Early settlers in America faced many challenges. One of those challenges was the Native Americans (from here forth referred to as Indians). The Indians could not always be referred to as a challenge, but some were definitely to be feared. Some Indian bands or tribes raided the settlers and early Americans. These raids could be terrifying; leaving death, loss and destruction in their place. These raids often led to the settlers being captured.
Captivity happened for many reasons. Captives were taken as war trophies to show achievement and bravery. They were also taken for ransom to gain money from those that wished to redeem them from the brutal savages. Sometimes captives were taken as revenge to replace a loved one that had died or been killed as a result of the white man. These captives were often adopted into a tribe as family. In the 1700s it was common for the Indians to raid at the request of the French as a result of conflicts in Europe.
Many raids occurred in the night hours to catch the settlers off guard. Another common time would be when the men were away hunting or farming so they could not defend their homestead and family. These raids were well planned and generally successful.
Deerfield, Massachusetts was the target of several of these raids. One of these raids happened on February 29, 1704. The Reverend John Williams and his family was a target of this raid. Mr. Williams was an important person (this is probably the only reason his life was spared). He wrote that he was woken “out of sleep…. by their violent endeavors to break open doors and windows with axes and hatchets”. As the raid was taking place he and his wife were forced to watch two of their children (both boys: one 6 weeks old and the other 6 years old) be killed right in front of them. This seemed to be an attempt to warn the Williams’ to submit. The infant was also probably considered to be a liability. The reverend had spent much of the night bound in rope, but he and his family were finally permitted to dress. At the first signs of daylight they were marched into town and herded into the meeting house with other captives. They observed bloody corpses of many of the town people, smoke and many homes afire.
On March 15, 1697, Hannah Dustan’s home was attacked while her husband “hastened from his employments abroad unto the relief of his distressed family: and first bidding seven of his eight children to get away as fast as they could undo some garrison in the town”. He was too late to warn or protect his wife and infant. The Indians took as much as they could from Hannah’s home and forced her outside, and then set her house on fire. While this was going on her nurse had tried to escape with her infant (about a week old) but was captured. The Indians killed the infant… “They dash’d out the brains of the infant against a tree”. This could have been done for two different reasons: One being that the infant would have been a liability and the other could have been for punishment or a warning for submission.
It was common for the Indians to kill young infants and children as well as grown men and the elderly. This makes sense because the men would be a huge security risk as would the very young. The men had the ability and strength to fight, especially when there was several in numbers together. The young were a security risk because their cries could be a source of detection. An example of this would be when Elizabeth Hanson’s four year old was killed because he would not quit crying. Elizabeth writes: “My maid prevailed with the biggest to be quiet and still; but the other could by no means be prevailed with, but continued screaking and crying very much, in the fright, and the Indians to ease themselves of the noise, and to prevent the danger of a discovery that might arise from it, immediately before my face, knockt its brains out.”
Infants, small children and the elderly would also be seen as a liability because of the care they would require on the long journey that usually followed when a person was taken captive. Although it was not always the case that individuals in this group would be killed. Jemima Howe’s six month old infant was spared and even cared for by the Indians.
John Demos, Historian and author of The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America, gives an
idea of average statistical survival of an Indian raid and capture. He says that
“women were more likely than men to be captured, and men (as noted) were more likely to escape altogether; their chances of death, however were roughly the same. Infants (two years old and under) were “slaine” at a particularly high rate, and young children (ages 3-12) at a somewhat lower one, while nearly all teenagers (13-19) survived.”
The Indians then began the march with the captives. The march is referring to the long and hazardous journey that the captives would be forced to make with their captors. These journeys were often many miles and took weeks and or months to finish. The captives were faced with physical fatigue, mental distress, illness and injury as well as starvation. They were also consistently faced with the possibility of their own brutal death or the death of the few loved ones that may have remained.
These marches were generally done in a single file manner. They were often through swamps, brooks, thickets and the deep woods. The Indians had to avoid detection and this was the best way to keep rescuers from being able to track them. They marched hard and took little rest. The captives had no choice but to follow. Elizabeth Hanson wrote “I must go or die”.
The captives’ experiences on these marches varied. The Reverend Williams’ wife was killed during the march because she was weak from just having a child. She fell in icy water and the Indian that pulled her out of the water killed her with one blow. Her body was left behind and found a few days later by a rescuing party that was trying to track them. On their march a four year old girl was also killed because the snow was too deep for her to travel through. Another captive, on a different march, Elizabeth Hanson, said “my master would sometimes lead me by the hand a great way together, and give me what help he was capable of under the straits we went thru”.
Once a captive arrived at the village of the Indians their burden became a little lighter. The captives were usually given jobs to do such as cooking, gathering wood or other tasks as seen fit by the Indian community. They were able to have more freedom than they were permitted on the march. On the march they were often kept on a halter. One halter that was found was 22 feet in length. It had an embroidered collar that was put around the captives necks. They were then led or pulled along much like a dog would be today. Once they were in the village they could usually roam about the village freely. One captive, Jemima Howe, was allowed to travel independently to another Indian village to see her son.
There is still a large variety in the way captives were treated within a village and even more of a difference in their treatment depending on their master and Indian family. Elizabeth Hanson was abused often by her master, especially when food was scarce. She was often threatened with death as was her infant. Her master would tell her he was fattening the infant up to eat it. The abuse at times was so severe that the Indian master’s in-laws would have to intervene to protect Elizabeth. Mary Jemison, a fifteen year old was a captive of the Shawnee. She was adopted into a family to replace a brother that had been killed in the French and Indian War. She was welcomed with a large ceremony. Her parents were killed shortly after she was separated from them. Eunice Williams was also adopted into a family.
The fate of the captives had as much variety as the rest of their stories. Some were redeemed by ransom such as Reverend Williams and some of his children and Elizabeth Hanson and her children. Often they were bought by French people who took pity on their conditions and the safety of their souls. Reverend Williams was a targeted captive for military strategic reasons. Many died on their journey (the march) like Mrs. Williams and more died from disease and living conditions in the villages. Some, such as Eunice Williams, chose to stay with the Indians even when they were permitted to leave. Eunice chose to marry an Indian, convert to Catholicism and live in an Indian village.
There is much more to uncover when researching the experiences of Indian captives. These generalizations are by no means the complete story but they do give an idea of what captivity MIGHT have been like. It must be the first thought in the readers mind that there were many factors that MUST be considered to determine what each case may have been. There is a fascinating story to be told and heard. The whole truth may never be known. As readers, we must be objective without a predetermined mindset to hear the story within the stories.
Demos, John. The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From early America. Vintage Books. New York. 1994.
Mather, Cotton. Magnolia Christi Americana. London: Thomas Parhurst. 1702. Located in Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Penguin Books. 1998.
Hanson, Elizabeth. God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty. Philadelphia: Samuel Keimer. 1728. Located in Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Penguin Books. 1998.
Gay, Bunker. A genuine and Correct Account of the Captivity, Sufferings and Deliverance of Mrs. Jemima Howe. Boston: Belknap and Young. 1792. Located in Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Penguin Books. 1998.
Willoughby, C.C. A Mohawk (Caughnwaga) Halter for Leading Captives. American Anthropologist, New Series. Vol. 40, No. 1. January-March 1938. Located in JSTOR.
Jemison, Mary. Life of Mary Jemison. New York: J.D. Bemis. 1824. Located in Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Penguin Books. 1998.