Mark Twain's Ambivalence toward the "Tennessee Land" and His Pioneer Roots in Kentucky: The "Savage" Other and the "Sivilized" Order

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Butwell, John Dale
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Middle Tennessee State University
This study addresses two interrelated questions on Mark Twain and Native Americans from a historicist perspective. The first is why Mark Twain came to abhor the infamous “Tennessee land” that his father, John Marshall Clemens, left to the Clemens heirs. For the first time in Twain studies, the study confirms Twain’s claim that the land, mostly in Fentress County, exceeded 75,000 acres; a search of land grant records, property transfers, lawsuits, and tax records in the Fentress Register of Deeds Office, the National Archives in Atlanta, and the Tennessee State Library Archives in Nashville places the acreage closer to 93,000. The study also documents how Twain’s father used a “shell game” to circumvent the statutory limit of five thousand acres per land grant per individual. Twain came to loathe the legacy because its remote location in the Cumberland Plateau made it nearly impossible to exploit commercially, leaving Twain with the resulting tax burden. Secondly, the study identifies the root cause of Twain’s persistent antipathy toward Native Americans, a hostility that long has puzzled scholars, as the participation of Twain’s ancestors in the late eighteenth-century preemption of Native American lands in central Kentucky, preceding his father’s acquisition of the “Tennessee land” in the early nineteenth-century. The study confirms from multiple sources that Twain’s mother repeatedly told her children about a Cherokee attack in which Twain’s great-great grandfather was fatally ambushed and Twain’s great-grandmother, entrapped in a cabin, was rescued by Twain’s future great-grandfather. Combined with the context that European Americans did not understand the limited validity of their land “purchases” from Native Americans, Twain’s mother’s harrowing stories of frontier violence left Twain with an enduring image that Native Americans, despite defending their land, were treacherously prone to randomly attack white settlers. Twain justifies the transcontinental spread of white hegemony as just another instance of territorial conquest such as Native Americans themselves had repeatedly perpetrated on each other, and therefore morally inconsequential. Twain’s position is consistent with his eventual belief that land ownership in Tennessee was an inconsequential quirk in his family’s fortunes that, in his family’s case, should be abandoned.
Genocide, Land speculation, Mark Twain, Native Americans, Reparations, Samuel Clemens, American literature