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

  • Introduction
  • Modern Scholarly Collections and Critical Anthologies
  • Early Anthologies, 18th–19th century
  • Film and Television Adaptations
  • War and Captivity Narratives
  • The Sociology of Adoption into Native Communities
  • Captivity Narrative as a Distinctive National Form of United States Literature
  • Captivity Narratives and the Gender of Authority
  • Captivity Narratives before and beyond the United States

American Literature Captivity Narratives
Kendall Johnson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0115


What has come to be considered the classic US captivity narrative derives from centuries of narratives describing encounters between European explorers and skaettlers and the Native peoples throughout the Americas. The most basic narrative formula is ideologically charged in relating the ordeal of a colonial Euro-American woman who is taken captive by mercilessly predatory Indian “savages” assailing the virtuous frontier family. In the captivity narrative, the author relates her trials of captivity, escape or rescue, and, in some cases, her assimilation into a Native community. Given the exceptional popularity in its time and influence on subsequent writers, Mrs. Mary Rowlandson’s Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682) is perhaps the most important. Her account reflects the conventional plot structure and the associated stereotypes of savagery, civilization, and feminine purity that animate the dramatic action. Rowlandson did not invent the captivity narrative. For more than a century prior to her account European adventurers from England, France, Portugal, and Spain had published influential accounts set throughout the New World. In the centuries after Rowlandson, many men and women dramatized their captive experiences. Appealing to new audiences, Anglo-American editors, publishers and writers fictionalized captivity tropes and sensational images (verbal and pictorial), catering to increasingly secular sympathies of national belonging. Whereas British colonial writers of captivity narratives vilified the French for allying with savages in the mid-18th century, American writers vilified the British during the Revolutionary era. In the 19th century, US writers adapted stereotypes of noble and merciless savagery to promote westward expansion as Manifest Destiny or, conversely, to criticize US policies of Indian removal. Reacting against racist stereotypes, Native writers also adapted themes and styles of captivity narration to decry US imperialism. US captivity narratives also extend beyond American frontiers to settings elsewhere in the world. After the Revolutionary War, privateers off the North African coast of the “Barbary States” targeted American ships in the Mediterranean Sea and American sailors moving through archipelagoes of Southeast Asia feared falling into captivity. Captivity narratives patterns also echo in the plots and dramatic accounts of transatlantic slavery (see Oxford Bibliographies article “Slavery in British and American Literature”). Of course, themes of captivity are ubiquitous (see, e.g., Oxford Bibliographies article “Captivity”) and stretching the genre to include stories in the Bible and Greek mythology would overwhelm specific cultural relevance to US culture and the genres of autobiography, slave narrative, travel writing, and the novel—genres that have been shaped and reshaped in a literary legacy of cross reference and mutual influence. To this day authors and filmmakers continue to echo the captivity narratives of centuries past, reviving and revising familiar narrative structures and stereotypes to dramatic effect.

Modern Scholarly Collections and Critical Anthologies

Over the past two centuries editors have worked to collect and present captivity narratives to the public. Contemporary anthologies advise readers to be circumspect about the racism and sexism permeating the accounts and offering readers capacious colonial contexts and multilingual environments in which to consider the social dimensions of gender, culture, race and linguistic identities behind the circulation of stereotypes. Introducing readers to the captivity narrative, some scholars have aimed to be comprehensive, while other have selected and excerpted narratives to emphasize women’s experiences, narratives by Anglo-American, or transnational and multilinguistic experiences across various European cultures and Native cultures. Washburn and Vaughn 1976–1983 aims to be comprehensive. Other works provide more of a focus, such as the early two-volume work by Coleman 1925 on the colonial borderlands between what became Canada and New England, Vaughn and Clark 1981 on Puritan and Native Americans, Kestler 1990 on women’s writing, VanDerBeets 1994 and Calloway 1992 on particular regions of North America, Williams, et al. 2006 on Early Republican print culture, and Haefeli and Sweeney 2006 on events around conflicts in early 18th-century Deerfield. Baepler 1999 (cited under Barbary, North African, and Middle Eastern Captivity Narratives and Barbary and North African Captivity (18th–21st Century)) considers captivity narratives related to the Barbary States of the late-19th century. Derounian-Stodola 1998 and Sayre 2000 provide excellent historical overviews in anthologies very useful for the classroom.

  • Calloway, Colin G. North Country Captives: Selected Narratives of Indian Captivity From Vermont and New Hampshire. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1992.

    Calloway’s collection includes eight accounts of captivity published from 1745 to 1780. In describing the Champlain, Connecticut, and Merrimack valleys of a “North Country” that would eventually become the states of New Hampshire and Vermont, Calloway emphasizes the intermixture of cultures (Abenaki, Mohawk, British, French), religions (Catholic, Protestant), and languages that characterize the lived experiences of the captives and captors during decades of shifting alliances.

  • Coleman, Emma Lewis. New England Captives Carried to Canada. 2 vols. Portland, ME: Southworth, 1925.

    In this early collection with comprehensive scope regarding 18th-century colonial wars at the intersection of Canada and New England, Coleman extends the private research of her friend C. Alice Baker thirty years before. The volume offers historical overview of conflicts between French and British colonists, the prevailing alliances with Native peoples, and the patterns of capture, ransoming, and redemption that colonists experienced.

  • Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle, ed. Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1998.

    In this widely available, affordable, and useful edition, Derounian-Stodola focuses the category of “the Indian Captivity narrative” on colonial women writers, characterizing the selected accounts as “a discrete American literary form that involves accounts of non-Indians captured by Indians in North America” (p. xi). Derounian-Stodola’s selections chart the drift of the narratives from religious foundations to more nationalistic (United States) and ethnographic considerations while illustrating the various political ends and consumer goals to which authors and publishers put the sensational themes of white female captivity.

  • Haefeli, Evan, and Kevin Sweeney. Captive Histories: English, French, and Native Narratives of the 1704 Deerfield Raid. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

    This fascinating collection focuses on the Deerfield raid of 1704, putting Reverend John Williams’s very influential The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion (Williams 1853, cited under Anglo-American Narratives) in a broader context of accounts by other residents of Deerfield, French accounts from the Jesuit Relations, and three “little-known Abenaki and Mohawk stories of the raid” (p. xiv). Commentary by contemporary scholars Taiaiake Alfred (Mohawk) and Marge Bruchac (Abenaki) further broaden the perspective of captivity narrative beyond Puritanism. Also see John Williams’s The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion (1707).

  • Kestler, Francis Roe, ed. The Indian Captivity Narrative: A Woman’s View. New York: Garland, 1990.

    In a seeming complement to Washburn and Vaughn’s comprehensive approach, Kestler’s volume focus on the many accounts written by white colonial women. The collection presents a fascinating palimpsest of women’s writing about captivity but at the expense of broader trans-cultural senses of gender, especially in regard to the various Native peoples. Furthermore, without narratives written by men, it is difficult to register transcultural senses of masculinity and femininity within the various colonial contexts.

  • Sayre, Gordon M., ed. American Captivity Narratives: Selected Narratives with Introduction. New York: Houghton Mifflin/Riverside, 2000.

    Sayre spans the Americas, across more than five hundred years. He includes men and women, across various geographical regions and European colonial projects, and across various racial designations (white, black, and Indian). Moving chronologically, Sayre begins with Hans Staden’s 1557 (Staden 1928, cited under Early Dutch and Spanish Captivity Narratives) account and puts Rowlandson’s account at the center of the anthology. He includes captivity narratives by the African-Americans John Marrant and Olaudah Equaino and Native writers John Rollin Ridge’s (Cherokee) and Geronimo (Apache).

  • VanDerBeets, Richards, ed. Held Captive by Indians: Selected Narratives, 1642–1836. Rev. ed. University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

    Revising his regional focus of an earlier edition, VanDerBeets offers “a representative and chronological sampling” in accounts by men and women who relate experiences “from the Eastern woodlands to the Southeast, the Plains, and the Southwest” (p. xv). Rowlandson plays a central role in the constellation that includes less well-known narratives, including Father Isaac Joques (Jesuit) narrative of 1642 of his Mohawk captivity, accounts of the Wyoming massacre, and others. Originally published in 1973.

  • Vaughn, Alden T., and Edward W. Clark. Puritans among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption 1676–1724. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981.

    The volume’s introduction provides an excellent overview of the social and cultural context of the Puritan captivity narratives. The volume includes accounts by Mary Rowlandson, John Gyles, and selections from Cotton Mather reporting experiences by Quentin Stockwell and Hannah Swarton.

  • Washburn, Wilcomb E., and Alden T. Vaughn. Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian Captives. 112 vols. Westport, CT: Garland, 1976–1983.

    In the most comprehensive scholarly approach, Washburn (who edited vols. 1–111) works to present the genre by reprinting facsimile editions of hundreds of narratives held in the Edward E. Ayer Collection of the Newberry Library, Chicago. Capacious in its coverage, the project gives a sense of how many volumes of Indian captivity appeared.

  • Williams, Daniel E., Christina Riley Brown, Salita S. Bryant, et al., eds. Liberty’s Captives: Narratives of Confinement in the Print Culture of the Early Republic. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2006.

    Williams and his team of editors looked over hundreds of captivity-themed narratives in the Early Republic (1770–1820) in making selection of the seventeen lesser known that are included in this anthology. With an eye to the dynamics of print culture, they chose texts of seventy-five pages or less that were originally published by themselves and deserving of contemporary reading. Selections include diverse captivity accounts, from prisoners of war, Americans captured by North Africans, Africans by Americans, Americans by pirates, and impressed by the British and ranging across a broad early national geography.

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