In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Captivity in North America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Atlantic History Captivity in North America
Evan Haefeli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0148


Between the 17th and 19th centuries, America’s indigenous peoples captured several thousand European colonists and American citizens. This cross-cultural experience of “Indian captivity” has fascinated people for centuries, especially the cases of captives who were adopted into their captors’ society and became so-called “white Indians.” As the term suggests, this understanding of captivity has little room for the still unknown number of people of African descent who were also captured, never mind the many indigenous people for whom such captivity was part of their cultural norms. Among captives of European descent, those who assimilated into indigenous society were a small minority. A number of captives were killed shortly after being captured. The majority of those who survived were eventually ransomed, escaped, or otherwise returned to the society of their birth. A minority of those who returned recounted their experiences in formats that eventually were published (not always by the actual captive). A handful of these accounts became important works of early American literature. These “captivity narratives” helped make the phenomenon of “white” captives not only a central reference point of American culture but also a significant genre of American literature. Many scholars consider to the captivity narrative as the first distinctively American literary genre. Governed by indigenous rules, “Indian captivity” included the possibility of assimilation into captor society. This factor set this form of captivity apart from the slavery Europeans imposed on people of African and indigenous American descent in the Americas, as well as European customs regarding prisoners of war. Scholars are only beginning to ascertain the number of Europeans taken captive in this fashion. It was clearly far less than the many thousands of Africans and Native Americans enslaved in colonial America and the United States, being not more than a few thousand in total. The African Americans, Mexicans, and other Native Americans who sometimes shared in the Europeans’ captivity are generally not considered within this scholarship, nor are the Europeans and European Americans subject to captivity outside of North America, be it elsewhere in the Americas, North Africa, or Asia, where Europeans also fell into non-European hands. Nevertheless, this broader context should be kept in mind. There are a few captivity narratives from the rest of the Americas; the North African experience produced the so-called Barbary captivity narratives, a genre that grew up alongside the American captivity narrative, and there are links between captivity narratives and the development of the slave narrative. Finally, it is clear that Native American customs of captivity changed and that Europeans were sometimes treated differently from other captives. By the late 17th century, some indigenous nations raided others on a massive scale to sell many of their victims into slavery with the colonists. Further, some nations, like the Cherokees, adopted Anglo-American patterns of enslaving African Americans by the early 19th century. These phenomena are drawing increased attention from scholars but are best considered alongside studies of American slavery, not here.

General Overviews

Studies of North American captivity run along two parallel tracks. First are studies of the experience of captivity; second are studies of captivity narratives and their authors. This interest in the texts that were produced, rather than the experience of captives as a whole, reflects important differences between captivity and slavery in North America. Captive stories have been recorded and disseminated since the late 17th century, commemorating captives’ sufferings in ways that did not happen for enslaved peoples until the rise of the abolitionist movement. Additionally, in contrast to studies of slavery, literary scholars pioneered and remain leading figures in the study of North American captivity. The scholarly split between studying captives as a whole versus those captives associated with captivity narratives has not yet been bridged by an overview of captivity studies as a whole. Instead, surveys generally fall into one track or the other. Regarding the experience of captivity, Cameron 2016 establishes a global, deep historical context that will be important for future studies. Colley 2002 situates colonial American captivity within the context of the British Empire. Steele 1998 situates it within the broader clash of European and Native American cultures of war and their respective treatment of prisoners of war. Namias 1993 argues for the significance of captivity in shaping a nationalist American sense of ethnic identity. At the regional level, Coleman 1925 remains an essential guide for the study of New England captivity as it pioneered the large-scale study of individual captive fates, whether or not those captives ever wrote or appeared in a captivity narrative. Vaughn and Richter 1980 refined and quantified the authors’ findings, pioneering the quantitative study of captivity. Captivity in Spanish America has only recently drawn investigators. Socolow 1992 examines the phenomenon on its southern frontier, while Operé 2008 provides a useful survey of the entire Spanish American experience. There are no comparable studies for French captives. As captives and authors, Germans are generally subsumed within their host culture (usually British). Surveys of the literature of captivity tend to go in two directions. Some, like Derounian-Stodola, et al. 1993, consider a broad collection of sources using an expansive definition of captivity narratives. These authors’ interest is mainly in the genre as a form of North American (i.e., US) cultural myth-making. Other works, like Carroll 2008, focus on specific texts, especially the handful of well-known narratives. Emphasizing the specifics surrounding their composition, this scholarship plays down generalizations about the narratives’ function in American culture as a whole. Jesuits in New France, for example, framed their stories rather differently from Puritans in New England, or Quakers. Voight 2009 provides a solid basis for comparison with early modern Portuguese and Spanish captivity narratives.

  • Cameron, Catherine M. Captives: How Stolen People Changed the World. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

    A global overview stressing the importance of captivity in history using archaeological, ethnographic, and historical sources, with a focus on small-scale societies (“tribes” and “chiefdoms”). Captives (a category that here includes slaves), mostly women and children, affected captor societies even as they assimilated. They maintained social boundaries, permitted new kin relationships between groups to be established, bringing in new ideas, and facilitated culture change everywhere from technology to foodways.

  • Carroll, Lorayne. “Captivity Literature.” In The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature. Edited by Kevin Hayes, 143–168. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    An excellent, brief overview of the genre with up-to-date references to the scholarship. Examining the narratives that appeared from the 16th through the 18th centuries, it pays special attention to Mary Rowlandson and her narrative, Cotton Mather’s role in shaping the genre, Quaker captivity narratives, and the transformation in captivity narratives after the rise of the novel.

  • Coleman, Emma Lewis. New England Captives Carried to Canada between 1677 and 1760 During the French and Indian Wars. 2 vols. Portland, ME: Southworth, 1925.

    An exhaustive study of the fates of 1,606 individuals captured in various raids on New England towns, based on extensive research in New England and Canada. Organized around the particular raids in which captives were taken, it presents as much biographical material as possible on every individual identified.

  • Colley, Linda. Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600–1850. New York: Pantheon, 2002.

    Sets the story of British North American captives in the context of captive experiences in 17th-century North Africa and 18th- and 19th-century India and Afghanistan. Conjuring an image of vulnerability in this era of expansion, it claims North American captivities had less influence on British culture than the experiences of the many sailors and soldiers captured by pirates, privateers, or enemy powers, from American Revolutionaries to Tipu Sultan.

  • Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle, and James Arthur Levernier. The Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550–1900. New York: Twayne, 1993.

    A notable survey of the genre by two literary scholars who helped spark current interest in the topic by expanding the definition of the genre to include non-white individuals (African American and Mexican) as well as nonstandard literary sources, such as folklore, children’s literature, and humor. Emphasizes the genre’s mythological appeal, representations of Native Americans, the role and images of women, and its place in American popular culture.

  • Namias, June. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

    With some comparison to the experience of male captives, Namias focuses on the experiences, accounts, and representations of female captives from 17th-century New England to mid-19th-century Minnesota to show how they were used by white Americans to think about gender and ethnic relations, largely by contrasting their roles and values with what the captivity stories told them about Native American societies.

  • Operé, Fernando. Indian Captivity in Spanish America: Frontier Narratives. Translated by Gustavo Pellón. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.

    The first effort to survey the accounts and experience of captivity in Spanish America (“white, mestizo, mulatto, Creole, or other”) from Cabeza de Vaca in mid-16th-century Texas to the early-20th-century Amazon and from as far north as the Comanche territory of the American Southwest down to Chile and Argentina. Noting “the scarcity of published sources,” it assembles a wide variety of published and unpublished sources treating captivity.

  • Socolow, Susan M. “Spanish Captives in Indian Societies: Cultural Contacts along the Argentine Frontier, 1600–1835.” Hispanic American Historical Review 72.1 (1992): 73–99.

    DOI: 10.2307/2515948

    In the absence of published captivity narratives, Socolow surveys a variety of sources to compose a rough statistical database for analyzing captivity along the southern frontier of the Spanish Empire. While more females than males were taken captive, evidence suggests that ransomed males reintegrated more easily into Spanish society, largely because women—as wives, workers, and mothers of children—were more thoroughly integrated into indigenous societies.

  • Steele, Ian K. “Surrendering Rites: Prisoners on Colonial North American Frontiers.” In Hanoverian Britain and Empire: Essays in Memory of Philip Lawson. Edited by Stephen Taylor, Richard Connors, and Clyve Jones, 126–151. Rochester, NY: Boydell, 1998.

    Considers captivity within the broader context of the different Native American and European traditions of taking and treating prisoners of war. It suggests both traditions changed in response to the contact with each other by the 18th century. Native Americans began to ransom and sell captives to Europeans while Europeans, who had developed an elaborate system for holding and exchanging prisoners, treated Native Americans with murderous brutality.

  • Vaughn, Alden T., and Daniel K. Richter. “Crossing the Cultural Divide: Indians and New Englanders, 1605–1763.” American Antiquarian Society Proceedings 90 (1980): 23–99.

    Attempts to correct the fascination with cultural assimilation by showing how few individuals abandoned their original culture for that of the other group. Compares Native Americans living under European authority in missions or otherwise with Europeans living under indigenous authority, generally as war captives. Of 1,641 identified New England captives (mostly male), at most only 52 became “white Indians.” More, about 202, became French Canadian.

  • Voight, Lisa. Writing Captivity in the Early Modern Atlantic: Circulations of Knowledge and Authority in the Iberian and English Imperial Worlds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.5149/9780807838747_Knott

    Primarily an account of Spanish and Portuguese accounts of captivity from the 16th through the 18th centuries, with a final chapter on English use of Iberian captives in Elizabethan-era explorations. It combines nonfictional texts by Europeans taken captive with fictional narratives written by colonists. Emphasizes use of captivity narratives (and captives’ testimony) as sources of knowledge of exotic locales and peoples to facilitate colonization.

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