Eastman, Mary Henderson

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EASTMAN, Mary Henderson

Born 1818, Warrenton, Virginia; died 24 February 1887, Washington, D.C.

Daughter of Thomas and Anna Truxton Henderson; married Seth Eastman, 1835

Mary Henderson Eastman spent her youth, "that calm, pleasant period of my life," in her birthplace in Virginia until her mother and army surgeon father moved the family of nine children to Washington, D.C. At seventeen she married a West Point drawing teacher from Maine, who had already begun the sketching of Native Americans that was to lead to his illustrations for his wife's Native American studies.

Six years later they moved to his new military command, Fort Snelling, Minnesota, where Eastman learned the Sioux language, attended Sioux ceremonies, and patiently questioned their chiefs and medicine men about "their religion, laws, and sentiments." She published the results of her seven years of research in 1849, the year the family returned to Washington. From 1855 to 1867 her husband was sent to various military outposts, and Eastman remained for the most part in Washington with their children. Unable to continue her research, but resolved not to be "condemned to babies, dust, and puddings," she produced several more collections of Native American studies, a proslavery novel, a collection of short stories and personal reminiscences, and two volumes of poetry.

Aunt Phillis's Cabin (1852), one of many novels written in reply to Uncle Tom's Cabin, uses a romantic plot to present an idealized picture of slave life and to introduce stock defenses of slavery. Curiously, Eastman's sentimental and blatantly unrealistic picture of the loving treatment of slaves includes an elderly woman's story of being kidnapped in Guinea and chained to a dead woman on the slave ship. Of historical interest as a proslavery novel, the work is also biographically interesting in its revelation of Eastman's obsessive need to justify what she uneasily termed a "necessary evil."

Dahcotah (1849), Eastman's first work, recounts the legends of the Dahcotah, or Sioux, told to her by her friend Chequered Cloud, a "medicine woman and legend-teller." Eastman writes in a flowery, sentimental style and fictionalizes the legends by adding conversations and thoughts, but she also includes detailed first-hand observations of Sioux life, in particular the violence, the poverty, and the "degraded state" of the women, who did most of the work.

Eastman wrote 15 selections for an edition of The Iris (1852), an annual magazine, and along with her Sioux pieces, she included historical accounts of other tribes based on secondary sources. The American Aboriginal Portfolio (1853) continues to add pieces based on secondary sources, and Chicora (1854) presents only a few Sioux works.

Fashionable Life (1856) contains two moralistic romances, a Chequered Cloud legend, an anecdote of Eastman's failure to prove to a "woman-hater" that "a literary life did not unfit a woman for domestic duty," and a story about a woman who rejects "fashionable life" in the East and goes off to become "the first female teacher" in St. Paul, Minnesota. In this story Eastman insists "when a woman breaks down the bars of conventionalism that society has put up, to shut her out from energy, from hope…she is a heroine."

Eastman's literary career reveals her to be that sort of heroine, particularly in her research among the Sioux. She sees the Sioux as human beings, both in their strengths and in their weaknesses, and she recognizes the value of their history, legends, and religious beliefs. Her pleas for their conversion to Christianity often appear to be merely a conventional way of introducing her demands for legislative action to save "the original owners of the country" from starvation. Eastman's accounts are weakened by her sentimental language and fictional embroidering, but they preserve the legends she heard and present in realistic detail the events and customs she saw. Although her later collections rely increasingly on secondary sources, they contain some of the legends and firsthand observations giving Dahcotah its historical and literary value.

Other Works:

The Iris, an Illuminated Souvenir (1852, reprinted as The Romance of Indian Life, 1853). Jennie Wade of Gettysburg (1864). Easter Angels (1879).


Brown, H. R., The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1880 (1940). McCracken, H., Portrait of the Old West (1952). McDermott, J. E., Seth Eastman (1961). Mott, R. L., Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the U.S. (1947). Tardy, M. T., The Living Female Writers of the South (1872).

Reference works:

A Critical Dictionary of English Literature, and British and American Authors (1858). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).


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