Stranger Than Fiction
By Dean Jobb
From a murder in colonial Pennsylvania in 1722 and the kidnapping of Daniel Boone’s daughter to a frontier massacre in 1847 that became a rallying cry for America’s expansion into the Pacific Northwest, three recent books explore crimes that played key roles in shaping and defining early America.
As a band of Indigenous warriors marched three hostages through the wilderness in present-day Kentucky, Jemima Boone twisted the string on her bonnet. She tied five knots, then let the bonnet fall to the ground when none of her captors was looking. The thirteen-year-old was confident her father was on their trail, and just as certain he would understand the message she was sending: five knots, five kidnappers. She was, after all, the daughter of the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone.
In his first foray into nonfiction, acclaimed novelist Matthew Pearl recreates the dramatic story of this little-known crime and its far-reaching impact in The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America (Harper). It’s a richly researched and vividly told saga of ambition, greed, loyalty, and treachery at America’s violent birth.
Jemima and her friends Betsy and Fanny Callaway were playing outside the walls of Boonesboro, an isolated and fortified settlement named for her family, when they were seized by Hanging Maw, the Cherokee leader of a small party of Shawnee warriors. It was the summer of 1776, the Declaration of Independence had been signed days earlier, and the abduction and its aftermath played out as the British Empire and American colonists went to war. On the frontiers of Kentucky and other future states, Indigenous peoples were caught in the crossfire and forced to choose sides as they fought for survival.
Pearl, author of the historical crime novel The Dante Club, deftly navigates the dark waters of early American history, carefully assessing the conflicting and often embellished accounts of these long-ago events. He unravels the complex diplomatic, military, and cultural forces at play as the Revolutionary War engulfed the frontier. He brings to life the lost world of Indigenous peoples who have been pushed to the margins of history. And he offers a nuanced and compelling portrayal of the women who braved the dangers and hardships of frontier life, beginning with the clever, courageous, and resourceful Jemima Boone, a forceful character who rivals her famous father.
Jemima’s kidnapping set off a chain reaction of events as the intertwined fates of the Boone family, the Kentucky frontier, and a new nation fighting for independence hung in the balance. Were Jemima and her friends rescued? When Daniel Boone himself is captured, will he be able to escape in time to save Boonesboro from annihilation? And why did this American icon face a court martial? Don’t search Google and Wikipedia for the answers—let the action unfold as Pearl immerses readers in this riveting account.
A half-century before the Boone kidnapping, the western limits of European settlement were much closer to the Atlantic coast. And in 1722 a far more violent crime in the Pennsylvania wilderness threatened to escalate into a bloody confrontation between white settlers and Indigenous peoples. In February of that year, fur traders John and Edmund Cartlidge were accused of brutally assaulting a Seneca hunter named Sawantaeny and leaving him for dead.
The prosecution of the Cartlidge brothers and the seismic shocks their crime created throughout the region are explored in breathtaking detail in Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America (Liveright). Author Nicole Eustace, a professor of history at New York University, immerses readers in a time when Europeans’ tenuous foothold in North America depended on peaceful coexistence with the Indigenous peoples they were displacing and sometimes enslaving.
As Eustace notes, the murders of other Indigenous people by whites had sparked wars, and it took almost a year of diplomacy to ward off more bloodshed. A key figure in the book—and in the struggle to preserve peace—is an Indigenous man fluent in several tribal languages who acted as a go-between and whose manners and diplomatic skills earned him the name “Captain Civility.” The result of these negotiations was the Great Treaty of 1722, signed at Albany between the Iroquois Confederacy—today known as the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee—and the governments of Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia. “The oldest continuously recognized treaty in the history of the United States,” Eustace writes, this now-forgotten pact “records a foundational American debate over the nature of justice.”
An important question underlies the treaty and this illuminating crime story: Who was more civilized, Europeans or the peoples they dismissed as “savages”? What was more just, a society that demanded eye-for-an-eye justice and hanged those convicted of murder, or one that eschewed vengeance and sought reconciliation? Indigenous leaders viewed Sawantaeny’s tragic death as an opportunity to forge a new treaty relationship and to improve relations between the peoples struggling to coexist in early America.
Eustace has written the narrative in the present tense, a tricky task for anyone writing about the past. But she accomplishes this feat with skill and flair, capturing the cadence of oral storytelling and making long-ago events feel as if they are happening in real time. The book’s title comes from a translation of an Iroquois phrase that vividly likens grief to being “covered with night and wrapped in darkness.” The author lifts the cloak of darkness that has obscured the murder of Sawantaeny and the Great Treaty of 1722 in dazzling fashion.
Best-selling Seattle writer Blaine Harden revisits a frontier crime story that has been deliberately twisted and embellished, with devastating effects on the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Protestant missionaries Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, and eleven others were massacred in 1847 near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, by members of the Cayuse tribe they were converting to Christianity. The atrocity, Harden notes, “became a tipping point in the history of the West.”
The massacre transformed Whitman into a nineteenth-century martyr and folk hero almost as famous as General George Armstrong Custer. It spurred the U.S. government to seize the Oregon territory, which had been under joint American-British control for decades—a vast area that included the future states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, along with parts of Montana and Wyoming. And it unleashed a flood of settlers who followed the Whitmans along the famous Oregon Trail, displacing and decimating the Cayuse and other Indigenous inhabitants. Five members of the tribe were ultimately hanged for murder in 1850.
There’s a problem with this epic saga of nation-building and Manifest Destiny fulfilled. “The Whitman story,” Harden writes in Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West (Viking), “was largely a pack of lies.” New York editor Horace Greeley—reputed to have advised America’s youth to “Go West” to make their fortune—praised Whitman as one of the “self-denying . . . daring and good men” bringing civilization to the region. The doctor-turned-missionary, however, was also transforming his outpost and farm into a prosperous mini-empire. The Cayuse received no rental payments for the usurping and use of their land. Whitman’s beachhead brought disease and attracted more settlers to the region. “The Indians,” an uneasy Narcissa noted in a letter, “are roused a good deal at seeing so many emigrants.” Resentment of the newcomers festered as disillusionment with the Whitmans’ Christian proselytizing grew, ultimately exploding in the murderous rampage of November 29, 1847.
Harden was a foreign correspondent for years, reporting from Eastern Europe and Africa, but this story brings him back home. He grew up in the “tumbleweed outback of the Pacific Northwest,” as he calls it, hearing tales of Whitman’s heroism. The source of these myths was Rev. Henry Spalding, a righteous and mentally unbalanced fellow missionary, who literally rewrote history. Whitman’s cross-country trip east in 1843 to save his job, in Spalding’s hands, became a Paul Revere-like ride to save America’s western flank from falling to the hands of the British. And as Harden makes clear, the doctor’s growing distain for the Indigenous people he was supposed to convert and his obsession with attracting white settlers were the root cause of the massacre, not Cayuse treachery.
There is an urgency and resonance for today in this engaging, thoroughly researched tale of murder, falsehood, and duplicity. “The Whitman lie,” Harden writes, “is a timeless reminder that in America a good story has an insidious way of trumping a true one, especially if that story confirms our virtue, congratulates our pluck, and enshrines our status as God’s chosen people.”
The crimes of the Cayuse, the Cartlidge brothers, and Hanging Maw’s band of kidnappers were products of clashes between cultures and peoples that all-too-often erupted in violence. These books revive and reassess incidents that have been relegated to the sidelines of American history for too long.
Dean Jobb’s latest book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books), won the inaugural CrimeCon Clue Award for True Crime Book of the Year. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Find him at www.deanjobb.com.