Nineteenth-Century Captivity Narratives
Nineteenth-Century Captivity Narratives
A genre specific to North America during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the captivity narrative reflects the diversity and complexity of American self-images during the period when the newly-evolving nation began to take shape. In contrast to the commonly held belief that white Americans and Native Americans interacted primarily through major military conflicts, the captivity narratives reveal a greater frequency and more fluid series of encounters—encounters that began with the violent kidnapping of white families but ended in a variety of ways: from the "Indianization" of whites, to arranged exchanges of captives, to successful escapes from imprisonment. The political and cultural views guiding these narratives vary considerably as well: while many stories describe the brutality and cruelty of captivity, others insistently portray their captors as gentle and benevolent.
The body of extant captivity narratives provides access into tensions within early American identity, which was, as many scholars have claimed, dominated by the problem of "the frontier," or the confrontation with an "uncivilized" people who resisted the physical and cultural migration of European Americans. June Namias has observed that Native Americans commonly employed captivity as a strategy, but whites did not. For them, capture "employed elements not found in European warfare in the early modern or modern periods—a forced, prolonged imprisonment with the enemy, a fearful contamination, a separation from one's community, a loss of spouse and children, and a communion with or at least relentless exposure to representatives of the devil." Central themes of these narratives include the dichotomy between civilization and wilderness and the decision between heroic resistance and redemptive suffering.
The earliest narratives were generally autobiographical accounts (sometimes related to a more literate editor) by captives returned to their communities by exchange or through rescue. In the nineteenth century, although factual or semi-factual accounts continued to be published, fictional narratives—primarily sensationalistic, popular "dime novels"—became common. However, despite the association of the captivity narrative with popular fiction, works such as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) also exhibit the influence of major elements of the captivity narrative. In addition, as Richard Slotkin and John Saillant have noted, during this period the structure and sentiment of captivity narratives were also employed in a modified form by abolitionist authors, who emphasized the parallels between white captives and black slaves.
Due to the differential treatment of captives—men were much more likely to be killed than women—many of the first-person accounts were authored by women. As a result, captivity narratives have informed historical analyses of images of femininity: women and young girls, considered by European culture to be the most innocent and vulnerable of captives, are portrayed alternatively as stoically and passively awaiting rescue; as heroically staging their own escapes and those of their children; or as adapting to native life without attempting—and sometimes even actively resisting—a return to Anglo-American life. Captivity for many women, as these narratives suggest, offered a kind of freedom unavailable in "civilized" society; whereas in white society women were economically dependent and confined to the home, as captives they often displayed strength, endurance, and fortitude and performed feats of which they were not previously believed capable. The threat of sexual assault on white women by Native American men, often euphemized as forced marriage, pervades many of the most popular captivity narratives. This threat, as Christopher Castiglia has contended, is linked in the popular imagination to the corruption of civilized sensibilities through integration into a native lifestyle: this possibility, to the minds of early settlers, emphasized the malleability of European American identity, existing as it did on the frontier of a vast wilderness. A standard element of these narratives is the establishment of either the most extreme difference between white and Native cultures, or the subtle similarity between the two.
In opposition to the straightforward accounts of earlier periods, nineteenth-century narratives more deliberately expressed political and cultural views, whether violently anti-Indian or more conciliatory. Richard VanDerBeets has argued that the captivity narrative may be read as propaganda that became increasingly vehement and incendiary in order to justify westward expansion. In the popular "dime novels," both Native and white characters were highly stylized, and the plots melodramatically followed the same general pattern of suffering and redemption established by the first American captivity narrative, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, published in 1682. The captivity narrative also became a significant genre in children's literature, in which form it self-consciously offered moral and religious lessons. Thus the captivity narrative reflected and contributed significantly to the self-conception of the nation, and became a major genre in early American literature. Although the popularity of the captivity narrative waned with the stabilization and effective erasure of the frontier toward the end of the nineteenth century, the genre continues to influence literary constructions of American identity.
Harriet V. Cheney
A Peep at the Pilgrims in Sixteen Hundred Thirty-Six. A Tale of Olden Times (novel) 1824
Lydia Maria Child
Hobomok. A Tale of Early Times (novel) 1824
James Fenimore Cooper
The Last of the Mohicans (novel) 1826
Narrative of My Captivity among the Sioux Indians (non-fiction) 1871
Reuben and Rachel (novel) 1798
James Everett Seaver
A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (non-fiction) 1824
Catharine Maria Sedgwick
Hope Leslie; Or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (novel) 1827
Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees: A Narrative of Indian Captivity (non-fiction) 1863
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Richard VanDerBeets (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: Introduction to Held Captive by Indians: Selected Narratives, 1642–1836, edited by Richard VanDerBeets, University of Tennessee Press, 1973, pp. xi–xxxi.
[In the excerpt that follows, VanDerBeets provides a general introduction to the American literary tradition of the captivity narrative, which in the nineteenth century became increasingly sensationalistic and fictionalized.]
Civilized peoples have long recognized the value of tempering their joys with a play or story chronicling the misfortunes and tragedies of others. Because the earliest Americans countenanced neither playacting nor the unhealthy influences of the novel, they wrote and read true tales of tragedy and horror in the form of disasters, plagues, and shipwrecks—and of Indian massacres and captivities. As the frontier pushed westward under continuing conflict the tales of Indian captivity accompanied it, gradually becoming our first literature of catharsis in an era when native American fiction scarcely existed. The immense popularity of the Indian captivity narrative in its own time is unquestionable; first editions are rare today because they were quite literally read to pieces, and most narratives went through a remarkable number of editions. There are some thirty known editions of the Mary Rowlandson narrative; Jonathan Dickenson's account went to twenty-one,...
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The Political Significance Of Captivity Narratives
Richard VanDerBeets (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "'A Thirst for Empire': The Indian Captivity Narrative as Propaganda," in Research Studies, Vol. 40, No. 3, September, 1972, pp. 207-15.
[In the following essay, VanDerBeets discusses captivity narratives as vehicles for propaganda, employed to incite anti-Indian sentiment during the period dominated by the idea of Manifest Destiny.]
These few instances of savage cruelty … must strike the utmost horror, and cause in every breast the utmost detestation, not only against the authors, but against those who, through inattention, or pusillanimous or erroneous principles, suffered these savages at first unrepelled, or even unmolested, to commit such outrages, depradations, and murders.
French and Indian Cruelty; Exemplified in the Life and Various Vicissitudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson (1757)
While American anti-French and anti-British propaganda during both the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars exploited the conventional and better-known modes of promulgation in tracts, military "histories," broadsides, and sermons, another and little-examined vehicle for such sentiment may be discerned in the narratives of Indian captivity published throughout these periods of conflict. Further, the use of the captivity narrative as propaganda continued...
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Images Of Gender
David T. Haberly (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: "Women and Indians: The Last of the Mohicans and the Captivity Tradition," in American Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, Fall, 1976, pp. 431-43.
[In the following essay, Haberly considers the influence of the captivity genre on James Fenimore Cooper's portrayal of femininity in The Last of the Mohicans.]
Despite considerable new interest in narratives of Indian captivity, this large genre remains somewhat isolated within American literary history—more interesting to bibliographers and ethnohistorians than to critics.1 Some recent studies of captivity narratives have ably elaborated basic ideas first presented by Roy Harvey Pearce a generation ago; new and highly imaginative approaches to the captivities have also been attempted, but the critics' eagerness to fit one or more narratives into universal mythic structures or into psychosexual theories of American culture has often distracted them from the fundamental question about the captivities—the specific influence of this vast and enormously popular genre upon the development of literature in the United States.2
Yet it is only logical that such influence must have existed. Bibliographers have catalogued more than a thousand separate captivity titles, published fairly steadily from the sixteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth;...
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James A. Levernier (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "The Captivity Narrative as Children's Literature," in The Markham Review, Vol. 8, Fall, 1978, pp. 54-59.
[In the following essay, Levernier maintains that nineteenth-century captivity narratives written specifically for children and young adults were intended to convey moral, religious, and political lessons.]
Between 1820 and 1860 the wave of cultural nationalism that profoundly affected the writings of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne also influenced literature written primarily for America's rising generation of young people. Prior to the 1820s, American children's literature had been, as R. Gordon Kelly notes, "simply a variant of English taste" but the spirit of achievement, pride, and cultural satisfaction that spread throughout America during the decades preceding the Civil War gave shape to a type of children's literature that, according to John C. Crandall, reflected "the nationalistic spirit which nurtured it."1 Affirmations of the American Dream—stories of frontier life and adventure, biographies of American heroes, and tales of the rise from rags to riches—replaced Old World sagas about the exploits of kings, princesses, knights, and aristocrats as the literature that mid-nineteenth-century Americans, anxious to preserve and to foster their country's democratic ideals,...
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Carleton, Phillips D. "The Indian Captivity." American Literature 15 (April 1943): 169-80.
Traces the general form, in terms of plot and style, of captivity narratives of the nineteenth century.
Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle, and James Arthur Levernier. The Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550-1900. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993, 236 p.
Analyzes the historical context and popular success of captivity narratives, paying particular attention to gender constructions, the myths and popular images commonly associated with the Indian captors, and the application of the narratives in folklore and children's literature.
Fitzpatrick, Tara. "The Figure of Captivity: The Cultural Work of the Puritan Captivity Narrative." American Literary History 3, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 1-26.
Examines the conflict between "the promise of the wilderness," and the religious and cultural xenophobia that characterizes the earliest American captivity narratives, and continued to inform the genre in its later manifestations.
Griffin, Edward M. "Patricia Hearst and Her Foremothers: The Captivity Fable in America." The Centennial Review 36, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 311-26.
Links the structure and tone of Mary...
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