The Indian Captivity Narrative
Taking Captives in North America
Indian captivity was a reality in much of North America’s history. From the time of the first English settlement in North America, European colonists and the region’s indigenous nations struggled for survival and land use. Raids and kidnappings were practiced by both sides and had been in use for much longer among indigenous groups. Captive-taking served to weaken enemies, obtain ransom or desired provisions, and gain social status.
In contrast to the European settlers and their North American descendants, many indigenous nations also captured people of African origin. Africans had been brought to North America as slaves since 1619. Over time, some of them gained their liberty, and free black communities developed.
Among the Amerindian population, practices of captivity varied widely. Many tribes integrated captives into their societies. Some even adopted captives to replace lost tribal members. Other indigenous nations not only enslaved captives but also engaged in trading black slaves. Similarly, some indigenous nations integrated black runaways from slavery whereas others returned them to their white claimants.
Indian Captivity Narratives
The term “Indian captivity narrative” designates a diverse body of writings from the colonial era to the early twentieth century. Indian captivity narratives are accounts by non-indigenous persons about their capture and life as captives among North American indigenous nations. The term usually refers to written texts, penned after the captives’ return to their home communities.
The Indian captivity narrative represents one of the oldest text genres to emerge in British North America. The reality of indigenous raids during the period made people respond to this body of writing. The texts’ blend of didactic and entertaining elements further popularized them. The narratives catered to white readers’ fear of and fascination with the unfamiliar indigenous cultures.
However, even when authors of Indian captivity narratives showed respect for their captors, they did not see indigenous people as their equals. In their texts, indigenous societies are always seen through the eyes of the non-indigenous narrators. Authors and publishers exploited white and black people’s anxieties about Indian captivity to justify waging war against the tribes to subjugate them and remove them from fertile lands.
Black Mobility and Indigenous Capture
Black-Authored Indian Captivity Narratives
White settlers authored most of the known North American Indian captivity narratives. However, a small body of texts testifies to black North American experiences of being held in indigenous captivity. The popular captivity narrative “offered an entryway into print culture for African Americans” (Pauline Turner Strong). This was important, as North American print culture was dominated by whites. Most of them were similarly prejudiced against black people as against indigenous nations.
White prejudice and racial discrimination also limited the ways black people could speak about experiences of Indian captivity. They needed a white editor to confirm that their stories were true. Many Blacks also could not write. They had to dictate their stories to white scribes. Scribes and editors would often intervene in the texts to ensure that they would meet the expectations of white funders and readers.
Nonetheless, black authors managed to use the captivity narrative to voice more than their personal experiences. For instance, they compared indigenous captivity to other forms of unfreedom to criticize black enslavement to whites. And by contrasting themselves to indigenous captors, the authors claimed membership in British or American society.
The following are four case studies of black-authored accounts of North American Indian captivity from 1760-1860. Click on the men’s names to learn more about them and their texts.
Telling his life as a sequence of indigenous and colonial captivities permitted Briton Hammon to criticize black slavery under Spanish and American masters.
John Marrant asserted his belonging to English society and his authority as a black Methodist preacher by embedding his short captivity among the Cherokees into his spiritual autobiography.
Comparing his enslavements to several whites and a Cherokee in his enabled Henry Bibb to criticize slavery and white hypocrisy in his black slave narrative.
James Beckwourth narrates how his capture by a Crow Indian band led to his life as a Crow warrior chief that informed much of this mountain man’s memoir.
Selected Research Literature
Taking Captives in North America
- Bartl, Renate. “Native American Tribes and Their African Slaves.” Slave Cultures and the Cultures of Slavery. Ed. Stephan Palmié. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995. 162-175.
- Brooks, James F. Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
- Carocci, Max, and Stephanie Pratt, eds. Native American Adoption, Captivity, and Slavery in Changing Contexts. New York. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
- Donald, Leland. Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
- DuVal, Kathleen. The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
- Kiser, William S. Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the Amerian Southwest. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.
- Merritt, Jane T. At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
The Captivity Narrative
- Burnham, Michelle. Captivity and Sentiment: Cultural Exchange in American Literature, 1682-1862. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997.
- Bus, Heiner. “Lost and B/Found: The Potential of the American Slave and Captivity Narratives.” Intercultural America. Ed. Alfred Hornung. Heidelberg: Winter, 2007. 75-89.
- Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Z. and James A. Levernier. The Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550–1900. New York: Twayne and Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993.
- Michno, Gregory, and Susan Michno, eds. A Fate Worse Than Death: Indian Captives in the West, 1830-1885. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Press, 2007.
- Sayre, Gordon M., ed. American Captivity Narratives: Selected Narratives with Introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
- Strong, Pauline Turner. Captive Selves, Captivating Others: The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity Narratives. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.
Black Mobility and Indigenous Capture
- Brennan, Jonathan, ed. When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote: African Native American Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
- Green, Keith Michael. Bound to Respect: Antebellum Narratives of Black Imprisonment, Servitude, and Bondage, 1816-1861. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015.
- Krauthamer, Barbara. Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
- Miles, Tiya. “Uncle Tom Was an Indian: Tracing the Red in Black Slavery.” Relational Formations of Race: Theory, Method, and Practice. Ed. Natalia Molina, Daniel Martinez HoSang, and Ramón A. Gutiérrez. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019, 121-144.
- Minges, Patrick Neal, ed. Black Indian Slave Narratives. Winston-Salem, NC: Blair, 2004.
- Weyler, Karen A. Empowering Words. Outsiders and Authorship in Early America. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013.
Online Resources and Links:
The following list of resources and links focuses on materials on Native North American history.
- “American Indian History and Culture.” Rare and Manuscript Collections, Karl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. → Includes digital collections. American_Indian_History
- “American Indian Records in the National Archives.” U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. → Includes digital collections. American_Indian_Records
- Haefeli, Evan. “Captivity in North America.” Oxford Bibliographies. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2017. → Survey of relevant scholarship. Captivity_North America
- “Indigenous Peoples Resources at the American Antiquarian Society.” American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA. → Links to online sources. Indigenous_People_AAS
- “Native Americans Teaching Resources.” Citizen U Primary Source Nexus. Barat Education Foundation, 2021. → Teaching Material and Lesson Plans. Native_Americans_Teaching_Resources