The Wild West and Wild Fields

Henryk Sienkiewicz
Jeremiah Curtin

  • Andrzej Kmicic
  • Gustavus Doane

The American frontier or ‘Wild West’ period of the country’s history can trace its origins to the establishment of various colonial settlements on the east coast in the early 17th century. The era ended with the admission of the last few western territories as states at the beginning of the 20th century. The Great Plains, a broad expanse of flatland located east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Mississippi River, represent the most vivid example of the frontier. In general, the area is covered in prairie. The region was made famous by the nomadic culture of the Native Americans and cowboy culture, which borrowed heavily from Native American and Mexican-American traditions. Horses, bison (buffalos), and cattle were the most important animals of the region. Leading theorist Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American frontier was the scene of a defining process of American civilization: “The frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people [..] This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward… furnish[es] the forces dominating American character”.

The south-eastern frontier of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which runs through the Great Steppe and covers territories called the ‘Wild Fields’, shared many environmental, cultural and historical similarities with the American frontier. This is particularly true in relation to the Great Plains. The experience shaped greatly Ukrainian and to a lesser degree Polish culture and identity. Indeed, the name Ukraine in the Slavic languages means ‘frontier’. Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916), also known by the pseudonym Litwos (Lithuanian), was a Polish journalist, novelist, and the 1905 Nobel Prize laureate in Literature. His work exemplifies the similarities between the Great Steppe and the Great Plain. Sienkiewicz is famous for his Trilogy composed of three historical novels: With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Sir Michael. These are set in the 17th-century Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and especially in the Eastern lands of the country, including the Wild Fields. Sienkiewicz was part of a Lithuanian Tatar family that converted from Islam to Christianity in the mid-18th century. His ancestors served in a cavalry unit based around Trakai, Lithuania. The historic city was the de facto capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the turn of the 15th century when the state was at the zenith of its power. As a result of this influence, it was able to attract many immigrants from other countries, including Muslim Tatars. The Tatars occupy a prominent place in Sienkiewicz’s works, though their image is full of contradictions. Sienkiewicz spent two years in the US (1876-1878). He travelled from New York through the Great Plains to California. The journey occupied a key place in the writer’s life. According to the current state of research, it is often described as his ‘initiation journey’. Whilst travelling through the US, Sienkiewicz wrote letters and articles and, also collected materials that served as a source of inspiration for his short “American” stories.

Both the letters and short stories were translated into English. These were then published as Portrait of America: Letters of Sienkiewicz and Western septet: seven stories of the American West. Many of his other works, including the Trilogy, were translated into English by Jeremiah Curtin (1835–1906), a prominent American ethnographer. He worked for several years at the American embassy in Tsarist Russia. At that time, he became very interested in the cultures of the nomadic people of the Great Steppe (Mongols, ancient Hungarians). He also started to learn the languages of the nations of the Eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Besides Slavic languages, including Polish, he studied Lithuanian and Latvian. He was also able to visit the Eastern lands of the former Commonwealth. After returning to the US, he was employed by the Bureau of American Ethnology as a field researcher. Curtin documented the customs and mythologies of various Native American tribes and published many scientific works on these topics. He recognized the difficulty of learning and pronouncing Polish. Once Curtin said to President Theodore Roosevelt that “Not even a voracious Oregon rattlesnake will swallow those Polish words”.

Today Sienkiewicz’s letters are treated as an important literary testimony to the dark and bright sides of US society at the end of the 19th century. In his letters, Sienkiewicz showed particular compassion for the fate of the Native Americans and their fight against the expansion of the American settlers. He wrote that “I met so-called civilized Indians. They present a uniform picture of misery and despair. The men are shabby, dirty, and degraded; the women stretch their emaciated hands toward the coaches, begging for handouts. You may inquire: why don’t they work? They do not know how to work, and no one is concerned about teaching them, they have renounced their wars with the whites, and given up their raids and hunting. In return, they have received . . . horse blankets . . . and contempt. Finally, the immediate benefits which all savages received as the direct result of civilization were whiskey, smallpox, and syphilis. Is it at all surprising, therefore, that upon viewing civilization from their experience of these first benefits, they do not yearn for it, but rather fight against it to the death? [..] They are therefore anxious not to perish without avenging themselves and in the next world to place at the feet of the “Great Spirit” as many bloody scalps as possible torn from the heads of the invaders. Briefly stated, this valiant though savage race is being relentlessly exterminated throughout the United States. The Indians cannot reconcile themselves with a civilization which, of course, is being presented to them in its worst possible form, and therefore this civilization is wiping them off the face of the earth, inexorably and brutally”. According to Samuel Sandler (1925-2020), a Polish-American literary scholar, Sienkiewicz felt sympathy for the Native Americans as he undoubtedly saw similarities between their fate and that of the Poles, who lost their independence as a result of the Partitions.

At the same time, a unique link exists in Sienkiewicz’s works between the Great Plains and the Eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This is particularly true in the case of certain personalities. Sienkiewicz believed that the people of the Polish-Lithuanian frontier in the 17th century “were brave men, but also men who loved war and bloodshed, they were harsh, stormy and quick to quarrel. Here in America the same is happening, and even to a greater extent”.

Andrzej Kmicic, one of the most colorful fictional characters created by Henryk Sienkiewicz, is a classical example of the unruly frontier man. He featured in the novel The Deluge. He was most probably modelled after Samuel Kmicic (1625 or 1630–1692), a nobleman from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania who held the rank of ensign of Orsha in today’s eastern Belarus. During the course of the book, Andrzej Kmicic, a notorious yet patriotic warlord from Orsha, transforms from a villain into a hero. He was able to seek “redemption” for his sins by commanding Tatar scouts with distinction.

This restored colour autochrome from 1926 was taken at the site of the Little Bighorn Battlefield (1876) National Monument in the Crow Indian Reservation, Montana. The man the right (named Curley) was one of General Custer’s scouts. Source: Babel Colour, Stuart Humphryes.

As a result, according to some literary scholars, we should ultimately find the main source of inspiration for Andrzej Kmicic in the Wild West. Gustavus Doane (1840–1892) was a U.S. Army cavalry captain, who played a prominent role in the exploration of Yellowstone. He gained fame as a commander of the Native American scouts (Crow people) during Sienkiewicz’s journey through the US. Konrad Niciński, a Polish scholar, has posed a rhetorical question about these similarities: “Would Kmicic leading the Tartar scout troops appear without Gustavus Doane commanding the Indian scout troops? Maybe yes. Doane, however, could have been for Sienkiewicz a kind of proof for the existence of Kmicic. And that means really a lot”.