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Native Americans & American Popular Culture

1665-1860: The Development of Two Savage Stereotypes
The fabrication of the American Indian by White American culture began around the 1820s. By that time, national feelings about Indians had developed into a kind of schizophrenic depiction of them, a phenomena that continues to the present day. Two polar opposite stereotypes developed: the noble savage (peaceful, spiritual, mystic guardian of the land who exists in harmony with nature and was the original conservationist), and the ignoble savage (a marauding untamable murderer; a hellish demon who scalped women and children. Once conquered, he was depicted as a thief, a drunkard, and a beggar, unwilling to work but willing to accept government handouts). The noble savage stereotype developed first in Europe. It first appeared in the United States in areas where "the Indian problem" had been solved. It's important to understand that as manifest destiny swept westward, it was possible for Indians to become picturesque and quaint in areas where they were either vanquished or powerless; i.e., no longer a threat. In recent times, the ignoble savage caricature has been most prevalent when Indians reclaim their rights, such as spear fishing rights in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan, or as they've started to gain economic and political power through casino revenue. It seems that White Americans today become exceptionally angry at Indians who do not fit the romanticized noble savage mold and so recast them ignobly. Both stereotypes depict the Indian as childlike and primitive, and always the "Other," distinct from any other race.

The ignoble savage came first, created by the Puritan distrust of the wilderness and the precarious position they found themselves in during the early colonial experience. The Pilgrims wintered aboard the Mayflower after their arrival in New England in 1620. William Bradford wrote in Of Plymouth Plantation, "Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men--and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not." When the Pilgrims did make contact with Indians, Bradford described them as "skulking about," and having stolen some workmen's tools. The Pilgrims were soon contacted by English-speaking Squanto, who introduced them to Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoags, with whom the Pilgrims made the 1621 peace treaty. The two groups maintained an uneasy peace until Massasoit's death in 1661, at which time the leader's son Wamsutta succeeded him. Following the death of Wamsutta in Plymouth while negotiating with the Puritans, his younger brother Metacom became Sachem of the Pokanoket and Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy.
Early map of Indian territories
The English called Metacom "Philip of Pokanoket," but he was nicknamed "Prince Philip" by the colonists because of his regal bearing. When war erupted between the Wampanoag and the colonists in 1665, Philip was sarcastically re-nicknamed "King Philip," and the conflict has since been popularly and historically known as King Philip's War. (Red King's Rebellion). The source of the conflict is complicated. The Wampanoags relied on the English for trade goods, particularly iron tools, and as a counterweight to their own native enemies. On the other side, as the colonial population increased (some estimates are that it was doubling every twenty-five years), the need for expansion became critical, which soon changed the dynamics of trade. Colonists began establishing small settlements in the region between New England's coastal plain and the Connecticut River Valley, putting pressure on the local Indians. In 1671, the court in Plymouth, hearing of ongoing threats against the colonists, attempted to coerce the Indians into turning over many of their firearms to the colony. This had limited results and increased Native suspicions about the colonists. Another factor was the ongoing attempt by the Puritans to Christianize the Indians through "praying towns,"
reservations created by Massachusetts Bay officials where converts were expected to learn English customs and trades. It was a report of pending hostilities from a "Praying Indian" translator and adviser to Metacom named John Sassamon that sparked the conflict. John Sassamon was murdered, allegedly killed by few of Phillip's Wampanoag angry at his betrayal. Three Wampanoags were arrested, tried, and convicted of Sassamon's murder, and then hanged on June 8, 1675 at Plymouth. Some Indians believed the three had been falsely convicted, and saw the Colonial judicial response as an insult to Indian sovereignty. In response, a band of Pokanoket, possibly without Philip's approval, attacked several isolated homesteads in Swansea, destroying the town and killing several settlers. The colonists quickly retaliated by destroying the Wampanoag town at Mount Hope. War then raged throughout the countryside. Metacom was betrayed and ambushed by an Indian named John Alderman in August 1676, and his severed head was displayed on a pike in Plymouth for decades. Three years of bloody and destructive conflict was costly for both sides. The colonists became increasingly reliant on on the British government for protection, which soon tried to exploit them for their own gain. Consequences for the Indians were even more devastating and far-reaching. By 1678 over half of the native population of New
England had been eradicated. The depiction of Metacom for more than a hundred years following the war was that of the ignoble savage. He was cast as a diabolical demon, while the Puritans were painted as heroically doing God's work. This was especially true during the American Revolution, when there was a need to create a more idealized "first settler", whose early colonial struggles against nature and beast (including Indians), now helped justify independence. One of the tools used to spread this propaganda was a book titled, Diary of King Philip's War by Benjamin Church; a captain present at Metacom's ambush. When first published in 1716, it was a mere 120 pages, without notes or illustrations. During the years of British taxation policy and colonial protest, the book was reprinted (1772), this time with a description of Church's life, and an engraving of Metacom by Paul Revere. Titled, "Philip, King of Mount Hope," the image is an unflattering portrait of the Indian leader. He is depicted as being short and squat, and pygmy-like, typically ignoble.

The creation of the noble savage stereotype was influenced by the advent of Romanticism and its influence on the first generation of American writers, especially Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.
Paul Revere's "Philip, King of Mount Hope" (1772)
Irving, in his essay "The Traits of Indian Character" (1819-1820), firmly placed "Indianness" within the environmental "scenery" in which the Indian lived. By Romanticizing and glorying the wilderness that had created the noble savage, a wilderness that was quickly disappearing, he was also criticizing the first European colonists. This theme is further explored in Cooper's The Pioneers (1823), which is set in the twilight of rural 18th Century central New York where the frontier has now moved West beyond them; the beautiful wilderness replaced by orderly farms. Cooper's "civilization", however, is prone to irrational, sinful destruction of nature. The townsfolk's slaughter of the wild animals is well beyond any safety or economic justification. In one scene, the hero character of Natty Bumppo, whose legendary wilderness skills and attitudes were honed through his intimate contact with nature and Indians, is appalled at their employment of a cannon to bring down a massive flock of migrating pigeons. Bumppo criticizes the "wasty ways" of so-called civilization and says it's a sin to kill more than one can eat. Meanwhile, the noble Indians struggle to understand and accept the "order" imposed on them in the form of strict hunting laws.
This new trend in the depiction of Indians was part of a conscious effort in the early 19th Century to create a national identity. With Independence and a definitive physical separation from England resulting from the War of 1812, Americans consciously reinvented their past in order to further distinguish themselves from their predominantly British ancestors. They looked first to the first "Americans". The pilgrims were natural candidates to be redrawn in mythical proportions, a status they maintain to the present day, and Indians came to symbolize a romantic connection to the country's wild, virgin past (East of the Alleghenies, at least). Even Metacom received an image enhancement. Washington Irving wrote specifically about Metacom in his essay, "Philip of Pokanoket" (1819-1820). By reinterpreting him in nationalist terms as "a patriot to his native soil," he set the stage for a long history of White America's attempt to explain the legitimacy of their claim to the North American continent by establishing a mythical relationship with the continent's Romanticized wilderness origins (which now included Indians). Lingering Anti-British sentiments also played a role in allowing Whites to establish this mythical brotherhood with Indians. An 1819 play called She Would Be a Soldier; or The Plains of Chippewa had a small but important Indian role, played by an American-born Shakespearean stage actor named Edwin Forrest. The nameless character was a guide to a bumbling, idiotic British officer, and contrasted him with American-like sensibilities such as logic, loyalty, patriotism, and nobility of spirit. In one critical scene, the Indian is captured by the Americans, and he explains why he hates them and is justified in working for the British:
You came with the silver smile of peace, and we received you into our cabins; we hunted for you, toiled for you; but when your numbers increased, you rose like wolves upon us, fired our dwellings, drove off our cattle, sent us in tribes to the wilderness, to seek for shelter; and now you ask me, while naked and a prisoner, to be your friend!...Think you I would be your enemy unless urged by powerful wrongs? No, white man, no!
"King Philip" (1825)
The American response is to tell the Indian that he and his people are the victims of British propaganda, and that the Americans and Indians are united in their native brotherhood against an intervening foreign power--the British. Given this explanation, the Indian sees the error of his thinking. He calls the Americans his "brothers," and pledges his friendship.

The rehabilitation of Metacom continued in 1825, when Benjamin Church's diary was reprinted by Samuel Drake of Boston, this time in 304 pages and with a new engraving that modified the image of infamous sachem. No longer shriveled and ugly, this new Metacom was tall, strong, and far more heroic-looking. The book still cast the early settlers in a heroic light, but it de-demonized Philip. The public's response to this version was so favorable that in 1827 Drake published yet another version, this one 360 pages long.
The "Vanishing Indian" and Jacksonian Indian Policy
The reinterpretations of the Indian and of Metacom were both well underway by 1826, but both took a giant leap forward in 1828 when actor Edwin Forrest (of She Would Be a Soldier fame), who was interested in developing uniquely American plays, took out an advertisement in a New York newspaper, The Critic, offering $500, "To the author of the best Tragedy, in five acts, of which the hero...shall be an aboriginal of this country." The winning entry was Metamora; or the Last of the Wampanoags, by John Augustus Stone. The play was first performed in New York on December 15, 1829, with Forrest playing the lead character of Metamora, a representation of Metacom. Written and performed at a crucial moment in the history of US Indian policy, the play manages to put forth a strong defense of the Indian position while at the same time justifying his forced removal (or "voluntary emigration," as the government called it), to Western lands. Metamora's enemies are not so much Americans as they are British. He actually befriends the kindhearted American colonists Oceana and Walter, who recognize the native as an honorable, if untaught savage who loves his country, his family, and who keeps his word. He is spiritual, if not Christian, but the audience would recognize in him a fear of an all-mighty being that was Christian-like in its humility. Metamora was a tragic figure, his inevitable demise brought about not by Americans, but by the manifest destiny of freedom-seeking Whites, whose quest to escape the tyranny of the Old World Order necessitated a new one. The Americans could bemoan the inevitable fate of the Indian, but could also see themselves as worthy successors to be stewards of the North American continent.
Edwin Forrest as Metamora, 1890s engraving
Much of the success and impact of Metamora; or the Last of the Wampanoags was due to the acting talents of Edwin Forrest. He reportedly spent a month living with an Indian chief in New Orleans as research. His interpretation of the noble savage focused greatly on physical characteristics he gave Metamora. Many of the now long-standing stereotypical attributes of how an actor should portray an Indian are due to Forrest, including the monosyllabic "ugh" grunts, certain tonal and facial expressions, his body carriage (including a particular way of walking in a straight line), and an emotional stoicism imbued with grandeur and pathos. Once enraged, however, the Indian character reverted to the ignoble savage. Forrest's own physique and voice were impressive, and in one particular scene he wielded a Tomahawk on a White man with terrifying power, electrifying the audience with the sheer bluntness of his brutality and forever ingraining the image of the wild savage in the minds of the audience. In doing so, Forrest was making it clear that such a creature must be removed,
nobility aside, for the sake of civilization. That the two stereotypes could coexist in a single character was not a problem for audiences. Fenimore Cooper also had already played an important role in thetrend of both romanticizing and demonizing the Indians in a single work. In his most famous novel, The Last of The Mohicans (1826), Chingachook and Uncas (the good Indians) are idealized as the noble savage, while Magua and the other Hurons (the bad Indians) exhibit subhuman tendencies; they revel in violence and eat their meat raw.
As Americans continued to move West beyond Mississippi and again competed for land, the ignoble savage once again came into vogue. In 1837 Robert Montgomery Bird published Nick of The Woods. Set in 1760s Kentucky, it was written as a direct refudiation of Cooper's romanticized Indian. The hero character, Nathan Slaughter, is essentially an Indian hater, and the destruction of the Red menace is his sole concern. In the preface of the 1837 edition Bird wrote:
We owe, perhaps, some apology for the hues we have thrown around the Indian portraits in our picture,--hues darker than are usually employed by the painters of such pictures. But, we confess, the North American savage has never appeared to us the gallant and heroic personage he seems to others. The single fact that he wages war--systematic war--upon beings incapable of resistance or defence,--upon women and children, whom all other races in the world, no matter how barbarous, consent to spare,--has hitherto been, and we suppose, to the end of our days will remain, a stumbling-block to our imagination: we look into the woods for the mighty warrior, 'the feather-cinctured chief,' rushing to meet his foe, and behold him retiring, laden with the scalps of miserable squaws and their babes.--Heroical? Hoc verbum quid valeat, non vident.
Nick of The Woods (1837) by Robert Montgomery Bird (1852 ed. shown)
With the popular success of Metamora; or the Last of the Wampanoags, the stage was soon crowded with vanishing Indian plays. They were so prolific that soon the noble savage character was being burlesqued and parodied, with the effect that Indians were for a long time considered unsuitable subjects for serious art and literature. By 1870, with the Civil War behind them and national attention having turned toward Reconstruction and the West, the Plains Indians and their culture had supplanted the Wampanoag and the tribes of the Iroquois confederacy in the public imagination. Metacom became an "Eastern Indian," and faded into history.
Secondary Sources:
Berkhofer, Jr., Robert. The White Man's Indian: Images of The American Indian from Columbus to the Present, New York, Vintage Books, 1979.
Bourne, Russell. The Red King's Rebellion: Racial Politics in New England, 1675-1678, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Harland, Marion, ed.Character Sketches of Romance Fiction and the Drama (Complete in 4 Volumes), New York, Selmar Hess, 1892.
Jones, Sally L. "The First but Not the Last of the 'Vanishing Indians': Edwin Forrest and Mythic Re-creations of the Native Population," Dressing In Feathers, ed. S. Elizabeth Bird, Westview Press, 1996.
King Philip's War. (2007, August 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:04, August 9, 2007, from
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Last modified July 20, 2012