Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories

Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories Summary and Analysis of "Traits of Indian Character" and "Philip of Pokanoket"

“Traits of Indian Character”: Crayon finds the American Indian, especially among the American natural environment, sublime and striking. Crayon explains that the Indian has been doubly wronged by the white man: their land has been taken through warfare, and their character has been slandered through writing. Indeed, even in peace, the white man has often taken advantage of the Indian in unfair trading.

In Crayon’s time, prejudices against the Indian prevail, although the American government has tried to ameliorate their situation. Part of the reason for the negative stereotypes, Crayon argues, is that the American Indians whom the average white man encounters are not the usual Indians but the ones of the worst sort, brought down by poverty and feelings of inferiority and envy. Crayon explains that the Indians flourish in the wilderness but do not function well in civilization, where most others meet them.

Crayon adds that the white man often complains of the suddenness with which Indians become hostile, even after signing a treaty or in times of peace. He explains that this reaction is because of the Indians’ greater sense of solidarity; in their society, an injury to one is an injury to all. Moreover, the hostility is often instigated by the distrust and disdain with which the white men treat them and their long traditions.

Crayon also disagrees with the common sentiment among white men that the Indian is cowardly because he fights in warfare through strategy instead of straightforward battle. Instead, he argues that they are braver than the white man, who rushes in front of the cannon, because they calmly face slow death and even incite their enemies to kill them through torture.

He tells the story of the Pequod tribe, whose wigwams were set aflame in the middle of the night. Just about everyone trying to escape was shot. The few who escaped managed to get to a swamp, where they were slowly surrounded, but they refused to surrender or beg for mercy, and all were shot to death.

Philip of Pokanoket”: Crayon points out that even in the biased histories of the early colonies written by the colonizers, it is easy to see how quick to turn to warfare were the colonists themselves in their lust for conquest, and how mercilessly they often treated the American Indians. Philip of Pokanoket was an Indian warrior infamous throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut at the time of the first settlement of New England. When the settlers first arrived, they faced harsh climates, dwindling populations, and savage natives, and were not doing well. Massasoit, chief Sagamore of the Wampanoags, a powerful chief, did not expel these intruders from his territory, but he offered them hospitality and friendship.

Even as the settlers grew more numerous and prosperous and thus covered more land, Massasoit showed them only generosity and kindness. Shortly before his death, he went to see them to try to ensure that the peace would last beyond his lifetime. He brought his sons, Alexander and Philip, and expressed his desire that the peace between his tribe and the white man would continue with his sons. He also wanted to protect his people’s religion from the increasing zealousness of the colonial missionaries. The colonizers refused to make any promises about religion, however, and he gave up.

Alexander, who succeeded Massasoit upon his death, had a much more impetuous temper, and pride in his hereditary rights. He was also growing fearful of the colonialists’ extermination of the other area tribes. Soon after he came to power, he was accused of plotting with another tribe to take over, and the ignominy of being captured killed him.

He in turn was succeeded by Metamocet, or King Philip, as the settlers called him. He had a lofty spirit, an ambitious temper, and lots of energy and enterprise, which made him appear very threatening to the settlers. They accused him of always being hostile towards them. This allegation may very well have been true and well-deserved, but in any case Philip renewed the treaty with the settlers and resided peacefully with them for many years.

Suspicions, however, remained and began to rise, and he was eventually charged with attempting to instigate the various eastern tribes to rise together against their so-called oppressors. The truth of the accusation was unclear and supported by no evidence, but once it was made, the settlers felt they could not reverse course, now having shown their distrust. Philip was smart enough to know he was no longer safe in his treaty with the white men, so he surrounded himself with warriors at all times. In this state of high tension, some marauding Indians were shot upon by a settler, and one of them was killed. This was enough to turn things to outright hostility, and the alarm of war was sounded.

The events of the war are known only through a very biased clergyman of the time who set them down. Still, the facts show that Philip displayed a vigorous intellect and unconquerable resolution. He gathered his forces deep in the forests, ambushing settlements at the most unexpected times. Although sometimes pursued or even surrounded by the settlers, Philip managed always to escape. Philip thus became universally feared by the settlers. Many superstitions abounded about him, and any time any attack happened, he was said to be there.

Philip’s resources had vastly dwindled, however, and the Narrhagansets took him and his people in, although they had not actively joined the battle. When the settlers learned of this, they decided to wipe out both tribes at once. Apprehensive of attack, Philip and the Narrhagansets drew back to their fort on an island in the middle of the swamp, believed by them to be impenetrable. The settlers were guided to this fort by a traitorous Indian and launched a surprise attack. The battle was long and bloody, but eventually only Philip, the chief of the Narrhagansets, and a few of their soldiers remained to retreat into the forest.

The settlers set fire to their fort and to their village, killing many of the old men, women, and children. The Narrhaganset chief much later was captured, and he was offered his life if he would turn on Philip and his remaining soldiers. The chief refused and paid for his faithfulness with his life.

Philip’s situation became increasingly worse as many of his followers died, were killed, or chose safety with the enemy rather than risk of death with Philip. Some of his remaining followers even started to plot against him, hoping that in doing so they could win safety with the settlers. He retreated with his last few followers to a swamp, where another traitor led the settlers to him, and all his last followers were killed. Finally, he was shot through the heart in his last attempt at escape.


This section is somewhat different from the rest of the Sketchbook, departing from tales of Europe and the American settlers to tell stories of American Indians from the early days of the settlers. These two sketches primarily work to present a less biased history of the American Indians and their interactions with the settlers, with Crayon explicitly arguing against many of the commonly held prejudices. He is not quite free from prejudice himself, however, presenting a romanticized version of American Indians as proud warriors who flourish in the wilderness but cannot function in society.

This point underscores Crayon’s love of the romantic and his tendency to tell his stories with that bent. His characters’ loves are so deep, or their values so strong, that they die when deprived of what they value. The chief values loyalty more than his own life, unlike the traitors. The point is first of all to provide pleasure, not to educate through a true history. In this case, however, the truer history, the less antagonistic one, permits him to tell a story about a hero, creating an Indian protagonist who is worthy of admiration in maintaining his values against all odds. To the degree that this determination is an American theme, Philip takes his place as a hero in American history.

Crayon’s romanticizing of the American Indian also partially explains the perspective he takes in telling their stories. When he pictures them as living at peace in the wilderness, he is idealizing their past as a long, successful tradition of harmony. Thus, the loss of that harmony looks not unlike the loss of old European customs and ways of life, for him a tragedy on either continent.

It is interesting that Crayon undertakes to correct the historical record, given his preference for the small, private stories over the general histories of nations and their leading political figures. Crayon seems to realize, however, that the biased histories of the Indians close off Americans from appreciating the tales of the Indians. Just as Crayon notes that the British travelers badmouth the Americans when they write about their travels, he notes that American writers badmouth the Indians. Crayon’s only source for the story of Philip of Pokanoket is an extremely biased history, and from this account he takes the facts but finds a more honest, positive perspective on those facts.

This section also shows that Crayon’s general dichotomy between youthful America and ancient, storied Europe is complicated by the presence of a third group of cultures, those of the indigenous peoples of America. America does have many long histories, but these are not the histories of the settlers. In “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving’s narrator merges the two histories, suggesting that the settlers’ tales of Henry Hudson’s ghost are a natural extension of older Indian tales about spirits in the mountains.