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The Abduction of Daniel Boone's Daughter by the Indians, Charles Ferdinand Wimar, 1853

Captivity narratives are stories of people captured by enemies whom they generally consider "uncivilized." Traditionally, historians have made limited use of certain captivity narratives. They have regarded the genre with suspicion because of its ideological underpinnings. As a result of new scholarly approaches, historians with a more certain grasp of Native American cultures are distinguishing between plausible statements of fact and value-laden judgements in order to study the narratives as rare sources from "inside" Native societies.[1]

Contemporary historians such as Linda Colley and anthropologists such as Pauline Turner Strong have also found the narratives useful in analyzing how the colonists constructed the "other", as well as what the narratives reveal about the settlers' sense of themselves and their culture, and the experience of crossing the line to another. Colley has studied the long history of English captivity in other cultures, both the Barbary pirate captives who preceded those in North America, and British captives in cultures such as India, after the North American experience.

Accounts of captivity narratives based in North America were published from the 18th through the 19th centuries, but they were part of a well-established genre in English literature. There had already been English accounts of captivity by Barbary pirates, or in the Middle East, which established some of the major elements of the form. Following the American experience, additional accounts were written after British people were captured during exploration and settlement in India and East Asia.


Because of the competition between New France and New England in North America, colonists in New England were frequently taken captive by Canadiens and their Indian allies. (Similarly, the New Englanders and their Indian allies took Canadians and Indian prisoners captive.) According to Kathryn Derounian-Stodola, statistics on the number of captives taken from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries are imprecise and unreliable, since record-keeping was not consistent and the fate of hostages who disappeared or died was often not known.[2] Yet conservative estimates run into the thousands, and a more realistic figure may well be higher. For some statistical perspective, however, between King Philip's War (1675) and the last of the French and Indian Wars (1763), approximately 1,641 New Englanders were taken hostage.[3] During the decades-long struggle between whites and Plains Indians in the mid-nineteenth century, hundreds of women and children were captured.[4]

Many narratives included a theme of redemption by faith in the face of the threats and temptations of an alien way of life. Barbary captivity narratives, accounts of English people captured and held by Barbary pirates, were popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first Barbary captivity narrative by a resident of North America was that of Abraham Browne (1655). The most popular was that of Captain James Riley, entitled An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Brig Commerce (1817).[citation needed]

Jonathan Dickinson's Journal, God's Protecting Providence ... (1699), an account by a Quaker of shipwreck survivors captured by Indians in Florida who survived by placing their trust in God to protect them, has been described by the Cambridge History of English and American Literature as "in many respects the best of all the captivity tracts."[5]

Ann Eliza Bleecker's epistolary novel, The History of Maria Kittle (1793), is considered the first known Captivity novel. It set the form for subsequent Indian Capture novels.[6]

New England

Hannah Duston by Junius Brutus Stearns

American Indian captivity narratives, accounts of men and women of European descent who were captured by Native Americans, were popular in both America and Europe from the 17th century until the close of the United States frontier late in the 19th century. Mary Rowlandson's memoir, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, (1682) is a classic example of the genre. According to Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, Rowlandson’s captivity narrative was “one of the most popular captivity narratives on both sides of the Atlantic."[7] Although the text temporarily fell out of print after 1720, it experienced a revival in the 1780s. Other popular captivity narratives from the late 17th century include Cotton Mather's The Captivity of Hannah Dustin (1696–97), a famous captivity narrative set during King William's War, and Jonathan Dickinson's God's Protecting Providence (1699).

American captivity narratives were usually based on true events, but they frequently contained fictional elements as well. Some were entirely fictional, created because the stories were popular. One spurious captivity narrative was The Remarkable Adventures of Jackson Johonnet, of Massachusetts (Boston, 1793).

Captivity in another culture brought into question many aspects of the captives' lives. Reflecting their religious beliefs, the Puritans tended to write narratives that negatively characterized Indians; they portrayed the trial of events as a warning from God concerning the state of the Puritans' souls, and concluded that God was the only hope for redemption.

During Queen Anne's War, after the Raid on Deerfield in 1704, in which many people in the town were killed and more than 100 people were taken captive, forced overland to Montreal and held in Canada for an extended period, the minister John Williams wrote a captivity narrative about his experiences titled The Unredeemed Captive. Published in 1707, the work was widely distributed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and continues to be published today. Due to his account, as well as the high number of captives, this raid, unlike others of the time, was remembered and became an element in the American frontier story.[8]

During Father Rale's War, Indians raided Dover, New Hampshire and Elizabeth Hanson wrote her captivity narrative. Captivity narratives experienced a revival in the final 30 years of the 18th century. Tales such as A Narrative of the Capture and Treatment of John Dodge, by the English at Detroit (1779), A Narrative of the Capture and Treatment of John Dodge, by the English at Detroit (1779), A Surprising Account, of the Captivity and Escape of Philip M'Donald, and Alexander M'Leod, of Virginia, from the Chickkemogga Indians (1786), Abraham Panther's A Very Surprising Narrative of a Young Woman, Who Was Discovered in a Rocky Cave (1787), Narrative of the Remarkable Occurrences, in the Life of John Blatchford of Cape-Ann (1788), and A Narrative of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mr. Ebenezer Fletcher, of Newipswich, Who Was . . . Taken Prisoner by the British (1798) provided American reading audiences with new narratives, some of which featured English soldiers as the primary antagonists.

Susannah Willard Johnson of New Hampshire wrote about her captivity during the French and Indian War.

Nova Scotia and Acadia

Six captivity narratives are known that were written as a result of New Englanders being captured by the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet tribes in Nova Scotia and Acadia. (Two other prisoners were Michael Franklin (taken 1754) and Lt John Hamilton (taken 1749) at the Siege of Grand Pre. Whether their captivity experiences were documented is unknown.) The most famous was by John Gyles, who wrote Memoirs of odd adventures, strange deliverances, &c. in the captivity of John Gyles, Esq; commander of the garrison on St. George's River (1736). He was captured in the Siege of Pemaquid (1689) and wrote about his torture by the natives at Meductic village during King William's War. His memoirs are regarded as a precursor to the frontier romances of James Fenimore Cooper, William Gilmore Simms, and Robert Montgomery Bird.[9]

New England merchant William Pote was captured during the siege of Annapolis Royal during King Georges War and wrote about his captivity. Among other things, Pote also wrote about being tortured.[10] The third captivity narrative, by John Payzant, recounts his being taken prisoner with his mother and sister in the Maliseet and Mi`kmaq Raid on Lunenburg (1756) during the French and Indian War. After four years of captivity, his sister decided to remain with the natives, while he and his mother returned to Nova Scotia. Anthony Casteel was taken in the Attack at Jeddore during Father Le Loutre's War and recorded his experience.[11] John Witherspoon was captured at Annapolis Royal during the French and Indian War and wrote about his experience.[12] During the war Gamaliel Smethurst also recorded his captivity and published it before he died.[13] There are also the narratives of Lt. Simon Stephens of John Stark’s ranger company and Captain Robert Stobo who escaped together from Quebec along the coast of Acadia before reaching British occupied Louisbourg.[14][15] During the Petitcodiac River Campaign, the Acadian militia took prisoner William Caesar McCormick of William Stark's rangers and his detachment of three rangers and two light infantry privates from the 35th. The Acadian militia took the prisoners to Miramachi and then Restogouch.[16] (They were kept by Pierre du Calvet who later released them to Halifax.)[17] In August 1758, William Merritt was taken captive close to St. Georges (Thomaston, Maine) and then taken to the St. John River and later on to Quebec.[18]

North Africa

North America was not the only region to produce captivity narratives. North African slave narratives were written by white Europeans and Americans who were captured, often as a result of shipwrecks, and enslaved in North Africa in the 18th and early 19th centuries. If the Europeans converted to Islam and adopted North Africa as their home, they could often end their slavery status, but such actions disqualified them from being ransomed to freedom by European consuls in Africa, who were qualified only to free captives who had remained Christian.[19] About 20,000 British and Irish captives were held in North Africa from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the middle of the eighteenth, and roughly 700 Americans were held captive as North African slaves between 1785 and 1815. The British captives produced fifteen full biographical accounts of their experiences, and the American captives produced more than 100 editions of 40 full-length narratives.[20]

Assimilated captives

In his book Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness (1980), Frederick W. Turner discusses the effect of those accounts in which white captives came to prefer and eventually adopt a Native American way of life; they challenged European-American assumptions about the superiority of their culture. During some occasions of prisoner exchanges, the white captives had to be forced to return to their original cultures. Children who had assimilated to new families found it extremely painful to be torn from them after several years' captivity. Numerous adult and young captives who had assimilated chose to stay with American Indians and never returned to live in Anglo-American or European communities. The story of Mary Jemison, who was captured as a young girl (1755) and spent the remainder of her 90 years among the Seneca, is such an example.

It is uncertain to what extent captives who preferred to remain with their captors were acting on their own free will or were under the effects of Stockholm Syndrome or Traumatic bonding. Traumatic Bonding is defined as "a strong emotional attachment between an abused person and his or her abuser, formed as a result of the cycle of violence."[21]

Notable captivity narratives


  • Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1542), La Relacion (The Report); Translated as The Narrative of Cabeza De Vaca by Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz.
  • Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda (1575) Memoir On the Country and Ancient Indian Tribes Of Florida
  • Anthony Knivet (1625), The Admirable Adventures and Strange Fortunes of Master Antonie Knivet
  • Robert Knox (1659-1678), An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon.
  • Mary Rowlandson (1682), The Sovereignty and Goodness of God
  • Cotton Mather (1696–97), The Captivity of Hannah Dustan
  • John Williams (Reverend) (1709), The Redeemed Captive
  • Mercy Harbison (1792) The Capture and Escape of Mercy Harbison, 1792
  • Susannah Willard Johnson (1796), A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson, Containing an Account of Her Sufferings During Four Years With the Indians and French
  • Ann Eliza Bleecker (1797), The History of Maria Kittle
  • James Smith (1799), An Account of the Remarkable Occurences ... in the years 1755, '56, '57, '58 & 59
  • John R. Jewitt (1803-1805), A Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, only survivor of the crew of the ship Boston, during a captivity of nearly three years among the savages of Nootka Sound: with an account of the manners, mode of living, and religious opinions of the natives
  • James Riley (1815), Sufferings in Africa
  • Robert Adams (1816), The Narrative of Robert Adams
  • John Ingles (c. 1824), The Story of Mary Draper Ingles and Son Thomas Ingles
  • Mary Jemison (1824), A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison
  • John Tanner (1830) A Narrative of the captivity and adventures of John Tanner, thirty years of residence among the Indians, prepared for the press by Edwin James.
  • Rachel Plummer (1838), Rachael Plummer's Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians
  • Sarah Ann Horn (1839) with E. House, A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Horn, and Her Two Children, with Mrs. Harris, by the Camanche Indians
  • Matthew Brayton (1860), The Indian Captive A Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of Matthew Brayton in His Thirty-Four Years of Captivity Among the Indians of North-Western America

Artistic adaptations

In film

  • The Searchers (1956), directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, is a drama about a man's search for his niece who was taken captive by Comanche in the American West. The film was primarily about him and his search, and was influential because of the multiple psychological layers in the character portrayal.[citation needed]
  • A Man Called Horse (1970), directed by Elliot Silverstein and starring Richard Harris, is a drama about a man captured by Sioux who is initially enslaved and mocked by being treated as an animal but comes to respect his captors' culture and gain their respect.

In music

  • Cello-rock band Rasputina parodied captivity narratives in their song "My Captivity by Savages", from their album Frustration Plantation (2004).
  • Voltaire's song "Cannibal Buffet", from the album Ooky Spooky (2007), is a humorous take on captivity narratives.

In poetry

  • Hilary Holladay's book of poems, The Dreams of Mary Rowlandson, recreates Rowlandson's capture by Indians in poetic vignettes.[citation needed]



  1. Neal Salisbury. "Review of Colin Caolloway, 'North Country Captives: Selected Narratives of Indian Captivities'", American Indian Quarterly, 1994. vol. 18 (1). p. 97
  2. Introduction, Women's Indian Captivity Narratives, p. xv (New York: Penguin, 1998)
  3. Vaughan, Alden T., and Daniel K. Richter. "Crossing the Cultural Divide:Indians and New Englanders, 1605-1763." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 90 (1980): p. 53; 23-99.
  4. White, Lonnie J. "White Women Captives of Southern Plains Indians, 1866-1875," Journal of the West 8 (1969): 327-54
  5. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. Volume XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature, Early National Literature, Part I, Travellers and Explorers, 1583-1763. 11. Jonathan Dickinson.] URL retrieved 24 March 2010
  6. Gardner, Jared (2000). Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature, 1787-1845. Baltimore: JHU Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-8018-6538-7. 
  7. Armstrong, Nancy; Leonard Tennenhouse (1992). The Imaginary Puritan:Literature, Intellectual Labor, and the Origins of Personal Life. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 201. ISBN 0-520-07756-3. 
  8. Haefeli and Sweeney, p. 273
  9. Burt, Daniel S. (2004-01-13). The chronology of American literature: America's literary achievements from the colonial era to modern times. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-618-16821-7. Retrieved 7 September 2010. 
  10. See
  11. Diary of Anthony Casteel
  12. John Witherspoon, Journal of John Witherspoon, Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, Vol 2, pp. 31-62.
  13. Smethurst, Gamaliel (1774). Ganong, William Francis. ed. 'A narrative of an extraordinary escape: out of the hands of the Indians, in the Gulph of St. Lawrence. New Brunswick Historical Society. 
  14. A journal of Lieut. Simon Stevens, from the time of his being taken, near Fort William-Henry, June the 25th 1758. With an account fo his escape from Quebec, and his arrival at Louisbourg, on June the 6th, 1759.
  15. Captain Robert Stobo (Concluded) George M. Kahrl The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 49, No. 3 (Jul., 1941), pp. 254-268
  16. Green Baret, p. 34
  17. Tousignant, Pierre and Dionne-Tousignant, Madeleine. "du Calvet, Pierre", in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, University of Toronto and Université Laval, 2000, retrieved July 10, 2008
  19. Gardner, Brian (1968). The Quest for Timbuctoo. London: Cassell & Company. pp. 27. 
  20. Adams, Charles Hansford (2006). The Narrative of Robert Adams: A Barbary Captive. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. xlv-xlvi. ISBN 978-0-521-60373-7. 
  21. Wendy Austin; Mary Ann Boyd. Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing for Canadian Practice. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1 January 2010. ISBN 978-0-7817-9593-7. p. 67.

Other sources

  • Strong, Pauline Turner (2002) "Transforming Outsiders: Captivity, Adoption, and Slavery Reconsidered", in A Companion to American Indian History, pp. 339–356. Ed. Philip J. Deloria and Neal Salisbury. Malden, Massachusetts and Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Turner, Frederick. Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University, first edition 1980, reprint, 1992.
  • Journal of John Witherspoon, Annapolis Royal

External links

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