Captivity by Native Americans

Though the risk of being captured by Native Americans was small when one considers the entire North American continent and the whole period before 1776, it weighed heavily on the minds of white people throughout the colonial era. Among the English, captivity narratives became wildly popular. Puritans in particular used the genre to point out the problems in New England society and suggest a course for improvement. Capture by Native Americans was not specific to colonial New England, however. John Smith was captured by Powhatan’s forces outside of Jamestown. Father Isaac Jogues, a Jesuit missionary, was taken by a Mohawk raiding party near Montreal in 1642; after a brief return to France, he traveled with the Mohawks for four years before being accused of sorcery and put to death in 1646. In the 1520s and 1530s, lvar Nº±ez Cabeza de Vaca, treasurer of the ill-fated Narvez expedition, traveled overland from Florida to Mexico as a prisoner of various tribes and later on his own. Historians and anthropologists have mined the Eurocentric accounts left behind for clues about Native American life and race relations in colonial North America. June Namias, a leading authority on the narratives, writes that scholars have studied captivity from four perspectives: imperial, cultural, ethnohistorical, and gender-based. Capture was not a new addition to Native American warfare during the colonial period. For centuries, Native Americans in the Northeast and Southwest took captives during war. Among the Iroquois in particular, captives were usually forced to endure torture (in the form of the gauntlet) before being adopted into a village. Women, often the motivating force behind the mourning war, or war of revenge, played a crucial role in whether enemy captives were executed, tortured, or adopted. Adoption and ransom seem to have been the main reasons Native Americans took captives. Among the Aztecs of central Mexico, however, war captives were used as slaves and religious sacrifices. This practice angered tributary peoples to the point that when Hernando Cortz arrived in the 1510s, he had a steady supply of allies in his conquest of the Aztec empire. North of the Rio Grande, adoption, not slavery or sacrifice, was much more common, and by the close of the colonial period, Native American communities were ethnically diverse, and many contained refugees from colonial conflicts and both Native American and non-Native American adoptees. Apart from adoption, ransom, and sacrifice, Native Americans employed capture because of the psychological terror that it inflicted on an enemy. The fantastic popularity of captivity narratives throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, coupled with the increasing fictionalization and sensationalizing of the genre, inflicted precisely that type of terror. In the colonial period of American history, the experience of being a captive or captor was not limited by race or gender. Early European explorers often took captives back to Europe for display and to train them as interpreters. Millions of captured Africans were forced into labor throughout the Americas. The Spanish, French, and English also took each other captive as they battled for control of the Americas. Of all of these various experiences, the one that had the most profound effect on colonial America was the capture of white men and women by Native Americans. John Smith’s narrative of his capture and adoption into Powhatan culture is the earliest English example of the genre of the captivity narrative, though it differs from most accounts because Smith was not a Puritan and described his ordeal in a strikingly plain way. In December 1607, Smith was taken by a Powhatan raiding party near the Chickahominy River. For nearly a month, Smith was escorted around Powhatan country. He participated in a number of complicated rituals that he did not understand very well. His life was threatened three times, and he was denied food for long stretches, but he was also the guest of honor at a number of feasts. Generations of people, many in recent years because of the popular Disney film, know that Smith was saved by Pocahontas, the daughter of a chief named Powhatan. The debate over whether this event actually happened and, if so, why it happened has taken on a life of its own. Some suggest that Pocahontas fell in love with Smith and therefore risked her neck to save his; other scholars believe that Smith fictionalized the account as a particularly English manner of claiming authority over Virginia. The most viable interpretation is that Smith and Pocahontas were the leading players in a complex adoption drama. Through the ritual rescue, Powhatan felt that he had adopted Smith and hoped to cement peaceful relations with the Virginia colony. Smith returned to Jamestown in early 1608, walking over 100 miles to make it back. Women were the writers and subjects of a number of captivity narratives, whose purpose was often to arouse anti-Native American sentiment. A few were even fictitious, including this account of the 1814 capture of Mary Smith and her daughters in Florida. (Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02973) Colonial New England was far and away the largest producer and consumer of captivity narratives; it also seems to have been the site of the most actual captivities. One estimate places the number of white captives taken between 1675 and 1763 at 1,641. Although there had been white captives in the region before 1675, Mary White Rowlandson’s The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed, the first captivity narrative, was not published until 1682. Interestingly, Rowlandson’s captivity narrative was also the first North American publication by a living woman. In 1675, Rowlandson was captured at Lancaster, Massachusetts, during the conflict known as Metacom’s (King Philip’s) War, a devastating struggle between the Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Narragansett on one side and the New England colonies and their Native American allies, chiefly Mohawks, on the other. The two sides had coexisted peacefully for decades, but renewed English expansion and Native American grievances sparked violence. Rowlandson, the wife of a Puritan minister, traveled during her thirteen-week captivity. She met King Philip, Quinnapin, and Weetamoo, all three of whom were Wampanoag sachems. Tellingly, Rowlandson did not get along with Weetamoo, the female sachem, perhaps because Weetamoo did not show her the respect she received from Puritan women or because Rowlandson was not accustomed to seeing a woman in a position of political authority. Rowlandson survived her ordeal because she learned to live like a native. Her narrative enlightened readers about the native world of southeastern New England, but it also served an important social function. Rowlandson put a spiritual spin on her captivity. Her capture was Puritan New England’s capture; her redemption was Puritan New England’s redemption. Divine providence had brought the wrath of the region’s native peoples down upon the English, and divine providence had allowed the English to triumph over their native foes. Most disturbing of all to white Americans were the captives who chose to remain unredeemed, giving up white society entirely and permanently in favor of Native American lifeways. As Hector de Cr¨vecoeur put it, thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans. Perhaps the two most famous examples of this type of captivity are Eunice Williams and Mary Jemison. Eunice Williams was the daughter of John Williams, a Puritan minister. John and his five children were taken captive in a 1704 raid by French and Native American warriors at Deerfield, Massachusetts. John Williams was released and wrote his story in a popular narrative titled The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion. Eunice Williams, however, remained unredeemed. Her family’s horror multiplied tenfold when, years later, she chose to become a Catholic and took a Mohawk husband. There were few greater sins in Puritan New England. Eunice’s story is not unique. Women and children were often adopted into their captors’ communities. Mary Jemison was captured in 1758 during the French and Indian War in southwestern Pennsylvania. Like Eunice Williams, Jemison remained in Native American society. She married a Seneca man and refused to move back with the English. Captivity narratives usually cast Native Americans as savage aggressors and whites, particularly women, as helpless victims. As such, they held massive appeal for Anglo-Americans who already disliked Native Americans. Not all women were passive victims, though. Hannah Dustin, captured in 1697, escaped by killing ten of her twelve captors with a hatchet, and she was widely celebrated. The genre of the captivity narrative has had an impact on American culture stretching far beyond the colonial period. Books such as Last of the Mohicans and films such as Dances with Wolves continue to offer Americans romanticized visions of Native American captivity. Matthew Jennings See also: Native American-European Conflict; Native American-European Relations; Rowlandson, Mary; Document: Captivity Narrative of Mary Jemison in the 1750s (pub. 1824). Bibliography Axtell, James. “The White Indians.” In The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Demos, John. The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Namias, June. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Rowlandson, Mary. The Soveraignty and Goodness of God. Edited with an introduction by Neal Salisbury. Boston: Bedford, 1997. Situwuka and Katkwachsnea, a Native American couple of the Tlingit … holidaymapq

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