Indians, the Frontier, and the West in American Bookbindings

by Dr. Joshua D. Rothman, Assistant Professor of History, The University of Alabama
Adapted from a talk presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 6, 2006.

It is worth noting, just as a brief background, that the era roughly between the end of the Civil War and the onset of World War I was a time when the process of expansion to western frontiers was central to the course of American history, building on western migrations of the antebellum era and extending them in new directions. Moreover, it was a time when the west and frontiers achieved positions at the center of the American popular imagination and of American culture as they probably never had before and probably never would again until the golden age of the television and film westerns in the post-World War II era.

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Ups and downs of an Army officer
([s.n.], 1900))
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These were decades when Americans moved west of the Mississippi River by the millions, particularly invading the northern and western plains in massive numbers. Hundreds of thousands of settler families hoped to take advantage of federal land policies like the Homestead Act, railroad companies built numerous transcontinental lines that crisscrossed the United States, new mining frontiers emerged and boomed and collapsed practically every year, and herders ran the cattle drives out of Texas that became sources of legend and folklore despite their relatively short lifespan.

All of these trends had devastating consequences for the Indian tribes of the plains and of the southwest. The former saw the basic foundation of their society and culture demolished by the annihilation of millions of buffalo, and all were forced into submission and onto reservations by the American military in a series of wars between the 1860s and the 1880s.

Whatever their consequences for Indian life, nearly all of these trends were also celebrated by white Americans across the United States. As they worried about the potential of urban living, industrialization, immigration, mass society, and other manifestations of modernity for undermining the stability and strength of the nation, emasculating American men, and introducing a crisis of moral weakness, for cultural regeneration and power Easterners looked to a set of myths about western frontiers and the values they supposedly produced.

Burgeoning expansionism let white Americans believe that the country was finally fulfilling its manifest destiny, completing its conquest of the continent, and achieving a new stage of national greatness. Buffalo hunters, cowboys, soldiers, lawmen, and even heroic outlaws were venerated as models of rugged American masculinity triumphing over the dangerous wilderness and savage Indians.

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The Virginian
(The Macmillan Company, 1904)
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William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show, a pageant of American triumphalism, became a runaway sensation all over the world for decades. Theodore Roosevelt became America’s first cowboy president. Western dime novels sold by the thousands. And Owen Wister’s best-selling The Virginian enshrined as a central cliché of American popular culture the hyper-masculine hero who spoke with his actions, lived by the "code" of the West, and proved to his beloved Eastern bourgeois schoolmarm that her conventional morality had to be adjusted to meet the conditions of life on the frontier.

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My life on the plains; or, Personal experiences with Indians

(Sheldon and Company, 1874)
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All of these sorts of themes and ideas are evident in the bindings of the late 19th and early 20th century, suggesting that artists and publishing companies both responded to and fed the desire of their audience for stories of the American West and American frontiers that bolstered an evolving national mythology. Take, for example, the stories told by American army officers who had themselves served in the Plains campaigns against Native Americans. George Custer’s memoir, My Life on the Plains, couldn’t possibly tell of his “personal experience” of seeing his overconfidence catch up with him at Little Bighorn. But any potential reader’s eye would surely be caught by the enormous bison head on the cover, which was a symbol that instantly said “western.”


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Our wild Indians: thirty-three years' personal experience among the red men of the great West.
( A. D. Worthington Company, 1885)
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The cover art of other soldiers’ stories conveyed their themes instantly as well. Col. Richard Dodge’s stories of Our Wild Indians, for example, depicted actual Indians only in faceless silhouette. But with shields and tomahawks emblazoned prominently on the front and spine, one could be guaranteed that Dodge’s “experiences” with the "Red Men of the Great West" would be filled with accounts of triumphs over the warriors of the plains. Such promise was undoubtedly also fulfilled by George Armes’ work, the cover of which depicted white cavalry officers gunning down two Indians armed only with the bows and arrows that could surely not withstand American military might.

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Guy Rivers: a tale of Georgia
(Lovell, Coryell, c.1900)
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Squirrel hunters of Ohio; or, Glimpses of pioneer life
(R. Clarke and Company, 1898)
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Book covers of this era that spoke to the western and frontier experience hardly always engaged contemporary themes. The history of the American frontier remained incredibly popular, including older fictionalized versions of works like this one of antebellum novelist William Gilmore Simms. What’s striking about this edition of Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia, as well as about N.E. Jones’ stories about the Ohio frontier, is how both depict the frontier as essentially an empty if vaguely menacing wilderness. If the book covers are to be believed, there are apparently no people in the west the pioneers of these stories are to conquer, or at least none that deserve central roles in the stories. Yet both covers depict weaponry, implying the presence of wild animals, wild Indians, or both, and certainly promising the reader that the violence they expected and desired from frontier tales could be found inside.

Not that works about places whose frontier days had long since gone, like Ohio and Georgia, never depicted the Native American residents who had been evicted amidst the onslaught of white settlement. Indians, after all, were in some ways the main attraction for American readers drawn to tales about the west and the frontier. But several revealing patterns emerge in these depictions of Native Americans.

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Natchez: its early history
( J. P. Morton and Company, 1930)
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First, no matter where or when the story of the book in question is supposed to occur, Indians portrayed on a book’s cover are practically always the stereotyped Plains Indians that to this day scream “Indian” to most Americans. Take, for example, Joseph Shields’ account of the early days of white presence in and around Natchez, Mississippi. Although there certainly were Indians belonging to the Natchez and other tribes in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries, none wore the elaborate feathered headdress like the individual depicted on the cover of this book.

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Red Eagle and the wars with the Creek Indians of Alabama

(Dodd, Mead and Company, 1878)
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Perhaps most ludicrous in its depiction of Indians and Indian life is this work on the Creek War. That military affair did indeed take place, in 1814 and 1815, largely in what is now Alabama. Anyone involved in that war, however, would likely have been thoroughly confused had they seen any animal like the bison whose head is the most prominent feature of this historical work’s cover, as the bison’s habitat ranges almost exclusively west of the Mississippi River and centers on the Great Plains.

But by 1878, when this book was published, Americans saw bison and thought “Indian.” Differentiating among Indian tribes and their cultures, or the reality that most Creek Indians likely never saw a bison before their evacuation to Oklahoma was likely not a major concern for publishers, and may not have been one for most readers either.

A second pattern that emerges from depictions of Indians in American bindings is that no matter where they are supposed to be and no matter what genre the book represents, Native Americans are one of the following: (1) dangerous and violent savage forces that need to be dominated by the forces of American civilization, (2) passive witnesses to the march of the white man across the western landscape, or (3) primitive creatures of nature.

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Pioneer boys of the Ohio

(Page Company, 1925)
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So the work on the Creek War depicts, despite its title, not the armies of Andrew Jackson against the organized forces of Red Eagle, but rather a lone white man with a gun attempting to pick off spear-carrying Indians on horseback. The Pioneer Boys of the Ohio, a book for young readers, portrays an Indian, barely clothed but for the ubiquitous headdress, watching white pioneers march across the landscape from a secreted location in the woods. Ned in the Block House, also for young readers, depicts a young Indian boy staving off the advances of a bear with nothing but a torch and an unused bow and arrow while the young white boy on the spine demonstrates with his rifle how the forces of progress deal with the creatures of the woods.

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Aus der heimath des rothen mannes

(George Brumder, 1897)
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Even works designed for sale to immigrant readers were clearly geared toward these kinds of themes and stereotypes. Aus der Heimath des Rothen Mannes (In the Home of the Red Men), for example, published in Milwaukee presumably for German immigrants, serves up the headdress-wearing Plains Indian along with the tomahawk and other weaponry that represent the apparent core of Indian culture. Below the Indian head, meanwhile, one can see a crisscrossed spear and gun, hinting at the clash between civilization and savagery that undoubtedly lies between the covers.

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Bilder aus der Geschichte Amerika'
(Amerikanische Tractat Gesellschaft, 1866)
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Those immigrants who preferred a less violent take on Native American life, meanwhile, might choose Bilder aus der Geschichte Amerika's (Pictures from America’s History). Unlike Aus der Heimath des Rothen Mannes, which was published less than a decade after the last stand of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, Bilder aus der Geschichte Amerika's was published just after the Civil War and before the realities of the Plains Indian wars had penetrated American consciousness. The Indians chosen to represent “America” to immigrants on this cover, however, are no less subject to the influence of the white man, if perhaps in a more benevolent light, as they are offered the blessings of Christian civilization by a white preacher.

Ultimately, of course, the Indians depicted on the bindings of this period were less real people than they were symbols of the American landscape before the age of civilization. In the end, the Indians who remained in the West were suitable as tourist attractions alongside other “exotic” non-white peoples like the Mexicans of the southwest. Such, at least, is certainly suggested by the choice of this publisher to exemplify the western tourist experience in 1891 with an inset of a Mexican and his burro, above which one can see a tall Indian smiling as he watches the approaching forces of capitalist progress embodied by the railroad train.

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Jack Sutherland
(T.Y. Crowell, 1926)
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The Riflemen of the Ohio
(D. Appleton and Company, .1919)

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The border boys with the Texas Rangers
(A.L. Burt, c.1912)

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The log of a cowboy
(Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903)

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A Texas matchmaker
(Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1904)

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Wild bandits of the border: a thrilling story of the adventures and exploits of Frank and Jesse James
(Belford, Clarke and Company, 1888)

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When Wilderness Was King
(A.C. McClurg and Company, 1904)

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The real heroes of the American West, as one decodes the binding designs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were its white men. They were the ruggedly masculine, buckskin-clad, knife- and rifle-wielding wilderness pioneer protagonists of books like Jack Sutherland and The Riflemen of the Ohio. They were the cowboys of The Border Boys with the Texas Rangers who busted broncos and tamed the wild horses of the west. They were the trail riders of The Log of a Cowboy and the romantic figures of A Texas Matchmaker, who got the girl and marched in the lead while Mexicans trailed behind. They were even the outlaws and train robbers like the James gang (Wild Bandits of the Border), whose viciously brutal guerrilla activities during and after the Civil War were lost amid more popular accounts of their daring crimes and manly gunplay.

And what those heroes did was clear the way for modernity and for the progress of American civilization, reaching new frontiers and recapitulating the path to modernity that was reaching its pinnacle in the East but that in the West still left room for new pioneers and new paths to the future. After the buckskin-clad pioneer and the cowboy, went the story of the American West, came the stagecoach and the railroad, bringing the products, people, and industry of the East to civilize the region.

If the art of any single book could be said to encapsulate the depictions of Indians and the western frontiers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I would make a case for When Wilderness Was King. Published in 1904, the book’s cover depicts a white woman in a long white dress trailing a flowing shawl, set against the backdrop of an entirely empty landscape, devoid not only of people and wildlife but of any discernible features at all but for the hills behind her that, along with the wind apparently blowing in her face, suggest she is outdoors.

If a solitary white woman in the primitive west implied multiple potential conquests for the American pioneer, the endpapers of the book brought the major themes of the story of America’s western expansion all together: the cavalry officer facing off against the headdress-adorned Indian, the generic Indian tepee juxtaposed with the buckskin-wearing and rifle-bearing pioneer and his Victorian bride, all revolving around the army fort situated at the page’s center. If the book’s contents told of a time when wilderness was king, the new king of the world was the triumphant white American.

Surely many of the stories told by the pages of these books carried more complex and ambiguous messages about the west and the frontier than their covers might suggest. Stories about the west were often fraught with ambivalence about the passing of a supposedly more primitive age, and about the replacement of a non-industrialized and rural landscape and its inhabitants with the wave of the future that to most Americans was the only path to progress and civilization. For all their beliefs about the inevitable destruction of Native Americans and their ways of living, many Americans were simultaneously attracted and repelled by Indians, as the very phrase “noble savage” implies.

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Ned in the block house
(Cassell and Company, 1908)

Even in the bindings of the period, one can occasionally sense this sort of ambivalence. I draw your attention back, for example, to the children’s book Ned in the Block House. Surely it is no coincidence that both the Indian and the white boy on the book’s spine and cover wear essentially the same clothing, and are differentiated only by their skin color, their weaponry, and their choice of headgear. Even as the message of the book was surely that white civilization was superior to that of the Indian, no author or publisher could deny that young white boys, and by extension adult white men, loved to “play” Indian, if only temporarily.

But in most of the bindings of this period, the message is far less mixed. Book covers are designed at least in part to grab the attention of readers, to speak to them with images and symbols whose codes they can read and understand instantly. And when it came to attracting readers with tales of the expanding United States and the shrinking frontier, the art of the book boiled down national mythology to its essence.

Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

Cowboys and Indians: Myths of the Wild West, K-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Guideline for Book Reports: Word document or PDF file

Wild West Fiction for Young Adults Book List: Word document or PDF file

Related Online Resources

American West: A Celebration of the Human Spirit
http://www.americanwest.com/index.htm

Cybersoup's Wild West
http://www.thewildwest.org/

History of the American West, 1860-1920, American Memory, Library of Congress
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award97/codhtml/

Multicultural American West: A Resource Site, Washington State University
http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~amerstu/mw/

New Perspectives on the West, PBS
http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/

Overland Trail: An Official Millennium Trail
http://www.over-land.com/

WestWeb, College of Staten Island, The City University of New York
http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/westweb/noframes/main.html

                       
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