The premise of One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus is that President Grant created a secret Brides for Indians (BFI) program to deliver “Noble American Women” as brides for the “savages” in an effort to civilize and assimilate them. This engaging fantasy mixes the mythology of wise, noble primitives with the brutal history and its horrific result.
The story is told through May Dobb’s journals. She volunteered for the BFI program as a preferable alternative to her incarceration in an asylum. Her family has committed her because she had two children out of wedlock with a socially-inferior man. This introduction includes the first predictable dramatization of unfortunate conditions in the 19th century. Treatment in the asylum included isolation, brutality, and rape.
One theme is the inhumanity of the 19th century. Beyond asylums, other barbarity includes frontier whorehouses, broken treaties, forced starvation, abduction of children, and genocide. The behavior of the white settlers is balanced by examples of rape, mutilation, and masochism by the natives.
For example, as the brides are en route to their native husbands, they are alternately castigated as whores and offered the alternative of working in “respectable” whorehouses instead marrying the Indians.
“Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called ‘civilized’ people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages. I should hope that at the least they might appreciate us.”The second (predictable? clichéd?) theme is the nobility of the natives. This includes living in balance with nature, communal support for all members of the tribe, sharing of chores, including child raising, and acute ecological awareness.
“Since [arsenic’s] use has become more widespread among the Indians, all have noticed across the prairie the carcasses of not only wolves, but also coyotes, eagles, hawks, ravens, raccoons, skunks, and even bears, for the poison kills everything that partakes of the arsenic-laced meat or that feeds off the carcasses of its victims.Eventually, the women become pregnant and bond with their new husbands. In their attachment (Stockholm Syndrome?) they focus on the good and ignore both individual faults (laziness, violence, stupidity) and tribal faults such as warmongering and generally poor treatment of women. The white women include several strong individuals who win many small victories (one woman becomes a warrior, several women become rich, women speak at the council meetings and build their own sweat lodge), but in the end, none of this matters.
“…The People have always lived with the wolves.
“…The wolf is not out enemy. The white man is our enemy.”
So many strong white women provide an (unintended?) echo of 19th-century attitudes in the 21st century. White women have awareness and agency, while the native women have only passive acceptance (a subtle racist bias?).
The birth of a white child to one of the Indian wives provides a stark comparison between cold white men and warm Indians. The Indian husband accepts the child, while the white father refuses it.
I can not recommend this book because of the amount of terror, mayhem, and sadism. I am not sure there is another way to tell this story, but regardless it is not my cup of tea. I found it to be a source of nightmares and depression, but perhaps that is the author’s point.
Check out https://amazon.com/shop/influencer-20171115075 for book recommendations.