An Early and Strong Sympathy: The Indian Writings of William Gilmore Simms
Aiken, David, South Carolina Historical Magazine
An Early and Strong Sympathy: The Indian Writings of William Gilmore Simms. Edited by John Caldwell Guilds and Charles Hudson. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. Pp. 664; $39.95, cloth.)
As early as the 163Os, Roger Williams, a former Salem minister banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had advanced the radical idea that it was a "National sinne" for colonists to take possession of American land until it had been justly purchased from the Indians. But not every Puritan believed that taking land from the Indians without first paying for it constituted a theft. Left largely unchecked, the "national sin" protested by Williams spawned related "sins" until the early settling of North America could be viewed as one of the best examples of unprovoked aggression in human history.
By the time William Gilmore Simms expressed his "early and strong sympathy" for the Indians in an 1851 letter to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Native Americans had been subjected to more than three hundred years of conflict and domination. Europeans intent upon acquiring new land had brought to these shores diseases against which the Indians had no immunity. Entire tribes disappeared. Tricked, cheated, bribed, threatened, exploited, and all but exterminated in one place after another by people who saw them as savages, the natives proved no match for the sometimes cunning and often cruel ways of the white man. Attempts to Christianize, domesticate, and educate them in the ways of "civilization" had become ludicrous in the eyes of many Indians watching the destruction of their fishing villages, the invasion of their hunting grounds, and the desecration of their burial sites. Those who owed them much had given them little other than useless trinkets and false promises that were broken in the rush to "remove" them in the name of progress.
To appreciate fully the Indian writings of Simms, the reader should know what Simms was up against from the start. Indian attacks on whites were recent history, although the provocations leading to those attacks were often ignored or forgotten by the still land-hungry populations of European transplants. African slaves identifying with their masters viewed themselves superior to the Indians, as did the descendants of indentured servants who had acquired both freedom and land after laboring to fulfill their contracts. Concerned with their own struggles for survival and ignorant of Native American languages, customs, cultures, and religions, most newcomers saw the Indians as people without a past who deserved no voice in the country then being established.
This anthology of Simms's Indian writings is the product of interdisciplinary research done by John Guilds, a literary authority on Simms, and Charles Hudson, a well-known scholar on southeastern Indians. Guilds attributes to Simms more than a hundred literary pieces about Indians, but that "he wrote more about, thought more seriously about, and almost certainly knew (and cared) more about the American Indian than any other man of letters of the nineteenth century is one of the best-kept secrets in American literary history."
Simms's letters and essays included in this collection serve to shed light on the relevance of his stories and poems. In one of his letters to Schoolcraft, Simms goes beyond expressing an interest in and sympathy for the Indians. He presents himself as ready and willing "to insist upon their original claims and upon what is still due them by our race." He aligns himself with Schoolcraft by confessing, "I suppose we are both equally prepared to believe now, that they were an original race, and that God planted them independently in the hemisphere where we find them." Interest and sympathy had motivated Simms to study all the information he could find on Indians. Apparently his reading and observations led him to dismiss the notion that an earlier race had reached the Americas, making the Indians latecomers. …