Violet Vane Sata Prescott
Johannsen Project Manager, Northern Illinois University

Cloudwood (1871) Spotlight

About the novel

Cloudwood is one of the few dime novels that feature a same-sex marriage between two women. While this marriage does not continue through to the ending (and all characters end in heterosexual couples) it does display a rare view of homosexual, or at least queered, interaction. Cloudwood comes packed with the disguises and convoluted domestic entanglements that dime novels are known for, and even features some tense conflicts of justice and morality.

Throughout the text are some fascinating themes of 19th century attitudes toward crime, and justice, as well as strong LGBTQ+ themes. The eponymous Cloudwood is a leader of a gang of horse thieves, and provides the focus for conflict. However, Cloudwood is also half of a secret marriage to Edith, Ido's blonde cousin. Eventually, it becomes clear that Ido, in the guise of Cloudwood and under a a secret name of Ralph Ernstein was married to Edith. By the end of the novel, both women are married to other male characters, both of whom were antagonistic to Cloudwood. It's worthwhile to note how the various romances are carried out, and how each person defines their relationships.

Ido disguises herself as Cloudwood in order to lead a gang of horse thieves. Her primary suiter, Jack Kenton, is determined to find Cloudwood and kill him in the name of justice. When he asks to marry Ido, she says that she cannot marry as she is already married to "Myself!" (14). Similarly, a man pursues Ido's fair cousin, Edith. When this man, Aubray Ramon, proposes to her, she says she is married to Ralph Ernstein. Ido's three identities of Cloudwood (criminal gang leader), Ralph Erstein (a dashing, romantic outlaw), and Ido (a tempestuous, dark-haired and potentially mixed-race firebrand) all have different relationships with the other characters.

At it's crux, the story portrays an image of women and marriage that is particularly rare in this time period. The melodrama tropes of nineteenth century popular literature do tend to mean that characters must enshrine and return to the patriarchal standard at the end of a story. Cloudwood is no different, and both women end married to the primary male characters, Jack and Aubray. Literary fiction had only recently begun expressing homoromantic issues in the Western canon, with titles like Gautier's Mademoiselle Maupin (1835) and Le Fanu's vampire gothic story Carmilla (1872, published a year after Cloudwood). As lesbian-related stories continued to develop in English-speaking literature, the patriarchy was preserved by portraying women who loved other women as shameful, tragic, and ostracized; or by ensuring that at least one of the women died. Furthermore, this trend in mainstream fiction lasted well into the more modern era. That Cloudwood shows scenes of two women (even with one in disguise) "making love" in 19th century fashion is itself tremendous. That both women are permitted a happy ending with no death, despite no longer being married, is even more so.

As an entirely secondary plotline, the horse thievery allows characters to discuss the justice that must be dealt to those that break the social contract. Here horse thieving might be read as a stand-in to represent the queer women of the story. The scenes in which Ido asks her father if the horse thieves must be put to death, while hiding the fact that she is the leader of the horse thief gang, is analogous to the experience of closested queer people throughout history who know that their existence will lead to social and legal ramifications. Ido manages to "save" all the horse theives from "justice," suggesting that it is a happier ending for this justice to be perverted.

Cloudwood, or, The Daughter of the Wilderness was first published by Frank Starr & Co. in Frank Starr's American Novels no. 66 on May 30, 1871. It was reprinted four times in: Beadle's Boy's Library of Sport, Story and Adventure (Octavo edition) no. 246 (as The Girl Chief; or, Dolly's Droll Disguise), Beadle's New Dime Novels no. 310/631, Beadle's Pocket Novels no. 58, and Brady’s Champion Novels.

About the author

James Milford Merrill was born on October 15, 1847, in Muskegon, Michigan, to Isaac Dimmock Merrill Augusta McKinney. As a youth, he attended school, worked in his father's lumber mill, and wrote small sketches for story papers. He married Elizabeth Brown in 1874. Though he had been a child of a large family, with eight siblings, James and Elizabeth had only one child, Raymond, in 1877. His most active period of writing was the 1880s. He wrote at least 35 stories published as dime novels or in story papers, both under "J.M. Merrill" and "Morris Redwing." These were primarily wilderness and pioneer stories, often with women as leading characters. Many of his stories were published in The Chicago Ledger, The Weekly Novelist, and The War Library of New York. Other pseudonyms used for Merrill's work include "Morris Redwing," "Dayton Mulgrove," "Old Timer," and "Wendal Parrish."

James Milford Merrill

James Milford Merrill (from Albert Johannsen's House of Beadle & Adams)

In addition to serials and dime novels, Merrill also wrote a number of cloth-bound books:

  • Forced Apart (1896)
  • A Fair Prisoner (1896)
  • His Mother's Letter (1902)
  • The American Sovereign (1910)

Merrill bought land in Michigan, near Grant, and cultivated fruit. According to Johannsen, "After the death of Raymond's wife, Merrill sold his farm and he and his wife went to live with his son to help care for the latter's two-year-old child, Isobel." (Johannsen 196-197) He eventually lived the rest of his life with his sister. James Molford Merrill died in 1936. He was buried near his wife and eventually, his son, in Grant Cemetery (modernly Parkview Cemetery) in Grant, Michigan.

JM Merrill grave marker

James Milford Merrill's grave marker in Parkview Cemetary, via


Discussion questions

  • Lesbian characters and queer marriages were not common topics in this period of time. Some novels like Henry James' The Bostonians and Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin alluded to possible lesbian characters, especially in tragic circumstances. How does Cloudwood's marriage compare to the "Boston Marriage," named after aspects of James' novel. How about the dashing Mademoiselle de Maupin?
  • In "Queer America, Episode 2: The Experiences of Trans People," Dr. Genny Beemyn talks about identifying LGBTQ+ representation in history. She says that it's both important to recognise clear instances of queer characters, while also understanding that the modern conceptions of what it is to be a member of the LGBTQ+ spectrum did not exist for those people (or character and authors) to self-identify. Do you think that Cloudwood is transgender? A lesbian? What about Edith? If yes or no, do you think that their story would be different if written today?
  • What marriages are "real" by the end of the novel? What marriages are "good?"
  • Edith has married "Ralph Ernstein." When "Ralph" is revealed to be Ido in disguise, the marriage is immediately considered invalid, allowing the women to marry the men in a heterosexual union. When Ido's deception is revealed, she tells Edith and Aubrey "You're a pretty good girl, cousin..., and it if wasn't for Mr. Raymon here, I'd hold you to the marriage contract. Now, don't you think I can best him all to pieces making love?" (page 92) "Making love" here refers to the process of courtship. What does "making love" look like in the story between Edith and "Ralph"? Is it different than the "making love" between Edith and Aubrey? Or between Ido and Jack?
  • Find some moments in the story in which Ido, in or out of disguise, declares love or attraction to any character. What does she appear to value in a partner? Do you think her marriage to Edith was only a joke? Why or why not? Why do you think Ido decided to court Edith?
  • When and where do they conduct their romance? Is it public or private? How are Ido and Edith's lives different?
  • What audience do you think Cloudwood is written for? What elements of the story make you think that? What gender is the intended audience? Age group? With which characters does Merrill encourage the audience to sympathize?
  • View the newpaper article “Horse Thieves,” “Victims of Vigilantes,” “Coggeshall Prepares Two Opinions for Board of Supervisors,” as well as information on the Bentonville Anti-Horse Thief Society. What do these tell you about how the theft of horses in the 19th century and how it was viewed at the time? Does the public opinion and treatment of horse thieves appear to change over time? The short article “Horse Thieves" is closest to the time period in which Cloudwood takes place, and the article “Victims of Vigilantes” is closer to the time period in which the story was written. Which of these articles seems to be more similar to how the characters of Cloudwood treat the topic of horse theft; and what does this tell you about how the writer pictures the crime? Why do you think the Bentonville Anti-Horse Society still exists?

Further Reading

Describes the reasons that some people in history would choose to cross dress, and considers the possibilities of gender identity and sexuality (as opposed to the need to move in gender-exclusive spaces) as motivations.

Discusses homoerotic text and subtext in dime novels and other early American popular literature, and in particular how “low” culture materials expressed social mores on topics of sexuality more clearly than “high” culture materials.

A novel fictionalizing the life of real-life opera star Julie d'Aubigny, who broke hearts of all genders both as herself and in her male persona. In Gautier's novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, in male disguise as Théodore de Sérannes charms both the noble D'Albert and his mistress. The book was censored and banned at different times in its published life.

Describes the historical position of horse-stealing and its placement in culture at the time. It also talks in specific about the popular culture response to some notable horse thieves.

Discusses images and history of gender and sexual queering of the American West, particularly examining dime novels featuring women adventurers.

Discusses the lives of gender non-conforming people in pre-20th century times in America. Particularly addresses how history needs to be viewed both as identifying historical people as potentially transgender while also understanding that this is a historicism that would be non-understanding within those people's time period.