Native Virtue, Savage Plots: Sarah Wentworth Morton’s Ouâbi and the Ethnological Imagination

If it was Sarah Wentworth Morton’s project in her long poem Ouâbi: or, The Virtues of Nature (1790) to present her construct of the Native American as free from the vices of “civilized” life, it is a project that left at least one contemporary reviewer unconvinced. A review of the poem in the February 1791 issue of the Universal Asylum, or, Columbian Magazine suggests that Morton’s poetic craft ultimately overshadowed a less sentimentalized and more factually accurate assessment of Native American cultures as savage and prone to vice. The reviewer opines:

At first view there is something in them which powerfully excites our admiration. . . . But upon a nearer investigation, we are mortified to find, that the picture has enchanted us only from its distance, and from the obscure light in which we had viewed it. . . . If the vices of civilized life are absent, its virtues are equally unknown. Revenge, cruelty, treachery, indolence, drunkenness, and a long catalogue of black vices, convince us that the perfection of this state existed only in our imagination. [1]

The review posits that Morton’s negative representation of civilized life and the “pleasing description of the virtues of the savage state” made Morton’s narrative “well calculated for poetry,” even though “[h]ow far either is just it is not difficult to perceive.”[2] While impartial in assessing Morton’s literary capabilities, the review perceives an incompatibility of poetic fancy and accurate description of Native American cultures. It reminds us that the Anglo-American construct of the American Indian—as it emerged in early national American literature—surfaced from racial discourses in which the assessment of Native American cultures was deeply contended.

That the Columbian Magazine reviewer approves of the poetry and not of Morton’s understanding of the American Indian, perhaps indicates an objection to Morton’s claim to historical accuracy through her citation of historical and ethnological sources. Namely, the native characters in Ouâbi are not presented without some heavy editorializing on the author’s part, through her introduction, the footnotes, and her rewriting of the story on which the poem is based. Besides the inspiration from fictional accounts of Native Americans like Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Mon Bonnet de Nuit (1784) and Nicolas Bricaire de la Dixmerie’s “Azakia: Anecdote Huronne” (1765), Morton draws on various experts to claim the ethnographic legitimacy of her descriptions of the Illinois, citing information from Benjamin Lincoln, Noah Webster, William Penn, and Thomas Jefferson. As Julie Ellison has noted, “[i]n this context, anthropology is a masculine discipline that women study”—the historical evidence justifies, but seems detached from, Morton’s poetic fancy.[3] The practice of annotating her poem establishes Ouâbi as a site where poetic practice and ethnological description are presented side by side, even if the two do not converge.

In this essay I want to zero in on the intertextual horizon of Morton’s Ouâbi to examine the author’s use of historical and fictional source materials to present the poem’s descriptions of Native American cultures with a degree of authority. My aim is to read Morton’s citations not as an indication of how Ouâbi effects a construct of Native American culture, but rather as an indication of the various discourses on Native Americans that were embedded in reading and writing practices of the early national period. The author’s resort to European novels and magazine articles underscores the influence of a decentralized transatlantic culture of reprinting, and a dialogue between the ethnological and conjectural interest in Native American cultures. As such this intertextuality reveals, more than Morton’s early national construct of the American Indian, the transatlantic and generically divergent origins of the discourses on Native Americans as it was sustained by lettered individuals in the post-revolutionary United States.

Sarah Wentworth Morton’s Ouâbi draws from a body of work which cannot be characterized as straightforwardly documentary or ethnographic, but one which reveals both an ethnological interest in the direct observation of Native cultures and a conjectural interest in ranking such cultures on an imagined scale of the development on humankind. As such, Morton’s paratextual interventions are not hinged on any purely factual explanatory relevance: whereas the introduction and footnotes are supposed to inject cultural specificity, they give no information about the Illinois in particular, relegating the information about specific cultures to a general idea of “Indian” culture instead. Nor do the paratextual interventions dictate the reading of the narrative, characters, or setting; they rather serve as Morton’s justification for writing a story which reflects positively on the customs and virtues of a Native American culture. But what if we take Morton’s reading of these fictional, ethnological, and historical source materials seriously on its own terms? Sayre highlights the naiveté of the documentary sources, and Carr suggests that Morton’s lack of specificity regarding actual historical Indians performs the symbolic violence of “creat[ing] an ahistorical amalgam” of Native American culture. Carr’s criticism of Morton is that her poem “restructures Indian history and geography” by “treating all Indian groups as interchangeable.”[4] This objection is certainly valid, and I do not want to read a misinformed understanding of scientific rigor into Morton’s paratext. I do, however, want to read Morton’s textual interventions more closely in order to describe the cultural contexts, dictated by the culture of reprinting of miscellaneous texts, which shape Morton’s poem. For what did it mean for Morton to historicize the American Indian? Rather than pointing out the inaccuracies which Morton’s pretense to historical accuracy produces, I want to zero in the various discursive modes—of ethnological description, of conjectural history, and literary imagination—which inform Morton’s ahistorical concretion of the Native American as a literary construct.

While Morton cites American texts presenting ethnological accounts of Native cultures, it should not be entirely surprising that these are configured to a conjectural or even fictional assessment of the American Indian which seems a product of the transatlantic literary imagination. As Morton draws from miscellaneous pieces from the early American periodical The American Museum, she is working from a publication context in which descriptive ethnological texts were continually juxtaposed with conjectural accounts of the American Indian, and the type of (British and American) neoclassical poetry which perpetuated the stereotypes of the uncivilized yet benign “savage” and the stoic dying native hero.[5] A subscriber to Mathew Carey’s periodical, Morton probably read the extracts from William Penn and Noah Webster (which she cites in her footnotes) in the sixth and seventh volume of Carey’s magazine.[6] The Museum is also the publication which inspired the plot of the poem: in her introduction Morton writes that “[m]any of the outlines of the Fable are taken from a prose story in Mr. Carey’s entertaining and instructing Museum,” referring to the anonymously published prose story “Azâkia: A Canadian Story” from the September 1789 issue of Carey’s magazine (vi). The story is a translation of the French author Nicolas Bricaire de la Dixmerie’s “Azâkia: Anecdote Huronne,” which was published in his Contes Philosophiques et Moraux in London, Paris, and Duchesne in 1765. Published in two volumes, reprinted in 1766, and expanded to three volumes in 1769, Dixmerie’s book had “surprising fecundity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on both sides of the Channel and the Atlantic.”[7] Edward Pitcher notes that the story was translated and reprinted in England for the Universal Magazine in 1767 and 1783, and that this translation was the text that appeared anonymously in the American Museum.[8] This version must have been quite popular with its American audience, since it was reprinted again in the May 1794 issue of the Vermont Magazine.[9]

As but one fictional reworking of the history of the Baron de St-Castins and his marriage to the daughter of an Abenaki chief, Morton’s poem, draws from a transatlantic and internationally resonant tradition of European-Native American romance. Morover, the United States is but one of the countries in which the Dixmerie’s “Azakia” was popular. As E. Joe Johnson has discovered, besides the publication of “Azakia” in the British magazines mentioned above, it was translated into Swedish, German, and Portugese.[10] Within this context Morton’s only modestly popular rewrite of the story becomes a relatively peripheral adaptation of a text which experienced a wider popularity than was effected either by Carey’s Museum or Morton’s Ouâbi. Morton’s reading of “Azakia” bespeaks most of all the workings of a transatlantic print culture in which the figure of the American Indian was a particularly potent construct.

This is echoed by Morton’s reference in the introduction to another publication from which she drew authorial justification for her positive appraisal of her Native characters. To pre-empt the claims “that I have given too many perfections to a rude uncultivated savage,” Morton quotes from a story by Louis-Sebastien Mercie, the French author and playwright whose stories enjoyed particular popularity in British magazines.[11] Previous commentary has assumed that this citation is from Mercier’s novel L’Homme Sauvage (1767), but it is actually from Mercier’s very romantic—and very strange—short story “On Love: A Vision.” Mercier’s story was printed in his collection Mon Bonnet de Nuit (Neuchâtel, 1784), which was translated into English as The Night Cap for a 1785 London edition. Mercier’s story, which I will not summarize here, reflects that the European construct of the American Indian figured as a potent symbol of alterity which allowed civil society to assess its own imagined progression. More importantly, the juxtapositions of these texts as a context for Morton’s poem reveal the dialogic nature of this transatlantic construct. “Azakia,” which evinces a proto-ethnographic interest in social customs and traditions among the Hurons, establishes the Hurons firmly and equivocally as “savages” in the opening of the story. Much of the narrative, subsequently, centers on a sensationalistic interest in the Huron women’s supposed sexual freedom and the Hurons’ flexible conception of marriage. Mercier’s story, although its parable-like nature makes no pretense to any anthropological interest in Native Americans, similarly attaches great significance to their romantic and sexual freedom—sketching a construct of the “savage” which echoes Rousseau’s “natural man,” and the author’s distrust of civil society.[12] Yet Morton employs Mercier’s story to attest to the “perfections of a rude uncultivated savage” (vi), and her rewrite of the opening and ending of Dixmerie’s original opening evinces her investment in the emblematic function of the “savage.”

Morton thereby annotates her Native protagonists in a way that enables her, in Gordon Sayre’s terms, “to project positive ideas of what [colonists] wished to achieve in American society.”[13] Intellectual discourse on Indians in the late-eighteenth century United States was framed in part as a response to the work of European naturalist philosophers like Comte George Louis Leclerc de Buffon and Abbé Corneille de Pauw.[14] The theory of physicalist degeneracy, put forward in general geological terms by Buffon and expanded by De Pauw to more explicitly account for Native American cultures, held that the “damp, putrid environment of the New World” accounted for the inferior size of its animals, “the abundance of poisonous plants,” and the insensibility and effeteness of its native inhabitants.[15] Buffon accounts in biological terms for the supposed lack of sociability and morality in Indian cultures.[16] In general terms American thinkers attacked the naturalist claims to the inferiority of the American continent and its flora and fauna, seeking “at once to refute the charge of the total degeneracy of Indians (and the American environment)” and “to adopt the Enlightenment stance of distancing Indians as an object of study and classification.”[17] Thomas Jefferson, whose Notes on the State of Virginia are cited in Ouâbi, famously appropriated the very European classification discourse to disprove the hypothesis about the degeneracy of the American continent and its inhabitants.[18] The foregrounding of similarity between European and Native American cultures is then to some extent an inversion of the naturalist argument which carried a rather pessimistic appraisal of the American continent.

Morton intervenes in this discourse to establish the natural purity—and virtue—of her Native protagonists. In the introduction, accordingly, she addresses the rather stilted (or unwitting) and interaction and reactions of her main characters, whose actions seem predisposed to guide the scandalous premise of the story towards virtuous resolution. “It may perhaps be objected,” Morton writes, “that I have given my favourite Ouâbi, a degree of insensibility, with respect to the love of Celario, incompatible with the greatness and superiority of his character: To this I reply, that the mind, unpracticed in deception, can never be capable of suspicion; and that not having known the European vices, he could have no idea of their existence” (v). Similarly, Morton explains the motivations of her female protagonist by reminding us that “from the customs and laws of every country its manners and morals are derived” (v). This is more than an apology for underdeveloped characterization. Ouâbi and Azakia, Morton emphasizes, act only according the moral impulses of their proto-civilized society, nor would their innate morality allow them to have any apprehension of deceit or affect. That Morton imagines herself describing a culture in its most “limited and simple” state is confirmed in a later footnote as well, as she explains why Celario mentions the Pleiades star cluster to Ouâbi. Morton urges the reader to remember that “people in a hunting state are necessarily acquainted with the different stars and planets . . . As no images . . . can be taken from culture or civil society in the dialogues, I am under the necessity of repeating the most striking objects of nature” (43). Morton expounds the supposed want of arts of a people in the “hunting state,” the first stage of human development recognized in Scottish Enlightenment stadial theory of universal history.[19]

In these examples, however, Morton mixes the spatially organized image of “the customs and laws of every country” with the temporal metaphor of the “state of nature” and the “hunting state.” Similarly, in the introduction she suggests that “[t]he grades of human nature, and the various propensities and avocations of mankind, in their different states and societies, must always be greatly interesting to the view of the philosopher” (v). This passage states, more explicitly, the contrast between the laterally organized concept of “different states and societies” and the hierarchically organized “grades of human nature.” In these instances Morton reveals a wavering between the ethnological and the conjectural-historical approach to historicizing native cultures. In Hayden White’s terms, the first differentiates horizontally “on a lateral plane of being” between “ways of life that might exist contiguously with one another,” whereas the latter differentiates vertically between “states of being that occupy superior and inferior positions.”[20] Morton’s use of sources reveal a dialogue between the anthropological and the conjectural: between the impulse to describe and distinguish states of being which coexist in time, and the impulse to rank them on a scale derived from conjectures on the progression of human development. The text and its apparatus differentiate between the mode of ethnological observation and description of native cultural traditions, physiognomy, and artifacts, on the one hand, and the mode of differentiating hierarchically between lesser and more fully developed stages of society.

The mode of ethnological description is observed in Morton’s rather straightforward interest in ethnological accounts of Native American customs and artifacts, as revealed in a series of Morton’s footnotes.[21] Annotating a description of Ouâbi’s “gaudy bow,” Morton refers to a specimen at “the Museum of the University at Cambridge” as an example of the ornaments which Native American warriors decorated their gear (19). Here her notes seem interested in little more than what she professes in her introduction: to “convey some information, from the collection of many particulars” available about Native cultures (v). Various citations of William Penn’s letter, too, testify to an interest in describing Native Americans’ customs in councils and war-feasts, manners of dancing, knowledge of botany, and marriage customs. Morton extracts the following from Penn’s letter:

Revenge is a principle, in which they are very careful to educate their young warriors, considering it one of their first virtues; yet this revenge is rather a deliberate sentiment of the mind, than a rash ebullition of passion; for they suppose that a man who always feels a disposition to punish injuries, will not be readily inclined to commit them. See Wm. Penn’s Letters. (29)

For the author the passage works as an apology for the centrality of revenge principles in Native American cultures, by pointing out the culturally specific codes which it operates by. Morton’s note is organized by a type of cultural relativism. In a later footnote Penn’s letter is taken up as evidence for the customs of her Illinois protagonist, but in an even more ambivalent manner. When Ouâbi thanks Celario for saving him from the Huron adversaries, and saving Azakia by preventing her suicide, Morton inserts that Ouâbi

alludes to a custom of his country, which in most cases admits the payment of a fine, as an expiation for murder. If the deceased be a woman, the fine is double; and the reason they give for this partiality for that sex, is, that they are capable of bringing warriors to the nation. See Wm. Penn's Letters. (42)

The footnote invests in the notion that the “custom of his country” articulates the various codes—codes of warriorship, maternity, and compensation—by which one is to judge Native Americans’ actions. However, Morton follows this with the observation that “[t]his law of expiating murder by pecuniary compensation has, I believe, been observed by every uncivilized nation upon earth.” Morton’s own interjection negates the relativism of the rest of the passage, and reads the ethnological information in Penn’s letters in a way that calibrates it to a more generalized and implicitly hierarchal differentiation between the “civilized” and “uncivilized.”

That the interest in ethnological specificity is continually punctured by the habit of relegating such specificity to a generalized conception of Native Americans, is evident in most of the footnotes which annotate Morton’s poem, but I will only discuss one other example for now. Following Ouâbi’s death in Canto IV, Morton’s poem establishes the familiar tropes of the Vanishing American plot, which dictates, in Julie Ellison’s words, that “Indians die bravely in the forest at each other’s hands or sing themselves to death alone in the forest.”[22] It is not surprising that the fetishization of the dead Native hero brings about an ethnological interest in funeral rites and internment methods, topics which had great currency in the early national period. Here Morton refers to a letter from Noah Webster and Ezra Stiles that was printed in the American Museum in 1790.[23] In this letter Webster tells Stiles, the president of Yale University, about the archeological of funeral mounds, surrounded by a series of fortifications, along the Muskingum River. Webster corrects his previous hypothesis that that the funeral mounds (which he describes in detail) had been made by Ferdinand de Soto and his expeditionary forces. In the letter which Morton cites he suggests instead that the graves were conclusively Native American, even though he refuses to believe that they were able to construct the sophisticated fortifications around them. Webster’s letter, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg writes, is an elaborate “denigration of Native Americans as ‘filthy’ and ‘disorganized’”—and it testifies to the dialogic nature of both Webster’s letter and Morton’s paratextual apparatus that it is juxtaposed with Jefferson’s famous and much more positive appraisal of Native Americans’ abilities in Notes on the State of Virginia.[24]

More importantly, however, the extract which Morton cites from Webster’s letter demonstrates how much the ethnological description of cultures played into conjectures on the development of humankind. Explaining a funeral tradition which Webster argues is observed by “[e]very Indian in this country,” Morton writes:

And to prevent their being levelled by time, it is a religious duty for every one of the same nation, who accidentally passes it, to add one stone in reverence to the pile. [See Mr. Noah Webster's Letters to the Rev. Ezra Stiles]---who says, “Rowland remarks that this custom exists among the vulgar Welsh to this day, the same kind of mounts being scattered over the west of England and Wales. (50)

The short citation is part of Webster’s elaboration of a theory which argues that the funeral mounds themselves are similar to ones found in Wales (but different to the ones in Denmark in Sweden). Stressing similarities in the construction of grave sites between the “vulgar Welsh” and the Indians along the Muskingum river, the author invests in a different kind of equivalence than for instance Morton’s citation of Penn and Hogarth allows for. Webster concludes from his observations that

there is an analogy, rarely to be traced in works of such consequence, among nations whose intercourse ceased at Babel—an analogy that we could hardly suppose would exist among nations descended from different stocks. . . . [A]s all the primitive inhabitants of the west of Europe were evidently of the same stock, it is natural to suppose they might pass from Norway to Iceland, from Iceland to Greenland, and from thence to Labrador: and thus the North American savages may claim a common origin with the primitive Britons and Celts.

The equivalence which Webster establishes between “Britons” and the Native inhabitants of the American continent actually relegates the latter to an inferior position on his imagined scale of human development. Webster’s ethnological interest in the funeral mounds and rituals of the is informed by his desire to take stock of European civil society, which has, Webster implies, progressed beyond the “primitive” state of the Britons, the Celts, and North-American Indians. Webster’s letter embodies the various discursive modes—of ethnology and conjectural history, of equivalence and dissimilarity—which Morton’s paratextual materials bring to her description of Native American cultures. For Webster’s letter, the generically and discursively multifarious paratext of Morton’s poem is a fitting context.

Morton’s use of source materials does not, then, systematically distinguish or consistently apply either the laterally organized mode of ethnological description or the vertically organized mode of distinguishing various stages of human development. The symbolic violence performed by the inseparability of these discursive modes is that it relegates Native Americans’ cultural specificity to generality, and embraces this generality as a construct of alterity which can be mirrored, either positively or negatively, with the morals and virtues of civil society. Morton’s reading of her various source materials performs the ideological work which made the Noble Savage such a convenient construct for Europeans and European Americans in the first place.

As an object of critical discourse, Morton’s Ouâbi therefore offers an intertextual horizon which allows us to see the contradictions between emblematic romanticization, ethnological interest, and conjectural theories—discursive modes which collectively concreted the European (American) construct of Native American cultures. In Ouâbi this concretion is informed by the context of reprinting of books and magazine articles, which shaped the reading, writing, and conversational practices of lettered individuals in the early national period—a context which was transatlantic and dialogic in nature. To read Morton’s engagement with her historical and fictional source materials asks more from us than to assess historical accuracy, or cultural specificity. It asks us to recognize how the European and European American objectification of the American Indian became an ideologically informed, if inherently dispersed project—one which depended on an infinite array of literary, historical, and scientific traditions. Unable to unify these, Sarah Wentworth Morton’s Ouâbi grabs them in a wild embrace.


1. “Review of Ouâbi,” Universal Asylum, and Columbian Magazine 3 (February 1791): 106-7.

2. Ibid., 107.

3. Julie Ellison, Cato’s Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1999), 137.

4. Helen Carr, Inventing the American Primitive: Politics, Gender, and the Representation of Native American Literary Traditions, 1789-1936. New York: New York UP, 1996), 79, 80.

5. Examples of these are Ann Hunter’s “Death Song of a Cherokee Indian,” Philip Freneau’s “The Indian Student,” and Thomas Warton’s “The Dying Indian.”

6. As evidenced by the lists of subscribers at the beginning of each volume, Perez Morton had a subscription to Carey’s magazine from its inaugural issue in January of 1787. It seems likely that the Museum was a publication which Morton frequently read. More generally, the magazine was also a significant repository for pieces which evinced a ethnological interest in Native American cultures.

7. E. Joe Johnson, “The Baron de Saint Castin, Bricaire de la Dixmerie, and Azakia (1765),” An American Voltaire: Essays in Memory of J. Patrick Lee, ed. E. Joe Johnson and Byron R. Wells (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 207.

8. Edward W. Pitcher, “A Note on ‘Azakia’: Jack B. Moore’s ‘Early American Short Story,’” Studies in Short Fiction 14, no. 4 (1977): 396. Also, Benjamin Bissell’s The American Indian in English Literature of the Eighteenth Century (New Haven: Yale UP, 1925) makes reference to a “French version” of “Azâkia” that appeared in the Spectateur du Nord of August, 1798 and in the Bibliothèque Brittanique de Genève of May, 1798, under the title “Azâkia and Celario” (207n).

9. Jack B. Moore, “Making Indians Early: The Worth of ‘Azakia,’” Studies in Short Fiction 13.1 (1976): 51.

10. Johnson, “Baron de Saint Castins,” 207-9.

11. Edward W.R. Pitcher, Discoveries in Periodicals, 1720-1820: Facts and Fictions (New York: Edward Mellan, 2000), 246-8.

12. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, A Discourse Upon the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind (London: R. and J. Donsley, 1761), 65-75.

13. Gordon M. Sayre, Les Sauvages Américaines: Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 127.

14. Eve Kornfeld, Creating an American Culture, 1775-1880: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001), 68.

15. Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistemologies, and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001), 44-47.

16. Kornfeld, American Culture, 68.

17. Ibid., 69-70.

18. Sean X. Goudie, “On the Origin of American Specie(s): The West Indies, Classification, and the Emergence of Supremacist Consciousness in Arthur Mervyn,” Revising Charles Brockden Brown: Culture, Politics, and Sexuality in the Early Republic, ed. Philip Barnard, Mark L. Kamrath, and Stephen Shapiro (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2004), 61.

19. Canizares-Esguerra, History of the New World, 49.

20. Hayden White, “The Noble Savage Theme as Fetish,” Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978), 189.

21. See the footnotes on pages 13, 18, 20, 29

22. Ellison, Cato’s Tears, 140.

23. Noah Webster, “Letter from mr. Noah Webster to the rev. dr. Stiles,” American Museum 7, no. 6 (June 1790): 323-8.

24. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity (Chapel Hill: U of