The "Threat" of Native Americans
In this letter dated January 12, 1842, Thomas Falconer writes to his friend Alfred Austin about his experiences with the Santa Fe Expedition. The enormous amount of information contained in the letter, which does not even cover the entirety of his narrative, is visually expressed in the small, cramped handwriting of the text. Falconer was an English lawyer who immigrated to the Republic of Texas in 1840 and joined the Santa Fe Expedition in June 1841 at the invitation of the then-president of Texas, Mirabeau B. Lamar. He was a "guest" and therefore independent of any military force control, unlike the three hundred soldiers who accompanied the expedition. Falconer was told that the purpose of the trip was for trade between Texas and Santa Fe, but he states that this was a lie and the secret goal was to capture Santa Fe. During the expedition, Falconer describes the many misfortunes that befell his party: they are separated multiple times, their horses are stolen, they are deserted by various members of the group, they are attacked several times by Native Americans, they suffer a shortage of food, their camp is accidentally set on fire, and they are captured by Mexicans. This letter was written in his third month of captivity, while still on the journey to Mexico City.
Falconer's letter to Austin demonstrates both the white settler experience of danger and violence on the frontier and the white settler mindset of disregard for the rights of native populations. Falconer is clearly a politically-minded individual, as evidenced by his profession as a lawyer, as well as his priorities in his letter-writing. He opens with a request for money from his London accounts, since he cannot get them from Texas or the United States as there is "no American house here." He speaks of the current state of relations between Texas and Mexico and the increasing "uselessness" of Santa Fe as a trading city. He makes suggestions about economic and political decisions that the Texas government could make to improve trade. He even joins the expedition at the invitation of President Lamar, indicating that he is politically very well-connected. In describing the interactions with Native Americans, Falconer does not write of anything beyond violence and attacks, and he consistently cast the expedition party as the victims. While there is no dispute that the Santa Fe Expedition surely did suffer as a result of these attacks, Falconer offers no critical awareness of the fact that Native American lands were being forcibly taken by the very governmental institutions with which Falconer was deeply involved.
This follows the treatment of Native Americans in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, which depicts the Osage tribe as a threatening presence. When the Native Americans are performing their war cry, for example, Laura describes how listening to it makes her feel:
"The shutter was open, and Pa stood in the dark by the window, looking out. He had his gun. Out in the night the drums were beating and the Indians were wildly yelling. Then that terrible sound came again. Laura felt as if she were falling; she couldn't hold on to anything; there was nothing solid anywhere. It seemed a long time before she could see or think or speak. She screamed: 'What is it? What is it? Oh, Pa, what is it?' She was shaking all over and she felt sick in her middle" (291).
Frances W. Kaye argues that, considering the historical and cultural context of the Osages, the “terrible sound” that Laura hears was probably not, in fact, a war cry. Rather, it may have been the mourning cry of the Osage women who did not want to leave their land yet again. Kaye suggests that Pa told Laura it was a war cry because it made a better story and fit in well with the narrative of the “Noble Savage” (Kaye 136). The “Noble Savage” is a fierce and sparsely-dressed warrior whose image, threatening in its strength, power, and difference, strikes fear into the Euro-American’s heart. The intense, visceral fear that Laura feels in the excerpted scene reflects the white settlers' fears of Native Americans using that power and revolting against further encroachment through violence. This reaction of violence is exactly what the Santa Fe Expedition deals with during their journey. Falconer describes these episodes in a straightforward manner--"On Sept. 4 we were attacked by Indians about an hour after breakfast"--that gives no insight into the motivations of the Native Americans. To justify the existence of Texas, the purpose of the expedition, and his immigration to western North America, Falconer must buy into the white supremacy and the superiority of white settlers' "claim" to land that has belonged to native peoples for millennia.
By Rachel Robinson
Kaye, Frances W. “Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve: Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Kansas Indians.” Great Plains Quarterly 20.2 (Spring 2000): 123-140. Print.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1953. Print.