Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Americans Recaptured: Progressive Era Memory of Frontier Captivity

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Americans Recaptured: Progressive Era Memory of Frontier Captivity

Article excerpt

Americans Recaptured: Progressive Era Memory of Frontier Captivity. By Molly K. Varley. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. Pp. [x], 230. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-8061-4493-1.)

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. …

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