Nineteenth-Century Captivity Narratives Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

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

Fanny Kelly

Narrative of My Captivity among the Sioux Indians (non-fiction) 1871

Susanna Rowson

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

Sarah Wakefield

Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees: A Narrative of Indian Captivity (non-fiction) 1863


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, including translations into Dutch and German; there are over thirty editions of the Mary Jemison captivity; and the popularity of Peter Williamson's narrative carried it through forty-one editions.

American Indians took white or non-Indian captives for four principal reasons: to use as slaves; to ransom (to the English and, later, Americans); to sell (to the French or to other tribes); and to replace, by adoption, those members of the tribe lost or slain in battle. Except for the fur trader, who did not as a rule publish his observations, the captive shared Indian life more intimately and for a longer time than all other colonials or settlers. In addition to providing fascinating popular reading in America for over two centuries, the narratives of Indian captivity have from the beginning proved valuable documents for the ethnologist, historian, and cultural historian. The four surviving sixteenth-century captivity accounts—Relation of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (1542), The Captivity of Juan Ortiz (1557), Hans Staden's Warhaftige Historia (1557), and Job Hortop's The Travailes of an Englishman (1591)—are not only remarkable firsthand tales of ordeal and adventure but also provide the earliest descriptions of the Indians of Texas, Florida, and Brazil. Captain John Smith's account of his three-week captivity (1607–1608) in Virginia contains excellent detail on Pamunkey Indian manners and customs, although this is never so well remembered as the description of his famous encounter with Powhatan and Pocahontas, first fully reported in his General History of Virginia (1624). While Smith's account is not technically a separately published captivity narrative, it does stand as the generic precursor of the later and discrete narratives of Indian captivity in America. A succession of later narratives such as Jonathan Dickenson's (1699) and those of John Gyles (1736), Robert Eastburn (1758), Marie LeRoy and Barbara Leininger (1759), Thomas Morris (1791), James Smith (1799), Mary Jemison (1824), Charles Johnston (1827), Rachel Plummer (1839), and Nelson Lee (1859) all contain, in addition to their personal adventures, significant and detailed observations of aboriginal life and customs—Seminole, Maliseet, Mohawk, Ottawa, Miami, Seneca, Shawnee, Comanche, and Apache, among others. Many captive-narrators were excellent observers, and their accounts of Indian warfare, hunting, customs and manners, religion, and council procedures are in some cases our only glimpses of these past realities. In this way their narratives constitute valuable specimens of ethnological reportage. For the historian, many of the narratives of Indian captivity are repositories of eyewitness information relating to the major Indian-white conflicts throughout the course of American history. The narrative of Mary Rowlandson (1682) provides additional insight into King Philip's War and even Philip himself, whom Mrs. Rowlandson met and spoke with during her captivity. Such eighteenth-century narratives as John Williams (1707), John Gyles (1736), Peter Williamson (1757), and Robert Eastburn (1758) give added dimension to the French and Indian War generally and to many campaigns and battles specifically. Also, such nineteenth-century accounts as those of Rachel Plummer (1839), Nelson Lee (1859), and Fanny Kelly (1871) underscore the conflicts arising from the later westward movement.

In the context of American cultural history, however, the significances of the narratives of Indian captivity are shaped and differentiated largely by the society for which the narratives were intended. These cultural significances are in many ways discrete impulses and range from expressions of religious sentiment, to vehicles for anti-Indian propaganda, to blatantly visceral penny dreadfuls or pulp thrillers. The earliest Indian captivity narratives published in America, those of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, are straightforward and generally unadorned religious documents, for the most part Puritan; a number of surviving Jesuit relations illustrate the Catholic experience. The captivity here takes on a typically symbolic and even typological value, reinforced by frequent scriptural citations. There are over fifty-five such references in the narrative of Father Isaac Jogues. The religious and largely didactic function is generally made explicit either in a prefatory note or very early in the narrative proper, though title pages more often than not provide succinct indicators: Mrs. Rowlandson's The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together With the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed (1682); Jonathan Dickenson's God's Protecting Providence Man 's Surest Help in the Times of the Greatest Difficulty and Most Imminent Danger (1699); John Williams' The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion (1707). Interestingly, the first American Negro "slave narratives" are in fact Indian captivities of distinctly religious orientation: A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man (1760), and A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black, Taken Down from His Own Relation (1785). The religious expressions deriving from the captivity experience treat the salutary effects of the captivity, especially in the context of redemptive suffering; the captivity as test, trial, or punishment by God; and, finally and most demonstrably, the captivity as evidence of Divine Providence and of God's inscrutable wisdom.

Calvinists believing themselves to be God's chosen people newly arrived in the Promised Land to establish a New Zion, the Puritan settlers extended their typology to encompass a view of the Indian inhabitants of the continent as Canaanites who the Lord had promised Moses would be driven from the land to make way for the Neo-Israelites. "Thus the Lord was pleased to smite our Enemies in the hinder Parts," concluded the 1638 report of the extermination of the Pequots at Fort Mystic wherein six hundred Indians were killed at the cost of two English lives, "and to give us their Land for an Inheritance." Believing also that the last great struggle between good and evil was to take place in their wilderness, a struggle between God's chosen and the agents of the Devil, they considered the natives of the wilderness to be under the direction of Satan and consequently enemies of God and His instruments in that struggle. Seventeenth-century records clearly reveal the extent to which the Puritans held the conception of Indian as Devil. Cotton Mather firmly believed in the magical powers of the Indian Powaw (powwow), an example to him of heathen black arts. The common view was that through the Devil's help, the Indians' charms were of force to produce effects of wonderment, and it was a widespread belief that the Devil held the Indians in thrall and even appeared in bodily shape to them. In God's Controversy with New England (1662), Michael Wigglesworth described the Indian forest, the scene of the prophesied last struggle between good and evil, as a "Devil's den" wherein "none inhabited / But hellish fiends, and brutish men / That devils worshipped."

If the savages were directly the instruments of Satan and indirectly so of God, then the torments of Indian captivity could be, and were, viewed as one of God's ways of testing, punishing, or instructing His creatures. "God strengthened them [Indians] to be a scourge to his People," writes Mary Rowlandson; "the Lord feeds and nourishes them up to be a scourge to the whole Land." The scriptural citation she uses for support is Hebrews 12:6: "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every Son whom he receiveth." In the course of her narrative, Mrs. Rowlandson turns to the Scriptures for comfort over sixty-five times, occasioned by reflections on a variety of incidents ranging from the death of her child (Genesis 42:36: "Me have ye bereaved of my Children …") to her staying dry while fording a river (Isaiah 43:2: "When thou passeth through the waters I will be with thee …"). Most of her citations are strikingly appropriate to her captivity experience: Jeremiah 31:16: "Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears, for thy work shall be rewarded, and they shall come again from the land of the Enemy"; or Psalms 106:46: "He made them also to be pittied, of all those that carried them Captives." Father Isaac Jogues sees punishment for weakness even in the small details of his captivity. When his bonds give him pain and he asks to have them loosened, "God justly ordained that the more I pleaded, the more tightly they drew my chains." For the Jesuits, particularly, physical suffering was a redemptive and intensely religious aspect of captivity, an experience to delight in: "How long they spent their fury on me," relates Jogues, "he knows for whose love and sake I suffered all, and for whom it is delightful and glorious to suffer." When the Mohawks force a Christian Huron prisoner to cut off Jogues's left thumb, the priest observes that "surely it is pleasing to suffer at the hands of those for whom you would die, and for whom you chose to suffer. … " He then takes the severed thumb in his other hand and offers it to God.

For Protestant captives, however, the salutary effects of captivity generally lay in areas other than suffering, principally the morally instructive nature of the experience. There were spiritual lessons to be drawn. "How evident is it that the Lord hath made this Gentlewoman a gainer by all this affliction," runs the preface to the second edition of the Rowlandson narrative, "that she can say 'tis good for her yea better that she hath been, then that she should not have been thus afflicted … the worst of evils working together for the best good." Mrs. Rowlandson validates this theme in matters both large and small. On the first Sabbath of her captivity she recalls "how careless I had been of God's holy time, how many Sabbaths I had lost and misspent…. Yet the Lord still shewed mercy, and upheld me; and as he wounded me with one hand, so he healed me with the other." When, after her release, she is troubled with small matters ("a shadow, a blast, a bubble, and things of no continuance …"), she thinks upon her recent captivity: "It was but the other day that if I had had the world, I would have given it for my freedom. … I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles."

Perhaps the chief spiritual significance for both the captive-narrator and his reader lay in interpreting the captivity as an illustration of God's providence. "God was with me, in a wonderfull manner, carrying me along and bearing up my spirit… that I might see more of his Power," writes Mrs. Rowlandson. "Thus God wonderfully...

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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...

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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...

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Moral Instruction

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...

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Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 428 words.)