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On the Borders of the Adventure Novel: Narratives of 18th-Century Travel in Indian Territory

Robert SAYRE

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1I will attempt here to discuss and illustrate an instance, in the literature of travel, of the fluid, and overlapping relations that often exist between genres, and more particularly between fictional and non-fictional genres. The particular body of travel literature that I will be dealing with involves accounts of Anglo-American travel in territories still controlled (at least partially) by Indians in the 18th century. I will suggest that some of this material would qualify as a kind of “adventure” literature that, although in principle non-fictional, is closely related to the fictional genre of the adventure novel.” The fact that travel literature more generally would seem to have a privileged relation to the notion of “adventure,” might suggest a wider application for my argument here.

2The term “adventure,” etymologically speaking, is concerned with things that “come to pass” or “happen,” that is, with “events.” In general usage, moreover, “adventure” is strongly associated with the individual. Events of the adventure variety happen to individuals, or to small ad hoc groups of individuals qua individuals, rather than to large-scale communities or societies. If we ask what the nature of these events or happenings is, by looking at the multiple dictionary definitions of the word, two principal notions would seem to emerge: first, that of the chance, or at least unexpected occurrence, and second, that of danger or risk. What happens to an individual in an adventure is usually characterized by being in some sense perilous on the one hand, and fortuitous or at least surprising and out of the ordinary on the other.

3The literature of adventure, or rather the literatures of adventure, since they are extremely varied, reflect these overall qualities. In them the event, or the “action” predominates over other literary aspects. These literary happenings occur in the recounted experience of an individual narrator, protagonist, hero or anti-hero, and they typically are unpredictable and fraught with danger or risk. The adventure novel—the modern fictional form of the adventure narrative—has its roots in the medieval romance with its knight-errant in quest of adventure, and develops from the Spanish picaresque through English and French 18th-century examples (notably Defoe, Smollett and Lesage), to its heyday in the 19th century, with works by Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, Eugène Sue and Dumas père, Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, to name only some of the more prominent. Many literary works, of course, contain elements of adventure, or use adventure as a medium, although their main concern is elsewhere. Of particular interest to us here, the adventures represented in these fictions often occur in the course of travel.

4Parallel to the adventure novel there exists a non-fictional literature of “true” adventure, and the 18th-century travel accounts of encounters with Indians often (though not always) fall within this tradition. In striking contrast, however, the concept of adventure was generally foreign to the earlier, 17th-century literature concerning Indians. There, although danger was often present, fortuitousness and the monadic individual were not. Relations with Indians were seen as involving the unified Puritan community (or individuals as manifestations of it), and as determined by God’s will. Thus Mary Rowlandson’s famous account of her captivity during “King Philip’s War” was originally entitled by her: The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together With the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed (1682). With the 18th-century tendency toward secularization, economic individualism and individualism tout court, however, the literature involving Indians often comes to take the form of adventure, in which an individual’s experiences of contact with Native Americans are chronicled—experiences that notably feature contingency and danger. This is the case with a number of travel-related genres: the military journal, the captivity account, and the narrative of travel in Indian territory per se.

5When we read these kinds of works as “adventures,” I would claim, we do so because of what they have in common with the fictional creations of adventure. It is not enough for the elements of danger and contingency to be present in a non-fictional account. The account must also be written as adventure; it must create, through literary means, a sense of adventure, or an adventure “effect.” There are at least two ways in which this effect is typically created. First, there is the creation of a persona who is the subject of the adventure, often the first-person narrator. The reader identifies with him/her, and there is an evocation of the inner state of the subject, which can be more or less active, sometimes heroic (the “adventurer” type), or passive and suffering (the victim). Second, there is the use of narrative techniques that elicit vicarious emotions of adventure in the reader, often via the responses of the persona. Common techniques would include: the build-up of excitement, fear, or horror; the intimation of possibilities (suspense, foreboding), the continual introduction of sudden, unexpected new developments, and the “close call” or narrow escape from danger. All of these can combine to create a kind of “roller coaster” effect. In a repeated cycle, we are given a build-up of tension, a crisis and a release, and then more of the same.

6As a rule, in the 18th-century texts I am referring to the dimension of adventure thus defined increases precisely to the extent that the texts in question are addressed to a broad or “mass” reading public. For quite clearly the elements of adventure appealed to that public’s taste, and more particularly the mix of ingredients served up in Indian adventure: the combination of extreme forms of uncertainty, danger and violence—potential or real—with the heightened exoticism of confrontation with a radically different culture (these two aspects of Indian adventure are in fact often linked). Although some of the texts of encounter with Indians addressed specific publics with pragmatic goals in mind, others became bestsellers, going through several, or even numerous, editions and translations.

7In the 18th century, particularly in the latter half of the century, there existed a current of English and American novels involving adventures with North American Indians. In those novels the title often includes the word “adventures,” signaling a self-conscious appropriation of the notion. These works are for the most part forgotten today, and it is only with James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Saga,” and most famously with The Last of the Mohicans (1826), that we find a significant instance of fictional adventures with Indians. My purpose is not to deal with these overtly fictional representations, but rather to show how non-fictional texts involving travel among, and contacts with Indians are in many cases on the borders of adventure fiction. I will illustrate this point through three examples. In the third case I will attempt to demonstrate, through comparison of an early manuscript with the final published version, how adventure is constructed from raw materials that do not yet possess it. This example will also show how the structure of the adventure genre can intersect with that of the genre of travel in Indian territory, and finally it will raise questions about the “factuality” of non-fictional accounts. In choosing my examples I draw on travel literature in the broadest sense, as referred to above: military journals and captivity accounts as well as narratives of free travel in Indian territory.

8Eighteenth-century North America produced a considerable number of journals kept by soldiers and militiamen—journals which reported on expeditions and engagements in the contested territories of the struggle with the French and “their” Indians that was waged over most of the century. In terms of mere quantity of dangerous encounter, and especially in view of the peculiar nature of American warfare, one might expect this kind of literature to be a prize terrain for the discourse of adventure. The author of one such report was indeed aware of this dimension of his material. In this case the report—on an expedition against the Ohio Indians in1764, led by Colonel Henry Bouquet—was penned not by Bouquet himself but by a non-participant who had consulted first-hand accounts. In his introduction the author muses on the particularity of his subject:

9Those who have only experienced the severities and dangers of a campaign in Europe, can scarcely form an idea of what is to be done and endured in an American war in an American campaign every thing is terrible; the face of the country, the climate, the enemy simple death is the least misfortune, which can happen to [American soldiers] If the actions of these rude campaigns are of less dignity, the adventures in them are more interesting to the heart, and more amusing to the imagination, than the events of a regular war (Smith ix).

10For the “adventures” that transpired during these “rude campaigns” to be “interesting to the heart” and “amusing to the imagination,” however, they had to be written in a way that made them so, and this sine qua non was often not fulfilled in the genre of the military journal. The Historical Account of the Expedition Against the Ohio Indians does not do so generally, even though it is authored by a cultivated non-combatant. The explanation doubtless lies in the purpose of the writing and the public addressed—the former being to provide practical instruction on the conditions of Indian warfare to the latter, consisting of those involved, or potentially to be involved in this type of conflict. If we add to this the fact that in the most common case the author was a person whose principal activity was soldiering, and whose concern was with the pragmatics of combat, it becomes understandable that in the writing of such accounts events bloody and fraught with peril seldom become “adventures.” The Journals of Major Robert Rogers (London, 1765) is a case in point. On the whole, this detailed account of the movements and activities of Roger’s famous “ranger” unit from 1755 to 1761 makes for exceedingly dull reading! In the introduction Rogers indicates that his journal was written under difficult conditions in the field, and that it is limited to the recounting of “matters of fact,” for the benefit of those who will have to deal with the Indians and French in the future (Rogers v-vi). Not surprisingly, these matters of fact rarely come to life in his text, to transmit a sense of lived adventure to the reader.

11One case in which an account by a military man does achieve that in some measure is the “Journal of Captain Thomas Morris,” a text which has been republished recently only as a scholarly reprint. Although written immediately after the events it recounts—a mission in 1764 into the Illinois territories, in the immediate aftermath of Pontiac’s rebellion—it was published only much later, in 1791, as part of a collection of literary pieces by the same author, entitled Miscellanies in Prose and Verse. The journal was thus framed as a literary production, and although no explicit mention is made of it, the manuscript of the journal may have undergone a later rewriting to make it more acceptable to the intended literary public. However that may be, Morris’s journal possesses to some degree the requisite qualities of a good adventure story. Morris seems in fact to have conceived of it as such, since in the “preamble” to his account he uses the term “adventure” several times in alluding to the experience he is setting before the reader (Morris iv, vi).

12The journal begins by establishing a sense of foreboding in the suggestion that the author has been chosen for a doomed mission. The aide de camp of his commander, General Bradstreet, approaches Morris and asks him to recommend officers who would have the necessary calibre to take possession of the Illinois lands for the British, but immediately rejects each of Morris’s suggestions. When Morris begins to volunteer himself, the aide de camp accepts before he has finished his sentence, and when Morris asks why he has not proposed this in the first place, “He said, with an oath: ‘It is not a thing to be asked of any man’” (Morris 2). Morris is then treated to dinner with the general himself, who offers to send with him, as a translator, a French prisoner who has been sentenced to hang but will be pardoned to go on the mission. As a final blow, the aide de camp tells Morris that unless certain Indian “deputies” arrive beforehand, an Ottawa village where he is to spend the first night will be attacked in the middle of the night. But, as he adds cavalierly, “that [...] will make no difference in your affairs” (Morris 3). It is only as Morris is stepping into his canoe to depart that the deputies finally appear.

13One day out on their voyage, Morris reports, “passing by the encampment of the Miamis, while I was admiring the regularity and contrivance of it, I heard a yell, and found myself surrounded by Pondiac’s army, consisting of six hundred savages, with tommahawks in their hands, who beat my horse, and endeavored to separate me from my Indians “‘By their malicious smiles, ‘ he adds, ‘it was easy for me to guess their intention of putting me to death’” (Morris 5-6). But Morris is then brought before Pontiac himself, who protects him from those who wish to kill him by citing the importance of allowing safe conduct to ambassadors. What follows is a vertiginous account in which Morris is seen as being repeatedly buffeted between variants of these two kinds of treatment: extreme hostility, often with murderous intent, and respect, even occasional friendliness. It becomes clear that Morris has stepped into a highly charged and highly confused situation, in which many different tribal groups are involved, only very partially under the control of Pontiac, and in which Indians and groups of Indians act out upon Morris their differing, volatile, most often hostile attitudes towards the British. At numerous moments over the course of a very perilous itinerary in which Morris persists in penetrating deeper and deeper into rebellious territory in a desperate attempt to fulfill his mission, he is saved from torture and death only in extremis.

14To give one sample of the roller-coaster quality of Morris’s narrative: immediately after being saved by Pontiac’s intervention, Morris is almost dispatched in an unruly attack on him that ironically is to be traced back to an action by a supposedly friendly Indian of his own party. This Mohawk has robbed him of “almost every thing” and sold rum to the young Ottawa warriors present. They get drunk, and one of them takes a swipe at Morris with his knife. Godefroi, the French translator, grabs his arm just in time. “He certainly saved my life” comments Morris, “for I was sitting, and could not have avoided the blow though I saw it coming” (Morris 10). Morris perceives that many others of the inebriated are yearning to kill him, and first hides under a mattress, then disguises himself in Indian clothing and retreats to a neighboring field outside the encampment. Here he is visited by several chiefs—first Kickapoos, then Miamis—who speak kindly to him and tell him he is welcome. These encouraging signs are, however, immediately contradicted by his being berated by a Huron woman whose son was killed by the English, and later, when Morris has returned to the Indian camp, by a Delaware who “passing by the cabin where I lay, called out in broken English: ‘D—d son of a b—ch” (Morris 11).

15Much of the later narrative continues in this vein: ominous signs, close calls, moments of good fortune only to be followed by another crisis. The story is sometimes awkwardly or confusedly rendered, but there is a clear intent to interest the reader and engage his or her emotions. Two passages are particularly striking in different ways—one for its whimsical linkage of chance and the mix of cultures, the other for its evocation of the most fearful of adventures imaginable. In the first, we are shown how Morris was saved on one occasion by none other than Shakespeare. Several pages before the incident itself, the author has mentioned, apparently in passing, that one of the chiefs favorable to him “made me a present of a volume of Shakespeare’s plays; a singular gift from a savage “ (Morris 12). This volume of Shakespeare immediately disappears from the narrative, and the reader is led to imagine it has been brought in solely for its incongruity. A week further on into the trip, however, when his party stops at a village where they are intending to kill him, “I had the good fortune,” Morris tells us, “to stay in the canoe, reading the tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra [...] though perfectly ignorant of their intention, I pushed the canoe over to the other side of the river “ (Morris 17).

16The presentation of this episode is rather poorly handled. Morris flatly informs the reader of the villagers intentions at the outset, before mentioning the Shakespeare volume and the fact that he was ignorant of their intentions, precluding any effect of dawning awareness or sudden revelation on the part of the reader. Moreover, there is no real follow-up. The story trails off, and the reader never knows how Morris subsequently avoided the Indians’ designs. The story remains an isolated anecdote, yet its point is not lost. Morris was—in a highly fortuitous sense—saved by one Indian from other Indians, through the mediation of the ultimate icon of English culture.

17The second passage is far more sombre in tone, and involves the dreaded fate of torture. The scene is part of an extended series of developments that follow the seesaw pattern I have already illustrated, but interrupts it at a moment of heightened intensity. Godefroi, the French interpreter, has again intervened with a saving gesture, reminding an angry Miami chief that if Morris were killed the chief’s children, who are in Detroit with the British, would be in danger. The chief has relented, but inexplicably does not impede another, who has been pursuing Morris, from tying him by the neck to a post. Suddenly all present are preparing for torture. At this point the author pauses in the account to insert a description of usual Indian practices of torture, explaining that “these modes of torture I should not have mentioned, if the gentleman who advised me to publish my journal, had not thought it necessary” (Morris 21). Once having made sure the reader understands what the prospect of torture by Indians meant, Morris adds: “It may easily be conceived what I must have felt at the thought of such horrors which I was to endure,” and describes feeling “myself as it were going to plunge into a gulf, vast, immeasurable,” and then falling into “torpor and insensibility” (Morris 22). Morris is extricated from this dire situation also, by a deus ex machina in the form of another Miami chief who appears on horseback, and the seesaw movement goes on.

18My second text brings into play the captivity account, a particularly popular form of the literature of Indian encounter. These accounts dealt with a very widespread phenomenon. In 18th-century North America thousands of colonists—men, women and children—were captured by Indians, in raids on frontier settlements or war skirmishes, and held by them for varying lengths of time. Taken by force, sometimes amid scenes of horror, they often endured exceptional suffering in the first phases of captivity. In some cases they were tortured and put to death, in others adopted into a tribe, sold to the French or ransomed back to the English—sometimes several of these sequentially. Hundreds of those who survived and returned, told their tales, either by writing themselves or through an amanuensis. Unlike most military journals, captivity narratives often dwelt on the lurid details of the incidents that befell the captives, and on the captive’s feelings during this most intense and traumatic of personal experiences. This particular form of adventure tale had tremendous appeal to a wide public, and went through numerous editions in many cases. The captivity narrative was indeed one of the most popular literary forms of the period, both in England and the colonies.

19The captivity narrative cannot be completely separated as a genre either from the military journal or the travel account per se, since a considerable number of captivity narratives were authored by soldiers or militiamen taken prisoner during military duty (Thomas Morris was himself a virtual prisoner for a part of the time covered by his journal), and many captivity accounts are part of larger narratives of free travel. Yet the captivity narrative has a specificity of its own. Its structure is in general broadly tripartite: first, the capture, often after struggle in which there is the immanent prospect of sudden death; then the compelled voyage to the Indian homeland, in which many accidents could occur that might cause suffering and death; finally, arrival and determination of the prisoner’s fate: adoption, slavery, redemption, or torture and death. Built into the very situation, then, was a sustained sense of fearful suspense, of intense, life-or-death uncertainty, and the role played by fortuitous, or seemingly fortuitous events, was great. In many of these accounts there is a quality of descent into the “heart of darkness.”

20My second text well illustrates the prevalent overlap of sub-genres in the literature of travel and encounter in Indian territory. For the work it is taken from, Alexander Henry’s Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between 1760 and 1776, was written by a combatant in the French and Indian War (though he was no longer a soldier when captured) and, as the title suggests, involves free travels as well as captivity. The presence of the word “adventure” signals a conscious intent to produce the same. Like Thomas’s journal, it was published only long after the period involved—in this case in 1809 in New York—based on notes taken closer to the time of the events. After serving in the French and Indian war Henry had become a fur trader, and was one of the first British-American traders to move into the western lands newly won from the French. It was at Michilimackinac, a key fort and trading post in the Great Lakes region, that Henry was captured during the famous massacre that occurred there in 1763. Henry was one of the very few British to survive the massacre, and while his eye-witness account is valued by historians, it is also a minor masterpiece of adventure narrative.

21The account opens with Henry’s return to the fort after an absence, when he is warned by several traders of the hostile mood of the Indians encamped in the area—Indians who far outnumber the soldiers and merchants in the fort. Henry attempts to alert the fort’s commander to the danger, only to be laughed at. Yet, by his own admission, “if this officer neglected admonition, on his part, so did I, on mine” (Henry 72). As the author then informs the reader, he had earlier been “adopted” by Wawatam, a Chippewa trading at the fort who had been directed to adopt an Englishman in a dream. Wawatam has visited Henry several times, speaking ominously of having heard the “noise of evil birds,” and attempting to make Henry leave the fort. But the latter has disregarded the warning, since “nothing induced me to believe that serious mischief was at hand” (74, 76). However, when another Chippewa tells Henry that on the King’s birthday the Chippewas will play the Sauks at “baggatiway” (“le jeu de la crosse” for the French) just outside the fort, and that the match will be attended by the commander, Henry tries to convince the latter that trouble is afoot. Thus, puzzlingly but perhaps not unbelievably, this textual prelude to the massacre attempts to convince the reader that Henry was both suspicious and unaware as disaster approached.

22The massacre was the result of a stratagem on the part of the Indians, one which became notorious in the annals of frontier history, and which Henry’s text goes on to relate. Seemingly by mistake the lacrosse ball is hurled over the wall of the fort during the match, and Indians run in as if to retrieve it. Then mayhem breaks loose. Henry has chosen not to watch the game, and is writing letters. Brought to the window by war cries, he sees his fellow Englishmen being slaughtered and scalped. He takes refuge in the house of one of the French traders who has remained at the fort, and who are “neither opposing the Indians nor suffering injury.” Hiding in the garret, he looks outside again, to behold butchered bodies and the “barbarian conquerors” drinking their blood. “I was shaken,” Henry tells us, “not only with horror, but with fear. The sufferings which I witnessed, I seemed on the point of experiencing”(81).

23And so it seems, for soon Indians are at the door of the Frenchman, M. Langlade, and then they are at the garret door. The text goes on:

The state of my mind will be imagined. Arrived at the door, some delay was occasioned by the absence of the key, and a few moments were thus allowed me, in which to look around for a hiding-place. In one corner of the garret was a heap of those vessels of birch-bark, used in maple-sugar making (…). The door was unlocked, and opening, and the Indians ascending the stairs, before I had completely crept into a small opening, which presented itself, at one end of the heap. An instant after, four Indians entered the room, all armed with tomahawks, and all besmeared with blood, upon every part of their bodies. The die appeared to be cast. I could scarcely breathe; but I thought that the throbbing of my heart occasioned a noise loud enough to betray me [...] (82).

24The Indians do not discover Henry’s hiding place, they leave, and Henry falls asleep, “exhausted as I was, by the agitation of my mine” (83). This passage demonstrates particularly well how a non-fictional text can make use—whether consciously or not—of literary techniques of adventure writing. Here Henry’s narrative constructs adventure, creates the effect of adventure, rather more effectively than does Thomas’s, by drawing on the arsenal of devices from adventure fiction.

25The saga goes on. M. Langlade, fearing for his family’s safety, informs the Indians of Henry’s presence, and the suspense of the Indians mounting the garret steps and bursting in is repeated. This time they are drunk, and one of them, whom Henry knows personally,

seized me, with one hand, by the collar of the coat, while in the other he held a large carving-knife, as if to plunge it into my breast; his eyes, meanwhile, were fixed stedfastly on mine. At length, after some seconds, of the most anxious suspense, he dropped his arm, saying, ‘I won’t kill you! ‘To this he added (…) that, on a certain occasion, he had lost a brother, whose name was Musinigon, and I should be called after him. (87-8).

26A suspenseful moment of choice is depicted here which in many captivities occurred later, when the captive arrived at the village of the captors. This adoption of Henry does not, however, put an end to his immanent danger, for in the anarchic situation reigning at the fort he is several times within an inch of being killed by another Indian, who holds a grudge against him, even before the prisoners are embarked on their voyage to the captors’ home.

27During that trip—by canoe—there are further accidents, reversals, rising and falling fortunes. The captors are Chippewas, and no sooner departed than they are waylaid and robbed of their prisoners by Ottawas who resent not having been consulted before the taking of the fort. Henry’s authorial aside is the following: “The reader’s imagination is here distracted by the variety of our fortunes (…) who were the sport, or the victims, of a series of events, more like dreams than realities, more like fiction than truth!” (96). All parties return to Michilimackinac, and a council meeting follows between Chippewas and Ottawas, in which the former attempt to convince the latter to join them against the British. The fate of the prisoners hangs in the balance overnight, since, as Henry informs the reader, “The Indians rarely make their answers till the day after they have heard the arguments offered” (97). The outcome is that the prisoners are returned to the Chippewas. The voyage resumes, with further vicissitudes. Although protected by the Indian who has adopted him, Henry like all the prisoners is in continual danger of violence from other members of the returning war party or from those who join it. One day Henry sees seven corpses of white men, and is “informed, that a certain chief, called, by the Canadians, Le Grand Sable, (…) having been absent when the war begun, (was) now desirous of manifesting to the Indians at large, his hearty concurrence in what they had done (…) “ (104). By good fortune, Henry himself has been spared their fate.

28After arriving at the Chippewa village that is their destination, Henry continues to be insulted by other Indians. But when he accompanies his adoptive brother’s family to their wintering ground, where they are relatively isolated, full integration into Indian life ensues and the narrative changes in nature. No longer really a captive, but rather an Indian family member, Henry becomes for a time a “white Indian.” His text ceases to be an adventure, and becomes a proto-ethnographic portrait of Chippewa life patterns.

29The last of the examples is taken from one of the many accounts of travel in Indian territory that did not involve captivity. Like the captivity it was one of the more popular forms of writing to be produced in North America in the colonial period, although before the 1760s, when large western territories opened up to the British, the French tended to dominate the genre. This state of affairs was lamented by John Lawson in the introduction to his New Voyage to Carolina, first published in 1709, one of the few early 18th-century English accounts to achieve some prominence. British America produced one of the greatest of such accounts, however, in the later part of the century: William Bartram’s Travels, much admired by the English Romantics, which chronicles Bartram’s journeys in the Southeast in the period 1773-77, but was published only in 1791. It also produced the now somewhat lesser known account, but one enormously successful in its time, by Jonathan Carver: Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. This is the text that I will draw on as my last example.

30Since this form of travel narrative for the most part chronicled entirely voluntary, exploratory voyaging in areas still controlled by Indians in the period, it does not usually recount experiences of sustained danger. Many pages of most such accounts are taken up with descriptions of landscape, fauna and flora, and of the manner of living of Indians met peacefully, in some cases lived with for some interval of time. Yet given the nature of European-Indian relations, the potentiality of conflict was always around the corner, and the recounting of adventurous incidents remains a significant element. The adventure component of the travel account is undoubtedly also a contributing factor to its popular appeal.

31Of the three texts under examination here, Carver’s travel narrative was by far the most popular, and its popularity lasted from the time of first publication (1778, in London) through the first decade of the 19th century, during which time it went through some 20 editions, in the United States, Great Britain and Europe. Carver, who had been a militia officer in the French and Indian war, was engaged by Robert Rogers as a cartographer in an expedition preliminary to an attempt at discovering the “Northwest Passage.” This trip, which covered an immense territory in the area of the upper Mississippi and the Great Lakes, was the subject of Carver’s work. The published version is based on a journal kept during the trip, and was the result of a number of revisions made over the ten years between the trip and publication. Carver originally drew up the account as part of a petition to royal authorities in London for reimbursement of expenses, but when this failed he began to reorient his hopes towards the financial rewards of a publishing venture. He recast his manuscript several times to this end, probably in collaboration with an editor in London, with a view to attracting a wide public.

32A significant portion of Carver’s text deals with his prolonged stay with a tribe of Dakota Sioux, and the ethnographic portrait that he provides is one of its more interesting aspects. But before and after this sojourn Carver has some risky encounters—or perceived as such—and these are often recounted with considerable brio. One scene stands out, most notably because in the published version it uses an extraordinary device to extend suspense. In this final form the scene clearly manifests the author’s intention of manipulating reader response to create “adventure,” and at the same time illustrates how the conventions of the genre of travel in Indian territory may be enlisted to this purpose, the structure of the non-fiction genre dovetailing with the fictional one. There is, however, a striking contrast in this regard between the published version and the first manuscript version—a “journal” of the trip -, in that the adventure elements are almost entirely missing from the latter. I will first discuss the published text as a fully-realized adventure sequence, and then compare the earlier version with it.

33The scene occurs after Carver’s winter and spring with the Dakota Sioux, when he is heading North through Chippewa country towards Lake Superior. Smoke appears on the horizon, and then a dozen tents.

As I was apprehensive that this was a party of the Rovers [roving bands of Indian outlaws] I had before met with, I knew not what course to pursue. My attendants persuaded me to endeavour to pass by them on the opposite side of the river, but as I had hitherto found that the best way to ensure a friendly reception from the Indians is to meet them boldly, and without shewing any tokens of fear, I would by no means consent to their proposal (Carver, Travels93-94).

34Carver’s party disembarks from their canoes, and goes to meet the Indians now standing on the shore. The first in line receive the voyagers cordially, but behind these stands

a chief remarkably tall and well made, but of so stern an aspect that the most undaunted person could not behold him without feeling some degree of terror [...] However, I approached him in a courteous manner, and expected to have met with the same reception I had done from the others. But to my great surprize he with-held his hand and, looking fiercely at me, said in the Chipeway tongue, ‘Cawin nishishin saganosh’, that is, ‘The English are no good’. As he had his tomahawk in his hand, I expected that this laconick sentence would have been followed by a blow, to prevent which I drew a pistol from my belt and, holding it in a careless position, passed close by him to let him see I was not afraid of him (94).

35Carver soon is told that this man is an important chief, called “le Grand Sautor” by the French, a steady friend of the French and enemy of the English. Having learned this, Carver decides to stay on his guard but to remain overnight near the Indian camp to show that he is not intimidated. The narrative goes on:

I pitched my tent at some distance from the Indians and had no sooner laid myself down to rest than I was awakened by my French servant. Having been alarmed by the sound of Indian music, he had run to the outside of the tent where he beheld a party of the young savages dancing towards us in an extraordinary manner, each carrying in his hand a torch fixed on the top of a long pole (94-95).

36Following on the menacing reception by the “Grand Sautor,” it appears as if these dancing men mean Carver no good. The reader continues with aroused interest, only to be stopped short by the following sentence: “But I shall defer any further account of this uncommon entertainment, which at once surprized and alarmed me, till I treat of the Indian dances” (95). This sentence ends the paragraph, and the paragraph following it begins: “The next morning I continued my voyage and before night reached La Prairie le Chien.” The suspenseful scene that has just been set up is left frozen in mid-air, like a tableau vivant, and no further mention of it is made again until, as the author has announced, he treats “of the Indian dances.”

37A common structural feature of travel accounts of this kind was for them to be divided into a diachronic part—the narrative of the trip itself as it took place over time—and a synchronic, ethnographic part that discussed customs and mentalities of Indian groups encountered during the trip. It is into this latter section of his work—in the subsection on Indian dances—that Carver inserts the conclusion to the scene. So in this monumental deferment, Carver has transferred the adventure out of the narrative per se, and into the ethnography which follows it. There are surely good reasons why he (or perhaps his editor) might have done so. In this way a bridge of suspense is thrown up between the two parts of the work; the reader of the travel narrative is encouraged to continue into the ethnographic description, and in addition the spice of adventure tends to break up the tedium of the latter.

38The story is taken up again following a lengthy description of frightening war dances, and then mention of dances said to raise the devil. “I know not under what class of dances to rank that performed by the Indians who came to my tent when I landed near Lake Pepin [...] as related in my Journals,” he goes on. “When I looked out, I saw about twenty naked young Indians [...] coming towards me and dancing as they approached “ (141) They are painted red and black, as when Indians “go against the enemy,” and some war dance gestures are part of their dancing. Carver resolves “to sell my life as dear as possible,” and sits down beside his gun and pistols. The Indians continue to dance, singing their war song, which would have been suggestive enough but in addition they violently strike the tentpoles with their warclubs. Carver tells the reader at this point that “I never found my apprehensions more tumultuous on any occasion” (141). Carver offers a peacepipe, which is refused, then as a last resort some presents. After some consultation, the Indians accept them, and the peacepipe, and finally depart in a friendly manner.

39A final surprise is in store for the reader, however. For after having created and sustained a sense of immanent danger in this incident, Carver admits that he was never able to find out what the intentions of the young dancers were, and that “I was afterwards informed that [their visit] might be intended as a compliment which they usually pay to the chiefs of every other nation who happen to fall in with them” (143). Thus Carver seems to discover after the fact that what he had experienced as adventure was perhaps not one at all, since the Indians were greeting and not attacking. This coda to Carver’s story points to several things: the importance of the subjective component of adventure, and the way in which adventures with Indians were often bound up with the opacity of the cultural Other. But also it points up the strength of the impulse to evoke adventure in texts addressed to a wide public, as a crucial avenue of appeal. For even though placed in question afterwards, the experience of adventure is first called into being in full regalia.

40Comparison of this treatment with the corresponding material in the original journal manuscript, presumably not yet written in view of popular success in the publishing market, is highly revealing. As this earlier version is a single passage, and is far shorter (less than one fifth the length) than the two separated passages of the final version, I will quote it here in full (with the original spelling and punctuation, as given in the scholarly edition of the manuscript):

May 3, 1767. Passd Lake of Tears or Lake St. Anthony, came to the enterance of the Chipeway River. Here I found two chiefs of this [...] (Chippewa) nation, a trader from Louisiania, and one from Michillimackinac. At the evening a number of their young men came to give me a dance. Their ceremony began with a sort of a drum and rattle shell at some distance, advancing slowly and stoping now and then to dance, each being dressd with short leather breeches like a highland kelt with the edges very beautifully figured with quills and long feathers on their heads. When they came to the door of my tent I was informd that the dance was intended for me. I stepd to the door and bid them welcom.

They entered and soon began their dance, each one of them having a tomehawk in his hand or a club calld breakhead which every now and then they would strike upon the tent poles over head and make a short speach on something extraordinary that they have done before, either in war or hunting, after which they gave a loud coohoop with their hands on their mouths interupting the sound with a sort of tremour attended with such postures and motions of body as appeared both hostile and terrible, which I was informd by the French with me was their constant custom when they gave a dance to any strange chief that came among them. I was informed by people with me that they expected some presents, which I was very willing to bestow in order to get shot of my guests. (Carver, J 120-21)

41Several significant differences are immediately apparent between this text and the final version presented earlier. First, the account has not yet been made to fit the convention of separated travel narrative and ethnographic description. Here the ethnological commentary is integrated into the account of the incident (in the first sentence of the second paragraph the modulation of verb tense from past to present perfect – “something extraordinary that they have done before” – suggests a surreptitious shift to description of usual practices). Consequently the suspension of the incident at the moment the dancers approach, and its deferment until much later, does not occur. Second, the entire confrontation with the threatening, individualized figure of the “Grand Sautor” is absent, which in itself has the effect of removing any sense of menace from the arrival of the dancers. In addition to this, though, the dance is from the very start presented as “given” to the author, and identified as a “ceremony.” The emphasis on the beauty of the Indian’s dress is equally inimical to the arousal of fear in the reader, and when the author bids the dancers “welcom” we perceive that the person undergoing the experience felt none either.

42The “hostile and terrible” appearance of the dancers is only evoked near the end of the passage, and when it is the threat is unambiguously dissipated in the same sentence (the author was informed that this was the Indians’ “common custom”). In the published version, by contrast, this interpretation of the Indian’s behavior is, as I have already pointed out, only given as a possible hypothesis that the author became aware of after the fact. A final difference of a similar kind occurs in the conclusion of the incident. In the manuscript version the author is simply told by his French informers that the Indians expect gifts, and he obliges, as he seems to be telling the reader, only so as to be rid of unwanted “guests.” In the final version, on the other hand, he tries gifts (after a peace pipe, which is not mentioned in the early version) as a strategy to pacify potential assailants.

43This comparison of an early, “pre-adventure” form of the narrative with its later elaboration as fully-articulated adventure aimed at a public avid for such fare, brings into even starker relief the point I have tried to illustrate with the previous examples: the constructed, literary nature of “adventure,” in which non-fictional accounts use techniques—however clumsy or melodramatic they may in some cases be – that bring them close to the fictional creation of adventure, or the adventure novel. But this textual contrast also points to a further link between the non-fiction account and the novel, one that the other examples, of which only one version exists, could not suggest. For some of the divergences between the two versions of this story might raise questions about the veracity of the published text. Was the encounter with the “Grand Sautor” invented or borrowed, for instance? Did the author fear for his life as the dancers approached, and was he told of their customs, authoritatively or tentatively, during or after the event? These and other questions make it difficult or impossible to establish a clear line between “fact” and “fiction,” and imply the possibility that in the very writing of non-fiction adventure as adventure it may cross the border, treading on the terrain of the novel by itself becoming fiction.

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Robert SAYRE, « On the Borders of the Adventure Novel: Narratives of 18th-Century Travel in Indian Territory »E-rea [En ligne], 3.1 | 2005, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2005, consulté le 17 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Robert SAYRE

University of Marne-la-Vallée
Robert Sayre est professeur à l’Université de Marne-la-Vallée. Domaine de recherche : littérature américaine, récits de voyages, notamment en territoire amérindien au XVIIIe siècle. Il termine un livre intitulé La modernité et son ‘Autre’ : récits d’une rencontre de cultures en Amérique du Nord au XVIIIe siècle.

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