Schoolcraft, Mary Howard

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Born circa 1820 in Beaufort County, South Carolina; died date unknown

Wrote under: A Southern Lady

Daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Howard; married Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, 1847

There is little biographical information available about Mary Howard Schoolcraft. The only firm facts are her birth place, her marriage in Washington, D.C. to an ethnologist, and her role as his amanuensis. After their marriage, Schoolcraft apparently was instrumental in securing the commission for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's monumental, six-volume Historical and StatisticalInformation Respecting the History, Conditions, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (1851-57). Because of his paralysis, Schoolcraft helped with the preparation of this classic document.

Schoolcraft's first published work was a pamphlet, Letters on the Condition of the African Race in the United States (1852), written to her brother, General John H. Howard. Schoolcraft moves from voicing her concern about the abolitionist sentiment then shaking the capital to a description of the good life of the South Carolina slave, as opposed to the degradation and deprivation of the freed black in the North. She declares that the furor over slavery is not a real issue but merely an expression of "sectional jealousy" used as a rhetorical device for commanding public attention. She details the paternal tenderness with which the South Carolina landowner treats his slaves, explains the philosophical reasons for the Southerners' opposition to abolition, and details the horrors of the freed blacks' life in Philadelphia.

The sentiments in these letters form the core of the novel The Black Gauntlet (1860). This book consists of a series of defences of slavery and diatribes against abolition. Schoolcraft has here fleshed out the sentiments of her pamphlet by the addition of numerous lengthy citations from contemporary speeches and magazine and newspaper articles. The clean, comfortable homes and gardens of the plantation blacks and the relaxed lifestyle of these happy, loyal slaves are described glowingly. Schoolcraft bases her defense of slavery on the thesis that it is mandated by God, who directs His people to take slaves among the heathen for the purpose of Christianizing them and saving their eternal souls. The benevolence of such a system is contrasted with the neglect that the abolitionist exhibits once he has tempted the slave to betray his master's loving trust.

This material is loosely attached to a narrative about the Wyndham family of Beaufort District, South Carolina. Schoolcraft uses the story of the Wyndham daughters, of whom Musidora is apparently an autobiographical character, to preach the values of a strict Christian upbringing and the perils of being an orphan raised by a self-centered stepmother.

The Household of Bouverie (1860) repeats some of the themes already treated in The Black Gauntlet. The novel opens as the orphaned Lilian de Courcey meets the grandmother who had apparently abandoned her daughter as an infant. With Lilian's questioning of her grandmother's motives and the development of the relationship with her grandmother, the theme of mother love is again explored. Other themes are the visitation of the sins of the fathers on the children and the necessity of expiation of these sins. The plot is skillfully handled, revealing the solutions to the mysteries facing Lilian only at the end of the gothic romance.

Schoolcraft's intentions are clearly didactic. She defends slavery and deplores abolition; she extols Christian duty and motherhood and condemns moral irresponsibility and the lack of altruistic motives in interpersonal relationships. Schoolcraft's style is hyperbolic and ludicrous by 20th-century standards and her ideas exhibit bigotry, but the plot of The Household of Bouverie does have merit as an example of the gothic thriller.

Other Works:

Plantation Life: The Narratives of Mrs. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (containing Letters on the Condition of the African Race and The Black Gauntlet, 1969).


Library of Southern Literature (1970).