I was reading something about U.S. history when I came across an interesting word: Malaeska. It was the name of a book that became very popular just before the Civil War broke out.
“Malaeska” sounded like a name to me, so I did some digging and discovered that it was indeed a name. The full book title was Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter by Ann S. Stephens.
The tale had been serialized in The Ladies’ Companion way back in 1839, but didn’t become widely known until it was republished as the world’s first dime novel in 1860. Several hundred thousand copies of the book were sold that year, making it a bestseller.
What’s the novel about?
It’s about a Mohican woman named Malaeska who lives in the Catskill region of New York in the mid-1600s. She secretly marries a white settler and gives birth to their bi-racial child, but when her husband is killed, she’s forced to abandon her tribe and take her son to New York City to seek the help of her husband’s family. The family is shocked by the situation, but they agree to raise the boy as their own and keep Malaeska around as the nanny.
Years go by, the boy grows up, and Malaeska returns to her tribe. When her son comes to visit her one day, she decides to tell him the truth — that she isn’t his nanny, she’s his mother. He can’t accept the truth, so he drowns himself. Malaeksa, “the heart-broken victim of an unnatural marriage,” tries to rescue him but also dies.
Sensationalistic and melodramatic? Yup. But that’s exactly what made the novel so popular 150 years ago.
So is the name Malaeska a legitimate Mohican name?
Nope. Like the story itself, the name is a romantic fiction. Ann S. Stephens (1810-1886) was a prolific New England author and editor, fairly famous in her day, but she wasn’t going for accuracy when she created Malaeska’s exotic-sounding name.
And accuracy apparently didn’t matter much to the handful of parents who liked the name enough to give it to their daughters (and at least one son) during the 1860s:
- Malaeska Graffins*, born in 1862 in Pennsylvania
- Malaeska Morgan, born in 1863 in Ohio
- Maleaska [sic] Moon, born in 1863 in Cornwall, England
- Malaeska E. Stevens, born in 1866 in New Hampshire
- Malaeska Jefferson Marsh (male), born in 1866 in Kansas
Several more babies born in the 1860s and after were named Malaeska, but usage of the name basically ended a few decades into the 20th century.
What do you think about the name Malaeska?
Are there any Malaeskas in your family tree?
Sources: For(e)knowledge of Youth, New York State’s Mohicans in Literature (pdf)
Image: Front cover of Malaeska, Dime Novel No. 1, by Ann S. Stephens
*Graffins is her married name. Couldn’t track down her birth name.