Red Butterfly (1891) Spotlight
About the Novel
If you had been attending a Brooklyn theatre in mid-February 1891, you could have seen Seneca playwright-performer Go-won-go Mohawk thunder onto the stage on horseback, starring as the male hero of her sensational melodrama, “The Indian Mail Carrier.”
A few days later, you could have picked up the latest copy of Beadle and Adams’s story paper, The Banner Weekly, with a front-page illustration of a young woman, kneeling—face in hands, a kindly white miner patting her head—beside her dying father, an Indian chief. This “girlish form of grace and symmetry” was Go-won-go Mohawk as rewritten by Prentiss Ingraham for his new serial, Red Butterfly.
Dime novels set in the American West routinely included stereotypes of Indians; this is a rare case of a dime novel appropriating for its central protagonist, without acknowledgement, a budding Indigenous celebrity. Ingraham’s plotline drew on Mohawk’s play, on tour since 1888: a heroic Indian mail carrier in the West revenges the killing of his father by an outlaw while undertaking dangerous missions as a pony express rider between a border town and a military fort. Ingraham added further plot twists and a band of scouts led by Buffalo Bill Cody. Most intriguingly, he changed Mohawk’s Nation from Seneca to Sioux—an identity made internationally popular by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—and insisted on her essential womanhood. In Red Butterfly, she goes from orphaned Indian maiden in the West, to star schoolgirl in the East, back to the West disguised as a young Sioux man who can out-trail, out-shoot, and even out-sail Buffalo Bill himself. The novel ends with the revelation that Go-won-go is a woman, a move that she never made on stage. Indeed, Mohawk began writing plays because she was tired of being cast as a woman: “I said to myself that I must have something free and wild that would fit with my own nature. I wanted to ride and wrestle, and I thought, ‘Well, I can’t do that as a woman, I must act a man, or better, a boy’” (Des Moines Register and Leader, March 31, 1910).
Go-won-go Mohawk continued to play male roles in triumphal tours of North America and Britain, while circulating studio photographs that emphasized non-binary gender in combinations of Indigenous (sometimes Seneca-specific), wild west, male, and female clothing and poses. Meanwhile, Ingraham wrote two more novels featuring his version of Mohawk, who ends up relinquishing male disguise, declaring that she is “now in my natural dress as a woman” and being “claimed” in marriage by Velvet Bill.
The mini-series was first serialized in Banner Weekly as Red Butterfly, the Spy of the Overland; or, The Nine Scouts' League (February 14 to May 9, 1891); Go-won-go, the Red-Skin Rider; or, The Moonlight Marauders (May 9 to August 1, 1891); and Velvet Bill's Vow; or, The Red Rider's Retribution (August 1 to October 24, 1891). In 1896, during Mohawk’s British tour, Beadle’s Dime Library reprinted them as free-standing dime novels with new sub-titles emphasizing Buffalo Bill’s presence (nos. 909, 915, 921) while the British cheap publisher Aldine also capitalized on Mohawk’s theatrical success by reprinting the three volumes in their “O’er Land and Sea” Library.
- Red Butterfly is sub-headed “A Story of Real Characters of Wild Western Life,” and provides biographical footnotes on the real-life scouts in the novel. No such information is attached to “Miss Go-won-go Mohawk”; the closest allusion to her being a real person comes when she jokingly denies being “one of them Injuns as acts in theater plays” (page 12). What is the effect of this difference in the handling of these historical figures?
- The first illustration in Red Butterfly (which becomes the cover of the stand-alone dime novel) seems to play on the story of Pocahontas protecting John Smith by placing her body between the white man and her Powhatan father, though here it is the white man who thrusts his arm between the Sioux maiden and her father, taking the knife intended for her. The comparison is encouraged in the novel’s allusions to Pocahontas (see pages 3, 11). An even closer comparison is with the scene in Catharine Sedgwick’s novel Hope Leslie (1827) in which Magawisca saves a white man from her Pequot father’s attack by deflecting the blow with her arm, which is cut off. Contextualized by such echoes, how do you understand the opening scene of Ingraham’s novel?
- In Nickels and Dimes, you can trace how Beadle and Adams selected illustrations from the Banner Weekly serialization of the Go-won-go trilogy to create covers for the stand-alone dime-novel versions and how they changed the sub-titles. How do you think these changes might impact a reader’s expectations, given that covers and titles are what readers first encounter?
- In several scenes (for example on pages 12-13), Mohawk as Red Butterfly flouts white characters’ negative stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. At other moments, Red Butterfly criticizes racism (see page 21). What is the force of this social and political commentary, do you think, in the midst of formulaic western adventures?
- Beadle and Adams’s first dime novel in 1860, Malaeska; or, The Indian Wife of the White Hunter by Ann S. Stephens, featured an Iroquois woman. What similarities and differences do you identify between Stephens’s and Ingraham’s representations of Indigenous women? What significance do you see in such representations, given that dime novels were one major source of public images of Indigenous peoples in the nineteenth century?
- Compare Ingraham’s descriptions of Go-won-go Mohawk with one of her many cabinet card images. Given that both representations were circulating at the same time, what do you find significant about their similarities and differences?
- Bold, Christine. “Violence, Justice, and Indigeneity in the Popular West: Go-Won-Go Mohawk in Performance and Print.” America: Justice, Conflict, War, edited by Amanda Gilroy and Marietta Messmer. Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016, pp. 99-115.
Discusses Go-won-go Mohawk’s theatrical work and her fictionalization by Prentiss Ingraham.
- Dean, Janet. “Calamities of Convention in a Dime Novel Western.” Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America, edited by Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Greenwood Press, 2002, pp. 37-50.
On dime-novel representation of cross-dressing by Calamity Jane.
- Deloria, Philip J. Indians in Unexpected Places. University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Discusses the extensive, but often forgotten, role of Indigenous peoples in North American popular culture, including their participation in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
- Hall, Roger A. Performing the American Frontier, 1870–1906. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
A history of wild west melodrama that discusses the theatrical work of Go-won-go Mohawk, Buffalo Bill Cody, and many other popular nineteenth-century figures.
- Russell, Don. The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill. University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.
Although there are numerous more recent studies of Buffalo Bill Cody, Russell’s volume remains important in discussing and listing Prentiss Ingraham’s particular contributions.
- Slagle, Jefferson D. “The Heirs of Buffalo Bill: Performing Authenticity in the Dime Western.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, 2009, pp. 119-38.
Analysis of how history, bodily representation, and disguise intertwine in dime novels, including some by Prentiss Ingraham.
- Wingo, Rebecca S. “‘The “Forgotten Era’: Race and Gender in Ann Stephens's Dime Novel Frontier.” Frontiers, vol. 38, no. 3, 2017, pp. 121-140.
While focused on Stephens’s dime novels, this discussion has much to say about dime-novel representations of Indigenous women (including of a member of the Seneca Nation in Stephens’s The Indian Queen of 1864) that provides rich comparison with Ingraham’s work.
- Worden, Daniel. “Masculinity for the Million: Gender in Dime Novel Westerns.” Arizona Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 3, 2007, pp. 35-60.
This discussion of the performance of masculinity in dime novels by Edward S. Ellis and Edward Wheeler is richly suggestive for an analysis of Ingraham’s work.