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Captivity Narratives


CAPTIVITY NARRATIVES. Rachel Parker Plummer, daughter of the Reverend James Parker, was captured along with her young son when Comanches attacked Fort Parker, Texas, on 19 May 1836. She witnessed the torture of her son James Pratt, who was taken from her, and she never learned his fate. The Comanches transported Plummer hundreds of miles, finally stopping in Santa Fe. While in captivity she gave birth to a daughter. Although Plummer was released in 1839, she died the next year. Describing her experiences, she wrote of her captors: "To undertake to narrate their barbarous treatment would only add to my present distress, for it is with feelings of the deepest mortification that I think of it, much less to speak or write of it." Her son James was ransomed in 1843. The Comanches adopted her daughter Cynthia Ann Parker, the mother of the Cherokee leader Quanah Parker. Cynthia Ann Parker was forcibly returned to white society in 1860 where she lived as a maid in her brother's house and died in 1870.These stories are part of the history, folklore, and myth of the American Southwest. Plummer's captivity narrative was published in two editions in 1839 and in 1844. Other stories, many based on historical events with similar themes and variations,

are part of the American saga of relationships among Euro-Americans and various Native groups. From the earliest British settlement came Captain John Smith's accounts of his own capture in 1607. Both Daniel Boone and his daughter Jamima were captives, the father in 1769 and the daughter in 1776. His story was told as a heroic experience; hers was told as a disaster from which she was rescued by her father.

The first and most well known incident of the Puritan era was of Mary White Rowlandson of Lancaster, Massachusetts, who was captured during King Philip's War in 1675 and published A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682). John Williams, captured with his daughter Eunice Williams and hundreds of others in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1703, published his version as The Redeemed Captive, Returning to Zion … (1707). In New England between 1675 and 1763 Indian and French forces captured approximately 1,086 white people.

Captures continued after the Revolution and into the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1789 John Tanner was captured as a young boy. He lived with the Ottawa Ojibwas in Michigan for thirty years. His story was published in 1830. Sarah F. Wakefield and over one hundred other white women and children were captured by eastern Dakotas in the Dakota War along the Minnesota River in the late summer and early fall of 1862. Wakefield published two editions of her experiences (1863 and 1864). These are only a few of the thousands of men, women, and children caught up Indian wars over a three-hundred-year period. They were mostly white Anglo-Americans, but some were African Americans. French were captured in Canada, and Spanish were captured in Mexico and in the American and Spanish Southwest or Borderlands. The captives also included many Native American women and children, like Pocahontas, captured by the British in 1619.

Capture was both a historical experience and a genre of American historical adventure. The popularity of the white captive story was established in the British colonies with Rowlandson's work and continued down to twentieth-century films, such as The Searchers (1956) and Dances with Wolves (1990), whose female lead is a white captive turned Sioux.

Why all of this mayhem and exploitation? Indian captures were part of the Native ways of war. Printing and retelling these stories helped define the Anglo-American experience. Though Europeans defined American Indians as "savage" and "barbarian," European ways of war were brutal. In 1637, in the first major confrontation in New England between the Massachusetts Puritans and the Pequots of Connecticut and Rhode Island, British American men deliberately burned to the ground the fortress village of the Pequots. Women and children ran screaming from the flames, and many of the Pequots captured were sold into slavery in the West Indies.

Native tactics varied depending on region and tribal affiliation, but Native ways of war frequently consisted of the capture of neighboring hostile tribal members, either in the battle area or in the village. Men, women, and children were taken and marched overland to nearby or remote areas. The men and boys were tried by running the gauntlet, that is, they had to run between two lines of men, women, and children, who tried to beat them, throw things at them, and hurt them in any way possible. If the men or boys got through the process and did not die of injury, they might be put through tortures. But men, women, boys, and girls seen as brave and useful to the group were ceremonially adopted and became members of the tribe.

These adoptions were often the horrifying and exciting tales told to European and Euro-American readers. Some women who met this fate became famous, such as Eunice Williams, who was marched to New France, where many years later she married an Abenaki. Mary Jemison, a young girl captured on the Pennsylvania frontier

by Shawnees and French in 1755, was traded to the Senecas, who adopted her. She first married a Delaware, but after her first husband died, she married a Seneca. In 1755 James Smith was an eighteen-year-old Anglo-American serving in the British army in western Pennsylvania, clearing a road in preparation for an attack on the French. Captured during the Battle of the Wilderness, he was taken to a Caughnawaga Mohawk village in the Ohio region, where he was ritually adopted. Smith lived with the Caughnawaga Mohawks and other Iroquois for five years and recalled that his New Delaware brother said they were happy to adopt him to take the place of other great men.

Men and women like Williams, Jemison, and Smith, called "White Indians," were to become new brothers and sisters to help increase the populations of the Native tribes. Their well-known experiences encouraged the white people of the colonies and the new nation to examine their prejudices against Indians as "wild," barbarous, untrained, and unrestrained. After his return, Smith wrote a small book telling of his experiences and urging the colonials to learn how to fight in the Indian way. After the orders were given, the men in the field fought alone and made their own decisions, as in guerrilla warfare.

The experiences of white captives varied. They were interpreted to emphasize notions of Indians as "savages" or as "noble savages." These experiences also provided lessons as to who was "civilized" and who was not and the expected roles of whites, Indians, and those of mixed descent.


Axtell, James. Natives and New comers: The Cultural Origins of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. See especially Chapters 6 and 8.

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

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism. and the Cant of Conquest. New York: Norton, 1976.

Namias, June. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Plummer, Rachel Parker. "Narrative of the Capture and Sub-sequent Sufferings of Mrs. Rachel Plummer, Written by Herself." In Held Captive by Indians: Selected Narratives: 1642–1836. Compiled by Richard VanDerBeets. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973.

Rountree, Helen C. "Pocahontas: The Hostage Who Became Famous." In Sifters: Native American Women's Lives. Edited by Theda Perdue. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Sayre, Gordon M., ed. American Captivity Narratives: Selected Narratives with Introduction: Olaudah Equiano, Mary Rowlandson, and Others. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Vaughan, Alden T., and Edward W. Clark, eds. Puritans among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption, 1676–1724. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1981.

Vaughan, Alden T., and Daniel K. Richter. "Crossing the Cultural Divide: Indians and New Englanders, 1605–1763." American Antiquarian Society 90 (16 April 1980): 23–99.

Washburn, Wilcomb E., ed. The Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian Captivities. 111 vols. New York: Garland Publishing, 1975–1983.


See alsoIndian Intermarriage ; Indian Warfare .

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