Edward Sylvester Ellis, 1840-1916
Who was Edward S. Ellis and what made him an authority on Minnesota history?
“Wait!” you might protest, “You said Ellis wrote pulp fiction! That is very different from writing history!”
Fiction and non-fiction seem like they ought to be distinct genres. That’s what my daughter is learning in third grade: fiction is “made up” and non-fiction is “not made-up.”
She can easily classify a book about fairies as fiction. But she puzzles over historical fiction like the American Girl series, because, she tells me, “It seems like it could be true. But I wasn’t alive then. So how can I know if it is made-up or not?”
Adults have the same difficulty. Ivy League libraries have fictional works by Ellis and his contemporaries cataloged as “non-fiction” and “biography.” As I discussed in my essay, “Through the Heart of New Ulm: The persistence of place in stories of the Dakota women’s march,” fictional elements in Ellis’s nonfiction have been adopted as factual history.
That’s what makes Edward S. Ellis a slippery character. He cut his teeth as a writer using historical stories, like Josephine Huggins’s, as mental fodder for fiction. Then after decades as a best-selling novelist, Ellis began writing histories based on his prodigious research, with a maturing legion of readers a ready-made audience for his non-fiction.
Here, with the permission of my publisher, is a short version of the remarkable story of Edward S. Ellis adapted from, “Through the Heart of New Ulm.”
New Jersey school teacher Edward Sylvester Ellis was 20 years old in 1860 when he sold his first best-selling book, the dime novel Seth Jones or the Captives of the Frontier, which led to a contract with New York publisher Beadle and Adams for four dime novels per year. Over the next thirty years, Ellis wrote more than 300 novels and story collections for several publishers.
Many of Ellis’s stories were set on the American frontier. Predictably given this era in American history, Ellis’ stories glorified white conquest of the continent. By writing popular juvenile stories, and dime novels for young adults besides adult fiction, Ellis won several generations of readers for life. In 1907, one of those readers wrote with obvious nostalgia:
“What boy of the [eighteen] sixties can ever forget Beadle’s novels! To the average youngster of that time the advent of each of those books seemed to be an event of world consequence….How boys swarmed into and through stores and news-stands to buy copies and they came hot from the press!…And how those heroes and heroines and their allies, their enemies and their doings, cling to the memory across the gulf of years! The writer of this article has a far more vivid picture of some of the red and white paladins [champions] whom he met in Beadle’s pages than he has of any of the Red Cloud’s, Spotted Tail’s or Black Kettle’s fierce raiders, whom he [later saw first hand] at unpleasantly close range…”
It is no surprise that Ellis, among those authors whose fiction was more indelible than real life, also wrote more than 50 popular volumes of history, including The Indian Wars of the United States, which contains 33 pages on the U.S. Dakota War of 1862.
By the time Ellis embarked on historical writing, he had obtained a Master’s degree from Princeton and had given up teaching to devote his full attention to literature. Biographer Albert Johannsen commented on the appeal of Ellis’s non-fiction: “I regret very much that I did not have a book like Ellis’ Youth’s History of the United States when I was a boy, in place of a history that was simply a mass of names and dates of battles…”
Ellis’s Indian Jim appeared in 1864 –shortly before or shortly after his fictionalized version of Josephine Huggins’s story, “The Minnesota Captive.”
Ellis found Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862 a fruitful subject and wrote at least six pieces of fiction loosely based on it. Ellis scholars will likely add to the list Zabelle Stodola and I composed while she was researching Ellis and Indian Jim for The War in Words:
- “The Minnesota Captive” (dime story, 1863 or 1864)
- Indian Jim, A Tale of the Minnesota Massacre (dime novel, April 1864)
- The Hunter’s Escape (dime novel, November 1864)
- Old Zip (dime novel under the pen name “Bruin Adams,” 1871).
- Red Plume (novel, 1900): Re-issued as The Red Plume and Red Plume: A Tale of a Friendly Redskin
- Red Feather: A Tale of the American Frontier (juvenile novel, 1908).
The dust jacket (left) and embossed cover (middle) of a New York: Grosset & Dunlap reprint of Ellis’s Red Plume. Priced at 40 cents, this hardcover, bearing the original 1900 copyright by The Mershon Company, was printed after that date. At left, a Chicago: M. A. Donahue & Co. imprint bearing two copyright dates: The Mershon Company 1900, and Thompson and Thomas 1902.
To authenticate his Minnesota fiction –to make it believable –Ellis, who may never have stepped foot in the state, had to study potential plots and settings. No direct evidence survives of his research for novels like Indian Jim and Red Plume; being fictional, they required no citations.
But Ellis’s bibliographies in his non-fiction histories report that his main source on the Dakota War of 1862 was Isaac V.D. Heard’s History of the Sioux War and Massacres of 1862 and 1863. Perhaps not coincidentally, the real-life inspiration for Ellis’s earliest Dakota War fiction, Josephine Huggins’s story, is contained in Heard’s non-fiction book.
I had never heard of Edward Sylvester Ellis when I first met Zabelle and she pitched me her ideas for The War in Words. In fact, I remember thinking that her proposal to discuss fiction like Ellis’s Indian Jim in a work largely devoted to non-fiction Dakota War narratives might be confusing for readers.
Now I understand that Zabelle was making a new point about the historiography of the Dakota War: that popular understanding of history is not necessarily formed by the books that are the most heavily footnoted, but by the books that are the most widely read.
That means the change-makers in public history have always been the authors who can write best-sellers. For better or worse, those are usually non-historians like Edward Sylvester Ellis. Or in the modern day, authors like Dee Brown (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 1970), Duane Schultz (Over the Earth I Come, 1994) and Curt Brown (In the Footsteps of Little Crow, 2012).
In the 19th century, Edward S. Ellis’s fiction was probably more widely-consumed than the the now-better known work of non-fiction writers like Isaac Heard. That makes me very curious to see how Ellis reinvented Josephine Huggins’s story. In her lifetime, more people may have read Ellis’s gloss on her story than her own, understated, words.
So how many people helped write Josephine Huggins’s story? I’d argue we need to add Edward Sylvester Ellis to the list.
Photo credits: Ellis, the University of Minnesota Hess Collection; Seth Jones cover, liveauctioneers.com; Indian Jim frontispiece and title page, The Newberry Library; Red Plume covers, my collection.
“Through the Heart of New Ulm: The persistence of place in stories of the 1863 Dakota women’s march” appeared in Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Exile Begins (Park Books, 2008).