Captivity Narratives: Exploring Motives of the Capturers and Captives

Posted by on Aug 20th, 2012 | 2 Comments

What would it be like for an American colonist to be captured by a Native American tribe? Thanks to multiple written accounts of captivity, we can begin to understand the answer. Instances of Native Americans capturing non-Native Americans were common throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Captivity narratives became a popular literary genre as captives began to document their stories. They are often considered the first literary genre in American history to focus on female protagonists. By documenting their experience with Native American tribes, captives were able to share the details of the incident, confirm their religious purity, and re-establish themselves in good standing in the community after their time away in captivity. Some captives were even able to make a profit from publishing their encounter. The content within captive narratives varied; some captives defamed the character of the Native Americans, while other captives told stories of willing assimilation to the Native American way of life.

The Experience of Captivity

Intro to Rowlandson from Robert Gray on Vimeo.

Mary Rowlandson Background from Robert Gray on Vimeo.

Captivity refers to the experience of non-Natives being kidnapped by Native Americans, often in frontier areas of North America.  In early American history, incidences of captivity were common as white settlers pushed further into Native American territory.  The majority of the settlers taken by Native Americans were women because they were easier to capture, and the Natives assumed that they would be easier to control.  Native Americans had a number of motives for taking captives. One motive was the need to trade with other Natives for goods, cash, or prisoners. ((Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, ed., Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. New York:  Penguin Books, 1998: xvi)) In these cases, the captive was a bartering tool for the capturers to access items that they needed. Another motive was slavery or servitude – the Natives might capture a settler if they needed extra laborers.

More frequently, capturers were motivated by the Native American tradition of adoption – tribal members who had been lost to war or disease could be replaced by adopting a replacement. ((Ibid., xvii)) In an era when Native populations were decimated by the arrival of foreign European diseases on the North American continent, there were plenty of departed tribal members that could be replaced through adoption. Another common motive was for ransom from settlers. ((Ibid., xvi)) Native Americans knew that the captive’s family and community would usually be willing to pay large sums of cash or goods to have the captive returned.  In the eyes of the average Puritan settler in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Native American society was considered a heathen culture that was often scorned and feared by Puritans. Therefore, captives’ families went to great lengths to secure their freedom from the heathen tribes. With such a plethora of motives, it is no wonder that each captive had a unique experience.

Mary Rowlandson

One of the most famous captive narratives was written by Mary Rowlandson during the seventeenth century. First published in 1682, her narrative was originally titled The Sovereignty and Goodness of God and later changed to A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Rowlandson lived in Lancaster, Massachusetts with her husband Joseph, the minister of the Lancaster church, and their three children. Rowlandson was taken captive when a party of Narragansett, Nipmuck, and Wampanoag tribe members raided Lancaster in 1676 as part of King Philip’s War. ((Ibid.)) In King Philip’s War (1675-1676), an alliance of Native American tribes fought against encroachment by European settlers in the northeastern area of the present-day United States. Rowlandson’s written narrative begins with the siege of Lancaster and the Native American assault on her home. In this section of the narrative, Rowlandson portrays the Natives as violent, savage creatures, and she describes the manner in which they killed her sister. The narrative also details her travels with the tribe, the death of her youngest child along the journey, and the experience of living with the Native Americans. The Natives recognized Rowlandson’s high status within colonial society, so she was treated well as a political prisoner in hopes for a large ransom.

See here for a short lecture on Mary Rowlandson, the experience of captivity, and relations between the colonists and Native Americans.

Rowlandson was released in May 1676, and she returned to her husband Joseph. While Rowlandson likely wrote down most of her narrative shortly after release, the book was not published until 1682. During that time, it is likely that her story was influenced by Joseph and other Puritan ministers, especially the famed author and minister Increase Mather. ((Ibid., 5)) The influence of the Puritan faith is evident throughout most of her narrative, as Rowlandson frequently affirms her religious purity despite her time with Native Americans. Within the first year of her narrative’s publication, it sold more than one thousand copies in America and England combined, a huge amount in the days before mass publishing. ((Ibid., 3)) Editions of the Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson continue to be published and read widely to this day.

You can find the full text of the Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson here.  Or, you can listen to an audio reading of her narrative here.

See this video for a virtual tour of the landscape Rowlandson traveled during her captivity.

Mary Jemison

Another enduringly popular captivity narrative is based on the life of Mary Jemison, who was taken captive at the age of fifteen.  Jemison lived on the Pennsylvania frontier with her parents and three siblings. On April 5, 1758, a raiding party composed of Shawnee Native Americans and French allies raided the Jemison family farm. ((Ibid., 119)) Mary was the only member of the family who survived the attack, and she was taken captive by the raiding party. Jemison represented a case of the Native American adoption practice. After she was captured, she was taken to Fort Duquesne and given to two Seneca tribe members to replace a lost family member. Jemison was given the Seneca name Dehgewanus, and she assimilated to the Native American way of life. She repeatedly declined offers to return to colonial America, and she adopted the identity of a Seneca tribe member.  Jemison even married a Seneca man and raised her children within the tribe. ((Ibid.))

Jemison’s narrative was written by James Everett Seaver, a local doctor who was hired to write a book about Jemison. ((Ibid., 120)) Jemison agreed to be interviewed by Seaver, under the supervision of Jemison’s trusted white neighbor, Thomas Clute. The book, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, was written by Seaver, but Jemison had a strong influence on the content of the story. Thus, the narrative is a mix of Seaver’s interpretation and Jemison’s perspective. The book was first published in 1824 and became a best-seller, with subsequent editions published to the present day.

Read the entire book online here.  Or, you can listen to an audio reading of her narrative here.

Reading and Teaching Captivity Narratives

Captivity narratives are a great historical resource to study relations between the Native Americans and settlers. However, it is important for the reader to keep in mind that captivity narratives only tell one side of the story – that of the captive. Thus, many captivity narratives focus on Native American brutality and portray the captive as a victim. Additionally, many captivity narratives were not written by the actual captive. It was common for an educated male to write the story rather than the female captive, as was the case with Mary Jemison’s narrative written by James Seaver. Even Mary Rowlandson, who documented her own captivity experience, likely was influenced by others during her writing. Women such as Rowlandson had a reputation to protect – she was a Puritan woman who had spent weeks living amongst Native Americans. Rowlandson needed to prove to her community that she remained pure and dedicated to her faith following her captivity.

The examples of Rowlandson and Jemison demonstrate the possible pitfalls of narrowly studying captive narratives. When reading and teaching captivity narratives, it is useful to research the historical context of the story, examine the narrative writer’s motives, and consider the opposing viewpoints that are omitted from the narrative. With context and motivation in mind, it is easier for students and teachers alike to avoid unconditionally accepting captive narratives as historic fact. Captive narratives certainly have historical value, but they are best utilized as a reference for cultural and social history, especially in terms of relations between Native Americans and European settlers.

According to Richard Slotkin, “In [a captivity narrative] a single individual, usually a woman, stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God. The sufferer represents the whole, chastened body of Puritan society; and the temporary bondage of the captive to the Indian is dual paradigm– of the bondage of the soul to the flesh and the temptations arising from original sin, and of the self-exile of the English Israel from England. In the Indian’s devilish clutches, the captive had to meet and reject the temptation of Indian marriage and/or the Indian’s “cannibal” Eucharist. To partake of the Indian’s love or of his equivalent of bread and wine was to debase, to un-English the very soul. The captive’s ultimate redemption by the grace of Christ and the efforts of the Puritan magistrates is likened to the regeneration of the soul in conversion. The ordeal is at once threatful of pain and evil and promising of ultimate salvation. Through the captive’s proxy, the promise of a similar salvation could be offered to the faithful among the reading public, while the captive’s torments remained to harrow the hearts of those not yet awakened to their fallen nature.” (Regeneration Through Violence)

As you read captivity narratives, keep the issue of multiple perspectives in mind. Not only is it important to read the captive’s account, but consider the intended audience, the other  side of the story, and the writer’s bias. When multiple perspectives are taken into consideration, a more well-rounded understanding of early American culture and Native American relations with white settlers can be achieved.

 Discussion Questions for the Classroom:

  • How might the story be different if we had King Philip’s interpretation of the event, in addition to Mary Rowlandson’s perspective?
  • Which elements of Rowlandson’s narrative indicate that the Native American motives were omitted or overlooked?
  • How does Mary Jemison’s narrative differ from the dominant story of captivity?
  • What factors motivated Jemison to remain with the Native tribe rather than return to European settlements in North America?
  • How do captivity narratives enhance your understanding of the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers?

For more information:

  • Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for Native American History 
  • Kelly, Fanny. Narrative of My Captivity among the Sioux Indians. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1990 [1871].
  • Riley, Glenda. Women and Indians on the Frontier, 1825–1915. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.
  • Stedman, Raymond William. Shadows of the Indian: Stereotypes in American Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

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Baepler, Paul Michel. White Slaves, African Masters : An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

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Ellison, Julie. “Race and Sensibility in the Early Republic: Ann Eliza Bleecker and Sarah Wentworth.” American Literature 65.3 (1993): 445-74.

Faery, Rebecca Blevins. Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, and Sex in the Shaping of an American Nation. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1999.

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  1. Pingback: Outlander, Captivity, and Cultural Bigamy |

  2. How common were these events? I have discovered over six of them between my husband’s mother’s family and my ownn and I’m just getting started. Is it simply that those who endured and learned both ways of life were inclined to live near to one another thus amplifying the histories, because this seems rather overkill.

    Also, wondering if this informs personalities. Of course a number of these captives married into their clans and brought Native American blood into our lines, thank good. Could that be one of the intangible reasons hubby and I were instantly attracted to one another? White Indians? Or are there many numbers of whites who are part awesome? To live without duplicity, how is that possible? I see it daily, but it still disgusts me.

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