Professor Emerita, Northern Virginia Community College

The Forest Spy (1861) Spotlight

About the Novel

The Forest Spy by Edward S. Ellis recounts the adventures of a spy for William Henry Harrison, the commanding general of United States forces, who won a rare victory on land in the War of 1812 against the British and their Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames, a decisive land battle in the Northwest. Published by Beadle and Company forty-six years after the end of the War, the novel is a culturally significant work illustrative of a heightened sense of nationalism after the war.

Cover illustration of The Forest Spy in a later reprint from New & Old Friends no. 10.

The protagonist follows and reports to Harrison on the activities of the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, and the British General Henry Proctor. After several adventures in the forest, including capture by Tecumseh, who arranges to have him burned at the stake, the spy escapes and makes his way through the woods to Lake Erie. At this point, Ellis pauses his narrative to summarize briefly and accurately events in the war of the Northwest which occurred during the spy’s adventures already related. Ellis presumes his readers are “sufficiently well acquainted with their history . . .” (page 76) to need any further elaboration.

Returning to the spy’s adventures, Ellis places the spy in the remaining events of the war in the Northwest, leading up to and participating in the Battle of the Thames, a significant American victory which secured the nation’s military frontier in the area.

From his viewpoint at Lake Erie, the spy observes the American victory there and soon afterwards crosses into Canada where he finds retreating British and Indian forces preparing to move further into that country. Getting as close as he dares, the spy overhears a disgusted Tecumseh loudly criticizing Proctor’s leadership, charging him with betraying the Indian warriors and suggesting he go back to his mother who will take care of him. Tecumseh makes an eloquent speech asking Proctor to tell the Indians his plans, to tell them if he is going to leave them, and, if so, to give them ammunition to defend their lands. In a note, Ellis states this speech was actually delivered (page 82). Despite Tecumseh’s preference to leave Proctor, the Indian chief agrees to stay because several tribes wish to do so.

Subsequently, the spy learns where Tecumseh and Proctor plan to fight Harrison’s forces and quickly relays the information to Harrison. In appreciation, the general grants the spy his wish to join Colonel Richard M. Johnson’s Kentucky mounted cavalry regiment for the coming battle.

After several maneuvers, Harrison catches up with the British and Indian forces on the north side of the Thames River at Moravian Town. It is there that, due to the ability of Johnson’s cavalry regiment, the Americans are victorious. In the thick of battle, the spy kills Tecumseh.

The novel was first published in 1861 as no. 29 of Beadle’s Dime Novels. It cost ten cents and was 110 pages long. The novel was published in London simulteaneously in Beadle's American Novels, then later reprinted in Beadle's New Dime Novels no. 516 on May 9, 1882 and in New & Old Friends no. 10 on August 29, 1873.

About the Novel

Edward Sylvester Elllis was born in 1840 at Geneva, Ohio and died in 1916 at Cliff Island, Maine. When he was six, the family moved to New Jersey where he attended school. Ellis began his career as an educator. He taught at several schools in New Jersey, was a school principal, superintendent of schools, and member of the Board of Education. He married Anna M. Deane in 1862⁠; they had four children and divorced in 1887. That same year he earned a Master of Arts from Princeton. In 1900 he married Clara Spalding Brown.


Edward S. Ellis (1840-1916)

In describing Ellis’s life, biographer Albert Johannsen relates Ellis’s extremely prolific career. He wrote for Beadle and Company from 1860-1865, and again from 1868 until mid May 1874. Seth Jones or, The Captives of the Frontier, published in 1860, was regarded as his most important early dime novel. When Irwin P. Beadle started his American Novels in 1865, Ellis wrote for him until 1868. Ellis wrote also for all the major story papers. His books included the Deerfoot series, which related the adventures of the Shawnee, Deerfoot, and the Log Cabin series; both were published in the 1880s. Sales of his juvenile fiction were as high as works by mainstream juvenile authors William T. Adams and Horatio Alger.

In the mid-1880s, after writing fiction for decades, Ellis also began writing serious works. He wrote on arithmetic, physiology, and numerous multi-volumes of history: histories of the United States, New Jersey, South Africa, Spain, Russia, and Germany. 

In addition to works published in his own name, Ellis used numerous pseudonyms, some of which he chose; others were assigned by publishers. Pseudonyms used by the Beadle firm were James Fenimore Cooper Adams, Seelin Robins, Capt. R. M. Hawthorne, E. S. St. Mox-a U.S. Detective, Billex Muller, Lieutenant. J. H. Randolph, Lieutenant Ned Hunter, Charles E. Lasalle, Captain H. R. Millbank, Boynton M. Belknap, M.D., Emerson Rodman, Captain Latham C. Carleton, and J. G. Bethune.

Discussion Questions

  • In the novel, Ellis conveys pride in the role of the United States in the War of 1812. Give examples of where he does so and discuss how these incidents communicate his feelings.
  • The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper takes place during the French and Indian War, 1754-1763, when the British fought against the Iroquois and their French allies. Discuss the similar and different ways Cooper and Ellis use the subject of war in relating their narratives.
  • Contrast the character development of the two protagonists, Natty Bumppo in The Last of the Mohicans and the spy in The Forest Spy. Discuss how the characters are developed and if they are multi-dimensional or serve simply to drive the plot.
  • Compare and contrast the portrayal of Chingachgook, the Mohican chief in The Last of the Mohicans, and the portrayal of Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief in The Forest Spy.
  • In The Forest Spy, Chief Tecumseh, a great orator, speaks English very well, but the Creek Chief, Nockwyne, speaks in dialect. Discuss what effect, if any, this discrepancy has on the story and explain why you think Ellis used language differently for the two Indian chiefs.
  • In The Forest Spy, Ellis orders events using flashbacks and parallel plots. Identify them and discuss whether they are effective or ineffective. Chance also plays a frequent role in plot development; discuss whether or not some incidents seem plausible.
  • There are three instances in The Forest Spy where Ellis adds a note at the bottom of the page to verify the accuracy of a description or event. Explain their purpose and effect on the narrative.
  • Discuss the theme of The Forest Spy and identify the audience for whom Ellis is writing.

Further Reading

In American accounts of the War of 1812, the British commander, Henry Proctor, is severely criticized for his lack of tactical skills and numerous retreats. This work reassesses Proctor’s reputation and career; it conveys, as well, the British and Native American viewpoints on the War.

Many experts regard this book as the outstanding one-volume history of the war. It contains detailed accounts of the causes, campaigns, and battles on land and sea.

Writing from a British point of view, Latimer makes the case that American and Canadian histories of the War of 1812 have usually been misleading. He argues that America’s main goal was to conquer Canada and its failure to do so made America the loser and Britain the winner in the War. 

Sugden relates how British and Indian forces retreated to the Thames River after the American victory at the Battle of Lake Erie. He describes the Battle of the Thames and the death of Tecumseh, who defended the field after the British retreated. 

Based on thirty years of research, Sugden’s biography describes the life of Tecumseh in detail . He relates Tecumseh’s lifelong ambition to unite the Native American tribes into a confederacy and to protect their civilization.

This collection of essays offers a comprehensive picture of the War of 1812 in northern Canada. Relevant essays are in Part I: “The Contest for the Command of Lake Erie in 1812-13,” Ernest A. Cruikshank; “Another Look at the Battle of Lake Erie,” C. P. Stacey; “Thamesville and the Battle of the Thames,” Katherine B Coutts; “The Case for General Proctor,” Victor Lauriston; and “The Indians in the War of 1812,” George F. G. Stanley.