Rugged Landscapes: Revealing the Political in Thomas Cole’s Chocorua’s Curse

Adilene Peña is a junior at Syracuse University. She is majoring in art history and is part of the e-board for Xicanxs Empowering Xicanxs, an organization on campus looking to empower Mexican/Mexican American/Indigenous students on campus.

Upon first glance, the English-born American painter Thomas Cole’s Chocorua’s Curse (1826) captivates us with its immense landscape rendered on such a small scale. The mountains seemingly go on beyond the horizon. In the foreground, Cole presents a scene equally as dramatic as the rugged mountains behind them. An indigenous man sits atop a high rock above three white settler men. The leader of the settlers looks up at the indigenous man ready to aim his rifle at him. This scene depicts the moment right before Chief Chocorua, the indigenous man, curses the settlers.

   Chocorua’s Curse is based on a tragic legend of conflict between white settlers and the indigenous community. The tale is set in New Hampshire in the county of Stafford, near present-day Albany. The protagonist of the story is a wise man named Cornelius Campbell who lived with his beautiful wife and children on a small settlement near the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Chocorua, the antagonist, a strong and well respected Native American also lived with his young son near the Campbell’s settlement with the rest of his tribe. Father and son would frequently visit the Campbell home. The young boy was very curious about the things that the white settlers owned, but unfortunately, one day, he mistakenly drank the poison that had been left out for wild foxes. Distraught over the death of his son, Chocorua vowed to take revenge on Cornelius Campbell and his family. One day, Campbell left his family to work in the fields, but upon his return he discovered his family had been killed. Filled with hatred for Chocorua, he decided that he too would exact his revenge. Campbell gathered a party of men and looked for Chocorua atop the rock he frequented. Campbell shot Chocorua, but before he died Chocorua cursed the white settlers, the land they lived on, the cattle they raised, and the homes they built. The curse came true and the settlers were forced to leave the land where they lived.

   This tragic story was popularized by a book titled, The Token: A Christmas and New Year’s Present edited by Samuel Griswold Goodrich in 1829 just a year before the Indian Removal Act (1830) would be put into place. A collection of stories and other writings, the book included the tale “Chocorua’s Curse” by Lydia Maria Child who had earlier written another popular story about the relationship between settlers and Native Americans in her novel, Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times that was published in 1824. Hobomok focused on the marriage between a Native American and a white settler woman who would give birth to an interracial child. The couple would later divorce and the woman would marry her first love, a white man. A romanticized version of something that may or may not have happened in reality, the story however highlights the tense relationship between settlers and Native Americans, a theme that also underscores Cole’s visual imaging of Chocorua’s Curse. In Goodrich’s book, Cole’s engraving with the same title as the story accompanies Child’s narrative version of Chocorua’s curse (Goodrich, 256-257).

   Cole’s composition is highly Romantic in its subject and composition. Acclaimed for his American landscape paintings and also for co-founding the Hudson River School of painting, in 1819, Cole immigrated from England with his family. Later on in his adult life, he moved to Catskill, New York. Thanks to the New York merchant George Bruen, one of his early patrons, Cole’s career began to take off. Bruen sponsored Cole’s trip through the Hudson River Valley where the artist painted the landscapes he encountered. Cole was able to deftly capture the grandeur of the wilderness of New York. This caught the attention of other artists and patrons. He was commissioned to paint more pictures that displayed his talent for capturing the vastness of the American landscape, an example being the Course of Empire series (1833-1836) that depicts the evolution of western civilization. Other artists like Frederic Edwin Church also admired his landscape paintings and so, the Hudson River School of painting was born. Like Cole, Church and the other artists who belonged to this movement would emphasize the Romantic elements of their surroundings in their work (Avery, 5).

   Returning to Cole’s Chocorua’s Curse, we see that Chocorua and the armed man gaze at each other while a trail of smoke appears from the rifle. The landscape takes up more than half of the composition and creates a backdrop that matches in drama the scene unfolding in the foreground. The engraving evokes feelings of danger and of awe. It also asks us, the viewers, to question our position in nature as we contemplate Chorocua at the center of the scene overlooking the men and the mountains behind them. The myth of Chocorua had already been circulating in local towns when Cole visited the legendary site of the curse. Strikingly, the story popularized by Child accentuates the concept of the “Noble Savage” that can be traced back to the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote about a liberated society completely uncorrupted by modernity (Vaughan, 18). Rousseau saw indigenous peoples as being more connected to nature, but disconnected from polite society. While it appears to ennoble the indigenous figure, Rousseau’s approach nevertheless dehumanizes indigenous peoples by perpetuating the idea that they are animalistic, violent, stupid, and impulsive. It was precisely such perceptions that led to acts of violence against indigenous peoples. They were also rooted in the notion of white superiority that overlooked the humanity and agency of other groups of people.

   The Indigenous Nation which inhabited the land near the White Mountains of New Hampshire was the Abenaki nation. The land they lived on spread from southern Quebec to northern Massachusetts. The first European settlers relied on the indigenous people they encountered for trade and guidance in the Americas. Both parties wished for a harmonious relationship, but often ended conflicting with each other because of cultural misunderstandings. After a series of wars with the English settlers who continually encroached on their land, the Abenakis were forced to relocate. Despite the various peace treaties and land agreements, the English settlers often went back on their word and took advantage of the position they enjoyed because of their advanced weaponry (Institute for Native Justice). The mountain named Mount Chocorua is called that because it is believed that an indigenous man died there. Lydia Maria Child’s story became so popular that it was widely accepted as the truth; however, it is more likely that an indigenous person passed away there after a fall from the rocks. Cole too referred to the legend in his sketchbook:

We set out to climb Chocorua peak…. On the path through the wood, we came to windfalls, the track of the tornado, where every tree is laid prostrate. We came out, at length, to a lonely and de-serted clearing, just at the foot of the mountain. The cause of this abandonment is, they say, the poisonous effects of the water upon the cattle; the result, according to tradition, of the curse of Choco-rua, an Indian, from whom the peak, upon which he was killed by the whites, takes its name. (Cole, 95-96)

   Cole’s engraving is fraught with tension. The tension between the characters of the myth is one layer of tension. Next, we have the tension between the notions of “the old country” and “the new country,” and lastly the tension between man and nature. This small engraving reveals much of the history of the United States. One side of that story is the heroic white settler who sets out to make a home in a wild and untamed landscape, but this ignores the fact that there were already civilizations inhabiting the land and that there was nothing heroic about grabbing land. The conflicts, which arose between the settlers and the indigenous peoples of America, reveal a bloody and violent history which is reflected in the engraving as well as in the myth it was based on.

   Cornelius Campbell and Chocorua started a vicious cycle of revenge over the deaths of their family members. Cole’s image captures the moment of tension just before Campbell takes the life of Chocorua and the curse is placed. It also draws attention to the notion of “discovery” that is embedded into the hagiography of the United States. The white man has “discovered” an uncivilized being, the indigenous man who becomes symbolic of the discovery of the New World by white colonists from the Old Country. It is up to the settlers from the Old Country to “civilize” and conquer this new and beautiful landscape and its peoples so that they can profit from their discoveries.

   In Cole’s composition, the scale of the landscape when compared to the size of the figures, compels us to think about the power dynamic between man and nature. The white man “civilizes” nature through technological advancements that in reality harm the environment. In the engraving, the white settler stands to the right of a broken tree, a motif that can be interpreted as a testament to the power of colonization. For the broken tree might be read as a symbol of the changes ushered in by the white settlers, its sharp broken-off branches conveying a sense of foreboding. What will come next is a bloody death for Chocorua. Quite simply, change will come about violently. Chocorua sits on the rock defenseless against the gun of the white man.

   In 2016, indigenous- and environmentalist- activists joined forces at Standing Rock, North Dakota to protest an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) which could pollute the drinking water for the nearby Sioux reservation if it were to spill (NPR, Jeff Brady). This protest garnered nationwide attention as the battle for potable drinking water continued. Activists successfully marketed for their cause on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram by using the hashtag “#NODAPL.” Under the Obama administration, activists were triumphant in being able to deny a permit which would allow for the construction of the pipeline; however, the current Trump administration reversed that decision in 2016 and construction was allowed to continue. Images of activists being sprayed with water by using hoses in freezing temperatures are just one example of the violence that occurred so recently at Standing Rock (Vox, Plumer). Activists have also claimed part of the land that the pipeline construction must pass through, as belonging to eight indigenous tribes under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 (Vox, Plumer). Despite tremendous efforts on the part of the activists at Standing Rock, the United States government has once again taken advantage of their power for capitalistic profit. The histories and cultural frameworks of indigenous communities continue to be overlooked and violently suppressed, bringing to mind the tensions that Cole drew attention to more than a century ago in his composition, Chocorua’s Curse.


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