Exploring Child’s animal landscapes

April 4, 2018

prairie dogs

In a story featuring a strong Native American female character, Lydia Maria Child suggested that animals have alternative societies. This drawing of prairie dogs, inspired by the story “Willie Wharton,” is by Meredith Eliassen, 2018.

Lydia Maria Child’s fictional character of young Willie Wharton is sensitized to nature and creatures of the prairie including moles, squirrels, and prairie dogs. Child positioned children as closer to God, therefore, closer to nature. She also perceived that animals had indigenous societies. When Wharton brought a Native American girl home, he asserted, “She’s my girl. I found her.”

Child relied upon moral suasion to foster humanitarian awakening; she sought to reform with inherited literary genres. A family on the prairie sets aside contemporary biases to take in a Native American girl, and not understanding her cultural background, they treat her like a pet until her family came to collect her. While Child’s language seems racist by today’s standards, her logic was actually powerfully progressive for her times suggesting that you treat all living creatures with kindness.

During the Civil War, the U.S. Army’s California Volunteers deployed resources in response to the “General Order, No. 4,” issued on April 9, 1862, which supported a movement to kill adult male California Indians so that women and children could be sold into slavery for profit: “Every Indian captured in this district during the present war who has engaged in hostilities against whites, present or absent, will be hanged on the spot, women and children in all cases being spared.” As late as 1867, even after Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing involuntary servitude, some vigilantes in far northern California continued the murdering, kidnapping and maintenance of an illicit slave trade in California Indians even as the sale of Chinese-American women into slavery continued.

In the story, Child reiterates a theme she earlier explored in The Little Girl’s Own Book, where she discourages children from taking non-domesticated animals in as pets:

“It is a good rule to keep only such animals as are happier for being domesticated; such as kittens, dogs, or pet lambs. I would not keep a robin shut up in a cage, for the price of fifty birds. Do what you can for him, you cannot make him half so happy as he would be abroad among the sunshine and the flowers. Canary birds must be kept in the house; because they came from the warm islands of Canary. And it would kill them to expose hem to our winter; but, kind little reader, if you have any feathered prisoners, which belong to our own climate, I beg of you to open the door and let them fly the first bright day the next spring. I have likewise an objection to keeping rabbits and squirrels; because I am sure they are not so happy as they would be in their native woods.”

Sources: Lydia Maria Child. “Willie Wharton” Atlantic Monthly 11 (March 1863): 324-345 and “On Keeping Animals,” The Little Girl’s Own Book. New York: Edward Kearney 1843: 242.


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