One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
Author: Jim Fergus
Published: February 15, 1999
Reviewed By: Kim
Kim’s Rating: 4 stars
One Thousand White Women is the story of May Dodd and a colorful assembly of pioneer women who, under the auspices of the U.S. government, travel to the western prairies in 1875 to intermarry among the Cheyenne Indians. The covert and controversial “Brides for Indians” program, launched by the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, is intended to help assimilate the Indians into the white man’s world. Toward that end May and her friends embark upon the adventure of their lifetime. Jim Fergus has so vividly depicted the American West that it is as if these diaries are a capsule in time.
May Dodd, born to wealth in Chicago in 1850, left home in her teens and through a family disgrace is imprisoned in a monstrous lunatic asylum. In 1875 Little Wolf, chief of the Cheyenne nation, comes to Washington to seal a treaty with President Ulysses S. Grant and suggests that peace between Whites and Cheyenne could be established if the Cheyenne were given white women as wives, and that the tribe would agree to raise the children from such unions. Grant secretly recruits 1,000 women from jails, penitentiaries, debtors’ prisons, and mental institutions offering full pardons or unconditional release. May, who jumps at the chance, embarks upon the adventure of her lifetime, along with a colorful assembly of pioneer women. She keeps the fictional journal we read, marries Little Wolf, lives in a crowded tipi with his two other wives and their children and lives the life of a Cheyenne squaw.
This book was very surprising to me. I found the subject matter to be intriguing and of course, I saw the word “asylum” and was all over it. But when I read the author’s note, and he said that his readers refuse to accept that this book is a work of fiction, then I really was fascinated. So, I started reading. I will admit that it was slow going; the journal formatting made me think more as I read. And this is NOT a feminist friendly book . . . at all!! Women being traded for horses, to be used as the solution to the conflict between whites and Indians, yeah, I can guarantee they wouldn’t like it! LOL (I know that’s not proper grammar, but it fit in really well right there!)
Although the idea of trading women for horses does indeed seem sexist, I still understood the thinking and rationale behind Little Wolf’s suggestion. An Indian child joins his mother’s tribe, but is still able to walk freely amongst his father’s tribe. So, having Indians and whites joined together, creating children who could fit in in both cultures makes a lot of sense. Too bad the concept is flawed because neither culture accepts half breeds as easily as Little Wolf thought. I liked May Dodd, she was a strong woman who, although I disagreed with some of her morals, I respected because of her bravery and maturity. She understood her mission, and she decided to give 100%.
I also liked how Fergus delved into the nitty gritty of the daily lives of the Cheyenne and their way of thinking. I really felt like I was indeed reading a true historical account of the Brides for Indians program. In fact, after reading this book, I want to do some research to see if the program actually existed, if there are any primary sources from the women, who were they, what happened to them, etc. I enjoyed getting to know each of the brides and hear their stories. I was a little nervous when the one Southern lady was portrayed badly, but by the end of the book, I ended up liking her as well. Even though there was a former slave amongst the ladies, Phemie, there was no South bashing. This was not a judgement against Southern culture at all; in fact, I don’t think this book was meant to be a judgement against any culture. Fergus did a great job of giving a simple historical account. Yes, May gave her opinions and her feelings, but she was also honest enough to see the bad on both sides, just as she saw the good on both sides. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone looking for historical fiction, or for anyone looking for a unique story.