Author: Thomas Jefferson Mayfield
Editor: Malcolm Margolin
Illustrators: Hilair Chism, Rick Jones
Paperback: 144 pages
Publisher and Year: Heyday Books, 1997
As we perused the gift shop of a local history museum, I noticed my son was reading one of the books. Of course, if my children find a book about history that interests them, I pay attention.
The book he picked up had the attention-getting title of Adopted by Indians: A True Story. It is the first person account of Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, a man who spent a large portion of his childhood in the 1850s among the Choinumne Indians, a Yokuts-speaking group in the San Joaquín Valley. I had never heard of Mayfield or his story, so I was intrigued. We bought the book.
Why Adopted by Indians?
Mayfield was born in Texas around 1843, and his mother and father brought him to California when they came to seek gold, probably around 1849. His father eventually gave up on gold and decided to raise horses and cattle in the Central Valley, where they lived near a Choinumne village. Tragedy soon struck when Thomas’ mother died and the boy was left in the care of his father and older brothers. With his father and brothers busy raising livestock, there was no one to raise little Thomas. What happened next forms the basis for this unusual and interesting book:
“My daddy was gone a great deal of the time, running livestock in the valley and in the mountains…Shortly after my mother died, the Indians at the rancheria held a meeting and decided to ask my daddy to let them take me and raise me…after a long talk he decided to let me stay with them for a few days while he was gone with his stock…He was later gone so much that I was with the Indians almost continually” (p. 41).
For the next ten years, Mayfield spent most of his time living among the Choinumne near the banks of the Kings River. He learned their language and way of life, and came to have a deep love and respect for them. When he eventually returned to life with his own family, the young Thomas was often ridiculed by other white people for having lived among the Indians. With time, he learned to keep quiet about his experiences. It wasn’t until 1928 that he gave an interview to a historian about his life with the Choinumne. Those memories form the basis of Adopted by Indians.
Why You Might Love This Book
Based on Mayfield’s first-person account, the book gives a closeup look at native life in California during the earliest years of Anglo-American dominance, and before Central Valley native traditions had undergone major changes.
As a sympathetic eyewitness view, Adopted by Indians provides unique details about Choinumne life, from how they hunted and fished, to the games children played, to the fact that they sometimes put bear fat in their hair to make it shine. It is also told from the standpoint of a young boy who, in a few short years, is forced to leave his home, loses his mother and is left among people of another culture, experiences that many young people can identify with.
The book is written in a style that is accessible to young people. While the language in which Mayfield dictated his memories was already quite straightforward, the editor, Malcolm Margolin, took pains to simplify and clarify it even more.
Numerous illustrations, a glossary of the Choinumne language and an attractive design help make the book appealing and save it from being dry. The result is an engaging and easy read.
Why You Might Not Love This Book
One thing that some people might find disappointing is that Indian life seems a little too idyllic. This is partly because Mayfield relates his childhood memories of the day-to-day activities of the Choinumne, who were mainly peaceful and without conflict. The other reason is editorial. In adapting the book for children, the editor removed a number of sequences that describe violence between whites and Indians (although the U.S. Army’s forced relocation of the Choinumne features prominently toward the end of the book).
The unaltered version of Mayfield’s account was published by Heyday Books in 1993 under the title of Indian Summer. In it, the older Mayfield describes not only his peaceful life with the Choinumne, but later episodes in which he and his brothers fought against another local tribe, the Monaches. Indian Summer is also —unsurprisingly given the time period— sprinkled with passages in which Mayfield refers to Indians as “savages” or comments on the more intimate aspects of family life. Some of these things are inappropriate for primary school children or may offend contemporary sensibilities.
Who is It For?
This book will interest anyone looking for a basic understanding what life was like for California Indians before their cultures were irrevocably altered. Because of its maps, illustrations and overall design, it will appeal to elementary or younger junior high children who like to read and are curious to learn about the past. My own son liked the glossary of Choinumne terms, especially how to say “Where are your manners?”
For older students, or adults who already have a basic understanding of California Indian traditional ways, I might recommend Indian Summer. There, they will encounter an unvarnished version of Mayfield’s story and be exposed to the more conflictive aspects of settler-Indian relations in 19th century California. Indian Summer does, however, lack the illustrations and accessible formatting of Adopted by Indians.
Adopted by Indians: Summary
- Engaging and well-designed.
- Great for elementary-school children or those looking for a more basic picture of life in a California Indian tribe.
- Unique first-person perspective.
- Multiple illustrations, maps and glossary.
- Oversimplifies some aspects of native life.
- More sophisticated readers may like Indian Summer.
Where to Buy It
This book is available on Amazon, or the Heyday Books website. I have also seen it at a number of museum gifts shops.
If you decide to buy the book, use the links in the article and part of your purchase will support the California Frontier Project.