Women in Indian Captivity Narratives

Colonial Assumptions About Gender & Race

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

About Captivity Narratives

A genre of American literature has been the Indian captivity narrative. In these stories, it's usually women who are kidnapped and held captive by American Indians. And the women who are taken captive are white women -- women of European descent.

Gender Roles

These captivity narratives are part of 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: unable to protect their own children, unable to dress neatly and cleanly or in the "proper" garments, unable to 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 Indians and settlers, and were part of the on-going 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 on and 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" natives.

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 Indian captive narratives serve a directly political purpose, and can be seen as a kind of political propaganda.

Religion

The captivity narratives also usually refer to the religious contrast between the Christian captive and the pagan Indians. 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. (After all, if these women could maintain their faith in such extreme circumstances, shouldn't the reader maintain her or his faith in less challenging times?)

Sensationalism

Indian 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."

Slave Narratives and Indian Captivity Narratives

Slave narratives share some of the characteristics of Indian 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:

  • gender and culture
  • narratives versus objective truth

Women's History Questions on Captivity Narratives

How can the field of women's history use the Indian 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 Indians) 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 be published? What events influenced the actions of the settlers and the Indians?
  • Look at ways in which women did surprising things in the books, or told surprising stories about the Native Americans. How much was a narrative a challenge to assumptions and stereotypes, and how much a reinforcement of them?
  • How were gender roles different in the different 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 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 Native Americans 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 Indians (or, perhaps, Apache) in Arizona in 1851, then sold to Mojave Indians.

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

Elizabeth Hanson

Frances and Almira Hall - captives in the Black Hawk War

Rachel Plummer - captured May 19, 1836 by Comanche Indians, 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

Minnie Buce Carrigan

Cynthia Ann Parker - abducted in 1836 in Texas by Indians, 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 twenty women captured in the Powhatan Uprising of 1622 is not known to history

  • Martin's Hundred

Also:

Bibliography

Further reading on the subject of women captives: stories about American women settlers taken captive by Indians, 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.