Charles Whitecar Miskelly's "The Cape'

Whites and Indians in 17th-Century New Jersey

What if I had lived with Indians?
What if I had lived with Indians?

If you grow up anywhere near the Atlantic Ocean, dreams about pirates and Indians are part of your childhood musings. Every trip to the beach and into the woods conjures up their presence. Lucky bones and arrowheads abound. Sacred narratives cross borders as you walk down an Indian trail and skirt between fantasy and exploration.

Charles Whitecar Miskelly, born in 1880, lived in Bridgeton, New Jersey, in the days before massive highway systems and two cars in every garage. So he probably walked all over in his adolescences and way into his adulthood. This gave him more time to indulge in childhood illusions.

Since the child is father to the man, Miskelly ended up creating, in 1940, The Cape, his "What if I had lived with the Indians" novel, handwritten for the typewriter.

White man's misperceptions

Because of "artistic" disagreements, the unpublished and unknown author withdrew from J.P. Lippincott's offer to publish his story. Miskelly went back to his day job as a shipbuilder and chicken farmer. So his fantasy tale of an English castaway on the sands of Cape Isle and the Indians who discovered him lay in anguish for more than 60 years until a small independent publishing house in Cape May published it.

Picking up a book written so long ago is like unearthing some letters of Thomas Jefferson. It's interesting reading if you can plough through the dated narrative. Yet the archaic English is the very element that helps transform this story into a transubstantiated historical narrative.

From the moment our shipwrecked sailor John McJack lands on the beach to the time he takes his Indian band away, I was transported into the idiosyncrasies behind 16th-Century perceptions toward Indians and —more interesting— the Indian's perceptions of the white man. Each, it seems, attributes fantastical terrifying powers to the other.

Like Pocahontas

When an Indian observes McJack dancing a jig (to keep himself warm), the braves thinks he is conjuring up magical powers. McJack (cautious about losing his life) believes the dead body of a white man he digs up on the beach is part of a party massacred by the natives, when in fact a group of white men landed sick and died from their disease.

Eventually, McJack realizes he doesn't wish to return to England, so happy is he to be living in a world without recourses. His sole worry is how to fend for his family (in true Pocahontas fashion, he marries the daughter of the tribal chief). But McJack never frets about food or famine; his only true anxiety concerns the encroachment of more ships and their crews landing on the shore.

This realization of Jack's is the crux of the story.

Sailor's choice

The ships (one of which landed him on The Cape) bring trade, and trade in turn brings an easier way of life, but at a price: The Indian tribe, no longer isolated, is forced to choose between following traditional ways or adapting to changing conditions.

How can they live beside other people who have totally different customs and are intolerant of theirs? McJack's collision course with his own past and his settled life reach a climax when he chooses his fate: not to resist the inevitable tide, but to retreat into the far more exhilarating land of make believe.





Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.