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Captured by the Indians
15 Firsthand Accounts, 1750-1870
By Frederick Drimmer
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1961 Frederick Drimmer
All rights reserved.
Captured by the Indians
FOR many minutes now, the long dark gun barrels slanting from the loopholes of the besieged cabin had been silent. The warriors crouching in the bushes wondered: Have the palefaces used up their powder and shot so soon? A young Indian, eager to make a name for himself, decided to find out. He screamed and jumped up—once, twice, three times. Each time he exposed himself only briefly, but his glistening, brightly painted body presented a tempting target.
No one in the cabin fired.
Instantly, with a wild whoop of triumph, the naked warriors rushed for the cabin and rammed their musket butts against the narrow door. The bars that braced it gave way and it swung open. The cabin was crowded with trembling children and women. In front of them stood their men, tight lipped; they had only knives and axes in their hands. The Indians howled joyfully and plunged inside.
In a moment the men had been shot and hacked to pieces, and the scalps ripped from their heads. One or two men were saved, to provide the Indian village with a sacrifice and a day's wild frolic, or to be held for ransom or adopted into the tribe. The weak, the wounded, the old of both sexes were killed and mutilated. The young women and the older children, particularly the boys, were spared; these, too, were to be taken home and adopted. Hastily the Indians stripped the dead of their belongings and searched the cabin for other booty. Then, brandishing their tomahawks to enforce silence, they hurried their prisoners off into the woods.
Many a captivity among the Indians began with an incident like this. Often the white prisoner lived with the Indians for the rest of his life. But sometimes, after waiting months or even years, a prisoner might make his escape. Or he might be ransomed, or else a treaty of peace was signed and the Indians were obliged to give up their prisoners. The experiences these captives recounted when they got home were astonishing, and they were frequently urged to put them in a book.
Quite a number of them did. They told of massacres and raids on wagon trains, of which sometimes they were the sole survivors, and of being dragged long distances through the wilderness with the tomahawk always waiting if they fell behind. They spoke of running the gauntlet, of being adopted into Indian tribes in curious rituals, and of scalp dances and captives tortured to death. They told how they had hunted the bear and the buffalo with the Indians, and fought in bloody conflicts between different tribes. They told of Indian love and marriage, of witchcraft, and of sages and sorcerers who brought eerie gods to life. No one had ever heard or read tales quite like these before.
"There is nothing in English, or in any other language, that surpasses these narratives of Indian captivities in vividness or in the bare statement of physical suffering and of mental torment," George Parker Winship has observed in the Cambridge History of American Literature. As true stories of strange adventure and perilous escape, also, they do not have many rivals. Thousands and thousands of readers have thrilled to the experiences of young James Smith and his wise old Indian brother, Tecaughretanego, during the French and Indian War, to Alexander Henry's narrow escapes from the bloodthirsty allies of Chief Pontiac, to John Rodgers Jewitt's adventures among the head-hunting Nootkas of the Northwest Coast, and the other narratives that are brought together in this book. For our ancestors, these remarkable tales had all the suspense and romance that the historical novel, the science-fiction tale, and the detective story hold for us today, with one important difference—these stories were real, and the same dangers and tragedies could befall the reader, for there were still hostile Indians on the prowl somewhere in the land. A large number of the captivity narratives were reprinted time and again, in both the United States and Europe. Some were among the great best sellers of their day.
As the Indian settled on reservations, exchanging the role of the threatening, hostile raider for that of the peaceful farmer and herdsman, the captivity narratives began to die out and disappear. Today these wonderful tales are all but lost. Except for an occasional reprint by a scholarly press, you can find them only in the rare-book rooms and special collections of our great libraries. This is a shame, for they were not written for scholars but for everyone, and they are as rich in human interest and excitement as they ever were. The intimate firsthand pictures they paint of life on the frontier, the warfare between red man and white, and the customs of the Indian in the days of scalps and tomahawks are a fascinating personal record of a vanished age. This book has been designed to "rescue" some of the most interesting and unusual of these narratives and place them within the reach of the modern reader.
Each of the captives in this book tells of things that he saw with his own eyes. All relate their stories in the first person. About half of these narratives were written by the captives themselves, some of whom were persons of no mean literary skill. The rest were related by the captives to editor-writers, much as is done today by people who have had a remarkable experience but lack the ability to set it down in writing. Occasionally there is a note of exaggeration or romanticizing in the narratives, but by and large they bear the stamp of truth. They have been accepted as authentic since their earliest publication, and have frequently been used as sources by historians and anthropologists.
At least two of the captives who tell their stories here were condemned to be burned at the stake, but made almost miraculous escapes. Three were so badly wounded that the Indians left them for dead. One was ransomed. Most of the rest married into the Indian band that took them captive, were adopted by the Indians, or else were destined for adoption when they won their way to freedom.
Adoption of prisoners was a practice among the Indians from ancient times, and a very useful one. Many of the tribes or bands were constantly fighting with one another, and war with them was war to the death. No one was spared, either young or old, for the victor saw every member of the conquered band as a part of its potential fighting power. Starvation and disease claimed their victims, too. Adoption was the remedy, and the Indians sometimes practiced it on a large scale. In 1722, for example, the Iroquois Confederacy, whose strength had been sapped by decades of warfare, adopted an entire tribe, the Tuscaroras. When the whites appeared upon the scene, the Indians adopted them, too.
It was a custom that the prisoner belonged to the first Indian who laid hands on him. If more than one Indian claimed him, all might own him in common. If a disagreement arose about who had prior right to a captive, it might be settled by killing him on the spot. This was almost the fate of one of our captives, Thomas Brown.
The lot of a prisoner could vary greatly, depending on the character and wishes of his captor, who might treat him as a friend and brother or as a hated enemy or a slave. If an Indian "master," as he was called, did not want to adopt his prisoner, he might allow him to be ransomed, or sell him to a white nation that was allied with the tribe. In the French and Indian Wars, which lasted, on and off, from 1689 to 1763, large numbers of English colonists were captured by Indian raiders allied with the French, and were sold to the French Canadians, who often used them as servants, adopted them, or attempted to convert them. Usually the Indian captor's wish was paramount in disposing of a captive. During the American Revolution, Daniel Boone was taken prisoner by the Shawnee chief Blackfish, who adopted the celebrated frontiersman as his son after rejecting a handsome offer from the British lieutenant governor of Detroit to purchase him.
James Smith, who tells his story in this book, was captured and adopted by the Caughnawaga Indians in the French and Indian War (as the last of the French and Indian Wars is commonly called). The ceremony by which he was initiated into the tribe was typical. He was plunged up to his middle in a stream and then three young squaws rubbed him briskly. Later an old chief told him that by this ritual every drop of white blood had been washed out of him. "You are adopted into a great family," the chief said, "and now received with great solemnity in the place of a great man. You are now one of us by an old strong law and custom."
Experience taught Smith that the old Indian meant what he had said. Thereafter Smith was treated exactly as though he had been born into the tribe. It is interesting to observe that a captive was usually adopted in the place of someone who had died or been killed in war. He was given not only the name, but also the privileges and responsibilities of the person whose place he took—was expected to be a husband to the dead man's wife and a father to his children. Sometimes a party of warriors would set out with the express aim of taking a white captive to replace a deceased member of their family or clan. This was how John Tanner, the "white Indian" whose story is told in this book, came to begin his thirty-year stay among the Ottawas and Ojibways.
Anyone reading early accounts of captivity among the Indians is struck by the fact that female prisoners do not appear to have been abused by the Indians in the eastern section of the country. Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive in Massachusetts by the Wampanoags and Narragansetts in King Philip's War, in 1676, observed, "I have been in the midst of those roaring lions and savage bears that feared neither God nor man, nor the devil, by night and day, alone and in company, sleeping all sorts together, and yet not one of them ever offered the least abuse of unchastity to me in word or action." Isabella McCoy, captured in 1747 by the St. Francis Indians, reported that "nothing like insult or indecency did they ever offer her during the whole time she was with them." General James Clinton, who took part in the punitive expedition the Americans made against the Iroquois in New York in 1779, summed it up when he wrote, "Bad as the savages are, they never violate the chastity of any women their prisoners."
One observation on this subject is particularly curious. The anonymous author of A Narrative of the Capture of Certain Americans at Westmoreland, writing in 1780 about a war party of Iroquois who had captured a man, woman, and child in Pennsylvania and then allowed the woman and child to go free, commented, "I don't remember to have heard an instance of these savages offering to violate the chastity of any of the fair sex who have fallen into their hands; this is principally owing to a natural inappetency in their constitution." Actually, it was a custom for the braves to make elaborate preparations before going on the warpath, and these included the practice of continence and rites of purification. To abuse a female captive would have weakened the Indians' "medicine." Moreover, a woman's body was generally held to belong to herself alone, and this principle was extended to white women brought back to live with the tribe. As Francis Parkman noted, a young woman who would not marry an Indian husband was treated with "a singular forbearance." On the other hand, at a somewhat later period, numerous cases of violation were reported by white women captured by Indians west of the Mississippi.
White captives, particularly if they were very young when they were taken prisoner, became greatly attached to the families into which they were adopted, and to the Indian way of life. The Indians were usually affectionate toward their children, rarely punishing them, and an Indian mother would treat an adopted white child as her own. Although squaws had many tasks to perform, they were seldom the drudges that they are described as being, and in an Indian village they often enjoyed more companionship, fun, and independence than did their white sisters dwelling along the frontier. The white woman captive who married an Indian and reared a half-breed family might become more an Indian than a white in her habits and outlook as the years went by. Thus it is not too surprising that, when offered an opportunity to return to the whites, many captives were not greatly delighted at the prospect. Often they did not remember any other life before their capture, and they were reluctant to leave the Indians. This was the case with one captive who tells his story here. When John Tanner returned to his own people he had forgotten his native language and even his name.
In 1764, at the close of Pontiac's War, Colonel Henry Bouquet led an army against the Ohio Indians and compelled them to sign a treaty of peace. He has described how heartbroken the Indians were when they were obliged to give up their captives. The Indians (presumably the women) shed "torrents of tears" over them, Bouquet observed, and begged him to take good care of them. They visited the captives all the time they were in camp, bringing them corn, skins, horses, and any other possessions that had been bestowed upon them while they were among the Indians. When the army marched off toward Fort Pitt, some of the Indians begged and obtained permission to accompany their former captives and hunted for them and brought them food along the way. White children who had lived with the Indians for a long while seemed to regard being restored to their parents as the start of a new captivity.
"But it must not be denied," Bouquet noted, "that there were even some grown persons who shewed an unwillingness to return. The Shawanese were obliged to bind several of their prisoners and force them along to the camp; and some women, who had been delivered up, afterwards found means to escape and run back to the Indian towns. Some, who could not make their escape, clung to their savage acquaintance at parting, and continued many days in bitter lamentations, even refusing sustenance."
With all these marks of deep affection that Indians and captives showed each other, it is still a bitter fact that the Indian put to the tomahawk all but a small proportion of those who fell into his power. Not a single one of the fifteen survivors who tell their stories in this volume fails to mention others he knew who were killed by the Indians. Death at the hands of the Indians was an ever-present threat to many Americans who lived on the frontier.
It is impossible to make a reliable estimate of the total number of whites who were slain by Indians, but it must have been staggering. A leading Kentuckian wrote to the Secretary of War in 1790 that in the seven years after the end of the Revolution fifteen hundred people had been killed in Kentucky or on the routes leading to it. One of these unfortunates was Abraham Lincoln, grandfather of the sixteenth President, who was named for him. "He was killed by Indians, not in battle but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest," was the caustic comment of his famous grandson. Thomas Lincoln, then just a boy—he was to be the father of the President—was saved when his elder brother shot an Indian who was about to tomahawk him.
Although there were many tragedies and near-tragedies like these, the white man and the Indian were not always at war. Often they lived fairly close together in friendship and peace. The French, in particular, maintained a warm relationship with the Indians of New France and often took Indian wives. In the first major warfare in which the Indians took part, the French and Indian Wars, they did not fight as enemies of the whites but as allies of opposing nations—the Canadian tribes on the side of the French, and the Iroquois on the side of the English.
When serious trouble erupted between the white man and the Indian, its cause could usually be summed up in a single word: land. The number of settlers was always increasing and they kept pressing westward, hungry for more and better land. Frequently the Indian's best hunting grounds were taken from him by treaties that he signed but did not understand, or frontiersmen moved in on his territory without his consent. Officials treated him arrogantly and traders cheated and robbed him without mercy. Treaties were also broken or rewritten to suit the needs of the swelling white population or of special interests, and the Indian was pushed toward and across the Mississippi.
As the Indian's hunting grounds shrank, so did his numbers. It has been estimated that in 1492 there were about 900,000 Indians north of Mexico. By 1870, when most of the tribes had been forced to settle on reservations, their numbers had been reduced to about 300,000. They had lost their four-hundred-year-long struggle to preserve their way of life— which, for many of the Indians, meant life itself.
Excerpted from Captured by the Indians by Frederick Drimmer. Copyright © 1961 Frederick Drimmer. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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