“Poetry Wedded to Science.” On the Love and Legacy of Elaine Goodale and Charles Eastman
Julie Dobrow Investigates the Political Implications of Interracial Marriage in 19th-Century America
The marriage of Elaine Goodale and Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa) in 1891 was an event so unusual more than 200 newspapers around the world covered it. The New York Herald grandly proclaimed the marriage “Poetry wedded to Science;” The Boston Herald stated, “The story of Dr. Eastman’s fate… and of the romantic way in which he and Miss Goodale came to know and love each other, is interesting in the extreme.” Throughout the duration of their relationship, the Eastmans would be the subjects of countless other accounts in the press.
The fascination with them came not only from a rare union of a white woman and a Native American man; not only because they both achieved early fame—she, as a poet and he, as a Sioux educated in Euro-American universities; and not only because the pair were writers, public speakers and active in the Indian reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The fascination with the Eastmans came about also because they were part of a larger American story of change.
When Elaine Goodale set out for the Dakota Territories in 1886 to a new post teaching school children on the Great Sioux Reservation, it wasn’t the first time the 23-year-old had chosen a highly unusual path. Born in 1863 at the elegiacally named Sky Farm, in an extremely remote corner of the Massachusetts Berkshires, Elaine and her three siblings grew up in a world delineated by the small wonders of nature and the company of one another; their nearest neighbor was miles away.
Elaine and her sister Dora showed an early gift for verse. Recognizing this, their father sent some sample poems to Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas Magazine. By the late 1870s St. Nicholas already had a circulation of over 70,000, and Dodge, a well-known and well-connected writer, herself, had an eye for talent. She published six short poems by Elaine and Dora in 1877.
Perhaps equally as astonishing as the check for 75 dollars that arrived after the poems were published were the letters from readers that began flooding Sky Farm, praising the girls’ precocious poetic talents and seeking autographs. The Goodales also received fan mail from notable figures in American literature, including the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Friends suggested it would be advisable to collect the girls’ poetry in a single published volume. Henry Goodale also sought the advice of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the well-known Civil War commander of a Black regiment, author and literary advocate. At that time Higginson was also busily advising another young poet from western Massachusetts, a reclusive young woman named Emily Dickinson. In response to Goodale’s letter, Higginson replied he had “already been told of your children, & …these poems… They are certainly the most remarkable verses I have ever seen from writers so young.”
Apple Blossoms: Verses of Two Children came out in 1878, going through five editions in two years and selling ten thousand copies. The book catapulted the so-called “child poetic prodigies” (Elaine was already 15) to wide fame despite the careful curation of their work and enforced isolation insisted upon by their parents. By the time she was 18, Elaine Goodale was the co-author of three volumes of poetry and the author of two additional books. Despite good reviews and wide circulation, Elaine’s poetry still did not offer much financial security. So she turned to teaching—one of the few options available to women of her era.
Rather than accept a job tutoring local children, Elaine defied convention and traveled to the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Founded in 1868 to teach freed slaves, Hampton began accepting Native American students a decade later. Led by the dashing Civil War commander, Samuel Chapman Armstrong, Hampton was part of the U.S. government’s larger program of assimilation: if Native American students could be separated from their families, taught English and vocational skills, and Christianized, the theory went, they would become more “civilized.” But early in her teaching career Elaine came to believe that day schools on reservations could be more impactful—and less traumatic—for their young charges.
In 1886 she set out alone for the Dakota Territories to open a day school for Sioux children, undaunted by society’s admonitions. Elaine financed her journey and this endeavor by turning from poetry to prose, writing a series of travel articles, then policy pieces, published in all of the leading newspapers and magazines. As the final decade of the 19th century dawned, the childhood poet became a well-known journalist and advocate of Indian policy reform. She had recently turned 24.
The public platform for her ideas that her writing afforded led to Elaine’s appointment as the first supervisor of education on the Great Sioux Reservation. In this role she traveled around the reservation on horseback, learning the Lakota language, dropping in on schools unannounced, trying to institute educational reforms. She arrived to see the schools in Pine Ridge, South Dakota in early December of 1890.
Born in a tepee near Redwood Falls, Minnesota in 1858, Ohiyesa’s first years were marked by the trauma of his mother’s death and the so-called 1862 “Minnesota Massacre,” in which U.S. troops began raiding Sioux villages in retaliation for violence against Euro-American settlers. This was the culmination of troubles that began years earlier when the Sioux endured incursions of white settlers into their traditional lands, broken treaties with the U.S. government, and starvation resulting from failed U.S. Indian policies. Four-year-old Ohiyesa fled to Canada with his relatives as the violence erupted; he was told his father and older brothers had been killed.
Raised with traditional Dakota lifeways in Manitoba, Ohiyesa was shocked a few years later when his father miraculously appeared to reclaim his son. Jacob Eastman, as he now called himself, had been imprisoned, not killed; during his incarceration he became convinced Indians’ only chance for survival in rapidly changing America was to become educated according to the Euro-American’s traditions. He insisted Ohiyesa become a Christian, take a Euro-American name, learn English, and go to school.
The journey to becoming Charles Alexander Eastman took the young man from a series of preparatory schools where he proved a brilliant student, to Dartmouth College, and eventually to the Boston University Medical School. Eloquent and handsome, Charles was soon in demand as a public speaker. By the time he graduated from medical school Charles was a public persona, frequently mentioned—and often photographed—in the newspapers of the day.
He was determined to give back to his people. As he would later write in one of his two autobiographical books, From the Deep Woods to Civilization, (originally published in 1916, subsequently translated into many languages and still in print, today), “I wished to share with my people whatever I might attain, and I looked about me for a distinct field of usefulness…” He sought a position with the Indian Service and became the government physician on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He came to South Dakota in November of 1890.
When Charles Eastman arrived at Pine Ridge Agency the situation was fraught. By the time Elaine Goodale arrived a month later, conditions had further deteriorated. Decades of military conflicts between the U.S. Army and the Sioux, their territory significantly diminished by Euro-American land-grabs, a series of policies aimed at enforced assimilation, and the environmental pressures placed on them by the development of railroads and the virtual elimination of the buffalo—their main source of food and supplies—ratcheted tensions up ever higher.
In their desperation, along with other Plains groups, the Sioux began to participate in the Ghost Dance, a ceremony that was believed would help Native peoples connect with deceased relatives and get back to a pre-Euro-American existence. Today understood as an anticolonial movement, at the time, the Ghost Dance was widely interpreted by U.S. officials as a threatening and anti-American movement.
Against this backdrop of escalating tensions at Pine Ridge Agency, the young Sioux doctor and the young school supervisor were both invited to an afternoon tea given by the Episcopal minister. Their meeting was magical.
Charles later wrote, “Miss Elaine Goodale… was not entirely a stranger, as I had read her ‘Apple Blossoms’ in Boston, and some of her later articles on Indian education in the Independent and elsewhere.” For her part, Elaine recalled, “It seemed that we were from the first mutually attracted” and she believed that to Charles,” it seemed as if I carried on my heart the sorrows of his people.”
It’s not difficult to imagine the electric shock of attraction when Dr. Eastman was introduced to Miss Goodale, the handsome young doctor with close-cropped dark hair and an athletic build and the petite young woman with intense gray eyes, her light brown hair in a bun with curly wisps that accentuated her delicate features. That Charles was already familiar with her writing would have immediately endeared him to her; that Elaine could greet Charles in two languages must have been impressive to him. That they already knew of one another’s work with the Sioux only added to the attraction. They were two people doing unconventional work in conventional professions; their reputations as young people pushing the envelope of their respective careers preceded them. The magnetism was instant and undeniable.
Despite her considerable accomplishments, Elaine was actually quite shy and did not have much experience in love. Charles, despite his bon vivant reputation with women, never had a serious romantic relationship. The intensity of their connection was perhaps enhanced by the deteriorating conditions around them; it was clear life would not stay the same. They grasped onto their love as an anchor. Within just a few short weeks they became engaged.
But their joy was short-lived. On the morning of December 29, 1890, Elaine and Charles were busily filling candy bags for Sioux children “…when the distant thunder of big guns, some eighteen miles away, sent cold shivers down our backs,” Elaine later wrote. After the sounds of the Hotchkiss rifles at Wounded Knee Creek silenced, more than 250 Sioux men, women and children were dead, along with 25 members of the 7th Cavalry—the same unit Custer once commanded. The wounded Sioux were brought to a makeshift hospital in a church. Just a few months out of medical school, Charles’ training had not prepared him for the scope of the mass casualties he faced. Elaine, called into service as a nurse, had never seen such horror.
Both Elaine and Charles wrote articles relating their observations of the Wounded Knee Massacre, accounts that differed significantly from the story told by Army representatives and proved an important counter-narrative. The event was so ingrained in both of the Eastman’s minds that they each returned to it in their writing many times in the years afterwards.
The Wounded Knee Massacre turned out to be a transformative moment in Native American and American history. It was also a transformative moment for Elaine Goodale and Charles Eastman. It sealed their resolve to work on behalf of Indian peoples, but to do so outside the realm of government service. And it strengthened their commitment to do this work together: six months later they married at the Church of the Ascension in New York City, despite the opposition of Elaine’s family.
The rarity of such an interracial marriage paired with the already high profiles of the “most educated Indian” and the “childhood poetic genius” proved irresistible to the press. Headlines ranging from “An Indian Princess: His People are Her People—The Child Poet of the Berkshires is Now Ohiyesa’s Bride” to “Poetess Elaine Goodale Married to a Full-Blooded Indian” called attention to the nascent marriage and displayed many of the prejudices and assimilationist intentions of the era.
The Eastmans would make many moves across the United States over the next three decades. Charles would take on many different jobs, turning from medicine to writing as a way to convey his Dakota roots and stories to a mainstream and largely white audience. Elaine would give birth to and raise their six children. Between the two of them, they would publish 18 books and hundreds of articles and papers. And between his writing, his public speaking, and propensity for being photographed—sometimes in Euro-American Victorian clothing and sometimes in traditional Sioux regalia—Charles would become, arguably, the best-known Indian of his era.
But the couple’s professional successes belied their personal problems. They dealt with financial problems, suffered the unbearable loss of one of their children in the 1918 flu pandemic, and endured a host of other private tribulations that eventually led to their separation in 1921. Their much-heralded marriage collapsed, a victim, perhaps, of the tensions in a shifting America where ideas about gender and race were transforming, an America where notions of what it meant to be an American citizen—who deserved to be one and how that would be expressed—were transmuting.
The trail of their published works left behind—poems, articles, novels, stories, and autobiography—help to tell the story of their individual and collective lives and the dissolution of their marriage. It may be that the Wounded Knee Massacre, itself—an event sometimes considered the epitome of tensions between Euro-America and Native America—would prove an unfortunate metaphor for the compelling but complex marriage of Elaine Goodale and Charles Eastman.