Q: Is Henry Clay in the novel named for the 19th century speaker of the house and secretary of state, Henry Clay, Sr.? Wasn’t the historical Henry Clay associated with slurs about Indians? Why would an Indian be named after him?
A: Yes, he is named for the American statesman, Henry Clay. There were two major contenders in the 1832 presidential election, the incumbent Andrew Jackson and challenger Henry Clay. Jackson, the first modern politician who had carefully crafted an image for himself, was quite popular, an advantage that gave him unusual influence over Congress. His power led to a series of Indian removals in Georgia which he began to champion in his first term. Although the tribes which were removed, the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole, were considered the “five civilized tribes” because they owned and farmed their own land and even had some slaves, they were still savages in the eyes of Jackson.
Jackson’s treatment of indigenous people would become a rallying cry for Henry Clay in his bid for the presidency. Although in Clay’s earlier writings he betrayed the sentiment that American Indians — pre-Americans or pre-Ams, as Lionel Comosh refers to his own ancestors in Cold Morning Shadow — were a lower form of life who could never be assimilated with the American people, in the election campaign of 1832 he chose to defend their rights to land and sovereignty.
His National Democratic Party, which would evolve into the Whig party by the next election, emphasized moral issues such as abolition of slavery and temperance, which were mostly championed by women at the time, and made its opposition to Indian removal an issue as well.
Clay and his party used newspapers in their attempts to reach a wider audience during the campaign. An example of this stance can be seen in an article in the Geneva Courier, a pro-National Democratic newspaper, in its weekly segment, “American System. For President, Henry Clay.” This part of the weekly paper routinely praised Clay and denounce Jackson. In the issue of February 2, 1831, the paper criticized Jackson’s sacrifice of the “poor Indians” and warned that removal would bring great shame to the country. Despite the efforts of the paper and other anti-removal campaigns, the issue of Indian removal did not resonate with as many voters as Clay had hoped. In 1832 the Seminole Indians, the last of the tribes to remain in Georgia, were forced out, and the issue of Indian removal played little role in the election. Clay was crushed 219-49 in electoral votes. Still, these accounts indicated that some post-European Americans had sympathy for the Indians’ plight, and many Indians remembered Henry Clay with favor through much of the next half-century, which was the period during which Henry Clay Comosh’s parents were born.
Q: ISN’T THAT LINE FROM THE LONG RIFLE ABOUT “POPPING AT INDIANS,” QUOTED AT THE BEGINNING OF BOOK ONE, INSENSITIVE AND PROVOCATIVE?
A: Yes, it’s offensive! Among the books in my old-fashioned library that are grouped as “westerns” are many by Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Clarence Mulford. Alongside these is a single novel by Steward Edward White, a 1932 edition of The Long Rifle. This author wrote dozens of novels in the western genre and was popular in the first half of the 1900s.
The signature above the map inside the front cover is that of Clarence A. Lang, my wife’s grandfather.
The Long Rifle is the first book in the four-book saga of Andy Burnett about a farm boy from Pennsylvania who runs away from home and heads west carrying Daniel Boone’s original Kentucky long rifle. There is plenty more about White and his works on the internet.
There is much in American literature that hangs on dubious assumptions about indigenous people. I encountered much of this in my own childhood in books and television westerns of the 1950s and 1960s. In what seemed a dichotomy, I learned that American Indians were wise, one with nature, and justifiably suspicious of settlers and devious traders. Indians were wonderfully welcoming of strangers as individuals and yet, when provoked, brought savage and sometimes indiscriminate retribution on the invaders of their land.
I recall from my time in the Boy Scouts the way in which Indian “lore” was treated with reverence and taught as an essential in the foundation for a boy’s life. And I recall from most depictions of Indians in literature and on television that it was the arrogant cowboy, the intrusive government agent, the unscrupulous trader, the town drunk, and the cavalier Army officer who provoked the local Indians to retaliate.
And yes, there were many, in the settlement phase of this country’s history, who regarded an Indian with no more respect than they afforded a turkey or other game animal. Stewart White, it may be said, was acknowledging that attitude in the opening passage of The Long Rifle, or it may be argued that the remark reflected his own attitude. The truth remains to be seen by anyone who takes the time to read The Long Rifle.