Captivity Narratives

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The long history of captivity on the North American continent begins before the successive waves of European exploration that occurred toward the end of the fifteenth century. For many Native American people, captivity was a common occurrence within the context of warfare. Accounts of captivity, however, began to form a distinctive genre in Western literature when European explorers and colonizers recorded tales of capture and return. These initial accounts included oral or written retellings by native people of their own histories—stories of war, captivity, sacrifice, or adoption—that were subsequently translated into European texts by the colonizers who read or heard them.

For Europeans, captivity represented both a romantic, exoticized experience—in which the captive might outwit or charm his or her captors—and a time of intense physical and psychological (and often spiritual) suffering. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer and colonizer, spent seven years in various captivities and described conditions of near-starvation and abjection at the hands of his early captors. Yet his 1542 text, translated as Castaways, recounts his practice as a spiritual and physical healer among his later captors. The celebrated story of Pocahontas and John Smith first appeared in Smith's 1624 work The Generall Historie of Virginia. Readers of Cabeza de Vaca's Spanish narrative or Smith's Historie, while differentiated by language, region, and religion, found a new species of travel writing. A key element of that genre is its claim to an authoritative description of the "new" people in the "New World." These descriptions constitute an early form of ethnography in which the captive simultaneously portrays and interprets a captor's practices. Ethnographic elements, including details of the captors' physical appearances and their rituals and ceremonies, social organizations, and means of subsistence, deferred objections about the narratives' credibility and assured readers that, while entertaining, the story was also true.

These early texts assert the direct connection between the captive's authentic experiences and his or her authority to tell the tale. Yet as the genre developed, the tension between the narratives' ethno-graphic description and their personal testimony produced ambiguous texts. The most popular captivity narrative of the American colonial period, Mary Rowlandson's The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682), displays this tension. Many scholars think that Increase Mather, a leading Puritan minister, exercised heavy editorial influence over the woman's text and is responsible for its mix of religious instruction and cultural polemic against "those Barbarous Creatures" (p. 70). As the genre developed, composers and sponsors of captivity narratives sought to accomplish multiple goals: to entertain readers with tales of exotic, newly "discovered" lands; to "sell" those lands through colonization projects to their metropolitan audiences; to seek funding for the projects' expansion; to report on cultural differences and "new" peoples; to reinforce religious conviction; to support warfare; and notably, to establish themselves as authorities for the interpretation of cross-cultural encounters.


Throughout the eighteenth century, captivity narratives reflected the transitions in North American political and cultural conditions, especially conflict. Warfare produced two of the most notable later-eighteenth-century captivity stories, those of Jemima Howe and Maria Kittle. Howe's and Kittle's stories employ first-person narration by a pathetic female captive who emphasizes the loss of family members, home, and sense of personal security. Both narratives illustrate the problem of determining authorship. Howe's editors employed an outright impersonation of her voice. Anne Eliza Bleecker's The History of Maria Kittle (1793) has been considered the first "captivity romance," but scholarship indicates that Maria Kittle may have been an actual captive. As these and later narratives indicate, the genre developed as a hybrid species, part historical writing and part novel. Kathryn Derounian-Stodola notes in "The Indian Captivity Narratives of Mary Rowlandson and Olive Oatman: Case Studies in the Continuity, Evolution, and Exploitation of Literary Discourse" that this "factive" and "fictive" divide informs almost all captivity narratives, but by the nineteenth century the divide grew in response to multiple cultural pressures.

One of these imperatives was a call for writers to fashion a history of the early Republic. These calls for a history for the new nation resulted in a turn to "native" sources, and colonial captivity tales helped to shape a national literature. Earlier captivities served as models for the Barbary captivities of the 1790s, such as Royall Tyler's The Algerine Captive (1797), Susanna Rowson's Slaves in Algiers (1794), and early-nineteenth-century tales of white Christians enslaved by Muslim North Africans. Newspaper accounts linked the captivities on the high seas with the captivities on the western frontiers and thereby reinforced readers' sense that American, Christian, and especially female captives needed to be defended from "Tawnies" and "Turks" alike.

Nineteenth-century captivity accounts extended the rhetorical practices, historical claims, and literary imagery that characterized earlier works. For example, several authors wrote versions of the 1697 Hannah Duston captivity. Duston's story is unusual because she escaped and she killed and scalped her captors. Duston had been taken by a group of Abenakis who raided her home in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1697. The first version of her story was printed in Cotton Mather's sermon "Humiliations Follow'd with Deliverances" shortly after her return. Timothy Dwight (Travels in New-England and New-York, 1821–1822), John Greenleaf Whittier ("A Mother's Revenge," in Legends of New England, 1831), Benjamin Mirick (A History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, 1832), Nathaniel Hawthorne ("The Heroism of Thomas Duston," 1836), and Henry David Thoreau (A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack, 1849) wrote versions of Duston's story, and their writings variously construct Duston as victimized, deluded, or vengeful. Historical facts concerning captivity, especially the captivity of women, were often transmuted into historical romance in such novels as Harriet Cheney's A Peep at the Pilgrims in Sixteen Hundred Thirty-Six: A Tale of Olden Times (1824) and Catherine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in Massachusetts (1827). In these romances "captivity provides the metaphorical structure for women's life narratives" (Castiglia, p. 163).


The figure of the victimized woman, in the tradition of sensationalism and sentimentality, "convert[ed] that Indian captivity narrative into another eighteenth-century fiction: the novel of seduction" (Derounian-Stodola, Women's Indian Captivity Narratives, p. xxiii). Nineteenth-century texts followed suit while employing improved engraving technologies to produce lurid representations of the captive's plight. Paul Baepler's White Slaves, African Masters (1999), a collection of Barbary captivities, reproduces many illustrations from the texts, including the representative "bare-breasted and enchained" (p. 148) Mary Velnet, a figure both pathetic and titillating. This sensationalism, as Jane Tompkins has noted, is a hallmark of nineteenth-century American literature: the figure of the suffering female body mobilized popular sentiment for a variety of political, religious, and commercial goals, including abolition, westward expansionism, Christian proselytizing, and profits for the press.

Although not all captivity narratives considered female captives, women's stories represented an inordinately large proportion of the genre, which raises important issues for scholars who argue that the American captivity narrative is the first truly American literary genre. Contrary to Leslie Fiedler's famous critical argument that American literature emerges from an originary emphasis on heroic male homosocial bonds, captivity narratives emphasize a multicultural and cross-cultural founding myth based on the figures of captive women among native peoples. As well the captive woman came to represent a complex figure of negotiation and indeterminacy: readers could never know what actually happened during captivity, and they were free to "read in" their assumptions about both captors and captives.

This ideological work underwrites the narratives that turn from locales in New England and the mid-Atlantic regions to the lands appropriated during the various Indian wars of the earlier part of the century. Mary Godfrey's An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War; and of the Miraculous Escape of Mary Godfrey, and Her Four Female Children (1836) tells the story of one victim of these wars and contains an interesting episode in which an escaped slave aids Godfrey and her daughters. As Derounian-Stodola notes in Women's Indian Captivity Narratives, "Whether or not Mary Godfrey existed in the historical record is irrelevant and currently unknown" (p. 215), but the narrative can be located within the popular literature favoring abolition. Harriet Jacobs's popular 1861 text Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl combines captivity and slave narrative conventions into a powerful abolitionist critique, particularly in both genres' emphasis on the violently fragmented family.

The unusual Narrative of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) also begins with the image of the destroyed family. Taken as a young girl during the French and Indian War, Jemison remained with her captors, eventually marrying twice, both times to Seneca men with whom she had several children. Her narrative shares the problematic issue of authorship with the earlier narratives produced by impersonating male editors and composers; in Jemison's case, her "amanuensis" was James E. Seaver, a local historian who lived near Jemison in Genesee, New York. June Namias notes that it is impossible to determine which sections of the narrative were verbatim transcripts of Jemison's own words (Jemison could not write) and which were Seaver's creative productions. It seems safe to say that the appendices and political commentary on the Revolutionary War, in which Jemison and her community played a part, are Seaver's own interpolations.

Significantly, Jemison's narrative appeared at a time when debates raged in newspapers and in Congress over the right of the U.S. government to "remove" Native Americans, notably the Cherokees, from their traditional lands. Intermittent warfare between the U.S. Army and the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Creeks disrupted the policies of "civilization and assimilation" initially promulgated by George Washington's administration in the 1790s. Mary Jemison represented a model of transculturation (or reverse assimilation, from the white European perspective), and Seaver's text confounded racist assumptions concerning Native American cultures. His rendition of Mary Jemison's words depicts Native American communities in which some individuals exhibit honorable and admirable behaviors while others commit acts of barbarity. The narrative therefore gave readers an account of Native American (here, mostly Seneca) social formations as complex as the "civilized" white society within which, presumably, most of the text's readers lived.

A majority of nineteenth-century captivity narratives, told from the point of view of white captives, reject the sympathetic, or at least complex, portrayals of Indians found in Jemison's account. The popular Captivity of the Oatman Girls: Being an Interesting Narrative of Life among the Apache and Mohave Indians (1857) purported to be the first-person narrative of Olive Oatman. Oatman's likeness, complete with the facial tattoos she received during her captivity, appeared opposite the title page of one early edition and seemed to authenticate the account. The Oatman family had been traveling west to resettle with a religious group led by James C. Brewster, a repudiated Mormon. In February 1851 the party was attacked by Yavapais in New Mexico. Olive Oatman and her sister were captured; only Olive survived the four years of captivity. In 1856 Oatman was ransomed and, with her brother, who had escaped the massacre, made her way to California. While in California, Oatman met the Reverend R. B. Stratton, who wrote down Oatman's story and prepared it for publication. The story proved enormously popular: it was one of the first extended accounts of Native American life in the Southwest, and several editions followed immediately on the 1857 first edition of five thousand copies. By 1859 there were four editions with a total press run of twenty-four thousand copies (Stratton, p. x). Apart from its ethnographic component, the Oatman captivity draws on many fictional conventions from the period, including the gothic novel's foreshadowing of doom in Mr. Oatman's prescience about an impending attack. Its didacticism, directed toward children, echoes the domestic fiction and child-rearing manuals of contemporaries such as Lydia Maria Child and Catharine Beecher.

A later narrative, Sarah Wakefield's Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees: A Narrative of Indian Captivity (1864) presents an unusually spirited defense of Native Americans from the point of view of a female captive of the Dakota wars. Derounian-Stodola notes that Wakefield "took her cue in developing a radical Christianity" (Women's Indian Captivity Narratives, p. 237), and Wakefield writes her account explicitly to protest the executions of innocent natives (including her protector, Chaska) and implicitly to counter gossip that she had sexual relations with Chaska, behaving as his "wife." Wakefield's account must be viewed in the context of the Civil War; for Wakefield, the moral basis for Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of African Americans should be extended to include more honorable dealings with the natives. Her narrative attempts to critique the adventure tales and public policy whose images of Native Americans as subhuman savages provided ready ideological scapegoats for western expansionism.


Although didacticism had been an important element in the genre since Mary Rowlandson's preface exhorted her readers to "peruse, ponder, and from hence lay up something from the experience of another" (p. 67), nineteenth-century authors and publishers of captivity narratives employed various formats to expand and exploit the genre's potential for ideological reinforcement. Both missionary tracts and anthologies produced more—and more gruesome—lessons for readers, especially children, to "ponder." In The Stolen Boy: A Story, Founded on Facts, by Mrs. Hofland (1830), young readers encountered Manuel, who was stolen as he visited his wealthy father's stables. Invoking earlier sensationalist imagery, the narrative recapitulates in horrific detail the torture of a Choctaw captive while simultaneously assuring readers, "nor will we afflict our young readers, or our own feelings, with one word on so revolting a theme" (p. 73). The narrative consistently touts the advantages of being "born of christian parents" and compares the admirable behavior of young Manuel with the "vices of [the] misguided" Uswega, son of Manuel's captor (p. 59). The Book for Children (1842), a pamphlet in yellow wrappers with crudely rendered woodcuts, exemplifies juvenilia with captivity motifs. Using the simple rhymes of early spelling guides, The Book presents the story of Enos Done, a boy deprived of education because of his captivity. Children were to measure their "favorable opportunities" against Enos's sad lot. Similarly, The Bible Boy Taken Captive by the Indians (1845) describes Joseph, the "Bible Boy" captive, who converts his Indian friend Light Foot, who himself goes on to become a missionary.

Actual missionary societies seized on the proselytizing potential of captivity narratives for adults as well. Gary Ebersole argues that some of the narratives of the early nineteenth century represent "a defensive effort by conservative Protestants to counter the rise of a broad cultural movement loosely based on a spiritualizing of nature" (p. 151), and he cites as an example of this movement Thomas Baldwin's Narrative of the Massacre of My Wife and Children (1835), a tale that emphasizes the captive Baldwin's isolation, his similarity to Job, and the moral lessons to be gained from deep affliction. The Little Osage Captive: An Authentic Narrative (1822) relied on contemporary sentimentalizing of suffering children to advance the missionary project of Christian conversion, and it unambiguously links treatment of Native Americans with abolitionist images of slavery's brutality. Most of these captivity narratives emphasized the captive's reliance on God's intervention: their daily suffering, when relieved, was attributed to God's mercy, albeit working through his mortal instruments.

More secular captivity accounts presented a range of attitudes toward the native peoples in the texts. Some accounts argued for the eradication of Indian traditions and the complete assimilation of native peoples into white culture. One such account is the Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner . . . during Thirty Years Residence among the Indians: In the Interior of North America (1830), which provides detailed ethnographic information of the people among whom Tanner lived for extended periods and includes the intriguing final note that three of Tanner's children continued to live among the Indians. John Dunn Hunter's Manners and Customs of Several Indian Tribes . . . (1823) distinguishes among several groups of Indians, comparing some favorably against others. Hunter also makes the point that whites who were raised by Indians "seldom afterwards abandon" their customs; this "going native" motif haunts all captivity narratives, and it is important to note that the Jemison narrative of a transculturated white was published one year after Hunter's popular account. Another use of captivity conventions is found in Miss Harrington's Narrative of the Barbarous Treatment of Two Unfortunate Females . . . (1842), which emphatically counters abolitionist sentiment with a tale of two white women who were captured by "Two Runaway Blacks." The narrative hints broadly that the women were repeatedly tortured and raped by one of their captors, "the principal instigator," who was subsequently captured and burned at the stake.

If individual captivity tales were intended as evangelizing tracts, anti- or pro-abolitionist polemics, ethnographic studies, war propaganda, and guides to proper domestic behavior, their collection into anthologies often obscured these original aims. Once collected into texts with captivities from diverse historical periods and localities, single captivities each became one element in a concatenation of stories purportedly gathered for historical edification but most likely published for quick commercial gains. In Samuel G. Drake's popular Indian Captivities; or, Life in the Wigwams (1851), readers found captivities ranging from 1528 to 1836, but of the thirty-one captivities, only two occurred in the nineteenth century. Colonial collections served as sources for later anthologies such as Drake's, Samuel Metcalf's A Collection of Some of the Most Interesting Narratives of Indian Warfare in the West . . . (1821), the anonymous Indian Anecdotes and Barbarities (1837), William V. Moore's Indian Wars of the United States, from the Discovery to the Present Time: From the Best Authorities (1840), and John Frost's Heroic Women of the West: Comprising Thrilling Examples of Courage, Fortitude, Devotedness, and Self-Sacrifice, among the Pioneer Mothers of the Western Country (1854). ("William V. Moore" was a pseudonym of John Frost.) As the title of Frost's collection makes evident, the genre continued to emphasize the experiences of female captives well into the nineteenth century.

The continuing emphasis on female captivity produced a peculiarly American version of the gothic captivity, the "convent tale." The two best-known convent captivities are Rebecca Reed's Six Months in a Convent; or, The Narrative of Rebecca Theresa Reed (1835) and Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery (1836). In these books the women report their incarceration, deprivation, and humiliation in Catholic convents. The abuses detailed by Reed, combined with local newspaper accounts of "escaped" nuns, led to the notorious incident in which "forty rioters dressed like Indians" attacked and burned the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Monk, who later was revealed to be a prostitute, similarly describes the harsh punishments inflicted by mother superiors on young girls and, more damning, the sexual exploitation of the girls by priests. These captivity narratives both shaped and were shaped by the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant biases of the Protestant communities, elites, and working people in Massachusetts. They exemplify the continuing power of the image of the captive to instruct, inform, and compel to action the readers of captivity narratives.

See alsoAutobiography; Children's and Adolescent Literature; Ethnology; Hope Leslie;Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl;Indians; Indian Wars and Dispossession; Wilderness


Primary Works

The Affecting History of the Dreadful Distresses of FredericManheim's Family . . . . 1794. Edited by Wilcomb E. Washburn. Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian Captivities, 111 vols. New York: Garland, 1977.

Baepler, Paul, ed. White Slaves, African Masters: AnAnthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

The Bible Boy Taken Captive by the Indians. Written for the American Sunday-School Union and revised by the Committee for Publication. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1845.

Bleecker, Ann Eliza. The History of Maria Kittle. 1793. Edited by Wilcomb E. Washburn. Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian Captivities, 111 vols. New York: Garland, 1978.

The Book for Children. New York: H. E., 1842.

Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Nuñez. Castaways. 1542. Translated by Frances M. López-Morillas, edited by Enrique Pupo-Walker. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Cheney, Harriet Vaughan. A Peep at the Pilgrims in SixteenHundred Thirty-Six: A Tale of Olden Times. 2 vols. Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1824.

Cornelius, Elias. The Little Osage Captive: An AuthenticNarrative. Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong and Crocker and Brewster; New York: John P. Haven, 1822.

Drake, Samuel G. Indian Captivities; or, Life in the Wigwams. Auburn, N.Y.: Derby and Miller, 1851.

Frost, John. Heroic Women of the West: Comprising ThrillingExamples of Courage, Fortitude, Devotedness, and Self-Sacrifice, among the Pioneer Mothers of the Western Country. Philadelphia: A. Hart, 1854.

Hofland, Mrs. [Barbara Wreaks Hoole Hofland]. The StolenBoy: A Story, Founded on Facts, by Mrs. Hofland. New York: W. B. Gilley, 1830.

Indian Anecdotes and Barbarities. Barre, Mass.: Albert Alden, 1837.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by L. Maria Child. 1861. Edited by Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Metcalf, Samuel. A Collection of Some of the Most InterestingNarratives of Indian Warfare in the West, Containing an Account of the Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone . . . Lexington, Ky.: William G. Hunt, 1821.

Moore, William V. [John Frost]. Indian Wars of the UnitedStates, from the Discovery to the Present Time: From the Best Authorities. Philadelphia: R. W. Pomeroy, 1840.

Rowlandson, Mary. The Sovereignty and Goodness of God,Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed. 1682. Edited by Neal Salisbury. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

Rowson, Susanna. Slaves in Algiers; or, A Struggle forFreedom: A Play, Interspersed with Songs, in Three Acts. Philadelphia: Wrigley and Berriman, 1794.

Schultz, Nancy Lusignan, ed. Veil of Fear: Nineteenth-Century Convent Tales by Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk. West Lafayette, Ind.: NotaBell Books and Purdue University Press, 1999.

Seaver, James E. A Narrative of Mrs. Mary Jemison. 1824. Edited by June Namias. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1992.

Sedgwick, Catherine Maria. Hope Leslie; or, Early Times inMassachusetts. 1827. Introduction by Mary Kelley. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. 1984.

Smith, John. Generall Historie of Virginia. 1624. In TheComplete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631), 3 vols., edited by Philip Barbour. Chapel Hill: Institute for Early American History and Culture and University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Stratton, Royal B. Captivity of the Oatman Girls. 1857. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Tyler, Royall. The Algerine Captive. Walpole, N.H.: David Carlisle, 1797.

Wakefield, Sarah F. Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees: ANarrative of Indian Captivity. 1864. Edited by June Namias. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Secondary Works

Burnham, Michelle. Captivity and Sentiment: CulturalExchange in American Literature, 1682–1861. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1997.

Castiglia, Christopher. Bound and Determined: Captivity,Culture-Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle. "The Indian Captivity Narratives of Mary Rowlandson and Olive Oatman: Case Studies in the Continuity, Evolution, and Exploitation of Literary Discourse." Studies in the Literary Imagination 27 (1994): 33–46.

Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle. Women's Indian Captivity Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle, and James Levernier, eds. The Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550–1900. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Ebersole, Gary L. Captured by Texts: Puritan to Post-ModernImages of Indian Captivity. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Namias, June. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on theAmerican Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green. The CherokeeRemoval: A Brief History with Documents. Boston and New York: Bedford, 1995.

Sayre, Gordon M. American Captivity Narratives. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Strong, Pauline Turner. Captive Selves, Captivating Others:The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity Narratives. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work ofAmerican Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Lorrayne Carroll