ABSTRACT

One year before the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, Almira Lincoln Phelps published the first edition of her Familiar Lectures of Botany. Discussing native orchids of America, including what was commonly known as the moccasin flower, she explained that these flowers, “particularly the Orchis tribe,” which are “opposing all attempts at civilization, are to be found only in the depths of the forest […]; we may, in this respect, compare them to the aboriginal inhabitants of America, who seem to prefer their own native wilds to the refinements and luxuries of civilized life” (175–76). Throughout the nineteenth century, the moccasin flower served as a synecdoche for Native Americans in intense national debates over federal policies of Indian removal. These distinctive orchids, with pouch-like flowers, are members of the genus Cypripedium and occur naturally throughout the Northern Hemisphere. In North America, many different species were commonly called moccasin flowers at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Yet by 1900, the most common term used was the same as that used in England: the lady’s slipper. This shift in terminology ominously mirrors changes in white American perceptions of the seeming necessity of Indian removal. The ways white Americans wrote about moccasin flowers—and the ways the earlier name itself slowly fell from common usage—illustrate the problematic ways that Indian removal was rationalized alongside anthropogenic changes in the landscape. A brief exploration of the changing discourse of moccasin flowers provides a helpful backdrop for the captivity narratives I analyze in this book.