Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 2010


GREAT PLAINS QUARTERLY 30 (Winter 2010): 37-52


Copyright 2010 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska


The life of Edwin James (1797-1861) is bookended by the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-6) and the Civil War (1861-65). James's work engaged key national concerns of western exploration, natural history, Native American relocation, and slavery. His principled stands for preservation of lands and animals in the Trans-Mississippi West and his opposition to Indian relocation should be celebrated today, yet his legacy does not fit neatly into established literary or historical categories. One reason for James's obscurity is his willingness to collaborate. Both of his major works, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains (1823) and A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner (1830), as well as many of his articles, were published with his name listed as editor or compiler rather than as author. The explorer Major Stephen H. Long and the Native American captive John Tanner were his two primary collaborators, yet James's name has fallen from the covers of his books. In addition to his major collaborative volumes, James worked closely with leading scientists in the eastern United States, such as John Torrey and Amos Eaton. Despite some successes, competition from other leading writers and scientists, especially Thomas Nuttall and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, may have discouraged him from writing in his later years.

In this article, I argue that James resisted prevailing and exploitative land-use policies and environmental attitudes while he illuminated the relationship between ethnicity and landscape. First, I situate James's collaborative relationships and argue for the importance and uniqueness of his voice. Next, I examine James's early career as botanist for the 1819-20 Major Long expedition to the Rocky Mountains to show his belief that the Great Plains-or "Great American Desert"-should be preserved through game laws and even be reserved for Native American hunters. I also discuss James's work with the so-called White Indian John Tanner as a cross-cultural collaboration and explain how their collaborative texts resisted Andrew Jackson's 1830 Indian Relocation Act. Finally, I examine the ramifications of the personal and political disputes that occurred in the 1830s between James, Tanner, and the important Indian agent and ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. While the collaborative nature of James's writing has obscured his popular legacy, his willingness to collaborate demonstrates the integrity he displayed during a period of intense scientific and literary competition.