One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus


Historical FictionOne Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus One Thousand White Women: the Journals of May Dodd
Jim Fergus; St. Martin’s Press 1998

Chief Little Wolf of the Cheyenne Indian nation met with President Grant with a proposition for future peace in the United States. The Cheyenne believe that all children belong to the  mother’s tribe. He proposes that the President provide 1,000 white wives to the Cheyenne. All babies born to these women would belong to the white race. Thus the two tribes of peoples would merge peacefully.

Although President Grant refuses initially, the program gets surprising support from women across the country. May Dodd, a Chicago socialite whose father had her locked in an insane asylum, is one of the women in the first group of volunteers for the grand social experiment. They are representing their country by joining with the Cheyenne. May keeps a journal of her travels.

The journals start when the women are on the train from Chicago heading West. The women are a mixed group – a former slave, a tipsy Southern Belle, a pair of Irish twins who were in jail for petty thievery and prostitution, a timid secretary, a righteous evangelizing woman, May herself, and more. They are leaving civilization behind to join the savages for at least two years.

The women travel first on train, then on horseback to the western Army forts like Fort Laramie. The women married to the officers at the forts look down on these women as “savage whores”. One captain tries to talk May out of the program, but she intends to keep her promise to her government and the Cheyenne.  Although a few of the women defect along the way, a good group of women go with the Cheyenne. They become wives and part of the Cheyenne tribe, learning how to live like and with the Indians.

There is gold in the Black Hills and the white settlers keep moving in to land promised to the Cheyenne and other tribes “forever” by the American government. Things, as history has proven, do not go well for the Cheyenne. Their white wives may be their only hope of avoiding war with the white men.

Jim Fergus took a footnote in history and wrote a marvelous “what if” novel. According the the Author’s Note a Cheyenne chief actually made the suggestion of sending white wives to their nation. It never happened. Fergus wrote a novel supposing that the program was actually started in the 1870’s as the Northern tribes were being shuffled into “agencies” or reservations. He did intensive research on the era.

As a result, May Dodd’s journals in One Thousand White Women sound and feel like the entries in them actually happened. The reader is pulled into May’s unusual life, connecting with life in the late 1800’s both politically and socially in the white world as well as with the Native American’s dwindling nomadic life roaming the country before consignment to the reservations.

Although written by a man, Fergus brings May’s woman’s lot in this time period to life. May is a rebel, so doesn’t speak as reticently as other women of the time, for example her friend Martha. Even so, the language used in these journals still contains the politeness and euphemisms of the time period, glossing over events best not described in detail. Fergus’ novel is definitely biased towards the Indians and against the white’s push for land and civilization.

Most Americans now know their history of the white settlers across the country and the unfairness to the Indians. One Thousand White Women is a novel that highlights the problems of the era. Unfortunately, this story has played out with peoples throughout mankind’s history. A new group of people or government will come in and overwhelm another. The second group loses their culture and identity in order to assimilate them into the new norm.

At times funny, at times poignant, at times heart wrenching, One Thousand White Women is an excellent novel that makes us look at ourselves in the light of history.

Notice: Non-graphic violence, Suggestive dialogue or situations

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