Women in Indigenous Captivity Narratives

Mary Rowlandson Narrative: book cover and illustration
Fotosearch and The Print Collector / Getty Images

A genre of American literature popular from the 16th to the 19th century was the Indigenous captivity narrative, or "Indian" captivity narrative. These stories gave an account of a woman who was kidnapped and held captive by Indigenous people, told from her perspective. In most cases, the women taken captive are White women of European descent. These narratives—which could be used as a form of propaganda to push religious, political, or social agendas—sometimes characterized Indigenous people as uncivilized, barbaric, and inferior to White people and sometimes characterized them as kind and fair.

Sensationalism often played a key role in these narratives and some accounts contained elements of fiction to shock readers and pull them in. Mary Rowlandson is credited as being the first woman to write an Indigenous captivity narrative in 1682, which was titled "Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson."

Gender Roles

These captivity narratives played into the culture's definition of what a "proper woman" should be and do. Women in these narratives are not treated as women "should" be—they often see the violent deaths of husbands, brothers, and children. The women also are unable to fulfill "normal" women's roles: protect their own children, dress neatly and cleanly in the "proper" garments, restrict their sexual activity to marriage to the "appropriate" kind of man. They are forced into roles unusual for women, including violence in their own defense or that of children, physical challenges such as long journeys by foot, or trickery of their captors. Even the fact that they publish stories of their lives is stepping outside "normal" women's behavior.

Racial Stereotypes

The captivity stories also perpetuate stereotypes of Indigenous people and settlers and were part of the ongoing conflict between these groups as the settlers moved westward. In a society in which men are expected to be the protectors of women, the kidnapping of women is viewed as an attack or an affront of the males in the society, as well. The stories serve thus as a call for retaliation as well as for caution in relating to these "dangerous" Indigenous people. Sometimes the narratives also challenge some of the racial stereotypes. By depicting the captors as individuals, often as people who also face troubles and challenges, the captors are also made more human. In either case, these Indigenous people captive narratives serve a directly political purpose and can be seen as a kind of political propaganda.


The captivity narratives also usually refer to the religious contrast between the Christian captive and the pagan Indigenous people. Mary Rowlandson's captivity story, for instance, was published in 1682 with a subtitle that included her name as "Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, a Minister's Wife in New England." That edition also included "A Sermon on the Possibility of God's Forsaking a People that have been near and dear to him, Preached by Mr. Joseph Rowlandson, Husband to the said Mrs. Rowlandson, It being his Last Sermon." The captivity narratives served to define piety and women's proper devotion to their religion and to give a religious message about the value of faith in times of adversity.


Indigenous captivity narratives can also be seen as part of a long history of sensational literature. Women are depicted outside their normal roles, creating surprise and even shock. There are hints or more of improper sexual treatment—forced marriage or rape. Violence and sex—then and now, a combination that sells books. Many novelists took up these themes of "life among the heathens."

Enslaved Person Narratives and Indigenous Captivity Narratives

Enslaved person narratives share some of the characteristics of Indigenous captivity narratives: defining and challenging women's proper roles and racial stereotypes, serving as political propaganda (often for abolitionist sentiments with some ideas of women's rights), and selling books through shock value, violence, and hints of sexual misconduct.

Literary Theories

Captivity narratives have been of special interest to postmodern literary and cultural analysis, looking at key issues including:

  • gender and culture
  • narratives versus objective truth

Women's History Questions on Captivity Narratives

How can the field of women's history use the Indigenous captivity narratives to understand women's lives? Here are some productive questions:

  • Sort out fact from fiction in them. How much is influenced unconsciously by cultural assumptions and expectations? How much is sensationalized for the sake of making the book more salable, or better political propaganda?
  • Examine how the views of women (and Indigenous people) are influenced by the culture of the time. What was the "political correctness" of the time (standard themes and attitudes that needed to be included in order to be acceptable to audiences)? What do the assumptions that shaped the exaggerations or understatements say about the experience of women in that time?
  • Look at the relationship of women's experience to the historical context. For example, to understand King Phillip's War, the story of Mary Rowlandson is important—and vice versa, for her story means less if we don't understand the context in which it took place and was written. What events in history made it important that this captivity narrative is published? What events influenced the actions of the settlers and the Indigenous people?
  • Look at ways in which women did surprising things in the books or told surprising stories about the Indigenous people. How much was a narrative a challenge to assumptions and stereotypes, and how much a reinforcement of them?
  • How did gender roles differ in the cultures depicted? What was the effect on the lives of women of these different roles—how did they spend their time, what influence did they have on events?

Specific Women in Captivity Narratives

These are some women captives—some are famous (or infamous), some less well-known.

Mary White Rowlandson: She lived from about 1637 to 1711 and was a captive in 1675 for almost three months. Hers was the first of the captivity narratives to be published in America and went through numerous editions. Her treatment of the Indigenous people is often sympathetic.

Mary Jemison: Captured during the French and Indian War and sold to the Seneca, she became a member of the Senecas and was renamed Dehgewanus. In 1823 a writer interviewed her and the next year published a first-person narrative of Mary Jemison's life.

Olive Ann Oatman Fairchild and Mary Ann Oatman: Captured by Yavapai Indigenous people (or, perhaps, Apache) in Arizona in 1851, then sold to Mojave Indigenous people. Mary died in captivity, reportedly of abuse and starvation. Olive was ransomed in 1856. She later lived in California and New York.

  • Olive Ann Oatman Fairchild
  • Book:
    Lorenzo D. Oatman, Oliva A. Oatman, Royal B. Stratton. "The Captivity of the Oatman Girls Among the Apache and Mohave Indians." Dover, 1994.

Susannah Johnson: Captured by Abenaki Indigenous people in August 1754, she and her family were taken to Quebec where they were sold into enslavement by the French. She was released in 1758, and in 1796, wrote of her captivity. It was one of the more popular such narratives to read.

Elizabeth Hanson: Captured by Abenaki Indigenous people in New Hampshire in 1725, with four of her children, the youngest two weeks old. She was taken to Canada, where the French eventually took her in. She was ransomed with three of her children by her husband some months later. Her daughter, Sarah, had been separated and taken to a different camp; she later married a French man and stayed in Canada; her father died traveling to Canada to try to bring her back. Her account, first published in 1728, draws on her Quaker beliefs that it was God's will that she survived, and emphasized how women should behave even in adversity.

Frances and Almira Hall: Captives in the Black Hawk War, they lived in Illinois. The girls were 16 and 18 when they were captured in an attack in the ongoing war between the settlers and the Indigenous people. The girls, who according to their account were to be married to "young chiefs," were freed into the hands of "Winebagoe" Indigenous people, on payment of ransom that had been given to them by Illinois troops who had been unable to find the girls. The account depicts the Indigenous people as "merciless savages."

Rachel Plummer: Captured May 19, 1836, by Comanche Indigenous people, she was released in 1838 and died in 1839 after her narrative was published. Her son, who was a toddler when they were captured, was ransomed in 1842 and raised by her father (his grandfather).

Fanny Wiggins Kelly: Canadian born, Fanny Wiggins moved with her family to Kansas where she married Josiah Kelly. The Kelly family including a niece and adopted daughter and two "colored servants" went by wagon train headed for the far northwest, either Montana or Idaho. They were attacked and looted by Oglala Sioux in Wyoming. Some of the men were killed, Josiah Kelly and another man were captured, and Fanny, another adult woman, and the two girls were captured. The adopted girl was killed after trying to escape, the other woman escaped. She eventually engineered a rescue and was reunited with her husband. Several different accounts, with key details changed, exist of her captivity, and the woman captured with her, Sarah Larimeralso published about her capture, and Fanny Kelly sued her for plagiarism.

  • "Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians" 1845 - published 1871
  • Another copy

Minnie Buce Carrigan: Captured in Buffalo Lake, Minnesota, at 7 years old, having settled there as part of a German immigrant community. Increased conflict between settlers and the Indigenous people who opposed the encroachment led to several incidents of murder. Her parents were killed in a raid by about 20 Sioux, as were two of her sisters, and she and a sister and brother were taken captive. They were turned over to soldiers eventually. Her account describes how the community took back in many of the captured children, and how guardians took the settlement from her parents' farm and "cunningly appropriated" it. She lost track of her brother but believed him to have died in the battle Gen. Custer lost.

Cynthia Ann Parker: Abducted in 1836 in Texas by Indigenous people, she was part of the Comanche community for almost 25 years until abducted again—by Texas Rangers. Her son, Quanah Parker, was the last Comanche chief. She died of starvation, apparently from grief at being separated from the Comanche people which whom she identified.

  • Cynthia Ann Parker - from The Handbook of Texas Online
  • Books:
    Margaret Schmidt Hacker. "Cynthia Ann Parker: The Life and the Legend." Texas Western, 1990.

Martin's Hundred: The fate of 20 women captured in the Powhatan Uprising of 1622 is not known to history.

  • Martin's Hundred



Further reading on the subject of women captives: stories about American settlers taken captive by Indigenous people, also called "Indian Captivity Narratives," and what these mean to historians and as literary works:

  • Christopher Castiglia. Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing and White Womanhood. University of Chicago, 1996.
  • Kathryn and James Derounian and Arthur Levernier. Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550-1900. Twayne, 1993.
  • Kathryn Derounian-Stodola, editor. Women's Indian Captivity Narratives. Penguin, 1998.
  • Frederick Drimmer (editor). Captured by the Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts, 1750-1870. Dover, 1985.
  • Gary L. Ebersole. Captured By Texts: Puritan to Postmodern Images of Indian Captivity. Virginia, 1995.
  • Rebecca Blevins Faery. Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, and Sex in the Shaping on an American Nation. University of Oklahoma, 1999.
  • June Namias. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. University of North Carolina, 1993.
  • Mary Ann Samyn. Captivity Narrative. Ohio State University, 1999.
  • Gordon M. Sayre, Olaudah Equiano, and Paul Lauter, editors. American Captivity Narratives. D C Heath, 2000.
  • Pauline Turner Strong. Captive Selves, Captivating Others. Westview Press, 2000.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women in Indigenous Captivity Narratives." ThoughtCo, Dec. 10, 2020, thoughtco.com/women-in-indian-captivity-narratives-3529395. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, December 10). Women in Indigenous Captivity Narratives. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/women-in-indian-captivity-narratives-3529395 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women in Indigenous Captivity Narratives." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/women-in-indian-captivity-narratives-3529395 (accessed March 28, 2023).