Captivity Narratives Essay - Critical Essays

Captivity Narratives


Captivity Narratives

Captivity narratives emerged with the settlement of North America and continued as a significant genre in American literature until the closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century. The first captivity narratives may have been created by Native Americans who were captured by early Spanish explorers. However, the genre commonly refers to the accounts written by European settlers who were abducted by Native Americans.

Many scholars cite Captain John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624) as containing the first American captivity narrative. The genre began to take on greater significance in Puritan society, where fiction, plays, and poetry were prohibited. Captivity narratives served the community as a form of entertainment as well as a means of promoting the Puritan theology. Early Puritan captivity narratives, such as Mary Rowlandson's The Sovereignty and Goodness of God Together, with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed (1682) and John Williams's The Redeemed Captive, Returning to Zion (1707), were written in the first person by the victims of the abduction. The authors focused on details of the attack, forced marches, torture, life among the Native Americans, and return to Puritan society. Increasingly, the authors framed their narratives around the ideology that God was punishing a wayward people through capture, and showing his ultimate forgiveness and mercy to the faithful through rescue and return. Such writers as Cotton Mather made use of the narratives to urge social conformity. As the genre developed, first-hand victim accounts were replaced by professional authors' renderings and stock material about the practices of Native Americans, thus decreasing the immediacy and accuracy of the accounts. During times of war against the French and Native Americans, the captivity narratives increased in popularity; many works were reprinted dozens of times. As popular tastes in the United States shifted and sentimental fiction became more popular, captivity narratives began to reflect these changes. The moral tone of the novels and the anti-Native American themes remained prominent, but the stories became more sensational. Authors focused on male heroes who were bringing society to the frontier and building a nation, and women played less of a role. By the nineteenth century, the popular dime novel created a forum for the captivity narrative.

Literary scholars largely ignored the popular genre of captivity narratives until the mid-twentieth century. In the late 1940s Roy Harvey Pearce undertook the first significant study, in which he argued that the body of captivity narratives spread over three centuries was too fragmented and disparate to be classified as a single genre. He posited that captivity narratives were significant, not because they provided historical fact about Native American practices, as earlier scholars had implied, but because the accounts provided modern readers with a window on changes in popular mass culture. Unlike Pearce, Richard Vanderbeets has claimed that captivity narratives comprise a unified, single genre; and later scholars have emphasized the continuity in the genre, particularly the demonization and villainization of Native Americans. Gary L. Ebersole has explored the relationship between captivity narratives and the sentimental novel, while David T. Haberly has considered the influence of captivity narratives on literary works such as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. Critics including Alden T. Vaughan, Edward W. Clark and Lorrayne Carroll have explored the connections between Puritanism and captivity narratives; and Colin Ramsey has analyzed the influence of Puritanism on the demonization of Native Americans in captivity narratives.

Representative Works

Ann Eliza Bleeker
The History of Maria Kittle (1790)

Charles Brockden Brown
Edgar Huntly (1799)

Thomas Brown
A Plain Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Remarkable Deliverance of Thomas Brown, of Charleston, in New England (1760)

Jonathan Dickenson
God's Protecting Providence Man's Surest Help and Defense (1699)

John Gyles
Memoirs of the Odd Adventures, Strange Deliverances, etc., in the Captivity of John Gyles, Esq. (1736)

Elizabeth Hanson
God's Mercy Surmounting Man's Cruelty, Exemplified in the Captivity and Redemption of Elizabeth Hanson (1728)

Edward Kimber
The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson. Containing His Strange Varieties of Fortune in Europe and America (1754)

Cotton Mather
Humiliations Follow'd with Deliverances (1697)

John Norton
The Redeemed Captive (1748)

Mary Rowlandson
The Sovereignty and Goodness of God Together, with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682)

John Gilmary Shea, editor
Captivity of Father Isaac Jogues, of the Society of Jesus, among the Mohawks (1697)

James Smith
An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, during His Captivity with the Indians (1799)

Captain John Smith
Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624)

John Williams
The Redeemed Captive, Returning to Zion: or a Faithful History of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Captivity and the Deliverance of Mr. John Williams (1707)

Peter Williamson
French and Indian Cruelty; Exemplified in the Life and Various Vicissitudes of Fortune, of Peter Williamson, a Disbanded Soldier (1757)

Criticism: Overviews

Roy Harvey Pearce (essay date 1947-48)

SOURCE: Pearce, Roy Harvey. “The Significances of the Captivity Narrative.” American Literature 19 (1947-48): 1-20.

[In the following essay, Pearce examines the evolution of the style and intent of captivity narratives, from religious confessional to pulp thriller, and argues that they provide a window into American popular culture.]

The narrative of Indian captivity has long been recognized for its usefulness in the study of our history and, moreover, has even achieved a kind of literary status. Generally it has been taken as a sort of “saga,” something which somehow is to be understood as expressive of the Frontier Mind—whatever that may be.1 But...

(The entire section is 8157 words.)

Richard Vanderbeets (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Vanderbeets, Richard. “The Indian Captivity Narrative as Ritual.” American Literature 43, no. 4 (January 1972): 548-62.

[In the essay below, Vanderbeets urges readers to view captivity narratives as a unified genre built upon common rituals.]

All civilized peoples have 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 play-acting 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...

(The entire section is 6145 words.)

David L. Minter (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Minter, David L. “By Dens of Lions: Notes on Stylization in Early Puritan Captivity Narratives.” American Literature 45, no. 3 (November 1973): 335-47.

[In the following essay, Minter considers changes in the purpose and tone of captivity narratives over time, particularly focusing on the narrative of Mary Rowlandson.]

The “Indian Captivities” of the New England Puritans were, during the first several years of their existence, deeply devout. Born as they were, however, in the late seventeenth century, in what was for the Puritan way an era of fundamental transformation, the captivity narratives soon changed drastically. First, they became instruments of...

(The entire section is 5232 words.)

June Namias (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Namias, June. “White Men Held Captive.” In White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier, pp. 49-83. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Namias explores the changing images of males in captivity narratives from 1608 through the nineteenth century.]

In the first and most famous captive story of an Englishman on the North American continent, Captain John Smith spent a month among the native people of tidewater Virginia. Admitting to some difficulties, Smith wrote of his experiences: “Yet hee so demeaned himselfe amongst them, as he not only diverted them from surprising the Fort: but procured...

(The entire section is 13732 words.)

Criticism: Captivity Narratives And Puritanism

Alden T. Vaughan and Edward W. Clark (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Vaughan, Alden T. and Edward W. Clark. “Cups of Common Calamity: Puritan Captivity Narratives as Literature and History.” In Puritans among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption: 1676-1724, edited by Alden T. Vaughan and Edward W. Clark, pp. 1-28. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Vaughan and Clark expound on the uniquely religious characteristics and influences of the Puritan captivity narrative.]

“It is no new thing for Gods precious ones to drink as deep as others, of the Cup of common Calamity.”

—Preface to Mary Rowlandson, The Soveraignty &...

(The entire section is 11558 words.)

Lorrayne Carroll (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Carroll, Lorrayne. “‘My Outward Man’: The Curious Case of Hannah Swarton.” Early American Literature 31, no. 1 (winter 1996): 45-73.

[In the following essay, Carroll investigates Cotton Mather's underlying message in his account of Hannah Swarton's abduction, comparing it to Mary Rowlandson's narrative.]

Properly an instrument is an efficient cause moved by the principal to an effect above its proper virtue.

Oxford English Dictionary1

Writing begins with an awareness of the person, not as an individual but rather as a social category.


(The entire section is 12578 words.)

Criticism: Captivity Narratives And Native Americans

Colin Ramsey (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Ramsey, Colin. “Cannibalism and Infant Killing: A System of ‘Demonizing’ Motifs in Indian Captivity Narratives.” Clio 24, no. 1 (fall 1994): 55-68.

[In the essay below, Ramsey links captivity narratives with the demonizing of Native Americans during the Puritan era.]

The Puritan phase of the Indian captivity narrative, both in its binary “good vs. evil” oppositions and in its imagery, established the paradigm for much of the subsequent development of the Indian captivity narrative form—helping to fix particular (and ethnocentric) views of the Indian in the American imagination, and thereby making those same images and motifs readily available for...

(The entire section is 5190 words.)

Robin Riley Fast (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Fast, Robin Riley. “Resistant History: Revising the Captivity Narrative in ‘Captivity’ and Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues.American Indian Culture and Research Journal 23, no. 1 (winter 1999): 69-86.

[In the following essay, Fast examines the modern poetry of Native Americans Louise Erdrich and Maurice Kenny, which attempts to re-read the captivity narratives written by Europeans.]

Many contemporary American Indian writers are engaged in the shared project of complicating and revising the received history of the Americas. Kimberly Blaeser reminds us that survival is at stake here when she says that “the creation and interpretations of histories have...

(The entire section is 8480 words.)

Criticism: Influence On American Literature

David T. Haberly (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Haberly, David T. “Women and Indians: The Last of the Mohicans and the Captivity Tradition.” American Quarterly 28, no. 4 (autumn 1976): 431-44.

[In the essay below, Haberly outlines the influence of captivity narratives on James Fenimore Cooper's creation of 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...

(The entire section is 6303 words.)

Gary L. Ebersole (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Ebersole, Gary L. “Capturing the Audience: Sentimental Literature and the New Reading Covenant.” In Captured by Texts: Puritan to Postmodern Images of Indian Captivity, pp. 98-128. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.

[In the excerpt below, Ebersole traces the emergence of the sentimental novel format in eighteenth-century captivity narratives, focusing on Edward Kimber's novel The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson.]

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person,...

(The entire section is 14285 words.)

Further Reading


Arner, Robert D. “The Story of Hannah Duston: Cotton Mather to Thoreau.” American Transcendental Quarterly 18 (spring 1973): 19-23.

Discusses the ways in which various writers have incorporated the legend of Hannah Duston into their writings.

Barnett, Louise K. “The White Fantasy World of the Frontier Romance.” In The Ignoble Savage: American Literary Racism, 1790-1890, pp. 17-142. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Argues that frontier narratives reflect the nationalism and racism of white society.

Carleton, Phillips D. “The Indian Captivity.” American...

(The entire section is 262 words.)