Life was dangerous for White Women in Colonial History.
As I casually research colonial New England, I frequently come across mention of Indian raids, most explained as French supported hostage taking and scalping expeditions, and often characterized as acts of savagery natural to the native Americans perpetrating the raid.
One of the most famous stories of Caucasian colonial captivity is that of Susannah Johnson, who was abducted from her home in 1750 along with her husband, James, 14 year old sister Miriam, James and Susannah’s four children, and two other men, one a neighbor or cousin and the other possibly the Johnson’s hired man. Susannah was 9 months pregnant at the time of her capture, and went into labor while on her journey to the Abenaki camp.
Like Jane McCrea, Susannah was captured being stupid. Susannah and her family lived on the New Hampshire frontier in what was known as Number 4 (now Charlestown). The young family had arrived their during a war with the Abenaki, and lived with other settlers in the protection of the fort for three years. Tensions between the Abenaki and the English settlers abated over time, and the family left the fort to live on their farm property a few miles away. Rumors of another war with the Abenaki and French coming in the spring gave Susannah and her husband some cause to consider moving into the fort. But James, a career soldier who was presently making a good living in farming and trade with Native Americans, had recently come home with copius supplies that made the Johnson’s popular with the neighbors, and Susannah’s garden was still full of summer fruit to enjoy. It was August, and Susannah was heavily pregnant. Her vulnerability, the probably well known wealth of their house, and their distance from the fort made them very easy targets.
The morning of her capture, Susannah was sleeping naked (surprising as no one in colonial America was ever naked at any point) while her husband and two other men were hanging out downstairs, getting ready to go do some of that good old fashioned work I’ve heard so much about. The Abenaki raiders burst into the Johnson’s undefended home, quickly captured the men, and pulled Susannah, her sister, and their children from their beds. They got Susannah some clothes while they raided the house, and set off on the long walk back home with a laboring pregnant woman slowing them down and insufficient food. Not the world’s best planned kidnapping, but it worked out and no one had to be killed or ditched along the way…except for Scoggins the horse, who ended up dinner.
Susannah’s account of her time in captivity is sometimes held up as an example of the civility and kindness of the Abenaki people. It is also an example of the strange relations between the colonists, the British, the French, the Canadian colonists, and the Native American population.
A good account of this story can be found here:
Before splitting up the family (Susannah’s son was adopted fully by the Abenaki and did not return to his birth family for many years, the rest of the family ended up eventually in the hands of the French), the Abenaki allowed Susannah to live in their town and experience their way of live. She found them to be, in her words, “extremely modest, and averse to the airs of courtship”—which I guess means no one made a pass at her or anything. The town actually had two other white residents, an elderly Jesuit missionary and the tribe’s “chief,” Magouaouidombaouit a.k.a. Joseph-Louis Gill. Magouaouidombaouit was himself the son of captives from the New England colonies, and had married into a position of power within the tribe.
Because it was a time of peace between the English and French, the capture of colonists by native Americans to be sold to the French and often eventually back to the English was tolerated and not seen as the taking of prisoners of war. Susannah and her family passed into the hands of French government officials, and at no point on their journey did even missionaries make an effort to interfere with that transition. The taking of live prisoners for profit in piece time was preferable certainly to the delivery of body parts for reward in war time to most well meaning frontier French, I imagine.
While Susanna was only briefly adopted by the Abenaki before being ultimately sold to the French, other captives were adopted and integrated completely into a Native American family. Mary Jemison, for instance, was adopted by the Seneca, and stayed with them for about a year.
Mary gave the following account of the treatment of prisoners of the Seneca:
“I afterwards learned that the ceremony I at that time passed through, was that of adoption. The two squaws had lost a brother in Washington’s war, sometime in the year before, and in consequence of his death went up to Fort Pitt, on the day on which I arrived there, in order to receive a prisoner or oil enemy’s scalp, to supply their loss. It is a custom of the Indians, when one of their number is slain or taken prisoner in battle, to give to the nearest relative to the dead or absent, a prisoner, if they have chanced to take one, and if not, to give him the scalp of an enemy. On the return of the Indians from conquest, which is always announced by peculiar shoutings, demonstrations of joy, and the exhibition of some trophy of victory, the mourners come forward and make their claims. If they receive a prisoner, it is at their option either to satiate their vengeance by taking his life in the most cruel manner they can conceive of; or, to receive and adopt him into the family, in the place of him whom they have lost. All the prisoners that are taken in battle and carried to the encampment or town by the Indians, are given to the bereaved families, till their number is made good. And unless the mourners have but just received the news of their bereavement, and are under the operation of a paroxysm of grief, anger and revenge; or, unless the prisoner is very old, sickly, or homely, they generally save him, and treat him kindly. But if their mental wound is fresh, their loss so great that they deem it irreparable, or if their prisoner or prisoners do not meet their approbation, no torture, let it be ever so cruel, seems sufficient to make them satisfaction. It is family, and not national, sacrifices amongst the Indians, that has given them an indelible stamp as barbarians, and identified their character with the idea which is generally formed of unfeeling ferocity, and the most abandoned cruelty.”
Susannah Johnson, in her letters and journals, generally described the English acquisition and clearing of land for farming as preferable to the untamed wilderness. The pain and worry she felt when her husband was absent in times of conflict and the agony she would have experienced at his loss she and most other white settlers did not seem to apply to the Native Americans who had had war brought to their home.
Dimished greatly by diseases brought by early European traders, Native Americans of all tribes in the Northeast had already lost entire families. Hundreds of thousands of loved ones had already suddenly and gruesomely died, and thousands more would die in battle in the conflict between the French and English (during which Mary Jemison was captured). The idea of adopting prisoners, regardless of their race, makes a lot of sense in that situation. So too does the idea of torturing prisoners to avenge those lost.
But it was Jemison’s good luck to be adopted. While she would eventually choose to return to an anglo-American life, many other men and women who were captured and adopted would choose to remain with their tribe.
Women like Susannah Johnson, Elizabeth Hanson (a case similar to Susannah Johnson), Mary Jemison, and Mary White Rowlandson became famous for telling their exciting and romantic stories of time in captivity. These published works were of a genre known as “captivity narratives.” Mary White Rowlandson, a few years after her 3 month captivity at the end of King Philip’s War, “wrote” (with some help) the first of these narratives, titled for the 1682 American edition “A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister's Wife in New-England: Wherein is set forth, The Cruel and Inhumane Usage she underwent amongst the Heathens for Eleven Weeks time: And her Deliverance from them. Written by her own Hand, for her Private Use: and now made public at the earnest Desire of some Friends, for the Benefit of the Afflicted”. Book titles used to be a lot longer.
In Mary White Rowlandson’s case, the narrative had a very religious bent, as Mary was a Calvinist puritan and the wife of a minister. Rowlandson’s account emphasizes the frustratingly ridiculous puritan belief that the Native Americans we sent to the Americas as a sort of test to the good puritan people…a punishment sent by God at times and at others agents of Satan. Rowlandson’s captors did not torture her, but provided her with basic care and even a bible.
In all of these captivity narratives, we see the good, pure white woman being held by the savage native Americans, being treated with relative kindness by their captors, but ultimately held up as victims of exemplary strength who were able to remain chaste and keep their good Caucasian Christian values until their return to a good and polite society which considered them to be 2nd class citizens…thank goodness.
Of course women who chose to stay with their adoptive families didn’t get to publish books about that experience. Men and women were often observed living with Native Americans throughout the colonies, and at many other times in American history, to be as vague as possible.
Captivity narratives had two surges of popularity—during colonial period (particularly between King Philip’s War and the American Revolution), and during the conquest of the American West, as female settlers on the new frontier tempted more red men with their godly pure whiteness and such and so forth. *cough*. Later captive narratives were written about Frances and Almira Hall, Rachel Plummer, Fanny Wiggins Kelly, Minnie Bruce Carrigan, Cynthia Ann Parker, and others. But that’s another chapter of White Women in History.