Associate Professor of English, Northern Illinois University

Seth Jones (1860) Spotlight

About the Novel

Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier (1860) is a shockingly-bloody and action-packed frontier adventure story, said to be the “perfect dime novel” according to Beadle & Adams editor, Orville Victor. As the recipient of a high-impact advertising campaign with the mysterious tagline, “Who is Seth Jones?”, this early dime novel sought to generate the mass-market interest that many blockbuster films receive today. These efforts were enormously successful. Recognized as one of the best selling novels of the late 19th century, it was said to have sold as many as 400,000 copies. Drawing on the earlier literary successes of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Series, including his best known Last of the Mohicans, Seth Jones encapsulates the rough-and-tumble racialized violence that nineteenth-century readers craved.

Cover illustration of Seth Jones in Beadle's Dime Novels no. 8, first published on October 2, 1860.

Set in late eighteenth-century New York, Seth Jones tells the story of the eponymous back woodsman hero, later revealed to be a gentleman, who skillfully battles local Mohawk warriors to rescue the beautiful and helpless white damsel in distress. It is useful, however, to think of the frontier and Western stories as fantasy spaces, rather than realistic or accurate historical accounts. Dime novels mass marketed the idea of Americans as rugged individualists making their own way in the world. At the core of this fantasy lies an imagined shared identity: the bonds of white brotherhood strengthened by “scenes of gory violence” focused at Native Americans and other nonwhites (Streeby 592). 

Seth Jones was first published as no. 8 in Beadle's Dime Novels on October 2, 1860 by Beadle and Co. in New York. Because of the novel's popularity, it was reprinted many times. Reprints include: Beadle's Fifteen Cent Novels no. 8 (1860); Beadle's American Library no. 1 (1861); New & Old Friends no. 1 (1873); Beadle's Half Dime Library nos. 8 (1877) and 1104 (1900); Beadle's New Dime Novels no. 519 (1882); and Beadle's Pocket Library no. 82 (1885). A clothbound edition was published by Dillingham, with a new preface by Ellis, in 1907.

About the Author

Edward Sylvester Ellis was born in Geneva, Ohio on April 11, 1840 and, at the age of six, moved to New Jersey where he later worked as a teacher and school administrator. Ellis submitted the manuscript of Seth Jones when he was twenty years old and working as a school teacher in Red Bank, New Jersey. He received seventy-five dollars for the manuscript. Although this was not his first foray into publishing, Ellis’s success with Seth Jones encouraged him to continue writing.


Edward S. Ellis (1840-1916)

Ellis was a prolific author and used many different pseudonyms, making it difficult to precisely track his many publications. Among these are: Bruin Adams, Captain J.F.C. Adams, Boynton Belknap, M.D., J.G. Bethune, Mahlon A. Brown, L. C. Carleton, Frank Faulkner, R.M. Hawthorne, Capt. Marcy Hunter, Lieutenant Ned Hunter, Lt. R. H. Jayne, Charles E. LaSalle, Dr. Longbow, Captain H. R. Millbank, Geoffrey Randolph, Lieutenant J. H. Randolph, Seelin Robbins, Emerson Rodman, E. A. St. Mox, Nicodemus Wildfire, and Nick Wilson among others. While Ellis wrote in many genres and subgenres, he is most known for frontier and adventure stories. In addition to the nearly 100 dime novels he wrote for Beadle, he also wrote for the Fireside Companion, Saturday Night, Family Story Paper, New York Weekly, Frank Leslie's Boys' and Girls' Weekly, Golden Days, Golden Argosy, and many more as well as writing several biographies, histories and standalone novels. He was married to Anna M. Deane in 1862, with whom he had four children; however, the couple divorced in 1887. He later married Clara Spaulding Brown in 1900. He died on June 20, 1916.

Discussion Questions

  1. Literary scholar Bill Brown observes that the dime novel Western was “the medium most responsible for . . . carrying a sensational, violent West with you while you rode an elevated train in Manhattan or waited for the fighting to begin in Shiloh” (5). How and why is violence glorified in Seth Jones? What is the role of the frontier hero in these spaces of violence? How does this violence “other”—make different or alien—Native Americans in their own lands?
  2. In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), Frederick Jackson Turner argues that the ever-shifting Western frontier, a zone between civilization and savagery, played a central role in the development of an American identity. In what ways does the novel’s frontier setting make “acceptable” certain kinds of violence or other behaviors that would be unacceptable in other settings? Why is this observation important?
  3. Acknowledging that Seth Jones is a piece of fiction best understood as fantasy, how might we characterize the worldview put forward in Seth Jones? How is this world arranged in terms of gender, race, class, religion? Which characters seem familiar to you? Which ones don’t?
  4. If you have read James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, in what ways does Seth Jones draw on Cooper? How is Ellis’s fictionalized captivity narrative different from Cooper’s? Why might this literary precedent be important?
  5. Seth Jones concludes with a wedding, a common plot element not only for providing closure and happily-ever-after endings, but a establishing a promised future of domestic tranquility. What does the wedding scene suggest about the future of New York as a settler space/state?
  6. In her book Sensational Designs, Jane Tompkins argues that rather than seeing stereotypes as a sign of bad writing, stereotypes play an essential role in popular literature: “As the telegraphic expression of complex clusters of value, stereotyped characters are essential to popularly successful narrative. […They] operate as a cultural shorthand, and because of their multilayered representative function are the carriers of strong emotional associations. Their familiarity and typicality, rather than making them bankrupt or stale, are the basis of their effectiveness as integers in a social equation” (xvi).
    • More specifically, what representations of Native Americans did you notice in Seth Jones? For instance, are these characters given emotional depth and motivations for their actions? What representations of white settlers did you notice? Are they given emotional depth and motivations for their actions? What are we, as readers, supposed to understand about these stereotyped characters as stand-ins for tensions between whole groups of people in the U.S.?
  7. In his essay “Settler States of Feeling,” Mark Rifkin argues that settlers’ attachments to (once) Indigenous lands comes about through official government policies and processes, but just as importantly through ordinary, everyday structures of feeling that naturalize settler belonging and entitlement to Native lands. Can you point to certain events and/or emotional responses in Seth Jones used to establish feelings of settler belonging on Mohawk lands? How does Seth Jones “normalize settler states of presence, privilege, and power”? (342).
  8. What does it mean that “Seth Jones” is a disguised and fake frontiersman? What are we to make of his transformation into the polished “scholar” and gentleman, Eugene Morton? What does this transformation tell us about the slippery nature of American identities? About the value of various kinds of masculinity in the nineteenth century? About class and class-consciousness? Where does race fit in this hierarchy of masculinities?

Further Reading

Bold explores the ways that authors of Westerns from dime novelists such as Ellis to contemporaries such as Alan Le May both use and flex against the constraints of the genre; chapter one looks specifically at dime novel conventions with attention to Ellis.

Part of the Bedford Cultural Editions, Brown’s introduction to the anthology highlights features of the Western from precursors such as Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper; significant historical contexts as well as industry and marketing developments that enabled the dime Western to reach mass markets; and introduces major themes and plot devices.

Jones considers the development of conventionalized plots, hero and villain characters, and formulas in the Western.

  • Muhlbock, Robert. “Seth Jones; or, The Captives of the Frontier and the Rhetoric of Ambivalence.” Dime Novel Round Up, vol. 72, no. 1, 2003, pp. 3-10.

Examines the ambivalence of Ellis’s narration, especially with regard to nature and the Industrial Revolution.

While not about dime novels, Rifkin’s book chapter underscores how the erasure of Native American presence and white settler feelings of belonging are relatively unnoticed but dominant factors in nineteenth-century American literature such as Thoreau’s Walden and William Apess’s “Eulogy on King Philip.”

Streeby connects the sentimental precursors of dime novels to the development of Beadle and Adams brand, noting considerable participation by women authors in the dime novel’s history. She concludes with observations on the dime novel’s fate at the dawn of early cinema and other pulp magazines.

Tompkins’s introduction offers a rationale for the study of popular nineteenth-century American texts, asking readers to reconsider the qualities that make a text “literary” vs. “popular.” She “explore[s] the way that [popular] literature has power in the world, to see how it connects with the beliefs and attitudes of large masses of readers so as to impress or move them deeply” (13).

Worden argues for a more flexible masculinity performed and adapted by anyone, not relegated to the male body. Detached from class origins, this mode of masculinity is also a “critique of genteel and sentimental marriage plots” (38). Worden cautions that masculinity, while often associated with manifest destiny, “should not be thought of as a mere appendage to this monolithic nationalism.” (52)