Here’s another of my Still on the Shelf series, where I tell you, book by blessed book, why I periodically run a dust rag across them, pull them off the shelf, and open them up to read.
A lifetime of reading has left me with a sizable number of books. Throughout the years I have donated them for tax deductions and traded them by the carload for credit at used book stores. But for all the trimming and weeding my collection has undergone these past decades, the ones remaining on the shelves are there for a reason: they’ve withstood the tests of time. Although I’m most inclined to pick up my Kindle these days, there are still plenty of books on my shelves, and One Thousand White Women is one of them.
One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
by Jim Fergus
St. Martin’s Press, 1998
Back in the day, news about this book spread through my old neighborhood in Colorado faster than you can say “Manifest Destiny.” The Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association proclaimed it a Regional Book Award Winner, and rightly so. This work of fiction, a story told through the journal of one who lived it, is one of cultural misunderstanding and manipulation and the efforts of the Cheyenne people to help right it.
In September 1874, Cheyenne sweet medicine chief Little Wolf traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant and members of
a special commission to receive the Presidential Peace Medal. Little Wolf, speaking through an interpreter, told President Grant of his people’s custom:
It is the Cheyenne way that all children who enter this world belong to their mother’s tribe…My father was Arapaho and my mother Cheyenne. Thus I was raised by my mother’s people, and I am Cheyenne. But I have always been free to come and go among the Arapaho, and in this way I learned also their way of life. This, we believe, is a good thing.
He goes on to acknowledge the dwindling numbers of his
People and realizes they must become members of the white man’s world. He asks President Grant for the gift of 1,000 white women to become Cheyenne wives, “to teach us and our children the new life that must be lived when the buffalo are gone.” Little Wolf’s idea is to create a generation of Cheyenne children born into the white tribe, “with the full privileges attendant to that position.” Little Wolf proposes the Cheyenne return the U.S. Government’s gift of 1,000 white women with 1,000 horses—500 wild horses and 500 already broken.
This much is actually true. It really happened. The proposal was really made by Little Wolf to President Grant. Perhaps you can imagine the commotion and reaction to this proposal, as well as the subsequent refusal. This book, however, is based on the premise of what would have happened if the Government had accepted the idea. Perhaps true to form, the Government launches a secret Brides for Indians (BFI) program and recruits volunteers from jails, penitentiaries, debtors’ prisons, and mental institutions.
May Dodd, an upper class woman kidnapped and placed into a lunatic asylum by her family when she falls in love with someone beneath her station, volunteers for the BFI program in exchange for her freedom. She tells her story and that of a number of other white brides as they travel from the east to their new home with the Cheyenne.
Reading about life in the American Old West has been a life-long fascination of mine, and I soak up every word of this book whenever I reread it. Of course, we all know what happened at the end of the Indian Wars, and the people in this story were not immune to it. Chief Little Wolf’s tribe, in fact, ironically falls victim when the Army attacks them, mistaking them for Crazy Horse’s Sioux.
We all like happy endings, but the Truth, whether happy or unfair, preserves historical integrity, whether fiction or not. What Jim Fergus delivers here is a touching and beautiful story of Cheyenne life and world view, with a Truth-holding ending. And that’s why it’s Still on the Shelf.