A Brave New World: Wilderness Dreams and Female Empowerment from Vineland to the Pacific

Signe O. Wegener (University of Georgia)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “James Fenimore Cooper and American Women Writers” at the 2017 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Spring 2018, pp. 55-62.

Copyright © 2018, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Freydis and the Skraelings

Freydis and the Skraelings, engraving by W. Shirlaw & C. Schlecht, from William Cullen Bryant & Sydney Howard Gay, A Popular History of the United States (1888)

{p. 55} In the 1782 Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur asks, “What then is the American, this new man?” then answers his own question, positing him as a person “leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners” (Letter III). However, one prejudice proves impossible to leave behind: it is a “new man” who emerges once the Atlantic Ocean has been traversed, not a “new woman.” Yet despite this androcentric image, of males venturing into, exploring and colonizing “a new world,” the North-American continent has, from the first Norse settlers arrived, been a place of personal transformation, of empowerment, also for women. Yes, even James Fenimore Cooper’s texts whose female characters quite often have been assigned to a self-abnegating, passive role, so sardonically defined in James Russell Lowell’s “A Fable for Critics,” in the scathing words, “And the women he draws from one model don’t vary, / All sappy as maples and flat as the prairie”. Any serious student of Cooper knows the fallacy of such hasty judgments.

In fact, many of Cooper’s women, for example Mrs. Bush and Ellen Wade in The Prairie, step proudly into a trajectory originating with the earliest settlers to this continent. They have cunning, defiant, and even violent ancestresses in the women of the Vinland Sagas 1 from around AD 1000, in the tale of Queen Calafia, her Amazonian troops and the siege of Constantinople in Garci Ordóñezde Montalvo’s chivalric novel Las Sergas de Esplandián of 1510, in the 1767 “Robinsoniad” The Female American, a first-person narrative purportedly penned by Unca Eliza Winkfield, and in Abraham Panther’s 1787 “The Panther Captivity.” Not a one of these female characters falls into Lowell’s category. Instead, all of them embody the transforming, empowering and even invigorating transatlantic environment and the American experience.

My discussion suggests a trajectory that reaches beyond the Anglocentric world and texts, providing a broader view of the transatlantic world and the narratives — especially fictitious ones — that came out of it. And what unites the selected texts, besides the transatlantic sphere, is that women’s physical and mental strength, social rank, and even religious abilities take center stage. However, it appears that it is the environment in which they operate that clearly encourages the {56} construction of a very different type of woman than the one expected in the “old” world. Or, the alien environment provides a backdrop against which any behavior is possible.

The Transatlantic Trade

Beneath all personal development and empowerment in the texts I have chosen hovers transatlantic trade. In the Freydis Eiriksdottir segments of the Vineland sagas I have chosen for my discussion, the matter is not exploration per se — Leif Eiriksson and others have already done that — but the settling of the land to provide a profitable area for trade with the indigenous population, the skraelings, (for example by trading red cloth, milk and dairy products for furs, but refusing to trade weapons) (Haugen 71) and harvesting timber to sell in the wood-less areas of Greenland and Iceland. Thorfinn Karlsefni, the leader of the two expeditions that feature Freydis, was a prosperous merchant who clearly understood and exploited the resources of Vineland. More importantly, the texts show female participation in trade ventures. Freydis is not a mere hanger-on to her husband Thorvard — on her second business voyage she, not her husband, is the one who contacts the Norwegian would-be business men Helgi and Finnbogi, and she negotiates terms. She also, unbeknownst to her companions, breaks them. In business matters, she is clearly the driving force in her family and her misdeeds are not punished, due to her upper-class background and protection.

Trade, and also gold, looting, and pillage form the basis for events in the story of Queen Calafia in Garci Ordóñezde Montalvo’s chivalric novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (1500). This work is the fifth book in the series of Amadis of Gaul, a hero Cooper was familiar with, but this work is supposedly of such poor literary quality that it is thrown on the fire in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote when the priest and the barber stage an intervention to save their friend from the damage done by his reading. 2 Calafia is an “Amazonian-style” queen ruling her dark-skinned female warriors who inhabit a gold-rich island in the vicinity of the Indies (some have suggested it to be Baja California) and raise griffins for war and for disposing of men who have fulfilled their procreation duties or are male offspring of liaisons. The novel posits a interoceanic, perhaps even “transatlantic” trade world prior to the Spanish conquests of the Americas, with Queen Calafia’s ships trading in a Muslim area. And when the queen enters the fray at the battle of Constantinople, it is on the Muslim side. 3

Trade also appears in The Female American — after all, the narrator and heroine, Unca Eliza Winkfield, is a product of the Jamestown {57} Virginia settlement, a settlement with mercantile goals, and furthermore the granddaughter of an Indian ruler who of course also engaged in trade. But Virginia is not only a place for agricultural products, it is apparently rich in precious stones, even gold. When Unca arrives in England, her hair is “adorned with diamonds and flowers” and her arms also “adorned with strings of diamonds, and one of the same kind surrounded” her waist (58). On the behest of her father, and later of herself and her husband, gold and other valuable trade goods cross the ocean. These, when sold in Britain provides her and her husband with the wherewithal to sustain life and build their own society, noticeably unencumbered by European/native political strife and entanglement. No Europeans are allowed near their island of habitation, for instance. The book makes if quite clear that they want no contact with Britain. Yet transatlantic trade makes everything achievable. Importantly, the text makes it clear that Unca, like Freydis and Calafia, is an active participant in the proceedings.

In a more unobtrusive manner, trade also underlies the world of “The Lady” in “The Panther Captivity”; the un-named woman is the daughter of a prominent Albany, New York person, possibly a merchant since he employs a clerk (87). Regardless of this, though, the very existence of Albany makes her a product of the transatlantic trade which enabled and sustained the English colonies and now is sustaining the new republic.

Female Physical and Mental Strength

In addition to trade, central to the texts are also women’s physical and mental strength. As mentioned above, Freydis takes part in trade negotiations and decisions — there is clearly nothing wrong with her mental capacity. This was not unheard of in the Norse lands, especially before Christianity made its inroads. 4 Queen Calafia rules her people, who all are “powerful of body, valiant, ardent of heart, and endowed with great strength” (10). Unca, who is proud of her Native-American background and her physical ability, for example in archery, not only survives being abandoned on a deserted island, but her adventures start when she upon the death of her father contracts for transportation of goods and herself to England. The text also focuses on her linguistic and physical abilities (she is well educated in both the English and the Native American way and fluent in several languages. Despite this, she learns to function in the unknown environment, greatly helped by her ability to read the journal her fore-runner has left behind. She accomplishes the menial survival tasks not by trying and perhaps failing, but by reading, and then performing.

{58} The heroines in the two earlier texts also show no compunction in using brute force when it is called for. In the Vineland sagas, Freydis appears in two violent scenes that demand physical strength and determination. In the first, Freydis is heavily pregnant but does not let that stop her. With the settlement under attack, and with the men in danger of being routed by the skraelings, she first harangues the men, drawing their manhood into doubt and claiming she would have done better, then grabs the sword of a fallen Viking, yanks down her dress, and hits her naked breast with the flat side of the sword, all this while running. The skraelings,clearly horrified by her actions, flee (Haugen 72). Although Freydis at this point may be full of adrenaline, wielding a Viking sword demands a certain strength and agility — the average Viking sword was about 90 cm long, “straight, single-handed but double-edged” (Griffith 174). In another instance, she uses her husband’s axe to kill five women, finishing off a job she has manipulated her husband to do, but which he, with more respect for women, has left undone (Haugen 87). We do not know what kind of axe she uses, but axes, “could beat swords in a stand-up fight” (Griffith 176). 5

Queen Calafia is a warrior as well as a ruler and trader in her Amazonian tribe. When she learns that fellow Muslims, led by the Sultans of Liquia and Halapa, are besieging Constantinople, but cannot best the “pagan” (i.e., Christian) defenders, she rallies her forces, outfits an impressive flotilla, and arrives at the gates with her fighting force complete with war griffins and gold weapons. Everything works well, but once the griffins start eating the attackers as well as the defenders, they have to be recalled and the balance shifts. The siege ends with Calafia and Radioro, Sultan of Liquia, fighting the Christian leader Amadis de Gaul and his son Esplandián. They lose, despite Calafia’s determination to annihilate her opponent. The text explains that, “she struck him with great rage”. [T]he blow ... was so brave and strong that the shield was cut in two.” Despite her fighting skills and physical strength, Calafia ends up imprisoned, then finally converted and married off to one of Esplandián’s cousins.

Unca Winkfield does not resort to overt violence; however, her father’s story, and that of the Jamestown settlement has enough of that. For example, readers learn that her father’s companions have been killed by natives, her father’s life is threatened (although he is rescued by the Indian princess Unca). Even her being left on a deserted island has violent implications: she refuses to hand over her property and her body to the captain whose ship she has leased to bring her and her belongings back to her father’s English family. However, she demonstrates her {59} physical strength in surviving on her desert island, farming, raising and slaughtering animals, and so on. But she perseveres throughout, especially through her mental strength and her hybrid background. She is well educated according to both Native American and English traditions, is proficient with a bow and arrow, speaks Indian languages, and also Greek and Latin.

The Lady in “The Panther Captivity” exhibits a violent streak that both Freydis and Calafia would have applauded, although they may have questioned her motivation. First, she runs away from her Albany home with her ineligible lover, only to be taken captive by Native Americans. Upon the death of her lover, she flees the Indian camp, survives in the wilderness for a fortnight, and later kills the giant who holds her captive with three blows with his hatchet and then cutting off his head after freeing herself from the walnut bark he has bound her with (89). None of these are actions of a squeamish, weak woman. However, the text makes it clear that this was a necessary act--exterminating a murderer is preferable to suffering unwanted sexual advances. She then survives for years in the wilderness until Panther and his companion show up, and she is then persuaded to return to her father’s house just in time to be reunited with her parent before his death. In none of the texts, though, do the women resort to gratuitous violence.

Religion and Conversion

Religion and conversion issues also emerge in the texts — all of them are set in times of both religious and political change, exemplifying the ebb and flow of religious effects on politics. I have had professors who claim that the explorations and the knowledge of the “new world” led to the undermining of traditional faith (a very simplistic Roman Catholicism vs. Protestant view); however, the medieval period was not one of monolithic faith. And trade across the known world, as well as war, certainly shows a diverse world where many different faiths exist Christian and pagan. When the Norsemen set out for Vineland, some of them, like Leif Eiriksson himself, were Christian. Others, like his sister Freydis and her husband, were not. This may make her actions more understandable: blood feuds were acceptable to the pagan Vikings but not to the Christian ones (Sawyer 189). And from Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid comes Snorri, the first European child born in America — and the ancestor of bishops. Freydis has no such prominent descendants.

Queen Calafia and her Amazonian troops also operate against a backdrop of religious change — underlying the texts seems to be the demise of Islam in Spain but also the coming of the Ottoman Empire. {60} When de Montalvo wrote the book, probably between 1492 and the expulsion of the last Muslims from Spain and the death of Queen Isabella in 1504, he sets it in a world with possibility for a Reconquista — the Muslim forces are besieging Constantinople, but ultimately lose to the Christian defenders. Queen Calafia learns about the plight of the Muslims being repelled, she confers with her warriors and they resolve to render aid. Montalvo twists the outcome of the fight, giving the Christian defenders the victory, although the siege of Constantinople in 1453 ended with Muslim victory.

In The Female American, set in the early days of the English colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, we see the clearest example of religious subjugation at work. Unca, brought up in the Anglican church, by hook and crook converts the Indians in her island realm, even turning their own oracle against them to facilitate the process. With her knowledge of Indian languages, she translates the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and rules her society benevolently. No opposition appears possible. Despite the emphasis of Anglicanism, though, she does not allow her followers contact with the English world, nor the world with them. She also obliterates any possibility of apostasy. With her husband, she “first determined to go upon my island, to collect all the gold treasure there, to blow up the subterraneous passage, and the statue, that the Indians might never be tempted to their former idolatry” (162).

These strong women, empowered by the American environment and the opportunities this environment provide, are the ancestresses of many of the women in Cooper’s stories, Leatherstocking tales and sea novels alike. In fact, the fainting blonde Alice, so dependent on male protection, is an anomaly, not a standard. And women like Mrs. Bush and Ellen Wade of The Prairie, Elizabeth Temple in The Pioneers, Mabel Dunham in The Pathfinder, Frances Wharton in The Spy, Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer, and Cora Duncan in The Last of the Mohicans belong in a trajectory that starts with the non-indigenous women on American soil.

Works Cited

  • Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. The Adventures of Don Quixote. Introduction and Translation by J. M. Cohen. London and New York: Penguin, 1950. Print.
  • Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. Jean de. Letters from an American Farmer. London,1782. xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/crev/letter03.htm. 25 May 2017. Web.
  • Griffith, Paddy. The Viking Art of War. London: Greenhill Books, 1995. Print.
  • Hale, Edward Everett. “Queen of California: The History of the Name ‘California’; Known but Rarely Though Suitable to be Taught to Schoolchildren.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, October 1872. Kindle14 Dec. 2014. 28 May 2017. Web.
  • Haugen, Einar. Voyages to Vinland — The First American Saga Newly Translated and Interpreted. Illustrated by Frederick Trench Chapman. New York: Knopf, 1942. Reprint. Print.
  • Jones, Gwyn. Translation and Introduction. Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
  • Montalvo, Garci Ordóñezde. “Queen Calafia, Griffins, and the Naming of the Golden State” (1500). In Into the Wilderness Dream: Exploration Narratives of the American West, 1500-1805. Ed. Donald A. Barclay, James H. Maguire, and Peter Wild. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1994. 15-18. Print.
  • Panther, Abraham (pseud.). “The Panther Captivity.” 1787. In Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. New York: Penguin, 1998. 81-85. Print.
  • {62} Sawyer, Birgit, and Peter Sawyer. Medieval Scandinavia: From Conversion to Reformation circa 800-1500. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Print.
  • Winkfield, Unca Eliza, pseud. The Female American; or, The Adventuress of Unca Eliza Winkfield. 1767. Ed. Michelle Burnham and James Freitas. 2ⁿᵈ ed. Peterborough, Ontario and Tonawanda, NY: Broadview Press, 2014. Print.


1 Examples in this presentation come from the Saga of Eirik the Red (a.k.a. the Saga of Thorfinn Karlsefni). Einar Haugen’s Voyages to Vinland — The First American Saga Newly Translated and Interpreted (1942) retells both instances of Freydis’s behavior; Gwyn Jones’s translation in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas (2008) retells the first one only.

2 In Don Quixote, Part I, Chapter VI, Esplandián’s story receives the following treatment after the two “interventionists” decide to keep the four first Amadis-stories in the library, “Take, him, Mistress Housekeeper. Open that window and throw him into the yard. He shall be the foundation for the bonfire we shall have to make” (17).

3 {61} For an entertaining discussion (and a detailed version) of this story, see Edward Everett Hale, “Queen of California: The History of the Name ‘California’; Known but Rarely Though Suitable to be Taught to Schoolchildren” (from the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, October 1872). This essay, available from Kindle online, retells the story of Queen Calafia from de Montalvo’s original text.

4 See Sawyer, Birgit and Peter, Medieval Scandinavia.

5 There are differing opinions on the types, size, weight, balance, and wielding of the various swords and axes used by the Vikings. An article from the National Museum of Denmark (en.natmus.dk) argues that swords were prestige weapons handed down from father to son. They were also gifts to people of high status, or sacrificed in lakes and bogs. Axes, on the other hand, were preponderant in the general population. Thus, the detail that Freydis picks up a sword tells us about the slain owner’s high rank. www.thearma.org/ essays/weights.htm argues that “Medieval Swords were indeed light, manageable, and on average weighed less than four pounds. The same applies to axes: the website www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/ argues that contrary to belief, the Viking battle axes “were light, fast, and well balanced, and were good for speedy, deadly attacks, as well as for a variety of nasty, clever moves” (1). A twelfth-century axe shown on the website has a total weight of only 770g, and is well balanced and easy to control.