Reflections of Attitudes Towards Native Americans
This artifact is a hand written letter from Thomas Falconer to his friend and acquaintance Alfred Austin, who resided in London. The letter was written on January 12, 1842, during the third month of Falconer’s captivity in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in what would later become Santa Fe. Falconer’s letter narrates his experiences during the Santa Fe Expedition of June 1841, a journey that would end in his being taken prisoner in October. He recounts several problems and roadblocks in the journey, including issues with the route and guides, an unexpected shortage of food that resulted in the consumption of horses and rattlesnakes, a campfire that escalates into a prairie fire, and several encounters with Native Americans. The letter is written in Falconer’s looping cursive script, and includes several scratch outs and spelling mistakes. These may indicate the amount stress he was under at the time, having been imprisoned for months after a difficult and stressful expedition.
In their own ways, both Falconer and young Laura seem to see “Indians” as curious, exotic people who exist mostly as nuisances and invaders. In his letter Falconer recounts several dilemmas he encountered in his journey through what would later be Sante Fe; of these, some of the most prevalent seem to have been his multiple encounters with Native Americans. Falconer’s views of and language regarding the “Indians” attacking his party reflect similar views held by travelers on land occupied by Native Americans in the mid-to-late 19th century, including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Falconer writes about the perceived savagery of the Native Americans he encountered with a mixture of fear and indifference. He complains about how “the Indians again came upon us and killed one man whom they scalped and wounded another.” Falconer’s use of language here sounds almost resigned and businesslike in the face of reporting these events, and his use of the word “again” implies that the Native Americans on the land have become such a constant source of fear and consternation as to have become almost routine. His casual reporting on the actions of these “Indians” is reminiscent of the content of young Laura’s reactions to seeing Native Americans in her house, although the tone is different. Laura describes the Native Americans in her house as “dirty and scowling and mean,” and acting as if her “house belonged to them”(Wilder 232). Falconer and Wilder both treat the Native Americans they encounter as strange, foreign entities, but Falconer sees them as bothersome and wild while Laura describes them with a mixture of fear and intrigue.
Eventually, Little House on the Prairie concedes the plight of the Native Americans impoverished and forced off of their land by and because of families like that of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Meanwhile, Falconer’s interest in the Native Americans never goes any further than that of dismissive, desensitized annoyance. What both of these texts share is a sort of Othering of Native American tribes, one by dismissal and the other by exoticized fascination. In the eyes of young Laura Ingalls, and by extension her older counterpart Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Native Americans are unclean, uncivilized animals to be feared, and to Falconer these same people are to be borne.
By Anne Finch
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. New York: Harper Collins, 1935.