Defining 'Savage'

sav•age . . . adjective / Etymology: Middle English sauvage, from Middle French, from Late Latin salvaticus, alteration of Latin silvaticus of the woods, wild, from silva wood, forest / Date: 13th century / 1 a : not domesticated or under human control : UNTAMED savage beasts b : lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings : FIERCE, FEROCIOUS / 2 : WILD, UNCULTIVATED seldom have I seen such savage scenery—Douglas Carruthers / 3 a : BOORISH, RUDE The savage bad manners of most motorists— M. P. O'Connor b : MALICIOUS 4 : lacking complex or advanced culture : UNCIVILIZED synonym see FIERCE

sav•age . . . noun / Date: 15th century / 1 : a person belonging to a primitive society 2 : a brutal person 3 : a rude or unmannerly person.

Noble Savage

The word has two faces, one benign, the other brutish. The first springs from its etymological history, and represents the face of pure innocence. It is a corollary to the 18th-century belief in the inherent goodness of human beings, and the conclusion that people whose lives are uncomplicated by civilization and education possess innate virtues and innate simplicity. It was not a question of race or color, but of closeness to a hypothetical "natural state" of existence. The American Indian, the "noble savage," thus was foreordained, in the cosmology of the time, to occupy a niche in the "Great Chain of Being" just below civilized humankind. In that sense, and in that time, savage was more appropriate in tone and meaning than the equally common misnomer, Indian.

The 18th-century concept of the noble savage corresponds with ancient Greek idealizations of the Arcadians, and Roman fictionalization of the Scythians. The English author John Dryden (1631-1700) made the phrase famous in his play, The Conquest of Granada:

I am as free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

The concept was a fashionable idea that many a writer tried to confirm. In 1796-97 a young Welshman named John Evans, on a mission from James Mackay of the Missouri Company to find a viable trade route to the Pacific, got only as far as the Mandan Villages in today's western North Dakota, but his observations up to that point led him to the conclusion that "the nations who had but an imperfect knowledge of the Whites (being yet in a State of Nature) were of a softer and better Character."1

The French novelist François René Chateaubriand (1768-1848), Meriwether Lewis's senior by only six years, Clark's by two, fictionalized the noble savage in René.

René had his eyes fixed on a group of Indians who were passing gaily over the prairie before him. Suddenly his expression grew tender, tears flowed from his eyes, and he cried out: "Happy savages! Oh, how I could enjoy the peace which is yours forever! While I with so little profit have been traveling over so many countries, you, seated quietly under your oak-trees, have let the days flow past without counting them."
In 1823 James Fenimore Cooper would create another archetype of the noble savage in the Leatherstocking Tales, featuring the noble chief Chingachgook and his son Uncas.2 By the close of the 19th century, Leatherstocking's wilderness habitat would finally segue into civilization. In 1894, historian Frederick Jackson Turner legitimized the concept as history. The western frontier had been "the outer edge of the wave—the meeting-point between savagery and civilization, . . . the line of most rapid and effective Americanization" beyond which "the wilderness masters the colonist."3 At that point the noble savage yielded his spirit to Western adventure writers and Hollywood scriptwriters during the early 20th century, in the figures of the cowboy-hero and the friendly Indian.


Noah Webster, in his American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828, wrote of the inherent contradiction at the heart of the "noble savage" concept:

The savages of America, when uncorrupted by the vices of civilized men, are remarkable for their hospitality to strangers, and for their truth, fidelity and gratitude to their friends, but implacably cruel and revengeful towards their enemies. From this last trait of the savage character, the word came to signify, . . . A man of extreme, unfeeling, brutal cruelty; a barbarian.

This is the darker side of savage, closer to the Latin cognate, saevus, meaning brutal, cruel, barbarous, violent and severe.

Among the Mandan Indians the captains observed that "as a testimony to their grief for Deceased friends, they frequently Cut off Sevral fingers & pierced themselves in Different Parts, a Mark of Savage affection." At a more visceral level, on August 16, 1805, Lewis watched as several hungry Shoshone men voraciously consumied the raw, bloody entrails of a deer one of his hunters had shot. Obviously the men's bodies, deprived of red meat for months, and sustained mainly by roots and berries pending a seasonal trip back to buffalo country, were simply going for the fat and the salt contained in the animal's intestines. But Lewis's reaction combined disgust with sympathy. "I really did not until now think that human nature ever presented itself in a shape so nearly allied to the brute creation," he wrote. "I viewed these poor starved divils with pity and compassion."

But on May 5, 1806, a Nez Perce Indian was similarly disgusted by the Americans' preference for dogmeat over dried salmon. "While at dinner," Lewis recounted, "an indian fellow verry impertinently threw a poor half starved puppy nearly into my plate by way of derision for our eating dogs, and laughed very heartily."

Sometimes the American explorers' own conduct betrayed them in the eyes of the "savages." On August 18, 1804, after Private Moses Reed confessed to desertion and theft of government property (a rifle), he was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to run the gauntlet four times, to be flogged by each of his former comrades in turn, with a bundle of nine switches.4 The Oto Indians "were all concerned at seeing Reed receive his punishment," wrote Sergeant John Ordway, "and seemed truly sorry." A similar punishment of Private John Newman two months later elicited tears from an Arikara chief, who protested that his people never whipped their children.

The journalists were quick to recognize conspicuous acts of civility on the Indians' part. On May 27, 1806, Lewis acknowledged the generosity and understanding of the Nez Perce chief, Hohâstillpilp, who allowed the white hunters to kill any of his horses if they needed meat. "This is a piece of liberality," Lewis observed, "which would do honor to such as boast of civilization; indeed I doubt whether there are not a great number of our countrymen who would see us fast many days before their compassion would excite them to a similar act of liberality." The chief's gesture was all the more magnanimous because the Nez Perce did not eat their own horses.

Although white Euro-Americans could see, or at least imagine, their Indian neighbors in their sylvan domiciles, African slaves, far from their native roots and bereft of languages, traditions, institutions and leadership, were simply anomalies, racial ciphers whose linkage in the "great chain of beings" was ambiguous. They could not qualify as "noble savages."5 No wonder William Clark even treated casual Indian acquaintances better than his own lifelong companion and servant-slave, York.

1. A. P. Nasatir, Before Lewis and Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785-1804 (Reprint, Bison Books, 1990, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1952), II:499.

2. François-René de Chateaubriand came to the United States in 1791 to try to find the Northwest Passage. Between July 10, when he arrived in Baltimore, and December 10, when he left Philadelphia for France, he claimed to have traveled 3,360 miles down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and back. His explorations were perfunctory and fruitless, but upon the three popular novels that resulted from his experiences was to rest a reputation as the leading French writer of the First Empire (1804-1815). In Atala and René Chateaubriand told the sensuous and tragic tale of a melancholy French youth, corrupted by civilization, who seeks redemption through the love of an Indian princess in the "deserts of Louisiana."

3. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1920), 43.

4. Desertion was punishable by death, but in peacetime only after review by the President of the United States, so Reed got off easy. Flogging was an accepted mode of punishment for enlisted men, with the maximum penality set at 100 lashes in 1776. It was reduced to fifty lashes in 1806, suspended by the War Department in 1810, and finally banned by Congress in 1812. See William B. Skelton, An American Profession of Arms: The Army Officer Corps, 1784-1861 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992), 261-68.

5. See Daniel J. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 81-98.