles uses Western tropes to explore mid-nineteenth-century issues about the constraints of class and gender, mainly in terms of women's education and employment opportunities, without the conditional ending that reverts back to the standard.34

These female authors faced both criticism and support for their use of strong female characters. As Bold argues, characters such as Hurricane Nell and Calamity Jane exhibited masculine tendencies, from clothing to horsemanship and shooting skill.35 Within most novels these aberrations from, or rather challenges to, Victorian gender norms are ultimately not tolerated. As Bold states, "either the masculine role is only a stage in a woman's maturation toward adult domesticity, or her masculinized behavior results in her death, or (as in the case of Calamity Jane who lost her chastity) she leads a kind of living death, forever branded a denigrate and outcast from respectable society."36 As Johannsen summarizes, "Like all of the original Dime Novels, 'Malaeska' was highly moral. In it the strongest language is 'Great God,' and that occurs but once. As for mentioning a girl's legs, such things were not done, for, like the Queen of Spain, they were not supposed to have legs."37 The authors created spaces in which they could suggest cultural and social change while still upholding the Victorian values needed to keep dimes at the fore-front of contemporary American literature.38

the thirty-eight years between malaeska and mahaska

It is within this context of both challenge and conformity that we must understand Stephens's novels and the national stories they tell about gender and race. The difference between gender portrayals in Stephens's first dime novel, Malaeksa (originating in 1836), and last dime novel, The Indian Queen (1864), captures the increasingly liberal trajectory of the women's movement. While Malaeska represents the shrinking violet and classically devoted mother, her counterpart in The Indian Queen rules the tribe with little regard for her [End Page 126] family in not one but three novels. If we use Bold's notion that the stories are "prisms through which to view current affairs," it becomes apparent that Stephens's use of Native American characters was a literary device designed to further the discussion of white female liberation.39 While Stephens suggests generous freedoms for her female characters, she reflects the increasingly restrictive trajectory for race relations and interracial sex in America over the thirty-eight years separating the stories.40 In essence, her first and last dime novels are time capsules of gender and race relations.

To summarize, Malaeska features the Indian daughter of the chief of the Iroquois Nation, who falls in love with the white hunter William Danforth during colonial times. Danforth hides his relationship with Malaeska from his community and family. They are married within her tribe (a union unrecognized by white society) and have a son. It is not long before Danforth is killed in an Indian attack, and in his final breath he asks Malaeska to take their son to his wealthy family in Manhattan. As Danforth originally feared, his family refused to acknowledge their marriage and her maternal rights. They adopt the child anyway but only allow Malaeska to remain if she works as a servant and does not reveal that she is the boy's mother. Named after his father, the young William Danforth Jr. grows up culturally white, regarding Malaeska with fondness, but never knowing about his own Native American heritage or his filial ties. Brokenhearted, Malaeska unsuccessfully attempts to kidnap her son and take him to his tribe, where he would rightfully become chief. Unable to continue working at the Danforth mansion in the aftermath of her crime, she returns to the fringes of the small village where she first met her husband. She is a woman of two worlds, belonging to neither. She can no longer live with her tribe since they threatened to kill her unless she brought back the young chief. She is also unaccepted by the village, except for Sarah Jones, a young white girl who later moves to Manhattan and falls in love with none other than William Danforth Jr.! William and Sarah get engaged and return to her village so that he can meet Sarah's family. Upon learning that Sarah is promised to her son, Malaeska insists on meeting with William. Remembering Malaeska from his childhood, her son agrees. Malaeska confesses her long kept secret. When he learns the truth of his heritage, he kills himself so as not to compromise Sarah's purity with his Indian blood. With nothing left to live for, Malaeska, the tragic, heartbroken mother, dies the next day.

The last novel, The Indian Queen, centers on Mahaska, a mixed-blood of considerable beauty with a treacherous, scheming dark side. Stephens's readers know from the previous books in the trilogy, Ahmo's Plot (1863) and Mahaska, The Indian Princess (1863), that Mahaska is the mixed-blood daughter of an unrecognized union between a Seneca woman and a French-Canadian [End Page 127] governor. After her mother dies, Mahaska is left largely unaccepted by her father. The Seneca beg Mahaska to return to her people as their leader, revealing Stephens's confused understanding of a matriarchal society. Mahaska becomes power-hungry, forcing her people to build her a castle and treat her like European royalty. She marries an important chief named Gi-en-gwa-tah, who despite her maltreatment and distaste for him, loves her dearly. Yet she is focused not on her family, as a good Victorian woman should be, but on revenge against her father and the current French governor, Gaston de Laguy (the former object of her affection). Mahaska traitorously works with the British to subvert the Seneca's alliance with the French. Eventually Gi-en-gwa-tah realizes her treachery, and he is forced to excommunicate Mahaska and take back control of his tribe.

Women and Gender Studies scholar Yu-Fang Cho astutely notes that because Malaeska is a reprint, it must be understood in two different racial contexts: first, the original period in which Stephens wrote it (1836), and second, in the context of how the first dime novel readers would have understood it (1860). Arguing that Malaeska "enables an understanding of intersecting racial, gender, class, and cultural formations in relation to U.S. nation building," Cho places Stephens's novel in the contexts of Indian Removal and American territorial expansion.41 Like scholars before her, Cho traces Malaeska's origins back to the serial Stephens published in The Ladies' Companion in 1839, incidentally the final year of the last Supreme Court case forcing the Cherokee from their homelands in western Georgia. However, as previously noted, Stephens first published the story in her regional monthly, Portland Magazine, in 1836. The two-year difference does not impact the rich allegory Cho draws from the story in which the "William Danforth-John Danforth-Malaeska triangle (the 'white hunter,' his father, and the Indian princess)" parallels the "U.S.-Georgia-Cherokees triangle."42 In true Romantic fashion, both tragic characters (Malaeska and her son) die at the conclusion of the book, suggesting that Native Americans are fated to vanish from regions with white settlement. Western New York becomes synonymous with western Georgia.

Cho's allegorical analysis is a fascinating exercise but represents only one symptom of a larger American racial ideology, particularly regarding miscegenation in the 1830s. Americans still believed that Native Americans, with the right nurturing, could assimilate into white society. In Malaeska, Cho argues, William's tan skin belies his racial identity, but he is accepted and welcome in an upwardly mobile white middle class. Following Cho's allegory, he represents the Cherokee who dressed in Euro-American clothing and engaged with the middle class economically, socially, and politically. However, this ignores a common plot device in nineteenth-century fiction to create a space in [End Page 128] which unbelievable fictions can become realities. William's upbringing with his white, elite grandparents validates his whiteness to the reader. Stephens sells William's ability to "pass" as white because the she uses the text to obscure her characters, often understating his skin tone or referencing his dark eyes rather than his dark skin. Literature scholar Jefferson Slagle explains, "Characters in dime westerns are frequently disguised, mistaken, amnesiac, lost, or de-racialized, and the plots of individual dimes centre on the eventual revelation of the authentic self."43 In other words, characters can "hide" in fiction better than in real life. And yet, because of his parents' mixed-race union, William must die, suggesting that while assimilation into the dominant American society was possible for Native Americans in the 1830s, inter-racial sex (and its offspring) remained taboo.

By the 1860s anthropologists asserted that Indian blood prevented assimilation and that treachery and savagery were biological problems.44 For instance, Mahaska, the lead mixed-race female character in The Indian Queen, experienced an elite white upbringing like William. In the narrative her whiteness marks her unnatural beauty, but her Seneca blood gives her a dark, revengeful spirit. Because of her awe-inspiring physique, Gi-en-gwa-tah idolizes her and overlooks her absent internal beauty.45 When Stephens first introduces Her Highness to the reader, Mahaska is distinguished from her people because her white ancestry makes her twice as striking as any other Indian woman:

In their midst stood a woman in the fairest bloom of youth, with her crimson robes falling so royally about her, and her every gesture so full of intellect and refinement that any stranger unacquainted with her history and her designs, might have almost believed with the poor savages, that she was a direct messenger from heaven to work their good. This was Mahaska, the white queen, or Mahaska the Avenger, as she loved to call herself.46

Whiteness produces Mahaska's physical appearance as well as other cultural markers, such as "intellect and refinement"; however, the innate treachery of Mahaska's Indian blood betrays her civility. Because of the biological racial barrier, she cannot overcome her Indianness.

Thirty-eight years prior, however, Stephens had described Malaeska, a full-blood member of the Iroquois nation, in kinder terms. Stephens first introduces Malaeska: "Her laugh was musical as a bird song, and as she darted to and fro, now into the forest and then out into the sunshine, her long hair glowed like the wing of a raven, and her motion was graceful as an untamed gazelle."47 Describing her in animalistic terms makes it clear that Malaeska, the noble savage, belongs in nature—and nature belongs in her.48 Here her Indianness [End Page 129] does not compromise her good nature, further accentuating the societal shift toward a more negative portrayal of Native Americans by the 1860s. Streeby reminds readers to understand these descriptions in the context of the lived experience of frontier violence in the 1860s. Americans likened Native Americans to "savages" to justify their conquest of the West and the often violent reaction tribes had to white intrusion as a result.49 Conversely, Stephens portrays white women as bastions of purity, innocence, and civility.

"The Jockey Cap" (1836) takes this more sympathetic outlook toward Native Americans one step further, even critiquing Indian policy outright. There are some significant changes between "The Jockey Cap" and Malaeska, the least of which was length. "The Jockey Cap" centers on the ill-fated excursion of three male hunters who get separated. Two bring back game, the third an Indian scalp. Among these hunters are familiar characters, including Arthur Jones (Sarah Jones's father) and the white hunter Bill Church (changed to William Danforth in the novel). Jones is the one who brings back the scalp, and just as in Malaeska, the village fears retribution from the local tribe. As in the novel, Church sneaks off to meet Malaeska at their home, this time at the foot of a notable Maine hill called the Jockey Cap instead of the Catskills. Following a similar arc of attack, Church and Malaeska's father meet head-to-head. Instead of hanging on until he can beg Malaeska to take their son to his parents' house in Manhattan, Church just dies and the story ends with a mourning Malaeska, in her grief ignoring the cries of her hungry son.

Stephens apparently did not approve of the practice of scalping, thinking it brutal. When Jones returned with the scalp, the narrator scorned the colonial government for "injudiciously [setting] a price on the heads of the savages, much at the same rate and on the same principle, that our State legislature offer premiums for wolves and crows."50 The sleepy village in "The Jockey Cap" worried, because it would attract the attention not only of the tribes around them that had otherwise treated the villagers with tense distance but also of the hunters who sought only to scalp, not to hunt game at all. "More shame to government for paying for such rascally business, I say!" declared one of the elders.51 Such outspoken disdain for frontier Indian policy was removed from Malaeska in both the 1839 and 1860 versions, suggesting that Stephens, like many Americans, saw increasing value in separation rather than assimilation.

The dramatic differences between Malaeska and The Indian Queen in Stephens's portrayal of interracial sex further exaggerate the differences between the two racial ideologies. A distinction needs to be made between interracial marriage and interracial unions occurring outside a legally sanctioned American marriage. For instance, Malaeska would have argued that she married the white hunter, but the local white community and State of New York would [End Page 130] have disagreed. Americans believed interracial relations threatened the "purity" of the white race. While much of the contemporary discussion centered on black-white relations, many Western states were equally concerned with Indian-white relations because they were locally far more common. The actual term miscegenation did not appear until four years after Beadle and Adams published Malaeska. Questioning the adequacy of amalgamation, the common term for interracial marriage, two New York politicos invented miscegenation from miscere and genus to refer to the mixture of two or more races. Reflecting the growing acceptance of scientific racism, they intentionally tried to make the term sound technical and therefore valid.52 By 1880, 28 of the 38 states passed laws prohibiting miscegenation, either banning marriages between whites and Indians or prohibiting interracial marriages more generally.53 New York, the setting of both Stephens's novels and her state of residence, never actually passed any miscegenation laws. Yet, non-Indians perceived enough of a problem with Indian-white intermarriage that on August 9, 1888, Congress passed national legislation regulating the marriage of Indian women to white men.54

Stephens depicts two interracial relationships in Malaeska: the union between Malaeska and the elder William Danforth, and the potential marriage between her son and Sarah Jones. Only marriages sanctioned by the state and the eyes of God were acceptable nineteenth-century unions. For instance, in the opening scenes of Malaeska, the reader learns that Sarah Jones's betrothed parents were very much in love, but living in such a remote village meant that ministers did not visit frequently. Though Arthur Jones, the schoolmaster from Bay State College, had been "drawn by the bright eyes and merry laugh of one Martha Fellows, a maiden of seventeen," they could not wed until a minister arrived to perform the ceremony.55 The inability to unify their lives outside the sanctity of the church cues the reader to what a "proper" marriage looks like, establishing a standard by which to compare all other unions in the novel.

Stephens thus sets up the ill-fated union between Malaeska and Danforth as "improper" on two counts: it is interracial and occurred outside the regulation of the state. Danforth clandestinely marries Malaeska away from the village and has a child with her. Danforth keeps the marriage secret because he knows that it does not matter how strongly he feels for Malaeska; marrying her is socially unacceptable because she is an Indian. When war breaks out between the settlers and the tribe, Danforth has to abandon Malaeska lest the marriage be revealed. "He had never thought of introducing her as his wife among the whites, and now that circumstances made it necessary for him to part with her forever, or to take her among his people for shelter, a pang, [End Page 131] such as he had never felt, came to his heart," Stephens wrote. "His affections struggled powerfully with his pride."56 It is Danforth's "pride" that keeps him from revealing his love for Malaeska, insinuating that there is something inherently shameful about interracial unions. After the fighting ends and Danforth lies dying from his battle wounds, Malaeska comforts him by explaining they will meet in the great hunting ground after death. Danforth replies, "To meet me in another world, Malaeska, you must learn to love the white man's God, and wait patiently till he shall send you to me."57 Danforth's untimely death gives him a free pass to keep his relationship with Malaeska and his son a secret from the local villagers. To uphold societal views on race, either the white hunter or Malaeska had to die, if only to resolve the tension of the interracial union.

Following a similar trajectory, the marriage between Sarah and William never comes to fruition. William kills himself rather than disgrace Sarah by keeping his ancestry hidden. Upon learning his mother's secret, he says, "Malaeska, unsay all this, if you would not see me die at your feet. I am young, and a world of happiness was before me. I was about to be married to one so gentle—so pure—I, an Indian—was about the give my stained hand to a lovely being of untainted blood."58 Instead of marrying the woman he loves, William hurls himself off a cliff, the grotesqueness of interracial marriage heavy on his mind. The marriage between Sarah and William is a near-miss in two ways. First, they were to be married in the church, which would have compromised the sanctity of the union and of the church itself, were his ancestry to be revealed after the fact. Second, the potential for mixed-race progeny had to end with him. Upholding Sarah as a bastion of purity, the narrative cannot allow her and Danforth to produce children. Despite William's assimilation into middle-class white society and his ability to improve Sarah's economic station (herself coming from a poor village), the potential to pollute such "untainted blood" is legally and morally criminal. William and Malaeska are both beloved and charming characters. Read within the context of race relations in the 1830s, William would be a fine young man worthy of Sarah's love if it were not for his race; his right to belong in his economic station was never in question. The reader must accept William's death to resolve the interracial tensions.

In the nearly forty-year span between the writing of The Indian Queen and Malaeska, American scientific racism clearly influenced Stephens's depiction of interracial coupling. The storyline deviates by centering on Mahaska, a Seneca woman cognizant of her mixed race, rather than a character like William, the unwitting byproduct of an interracial union. Whereas Stephens depicts William as a lovably tragic character who—in part due to his elite [End Page 132] upbringing—corrects the potential for interracial marriage by killing himself, she writes Mahaska as a woman who—despite her elite upbringing—cannot overcome her "savagery." As an Indian, Mahaska's marriage to Gi-en-gwa-tah in The Indian Queen does not violate law or white purity. In other words, her marriage is not the aberration—she is.

Stephens followed the general trajectory of the American mentalité when it came to gender liberties as well. The portrayal of interracial marriages in The Indian Queen really accentuates just how far Stephens was able to push against the shrinking violet trope in the 1860s. As in Malaeska, the interracial marriages (not the interracial unions) in The Indian Queen are stopped before they can begin. Just as William does not ultimately marry Sarah Jones, Mahaska also fails to wed a non-Indian, in keeping with the racial norms. However, Mahaska in fact reversed typical gender norms by herself proposing to Gaston de Laguy, the French governor of Canada. Though Mahaska was of the appropriate class to marry de Laguy, he marries her best friend and (white) foster-sister, Adèle, instead. Their marriage is so blissfully happy that it drives Mahaska to her vengeance.59 Idealizing homogenous marriage, Stephens writes, "The love between de Laguy and his beautiful wife was something truly impressive to witness. They seemed to have grown so closely into each other's souls that not even death could disturb the ties which bound them."60 Mahaska's proposal accomplishes two things. First, it makes the idea of an Indian woman marrying a white man seem even more absurd, thus reinforcing racial hierarchies through comic relief. Second, it scandalously places women in assertive and powerful positions, a trend that continues for Mahaska for three novels.

In Mahaska's outlandish and embarrassing proposal and elsewhere, Stephens seemingly reinforces gender norms rather harshly, but not before Mahaska runs around for three hundred pages between all the novels leading her tribe, neglecting her parental responsibilities, and upending the societal standards. Other female dime novelists overtly and unapologetically challenged gender roles, but Stephens softened the edges of Mahaska's strength and power by subtly putting her back in the role of a subservient mother by the end of the novel. Bube notes that female dime novelists frequently depicted leading ladies who, like Mahaska, defied social norms and committed extraordinary physical and heroic acts. She continues, "When these novels end by converting unconventional girls into brides, wives, and mothers, they reproduce dominant nineteenth-century domestic roles for women, but not without first having questioned and destabilized conservative gender roles."61 While the stories appealed to women across race and class, the authors defined womanhood by white middle-class standards and upheld white women's [End Page 133] moral authority.62 Indigenous characters could do what white women could not. They could defy the norms under the guise of exoticism. They could create a spectacle because they were the spectacle. Indigenous women can be assertive with their love interests, abandon motherhood, and become leaders as powerful as men, and white women can enjoy reading about these things they cannot do themselves but of which they may dream. It is in this way that Stephens strips her Indigenous characters of their Indigeneity: they come to represent white women's liberation.

Stephens's portrayal of motherhood in the two novels provides a good case study of the magnitude of change the woman's movement pressed forward in the timespan between Malaeska and The Indian Queen. Malaeska represents the ideal Victorian women's gender role of "womanhood as motherhood," as Cho states.63 Because of her undying love for her son, Malaeska is willing to sacrifice everything she has, including her right to be recognized as his mother. Frank P. O'Brien, an avid dime novel collector, aptly describes Malaeska as a story of "heroic self-sacrifice and unrequited mother love."64 She has no maternal rights, and her husband's parents force Malaeska to love her son from a distance while they raise him independently in Manhattan. When Malaeska kidnaps him and attempts to bring him back to her tribe, her heart breaks to hear the young, confused William cry that he wants to return to his grandparents. Stephens writes, "Malaeska felt herself chilled; she had taken the boy but not his memory that went back to the opulent home he had left. . . . The Indian woman grew sad to the very depths of her soul."65 When the grandfather and his men finally catch up to Malaeska, her spirit breaks to realize that her son does not know the depth of love she holds for him.

"Oh!" I [the narrator] have not the power of words to express the bitter anguish of that single exclamation, when it broke from the mother's pale lips. It was the cry of a heart that snapped its strongest fiber there and then. The boy wished to leave her. She had no strength after that, but allowed them to force him from her arms without a struggle.66

Paralyzed with grief, Malaeska does not see her son again until Sarah invites him back to the village for their wedding. This is quite the deviation from "The Jockey Cap," where, at the end of the story, Malaeska ignores the hungry cries of her young son in her shock and grief.

Upon learning about his Indian heritage, William begs Malaeska to take it back—again breaking her heart. Stephens writes, "When the wretched mother saw the hopeless misery which she had heaped upon her proud and sensitive child, she would have laid down her life could she have unsaid the tale which had wrought such agony, without bringing a stain of falsehood on her soul."67 [End Page 134] After William plunges to his death, Malaeska loses the will to live. Overnight, her hair turns a dull gray from the "frost of grief." Her body becomes a sunken shell as she mechanically goes through the motions of living. "There was nothing of stubborn grief about her. She answered when spoken to, and was patient in her suffering; but all could see that it was but the tranquility of a broken heart, mild in its utter desolation."68 The next day she dies, "the heart-broken victim of an unnatural marriage."69 Underscoring Stephens's condemnation of interracial coupling, there is no redemption for Malaeska's characters who violate racial norms. But in her gut-wrenching descriptions of Malaeska's heartbreak Stephens also underscored the sacred duty of selfless motherhood.

Mahaska, on the other hand, challenges this vison of motherhood. For most of the novel, Mahaska's beauty provides enough distraction among the male leaders in the tribe for them to ignore her plots and schemes. She assumes male roles, goes on war parties, leads her people, manipulates her husband, and ignores her family responsibilities. Gi-en-gwa-tah functions in a domestic role as a result, often taking care of their son and participating heavily in the running of his daily home life. When he first sees his son, he is taken aback by the child's perfection. Stephens narrates, "There he stood, looking at her and his sleeping son, full of a love and tenderness which seemed almost unmanly to his reason."70 Mahaska's anti-motherhood narrative describes her love and passion for her son in masculine, protective terms, emphasizing the gender role violations.

Her fondness for her babe was like the love of the tigress for its young; she would have fought for it, died for it; the idea of sharing its affection with any human being, would of itself have been enough to make her hate Gi-en-gwa-tah for having a right to expect duty and affection from it.71

This animalistic, selfish affection for her child is in stark contrast to Malaeska's endless sacrifices for her own son. And so, for nearly three full novels, Mahaska avoids the expected and finds a mate who will make up for her inadequacies.

However, Mahaska's masculinity and Gi-en-gwa-tah's femininity are transgressions that must be reconciled and punished in order to continue driving sales to a wide readership. Pressing the narrative forward through Mahaska's vengeful spirit, the Indian "queen" kidnaps Adèle and officially declares war on the French by shifting the Seneca military alliance to the British. Realizing her betrayal, Gi-en-gwa-tah makes the difficult decision to dispossess Mahaska of her power and royal title. Though he loves her dearly, he must assert his manliness and she must regain touch with her femininity in order to resolve [End Page 135] the tension in the novel. In deciding how to administer the punishment for his wife, Gi-en-gwa-tah has a crisis of heart: "It was a moment of extreme pain to the chief; for soon surged up in his bosom his old love of the dazzling woman; she was the mother of his child, too; could he see his wife disgraced, driven away, or consent to her death?" As he recalled the events since her rise to power, his determination hardened: "She was no longer his wife—she was not the mother of his child, for she was a beautiful monster, as loathsome as a serpent and as treacherous."72 Overcoming the temptress's beauty, Gi-en-gwatah reestablishes his masculinity and dominance.

No doubt relieving male readers, the punishment for Mahaska's actions is at the discretion of her husband. For the grave sin of possessing political power and sexual prowess, Mahaska loses her right to motherhood. Mahaska, thus removed from power and placed back into a subservient feminine role, is forced to reassess her actions. She feels shame for her deeds and reconnects with her conscience and emotions (the prototypical feminine side) once again. After she realizes that she has lost not only her power but the right to her family, she sinks into deep despair. This is the pivotal moment for Mahaska's maternal instincts. She returns to her castle to gather her belongings and finds her son missing. "Thus was the cup of her agony made full," wrote Stephens. "Mahaska sunk upon a seat and gave way to her great grief. . . . Such grief could only come from the conscience-stricken, from the wretch conscious from his own debasement past all redemption."73 Mahaska remains in her wretched state for over an hour. Stephens continued, "That would have one redeeming virtue—it proved that she was a woman, and taught us to know that beneath the fury of the most violent natures is a deep of humanity and purity which will assert itself at the propitious moment."74 Mahaska's fall from power back into docile femininity seems to justify the colonial imperative to impose white gender structures over Indian peoples. Evincing white racial superiority, it suggested that Indians who misbehave will face repercussions. Among the readership, however, it reinforced the dangers of interracial unions as well as female challenges to male authority. Women, like Mahaska, who function in male roles and violate domestic virtues, will lose everything—but have a lot of fun doing it.

Over the thirty-eight years between "The Jockey Cap" and The Indian Queen, Stephens changed—she became more conservative in her Indian policy and more liberal in her views about gender, as did many other Americans. By the time the House of Beadle and Adams closed their doors in 1898, the market had become saturated with rival publishing houses, and the cookie-cutter dime novel templates were standardized and masculinized. For all its uniqueness, HBA established their company by selecting the reputable, popular, [End Page 136] and non-confrontational story of Malaeska. But Stephens's 1839 version of Malaeska (or even "Jockey Cap") did not adequately prepare HBA for the strength of female characters to come, like Mahaska, who would ultimately push the boundaries of Victorian gender structures. Virtual snapshots of the times in which they were written, Malaeska (1836, 1839, and 1860) and The Indian Queen (1864) reflect and reinforce the shift in race theory from nurture to nature while simultaneously challenging the limitations of Victorian gender roles.


1. Albert Johannsen, The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels: The Story of a Vanished Literature, Volume I (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950), 31.

2. Christine Bold, "Malaeska's Revenge; or, The Dime Novel Tradition in Popular Fiction," in Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture, ed. Richard Aquila (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 22.

3. Daryl Jones, The Dime Novel Western (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1978), 4.

4. Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing America: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1982), 95–140.

5. Paola Gemme, "Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens (1810–1886)," Legacy 12, no. 1 (1995): 47–50.

6. For more biographical information about Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens, see Nin Baym, Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 181–88; Bill Brown, ed., Reading the West: An Anthology of Dime Westerns (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997): 55–58; Yu-Fang Cho, "A Romance of (Miscege)Nations: Ann Sophia Stephens' Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1839, 1860)," Arizona Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2007): 1–25; Paola Gemme, "Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens (1810–1886)," Legacy 12, no. 1 (1995): 47–55; Paola Gemme, "Rewriting the Indian Tale: Science, Politics, and the Evolution of Ann S. Stephens's Indian Romances," Prospects 19 (1994): 376–87; Frank P. O'Brien, "Introduction," in Ann S. Stephens, Malaeska, Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1839; New York: Benjamin Bloom, 1971); Madeleine Stern, We the Women: Career Firsts of Nineteenth-CenturyAmerica (New York: Schulte, 1963), 29–54; and "From the Periodical Archives: Ann S. Stephens's 'The Jockey Cap'—The First Version of 'Malaeska,'" American Periodicals 18, no. 1 (2008): 101–28.

7. "From the Periodical Archives," 101.

8. Edgar Allan Poe, The Literati–Minor Contemporaries, Etc., Volume VIII, edited by Edmund Clarence Stedman and George Edward Woodberry (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1914), 70–72. [End Page 137]

9. Gemme, "Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens," 48.

10. Edmund L. Pearson, Dime Novels: Or, Following an Old Trail in Popular Literature (Boston: Little and Brown, 1929), 4.

11. O'Brien, "Introduction," xii.

12. As quoted in Shelly Streeby, American Sensations: Race, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 227.

13. Linda M. Clemmons, "'Nature Was Her Lady's Book': Ladies' Magazines, American Indians, and Gender, 1820–1859," American Periodicals 5 (1995): 53.

14. Bold, "Malaeska's Revenge," 22.

15. Jones, Dime Novel Western, 8.

16. Paul Andrew Hutton, "From Little Bighorn to Little Big Man," in The Custer Reader, ed. Paul Andrew Hutton (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 400.

17. Henry Nash Smith. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), 91.

18. Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (London: Verso, 1987), 46.

19. Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

20. Denning, Mechanic Accents, 61.

21. Erin A. Smith, Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp-Magazines (Temple: Temple University Press, 2010), 9–10.

22. Bold, "Malaeska's Revenge," 31. Daryl Jones noted the wide appeal of such novels: "Though dime novelists aimed their stories at a predominantly working-class audience, the appeal of the genre in fact pervaded the entire culture." Jones, Dime Novel Western, 14.

23. Smith, Virgin Land, 91.

24. Johannsen, The House of Beadle and Adams, 1:9.

25. June Johnson Bube, "From Sensational Dime Novel to Feminist Western," in Change in the American West: Exploring the Human Dimension, ed. Stephen Tchudi (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1996), 68.

26. Streeby, American Sensations, 229.

27. Bube, "From Sensational Dime Novel to Feminist Western," 64–66; Bold, "Malaeska's Revenge," 23.

28. Bube, "From Sensational Dime Novel to Feminist Western," 68.

29. Smith, Virgin Land, 91.

30. Gemme, "Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens," 49–50; see also Streeby, American Sensations, 230–31.

31. Gemme, "Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens," 49.

32. Pearson, Dime Novels, 91. [End Page 138]

33. Pearson, Dime Novels, 93.

34. Bube, "From Sensational Dime Novel to Feminist Western," 65.

35. For more about Calamity Jane, see Peter Boag, Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 114–15.

36. Bold, "Malaeska's Revenge," 28.

37. Johannsen, The House of Beadle and Adams, 1:31.

38. Bold, "Malaeska's Revenge," 29–30; see also Christine Bold, Selling the Wild West: Popular Western Fiction, 1860–1960 (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1987).

39. Bold, "Malaeska's Revenge," 29.

40. For instance, her second dime novel, Myra, The Child of Adoption; A Romance of Real Life, fictionalized the life of Myra Clark Gaines, a renowned New Orleans heiress. Though it is set in New Orleans, Stephens refrained from criticizing the institution of slavery. Johannsen crassly summarizes her second dime novel, as "one of the poorest of Mrs. Stephens' stories" (Johannsen, The House of Beadle and Adams, 1:9). Considering her outspoken and public letter to Victor Hugo defending the decision to execute John Brown, Stephens's proslavery stance comes as no surprise (Streeby, American Sensations, 227–28; and Gemme, "Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens," 51).

41. Cho, "A Romance of (Miscege)Nations," 1.

42. Cho, "A Romance of (Miscege)Nations," 5.

43. Jefferson Slagle, "The Heirs of Buffalo Bill: Performing Authenticity in the Dime Western," Canadian Review of American Studies 39, no. 2 (2009): 128.

44. Dippie, The Vanishing America, 95–140; see also Cho, "A Romance of (Miscege) Nations," 4.

45. Ann S. Stephens, The Indian Queen (New York: Beadle and Adams Publishers, 1864), 15.

46. Stephens, Indian Queen, 5–6.

47. Stephens, Malaeska, 12.

48. For a more in depth analysis of and historiographic engagement with the "noble savage" stereotype, see Ter Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

49. Streeby, American Sensations, 221.

50. Ann S. Stephens, "The Jockey Cap," American Periodicals: A Journal of History Criticism, and Bibliography 18, no. 1 (2008): 107.

51. Stephens, "The Jockey Cap," 111.

52. Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1.

53. Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 99.

54. Leonard Schlup and Mary Ann Blichowiak, eds., Documents on the Status of Native Americans in the Late Nineteenth Century, Book 1 (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), 336. [End Page 139]

55. Ann S. Stephens, Malaeska, Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1939; New York: Benjamin Bloom, 1971), 9–10.

56. Stephens, Malaeska, 40.

57. Stephens, Malaeska, 56.

58. Stephens, Malaeska, 243.

59. Stephens, Indian Queen, 79.

60. Stephens, Indian Queen, 78.

61. Bube, "From Sensational Dime Novel to Feminist Western," 69.

62. Cho, "A Romance of (Miscege)Nations," 2.

63. Cho, "A Romance of (Miscege)Nations," 12.

64. O'Brien, "Introduction," xiii.

65. Stephens, Malaeska, 104.

66. Stephens, Malaeska, 127.

67. Stephens, Malaeska, 244.

68. Stephens, Malaeska, 250.

69. Stephens, Malaeska, 253.

70. Stephens, Indian Queen, 62.

71. Stephens, Indian Queen, 62.

72. Stephens, Indian Queen, 108.

73. Stephens, Indian Queen, 110–11.

74. Stephens, Indian Queen, 111. [End Page 140]

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