Nicholas Colella


T TR 12:30 Class


The Narrative of the captivity of John Jewitt and it’s relevance to American Literature I.


                  I chose the “Narrative of the adventures and sufferings of John R. Jewitt.”  It can be found at:$REF$

in the Library of Congress website.  It was written by Richard Alsop, who “drew from Jewett his story during repeated interviews.”  The book was first published in 1849 at Ithaca, New York.  The events in Jewitt’s story occurred from 1803 to 1805.  The actual pages are printed and not hand-written, and are free of damage.  I chose Jewitt’s story because I am interested in Native American culture and society and how it is judged by a European mind.

                  I began searching for a document detailing European interaction with Native Americans or a document of a European’s experiences living in the wilderness.  I searched for a European’s wilderness experience because I am also curious to see if “civilized” European living will unravel or change when thrust into a wilderness setting.

                  I started searching for a document in the Library of Congress’ website at  I chose to “browse by topic,” but I found the method to be an inaccurate way to find the articles I wanted; they weren’t obviously represented by any categories in the Library of Congress.  Also, most of the documents offered were dated after 1850, past the time period of my interest.  Thus I had to needlessly sort through scores of documents that didn’t meet my criteria.  A useful search function at the Library of Congress would be “search by time period,” then search engines applied after that would be more precise.

The topic I chose to browse in was “travels in America,” my logic being that some travelers would travel into the wilderness, and live there for awhile.  My assumption was correct, and I found the document: “Ross's Adventures of the first settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River.”  Ross detailed the hardships settlers on the edge of wilderness faced; food shortages, Indian attacks, cold weather, and loneliness.  However, the document was a reprint, and one of the digital document requirements was to print out scanned images of antique pages.  The Ross document had no antique pages to display.

                  Luckily Professor Marshall happened to stumble across the John Jewitt document while she was researching at the Library of Congress, and e-mailed me a link to it.  Not only did the Jewitt document have each of its first edition pages scanned into the Library of Congress, but the text from each page was typed out and posted on the website.  This made navigation through the document easy; to scroll through the pages I only had to scroll through the website using the right arrow sidebar.  It was an improvement over the Ross document; to scroll through the Ross document I had to type in a page number and click a “turn to page” button and then wait for that page to load.  To make matters worse, the chapters were not numbered, and if I was searching for a particular chapter, I had to repeatedly guess the page number in a cumbersome trial and error process until I gradually arrived at the specific chapter.  With the Jewitt document I could whip through the pages with much greater speed.

                  The Library of Congress did do an excellent job of providing proper bibliographic information, and helpfully suggested other subjects of related interest on the first page of the digital document.  The authors of the documents did a good job contextualizing the situation and environment of each story, so there was no need for the Library of Congress to take responsibility for contextualization.

                  I think this document is interesting and important because I believe Native Americans are interesting and important.  My theory is that some Native American tribes found a way of living that was environmentally sustainable and fulfilling to their physical and emotional needs.  A European observer, in this case John Jewitt, is needed to document the Native American lifestyle, as well as contrast it to the European style of living.  I define the European style of living as based on the mentality that we are rulers and conquerors of land, and we exploit it to suit our needs, rather than reciprocate with the land in a way that sustains us and sustains the land.

                  Because John Jewitt is forced to live the Native American lifestyle, I consider that a social experiment; to see if a European can adapt to a Native American routine, and if some of his European behaviors combine with Native American behavior to create a sort of hybrid behavior.  If the European does adapt or combine his behavior with the Indians, I consider it cultural harmony and evidence that different people can trade ideas that improve their lives.

                  In American history studying Native Americans is important because we can learn something from different people, including the people who inhabited this land hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived.  There were various different tribes living on the northeast coast alone, all with different yet similarly connected myths, legends, and ways of living.  Surely out of all of that combined culture there must be stories or lessons of value that modern readers can absorb to enrich their lives.

                  Jewitt’s account of his captivity was particularly dedicated and exemplary.  He made it a point of secreting away a notebook from his captured ship at risk of the Indians punishing him for stealing goods that now belonged to them.  Having no ink, he experimented with different types of naturally occurring elements until he concocted a mix of juice from a certain green plant, boiled blackberry juice, and finely powdered charcoal, all strained through a cloth, that served as makeshift ink.  Jewitt’s constant ingenuity and skill in ingratiating himself into Indian society makes his account an excellent read.

                  In this way Jewitt’s narrative is similar to Cabeza de Vaca’s.  Vaca survives his Indian captivity by using his ingenuity to persevere through hardships and good deeds and gifts to inspire respect and fair treatment from the Indians.  However, Jewitt spends his time exclusively with the Nootka Sound tribe.  Cabeza roams across the United States from Florida and into Mexico.  Thus Vaca is able to observe and document the lifestyle and traditions of not one but several Indian tribes, whereas Jewitt observes only the Nootka.  Also, Vaca’s tale is circular in that he improbably reunites with Spanish countrymen.  However, Vaca’s attitude has changed after years spent living with the Indians, and he now sees the conquistadores as murderous pillagers, and the Indians more representative of the Christian ideals the conquistadores invoke to justify their brutal campaign of conquest.

                  Jewitt does experience a sort of conflict of interest between his English brethren and his Indian lord, Maquina, but really Jewitt only experiences a pang of conscience when he lies to Maquina in order to secure his freedom.  Vaca’s choice is more complicated; his loyalty is obligated to the Spanish, but they are a powerful threat to the freedom and lives of his Indian friends.  Also, Vaca finds himself questioning who are truer to the tenets of Christianity.  Vaca’s conflict is much more painful than Jewitt’s, and his religious issue of who is more Christian adds an extra dimension to his story.  Thus Jewitt’s story lacks in conflict and complexity when compared to Vaca’s. 

                  What Jewitt did achieve was the creation of a human portrait of Maquina, the Nootka Sound tribe’s leader.  His attention to recording Maquina’s fears, likes, dislikes, and political decisions give the reader a grasp on the Native American man’s psyche.  Jewitt’s in depth portrayal of the man contrasts with Mary Rowlandson’s account of her captivity.  Rowlandson was the focus of her narrative, and the Indians who captured here were peripheral beings whose actions were only recorded if they directly affected her.  As a result, the reader sees only glimpses of the Indians; we never learn the motives or details of any particular Indians life.

                  Because Rowlandson focuses exclusively on herself, the reader also misses the chance to see, through her eyes any of the rituals or routines the Indians perform.  Jewitt records the Nootka Sound tribe’s routines in earnest, capturing even minute details.  He also takes the time to write about their tools, clothing, and living quarters, and gives the reader a vivid description of the world he shared with the Nootka for three years.  Because he stayed with the Nootka so long and gained high status among them, he was also privy to sacred Indian rituals, and other events of extraordinary occurrence.  By being present for the mundane and the marvelous, Jewitt is able write about the along a wide spectrum of Indian life.

                  Rowlandson did not have the advantage, or in her mind, the burden of living with the Indians for so long, which contributes to her scant portrayal of their lifestyle and habits.  What Rowlandson did provide that Jewitt didn’t was a strong contrast to the Indian way of life and a clear Colonial personality.  Jewitt immediately adapted to his new role as servant to Maquina, and as a result he was able to survive and even somewhat comfortably endure his captivity.  Rowlandson refused to ingratiate herself with the Indians, and was fiercely resilient to adopt any of their food or habits; she resisted even losing a piece of her apron to the Indians.  She also focuses most of her story on her relationship with God, and considers her captivity a scourging on His part; a gift of Christian suffering.  Thus the reader is given a clear sense of Colonial values and beliefs.  That seems more relevant to the American History I course.  However, Jewitt does provide a more humanistic portrayal of the Indians with his portrayal of Maquina.

                   But that is the only advantage Jewitt has over the authors we have read.  Despite his in depth look at the Nootka Sound tribe, his adventure seems separate from the more important issues occurring during the time; issues such as religion’s influence over people and the struggle between the Native Americans and the Colonists for American land.  In Jewitt’s narrative, his capture and the slaughter of his crewmates was Maquina’s retaliation for a different trading vessels attack on Maquina’s tribe after one of his tribesman stole from the ship.  But the early bloodshed is the only example of heated battle between the Nootka Sound tribe and the colonialists.  John spends the rest of the story in a setting undisturbed by the larger conflicts of the time, and John does not spend his time pondering the role of God in his life.  He simply interacted with the Indians and learned their ways.  Thus Jewitt offers an accurate and complete picture of Native American life, but doesn’t contrast their lifestyle with his own as Rowlandson did, or shows the increasing precariousness of their lifestyle, as Vaca and Rowlandson did.  Nor did Jewitt show Christianity role in the affair, despite it’s prominence as a motivator for many of the changes taking place during his time period.  Therefore Jewitt’s “Narrative of the adventures and sufferings of John R. Jewitt” is not relevant to the class as much as the other readings were.  I don’t think it should be included in the class, but I do think it is an interesting and compelling story and worth reading, especially if the reader has any interest in Native Americans.