Nineteenth-Century Captivity Narratives Overview - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4996 words.)