Helen Hunt Jackson's "A Century of Dishonor" tells of Native Americans during the early years of the United States. The book describes several aspects of the Native American experience, including early encounters between natives and Europeans. Jackson's main thesis is that the treatment of native Americans s by Europeans in the 1800s was cruel and dishonorable. "A Century of Dishonor" got a lukewarm reception from critics, who found it overly simplistic and "sentimental." While the book is not widely read today, it did have some influence on government treatment of native American groups in the 19th century.
Jackson opens "A Century of Dishonor" by raising the question of whether the United States government has been "honorable" in its dealings with native Americans. She reviews the history of English, Spanish, French and Portuguese exploration in the Americas, and notes that all these nations thought the native Americans had a right to their land. However, she explains, the fact that the various European nations described the native Americans as possessing only the right of "occupancy" meant that they did not see natives as fit for self rule, because the right to self rule is called "sovereignty."
Description of Tribes
The bulk of "A Century of Dishonor" is spent discussing the experiences of particular tribes in their dealings with the U.S. federal government. Tribes mentioned include the Delawares, Sioux, Cheyennes, Nez Perces, Poncas, Cherokees and Winnebagos. Jackson devotes a full chapter to each of the these tribes. In each chapter, she gives examples of the federal government's injustices toward the tribes. For example, in Chapter 6, she says the Poncas had their land stolen by the federal government to make a reservation for the Sioux.
Description of Massacres
Chapter 9, broken down into several sections, describes massacres of native Americans by Europeans. In the Connestoga Massacre, 29 native Americans were murdered by a group of white vigilantes. In the Gnadenhutten Massacre, 96 Delaware tribesmen were killed by a militia. In the massacre of the Apaches, an entire village of Apaches were slain; the precise death toll was unknown. Jackson says the massacres were not provoked by Indians, and were based on irrational fear and prejudice.
Conclusion and Appendices
Jackson concludes "A Century of Dishonor" by stating that the U.S. federal government has not been honorable in its dealings with native Americans. She writes that the people of the country, just 100 years old at the time of her writing, needed to take a long look in the mirror to avoid repeating the mistakes of the previous century. She ends the book with over 100 pages of documents supporting the main text's conclusions. The documents include birth records, death records, financial documents and government reports. The documents demonstrate substantial loss of life and property in native American communities.
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