Hidden Meanings in a Second Seminole War Pamphlet

Photo of An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War; and of the Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Mary Godfrey, and her Four Female Children (Daniel L. Blanchard,1836) from the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History. Photo also features fold out that was included with the pamphlet which is now encapsulated separately.
Submitted by Jim Cusick, Curator of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History

My first acquaintance with the plight of Mary Godfrey came a few years back when I was researching literature produced during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Her story is a “captivity narrative,” a genre of literature that features tales about women or children who are taken prisoner by some hostile group—pirates, natives, invaders, etc.

Published in 1836, the tale of Godfrey’s ordeal was a centerpiece in a pamphlet telling the American public about the outbreak of a new Indian war. The Seminoles of Florida, frustrated in their efforts to retain their homelands, and threatened with deportation under the provisions of the Indian Removal Act, were in open and bloody conflict with the territorial militia and the U.S. Army. An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War, targeted at a readership that was eager and curious for news, featured an eye-catching piece of cover art, along with a lurid fold-out illustration depicting massacre and mayhem.

Scan of "An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War..." from 1836 featuring the same illustration as the previous image.
Another account of the Mary Godfrey story from the the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History

Mary Godfrey’s story was a typical “penny dreadful” yarn about hiding out in the Florida swamps to avoid native war parties and being captured by a runaway slave. The first and second printings of Authentic Narrative show poor Mrs. Godfrey shielding her daughters from an axe-wielding captor. A third edition treated readers to a bonus tale of horror, the terrible fate of the Widow Robbins, who died under the scalping knife.

To ensure that buyers got their money’s worth, the publishers also promised some additional gore in “the horrid massacres of the whites by the Indians and blacks” as graphically illustrated in the large fold-out illustration.

A cobbled together series of engravings that show Black and Native American individuals attacking white people and destroying their property. The title of the image is "Massacre of the Indians and Blacks in Florida."
A fold-out showing a montage of images from An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War…(1836)

There is just one problem with the “authentic narrative” of Mary Godfrey’s captivating captivity story.

It never happened.

Far from being “true” and “authentic,” the story was cobbled together to provide a narrative for the accompanying illustrations. And all of the illustrations come from other captivity narratives that have nothing to do with Florida or the Second Seminole War!

The art on the title page, for example, which supposedly depicts Godfrey, is nothing of the sort.  It is a wood-block print borrowed from an 1831 tract about the Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia. The publisher of the Seminole war pamphlet, in choosing to re-employ this image, conveniently overlooked the fact that one of the “four female children” in the picture—the one held in Godfrey’s arms—is not a girl at all, but a boy.

As for the massacre scene—a principal selling point of the pamphlet—it is a combination of prints that all came from unrelated tales of horror and hardship.

Fold out from An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War... (1836) with colors to highlight the different origins of the plates used to print this image.
Fold out from An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War… (1836) with colors to highlight the different origins of the plates used to print this image.

The two middle images, for instance, come from the same 1831 tract about Nat Turner as the cover art, rearranged and reinterpreted.

Fold out of "Narrative of a Tragical Scene" featuring portion of engraving also featured in An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War.
Image from “Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination” by the American Antiquarian Society. The pamphlet, from their collection, features an image later reused in An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War…The Society, along with Alexander Mazzaferro (University of Chicago), drew attention to the re-use of these images in pamphlets dealing with the Second Seminole War.

The image in the lower left corner, on the other hand, of a mother pleading for her children, is from an 1834 tract about the Black Hawk War in Illinois; and the image in the upper left corner, along with the large image on the right, were illustrations for an 1835 tract concerning the “Massacre, by the Savages, of the wife and Children of Thomas Baldwin,” an unfortunate pioneer who subsequently adopted the life of a hermit in Kentucky.

Scan of image titled "Massacre of Baldwin's Family by the Savages" parts are also featured in the other images previously discussed
Narrative of the Massacre, by the Savages, of the Wife and Children of Thomas Baldwin, who, since the Melancholy Period of the Destruction of his Unfortunate Family, has Dwelt Entirely Alone, in a hut of his own Construction, Secluded from Human Society, in the Extreme Western Part of Kentucky. Martin and Wood, Publishers, New York. 1835; reissued with different frontpiece 1836. Reproduced in The Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian Captivities, selected and arranged by Wilcomb. E. Washburn, Vol. 52 (Garland Publishing, New York & London, 1977). From an original at the Newberry Library, Chicago.

So—according to these illustrations—poor Mary Godfrey had a very busy time of it during her captivity. Not content to escape from one bloody conflagration, she escaped from four of them!

Oddest of all in this tale of captivity, however, is the fact that yet another tract, published in 1837 and not nearly as well-known, presented a bona fide and factual account of a woman who survived a scalping during the Second Seminole War. This story is told in A Narrative of the Life and Sufferings of Mrs. Jane Johns (Charleston, Printed by Burke & Giles, 1837) and is easily verified. It appeared in Florida newspapers at the time it occurred, and was subsequently written up and published by Dr. Andrew Welch, the physician who treated Mrs. Johns for her injuries. He later held a benefit for her, using the proceeds to provide her with financial assistance.

Why, then, does the clearly fictitious tale of Mary Godfrey remain fairly well known to literature, while the well-corroborated story of Jane Johns is largely forgotten? One reason is undoubtedly the dramatic presentation of Godfrey’s “Miraculous Escape,” complete with pictures. Her tale adheres closely to the key elements of a captivity narrative:  first-person narration, terrible peril, and providential delivery. Besides this, however, it has also gained scholarly attention because of a “hidden” message in its text. It seems to be an example of abolitionist literature, introduced into a popular “war story” pamphlet in hopes of disseminating a critique of slavery. When read this way, the story is less about Mary Godfrey then about her captor, the unnamed maroon, who risks his own freedom to take the Godfrey family back to safety. Ultimately this “humane African (our deliverer),” in the words of the tract, granted Godfrey the liberty that society denied to him. Disguised, as it were, in a pamphlet about an Indian war, this brief but clear message on the wrongness of slavery could be distributed to a wide readership.

3 Comments

  1. Michael Martin
    May 24, 2020

    Thank you for your historical study of Mary Godfrey. I’m working on an article on her right now and was unaware of the plagiarized illustrations. I will cite your work.

    Reply
    1. admin
      June 5, 2020

      Thank you for the kind words. If you have any additional questions we recommend reaching out Jim Cusick- this blog post is part of a larger paper he’s written.

      Reply
  2. Chris Kimball
    August 1, 2023

    Thank you for posting this! I had seen the pamphlet and the images many times, but was not aware that it was all plagiarized and images take from the Nat Turner rebellion! Thank you to Jim Cusick for doing this!

    Reply

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