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Prisoners and Captives of War, Colonial

Prisoners and Captives of War, Colonial. Prisoners were taken in all North American wars, but contrasting values affected their capture, treatment, and cultural roles. Treatment of captives was a barometer of conflict and change in Indian, European, and colonial martial values.

Indian warriors regarded being taken prisoner as synonymous with death. Captives usually belonged to their individual captors, so a capture ended participation in a raid. Despite some tribal amalgamations and notable adoptions to replace specific dead, comparatively few adult male prisoners were incorporated into communities, and some were ritually tortured to death. Women and young captives were readily adopted to rebuild declining populations, but wholesale adoptions could be divisive, as when Huron adoptees outnumbered native Mohawks after 1650. Ransom and sale of captives to white slavers gradually transformed Indian taking of prisoners into a spasmodic but valuable trade for societies as disparate as the Abenaki and the Cherokee.

Initially, all European intruders captured Indians as informants, hostages, slaves, curiosities, or potential interpreters. Once intercultural warfare began in America, Europeans readily applied the brutal attitudes their wars of religion had encouraged toward prisoners seen as heretics or heathens. Although Christians had a well‐developed sense of noncombatant status, they seldom afforded it to Indian women and children. European settlers captured few Indians, rarely adopted them or even held them for exchange, and usually spared combatants only when they could be sold profitably into slavery. As “White Indians” became more numerous than “Red Europeans,” most interpreters, traders, and cultural brokers were whites.

After 1755, to the consternation of most colonists and Indians, European regulars introduced the “honors of war” to some American battlefields. Under these new rules, those enemies who surrendered were to be taken prisoner, fed, housed, and guarded, while waiting to be exchanged. Colonial societies had treated European officers this way, but “farmed out” captured soldiers to earn their keep while awaiting exchange. The European professionals also allowed surrendering garrisons deemed valiant to keep their weapons, kit, and battle flags, sometimes releasing them in return for promises not to fight for a specified length of time. Colonials and Indians found these new conventions unprofitable and incomprehensible, resulting in “violations” like the “massacre” at Fort William Henry (1757).

British and French colonials gradually conformed to the humane new martial system, often without enthusiasm. Indians, whose warfare was increasingly deemed comparable to that of European irregulars, were similarly excluded from the “honors of war.” Indians found new British demands for the return of all prisoners, a precondition for peace after 1760, particularly oppressive because they regarded the adoption of prisoners as permanent.

Colonial accounts of Indian captivity became popular, using Christian metaphors to demonize Indians and reinforce prevailing definitions. Hundreds of surviving accounts have provided historians and anthropologists with valuable, if coded, information about Indian cultures.
[See also Imperial Wars; King Philip's War; Native American Wars.]


Alden Vaughan and and Daniel K. Richter , Crossing the Cultural Divide: Indians and New Englanders, 1605–1763, American Antiquarian Society Proceedings, 90 (1980), pp. 23–99.
Ian K. Steele , Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the “Massacre,” 1990.

Ian K. Steele

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