One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus is a historical fiction novel of May Dodd’s journals. May Dodd lived in the newly formed America during the 1800s. We find out that may Dodd comes from a wealthy family, but falls in love with a man “beneath her station”, has two children with him out of wedlock and refused to marry simply because she didn’t want to. She was a total rebel for that time and I love it. Her family didn’t want to humiliation that came with her decisions, so in the middle of the night when her lover happens to be out late, May is kidnapped and involuntarily admitted to an asylum – family didn’t visit and her children weren’t allowed to. Her lover never tried to find her or contact her and May never found out what happened to their children on that night. May was left in the asylum for years, despite not being crazy, and her only diagnosis was promiscuity. Crazy times, right?
Next, the story takes us to a meeting between Chief Little Wolf of the Cheyenne tribe and U.S. President, at the time, Ulysses S. Grant; Chief Little Wolf was accompanied by the top members of his tribe, requested that the President exchange 1,000 white women for 1,000 of their best horses. Chief Little Wolf’s reasoning for this request is to encourage harmony between the Cheyenne and white people. There was a public uproar as news of what was discussed at the meeting spread; publicly President Grant made the offer or request sound absurd and made the public believe that he would never consider such an arrangement. However, privately Grant began receiving letters from single women all over the U.S. volunteering to be brides for the Cheyenne. So, Grant thought he may be able to get away with creating a secret government program – Brides for Indians (BFI) to secretly recruit volunteers for the program. When they didn’t have enough volunteers for the program, they went to asylums and prisons to offer women freedom under the condition that they spend a minimum of two years with the Cheyenne. This is how May gets involved in the program.
One day government officials show up at the asylum to see if any women there would be willing to volunteer for the program in exchange for their freedom. When May hears this arrangement, she isn’t necessarily thrilled at the idea of living with an Indian tribe in the wilderness, but she definitely has no desire to stay locked up in an asylum forever. By the time the government officials show up, May has befriended one of the nurses and the nurse helps May to sign up for the program and ends up signing up herself because she didn’t want to get in trouble and lose her job for helping May. The novel is May Dodd’s journal telling of her journey from the asylum, to the wilderness where the volunteers are turned over to the Cheyenne, to her time living with the Cheyenne and afterward. It is during the long trip from the asylum to the meeting place for the exchange that May meets and falls in love with an officer, Mr. John Burke, who falls in love with May too despite being engaged to another woman. They find out they love to read and share quotes from some of their favorite Shakespeare plays. They do end up spending a night together before she has to be turned over to the Cheyenne; afterwards, the women who have volunteered so far, a piddly 100 women, were delivered to Chief Little Wolf’s tribe.
His tribe members stood around picking out their future wives; among May’s group was a former slave girl, a “Southern Belle, twin Irish sisters, a very young girl from the asylum who was mute, May’s nurse friend and many others. They did start with a little more than 100 women, but some ended up changing their minds before getting to the meeting place and quit the program. The women left were chosen by the men; May was chosen by Chief Little Wolf. The women found out that the Cheyenne men can have more than one wife and Chief Little Wolf already had two others making May his third. May tells of the sounds, smells, and tastes of living in the wilderness. She talks about how the Cheyenne are fit because of the amount of physical activity required to keep food for the tribe, make meals, clothing and other items they need. How they are a nomadic people who follow the buffalo since that is what they hunt. She tells about how it is a lot of walking, working, cooking, cutting, cleaning, hunting, gathering, etc. May and her friends are all exhausted after their first day with the Cheyenne. She talks about their different customs, beliefs and ceremonies.
She writes in her journal about her marriage to Little Wolf and the night they consummate it. Eventually, May figures out she’s pregnant, learns that the government won’t be supplying the remaining 900+ brides because they found gold in the land owned by the Indians and want to buy it back from the Indians so miners can mine it. May also learns that the government wants all the Indian tribes to turn themselves in at a military fort so the government can negotiate the land buyback and put them on reservations. When this was explained to Chief Little Wolf, he mentioned how he noticed the U.S. government had not supplied the remaining brides, that he has all the food, shelter and land that he needs and doesn’t see any reason to turn himself in at a fort or live on a reservation. May has a very difficult time trying to convince him to take these steps. Eventually, Chief Little Wolf’s tribe wasn’t given a choice because the deadline to turn themselves in at a fort had come. Unfortunately, they couldn’t make it to the fort because a bad blizzard had hit the area where they made camp. What happens in the end is utter chaos; I was shocked, nervous for the tribe members and thoroughly engrossed in their story. I couldn’t put the book down and had expected one ending, but ended up reading something completely different instead. I was not disappointed with the story or the ending; the story is captivating, well-written and includes sources of where the author got his information from in the back. I cried in the end, but loved the book.
I checked this book out from the library because the librarian that was assisting me with checking out books saw a patron, who recommended it to the librarian, and they started talking about it at the desk. I said the story sounded very interesting since it is based on real events, so the librarian put a copy of the book on hold for me and it was available for pick up 1-2 days later. Anyway! You may want to check your local library for a copy or you can get the paperback at Barnes and Noble for $15.99 (or $5.98 for Members).
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