In Which Mary Tucker Magill Tells Us All About Indian Dandies Who Dance

Published:June 11, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


Mary Tucker Magill‘s textbooks of Virginia history are actually pretty fun to read in large part because she is so actively present in her writing. I opened up my rather delicate copy of Magill’s First Book in Virginia History, copyright 1908, looking for Magill’s take on Virginia Indians. It’s about what you’d expect, with Indians “creeping around in the darkness of the night” and shouting, “Hi-yai-ya, Hi-yai-ya!” They are, of course, “very savage and cruel to their prisoners,” whom they liked to burn at the stake. (The English would never do such a thing!) And because this is a “First Book,” Magill likes to bring the kids into the action: “Even the little children were taught to torture prisoners.”

Mysteriously, there’s a whole chapter on Hiawatha, whose connection to Virginia seems to be about nil but who provides our author the excuse to reprint a long poem and then compare the Indian narrative to the story of Christ. And there’s a description of a “chief of the Rap-pa-han-nock Indians, who, they say, was dressed like an Indian dandy.”

I would have liked to have seen that.

Anyway, far from assuming some distant, authorial voice, Magill’s right there, telling her students, “Try and realize the scene . . .” or “I must tell you that the company who supplied the money to send out these colonists was called the London Company . . .”*

Here’s the most telling moment, though. Having already told us about creeping Indian dandies, Hiawatha, and even Powhatan—”a remarkable old man; although he was a savage, he had a great idea of what was due to him as a king”—she delivers this bombshell:

I once saw an Indian dance, which I will tell you about.

Helen C. Rountree is an anthropologist and has spoken of her admiration for the cultural curiosity of the English colonist William Strachey. But has she studied the observations of Mary Tucker Magill?

The Indians were all painted until they looked horrible, with black and red splotches of paint all over their faces. The dances were called the Eagle dance and the Raven dance. We were in a long Indian house where the Indians had promised to dance for us. First came in about fifty women, with their “papooses” (babies) bound to boards, which they carried on their backs by means of straps which passed under their chins. When they came into the room, each one took her board and set it up against the wall; and it was very amusing to see the little dark babies in a row, laughing and crowing, and doing just as white babies do, only none of them cried . . .

* Why “must” Ms. Magill tell us about the London Company? Perhaps there were SOLs even then!

IMAGE: “Washington Sees an Indian War-Dance” from The Beginner’s American History by D. H. Montgomery (1893)