Native American Sovereignty and Old Deb in Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly

By Sivils, Matthew Wynn | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), December 2001 | Go to article overview

Native American Sovereignty and Old Deb in Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly


Sivils, Matthew Wynn, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


Robert D. Newman describes the Indians in Charles Brockden Brown's 1799 American gothic novel, Edgar Huntly, as "expressionistic symbols rather than characters with any depth" (66). The one exception to this statement is the Delaware or Lenni Lenape Indian character of Old Deb. The minimal critical attention that Old Deb--an elderly and enigmatically powerful matriarch--has received describes her as hardly a character at all. While it is true that she is only presented to the reader through descriptions by other characters, she is nonetheless central to the plot and meaning of the book. The character and influence of Old Deb intertwine with the dark chain of events that Huntly experiences in his search for the killer of his friend Waldegrave. It is also through Old Deb that Brown's commentary on the American treatment of Indians is most apparent and prophetic.

Much of the scholarship concerning Old Deb mislabels he,as a comic pseudo-character with evil tendencies and pretensions of royalty. Her identity and presence in the novel are complicated by the facts that she is the only Indian in the book who merits a name (though neither of them truly hers), and that she is presented to the reader only in the form of Huntly and Sarsefield's testimony. She inhabits the shadowy margins of the novel in which her tale is told by the white people who have driven her tribe from their native land. Relatively little criticism has been written concerning this character; indeed more scholarship has been devoted to her "hut" than to the character herself. Leland S. Person, Jr.'s article "`My Good Mamma': Women in Edgar Huntly and Arthur Mervyn" never even mentions Old Deb and in doing so completely ignores perhaps the most influential woman in the novel. When Old Deb is discussed, scholars tend to place her in one or more of three categories: a recalcitrant and devious mastermind of Indian violence (Anderson 469; Newman 66-67; and Hinds 59), "an Indian witch" (Slotkin 388), or a comic yet murderous "vile old Indian woman" (Hughes 186) with "pretensions of royalty and national identity" (Gardner 447, emphasis added). While critics often view Old Deb as a specter of Native American revenge who directs the killings of whites from behind the dark scenes of Pennsylvanian wilderness, these scholarly representations continually ignore the concept of Native American sovereignty that she so capably represents.

The purpose of this essay is to address the character of Old Deb not in terms of an evil or insane witch, but as a representative for dispossessed Indian nations and their fight to retain sovereignty over the land that defines their existence. George E. Tinker writes, "Indians want life. We do not just want mere existence, that is, life in the sense of simple biological survival. What we want is life in the sense of self-sufficient, cultural, spiritual, political, and economic sustainability--on our own terms" (170). Perhaps John Mohawk, the Rotinohshonni historian, says it best: "If you want to be sovereign, you have to act sovereign" (Means xii). In the following pages, I will argue that this is exactly what the character of Old Deb does: she acts sovereign to be sovereign. When observed from this viewpoint, her apparent orchestration of the killing of several whites seems less like the vengeful murder of innocent people and more like a desperate attempt to fight back against an invasion that has robbed her and her people of their way of life.

By the time of Edgar Huntly's publication in 1799, white settlers had subjected the Delaware Indians to years of mistreatment. Living in Philadelphia, Brown was probably not ignorant of white governmental workings and how they had conspired to mistreat Indians, in particular the Lenni Lenape. In September of 1737, the Delaware Indians lost most of their land in eastern Pennsylvania as a result of signing the "Walking Purchase Deed." This deed stated that the area to be ceded to the English was the distance a man could walk from a given location in one and a half days.

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