The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Nick of the Woods: or, The Jibbenainosay; a Tale of Kentucky (1837)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Nick of the Woods: or, The Jibbenainosay; a Tale of Kentucky was written by Robert Montgomery Bird. Bird (1805/6-1854) was a playwright, author, and artist of some note during his lifetime. His best-known work remains Nick of the Woods, which is still in print today.
In the mid-1700s Nathan Slaughter is an innocent Quaker living in the mountains of Pennsylvania with his wife, children, and mother. During an attack on Slaughter’s family by a band of Shawnees, Nathan is scalped and his entire family is killed. This unbalances Nathan and he adopts a dual life. Around Anglos he is Nathan Slaughter, a gentle Quaker who, true to his religious beliefs, never takes up arms against the Natives, even though this earns him the scorn and even hatred of the other white settlers. Nathan bears up under the gibes of the Anglos with as much dignity as he can manage and tries to be a good Quaker. However, when he is not around other Anglos he becomes another person: “Nick of the Woods,” a.k.a. “Jibbenainosay,” a.k.a. “Shawneewannaween.” “Nick of the Woods” is derived from “Old Nick,” a name for the Devil. “Jibbenainosay” is taken from the “Injun gabble” for “Spirit that walks.” And “Shawneewannaween” is taken from the Shawnee for “Howl of the Shawnees,” because “of his keeping them ever a howling.”1 As Nick of the Woods Nathan slaughters every Indian he runs across, and always leaves them with a tomahawk-cloven skull and the shape of a cross carved in their chest. Nick of the Woods never allows a witness to live, so that to the Indians of the frontier Nick of the Woods is an invisible, evil creature. Nick takes a particular pleasure in hunting down and massacring the Shawnees. Nick of the Woods is the story of Nick’s encounter with a group of Anglo settlers in Kentucky and his vengeance, after years of searching, on the particular Shawnee chief responsible for the death of Nick’s family.
The 1830s were a decade in which relations between the white settlers and the Native Americans were unsettled and often violent. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which was designed to create more room for white settlers by moving Native Americans farther west across the Mississippi river. From 1830 to 1834 the American government attempted, with eventual success, to relocate southern Indians to an area west of Arkansas. This led to friction with the Cherokee in Georgia and the 1832 massacre of the Sauk and Fox when they attempted to return to their native lands in Illinois, which led to the Black Hawk War of that year. Accompanying this was, in the mid-1830s, a feeling of economic insecurity. There were poor harvests in the West in 1835 and 1837, both wheat prices and unemployment were on the rise, some of the major British financial institutions who had invested in American securities had failed, and foolish financial speculation and expansion led to the Panic of 1837, in which many American banks called in loans and many bank customers attempted to withdraw their funds. Unemployment spread quickly, there were numerous urban food riots, many railroad and canal projects failed, and thousands of land speculators went bankrupt.
It was in this historical context that Bird wrote Nick of the Woods. He had been appalled by James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels (see: The Last of the Mohicans), feeling that their message was not just misguided but dangerous. In modern terms Cooper’s portrayal of Native Americans, in the characters of Magua and Chingachgook, is crude and borderline racist, with a simplistic Noble Savage approach to the native characters. To modern readers, the novels implicitly justify American manifest destiny. But in the 1830s Cooper’s approach was seen as radical. Compared to his predecessors and contemporaries, Cooper’s portrayal of Native Americans, and his handling of the issue of their ultimate fate, was complex and nuanced.
Bird was offended by this.2 He felt no equivocation about the westward expansion of white settlers or their manifest destiny. In his view the fate of the natives was entirely deserved; as he wrote, “the North American savage has never appeared to us the gallant and heroic personage he seems to others”3 and the Indian, “in his natural barbaric state...is a barbarian.”4 While his view was shared by many Americans, it is also likely that the uncertainty of the 1830s hardened his views and drove him to proclaim them more fiercely than otherwise, as a denial of that uncertainty. If Bird felt some subconscious guilt over the forced relocation and massacre of Native Americans, that would also have contributed to his views becoming more extreme, again as a form of denial of that guilt.
Nick of the Woods reflects Bird’s opposition to Cooper’s views. The Noble Savage of Cooper’s novels is gone altogether, replaced by evil brutes lacking any positive qualities or redeeming attributes. The ambiguity of the Leatherstocking novels is replaced with a simplistic story of good-versus-evil. The beauty of Cooper’s wilderness is replaced with the Puritan view of the wilderness as a location of evil which much be overcome. Hawkeye, who kills only when he must and is otherwise peaceful, is replaced by Nick, who glories in the killing of the Shawnee and other Native Americans.
Nick is a character type that would become common in frontier fiction: the Indian Killer, the man whose family is slaughtered by the Indians and who devotes his life to avenging that murder. Nick was not the first Indian Killer; two earlier examples appeared in James McHenry’s The Spectre of the Forest (1823) and N.M. Henty’s Tadeskund, the Last King of the Lenape (1825). But Nick was the most prominent and the most popular example of the type, and the novelettes and dime novels of the 1840s featured many protagonists based on Bird’s example. These stories also duplicated another of Nick’s traits. As Jibbenainosay, Nick wanders the forests dressed as a supernatural creature. In this he anticipates twentieth century pulp and comic book superheroes as the first costumed vigilante to lead a double life, as ordinary civilian and as a costumed vigilante:
Nick of the Woods is also...a prototype for the dual-identity killer vigilante of the pulps and the comics, a specifically American version of the Black Judges in Secret from Vulpius’ Rinaldo Rinaldini, with American concerns and American tactics. If Hawthorne’s “The Gray Champion” was the modern American source for the Costumed Avenger Übermensch, Byrd’s Nick of the Woods was the modern American source for the darker, grimmer, more morally compromised version of same. One can’t imagine superheroes without the “Gray Champion” having provided superheroes’ forebears a model to work off of; and one can’t imagine mass murdering Costumed Avengers like Henry Steeger, R.T.M. Scott, and Norvell Page’s The Spider (from the pulps), the Punisher, and Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Sr., and Herb Trimpe's Wolverine (for Marvel), without Nick of the Woods.5
The novelette and dime novel stories used this motif in their versions of Jibbenainosay.
Nick of the Woods is a more conservative work than the Leatherstocking novels in other respects. The plot is derivative of the Gothics, involving the loss of Roland Forrester’s noble title and his quest to recover his heritage and his family home in Virginia, the ancient ruined cabin that plays such a large part in the novel, the haunted landscape, and the mysterious protagonist.6 Bird’s treatment of class is retrogressive. In Last of the Mohicans Cooper stresses that Hawkeye is superior to Major Heyward and the other British characters because of his learned ability. In Nick of the Woods Bird presents Forrester as a gentleman who is a skilled woodsman and is obeyed by the other characters, especially the frontiersman Colonel Bruce, by virtue of Forrester’s birth as an aristocrat, rather than because of his experience. The Leatherstocking novels are frontier stories, some of the first of the new genre. Nick of the Woods is a historical romance in the mode of Walter Scott (see: Rob Roy, Waverley), in which good birth is equated with good personality and good ability.
Nick of the Woods has a certain dark, compelling power, and it is understandable that previous generations, both critics and readers, thought well of it. It has the courage of its convictions; Bird clearly believes in the righteousness of his message, and his lack of doubt is forcefully conveyed. But modern readers will find Montgomery’s message to be filled with hate. Every stereotype imaginable that white Americans could apply to Native Americans appears in Nick of the Woods. African-Americans are treated little better; Bird makes free use of the inevitable racial slur. Bird was not restrained in his attempt to debunk James Fenimore Cooper, and the final result is a paean to race hatred. Nick of the Woods is an ugly thing, laden with awkward dialect and a tedious, sub-Fenimore Cooper style. It is best avoided, if not thrown against the wall and into a wastebasket.
Print: Robert Montgomery Bird, Nick of the Woods: or, The Jibbenainosay; a Tale of Kentucky. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
For Further Research
Gary Hoppenstand, “Justified Bloodshed: Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods and the Origins of the Vigilante Hero in American Literature and Culture,” Journal of American Culture 15, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 51-61.
1 Robert Montgomery Bird, Nick of the Woods (London: J. Cunningham, 1839), 286.
2 Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence, 512.
3 Bird, Nick of the Woods, 279.
4 Robert Montgomery Bird, Nick of the Woods; or, The Jibbenainosay; a Tale of Kentucky (New York: Redfield, 1853), iv.
5 Nevins, Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 102.
6 Moreover, as Christian Sharp notes, “Bird enhances the Gothic atmosphere of his work with images of Nick/Nathan painting birds and lizards on his skull, setting wigwams aflame, and faking an epileptic seizure as a means of terrifying Indians.” Christian Sharp, Handbook of Gothic Literature (Los Angeles, CA: Tritech Media, 2018), 254.