Reflections and interview by Michelle Ule
I first heard about non-Native American settlers captured and raised by Native Americans through Lois Lenski’s Newberry Honor book Indian Captive. (The story of Mary Jemison for children).
As an elementary school student, the idea fascinated me. What would it be like to be snatched from a burning cabin, leaving your family for dead and being transported into a society that lived in conditions far simpler, even more primitive than you did?
It seems logical a child could adapt more easily than an adult and that often was the case. Sometimes young women would be taken captive to be married off to young braves but, if you really think about it, why would a non-Native American woman be an attraction?
In the challenging life of a nomadic Native American tribe, a woman who didn’t know how to clean hides, disassemble and reassemble a teepee, not to mention any of the other traits necessary to survive, a teenage woman would seem a definite handicap—no matter how beautiful her blue eyes and flaxen hair.
A young enough child, though, would forget the pioneer skills they had been raised with. A teepee would suffice rather than a cabin and deerskin clothing would be preferable to calico clothing and shoes.
Elizabeth George Speare wrote a Young Adult novel called Calico Captive, based on the true story of Miriam Johnson at the start of the French and Indian War.
Texans know the Cynthia Anne Parker tale, and her multi-race son, Comanche chief Quanah Parker. My own ancestors knew her preacher father.
Which brings us to the most recent entry in the Native Captivity canon: Lori Benton’s Burning Sky.
Lori Benton has written several books exploring issues at the crossroads of culture and “civilization,” set against the American frontier. Her first book, Burning Sky, the winner of three Christy awards, is a beautifully written tale of a woman returning to the old homestead after years of living with a Mohawk family.
Here’s a short description:
Abducted by Mohawk Indians at fourteen and renamed Burning Sky, Willa Obenchain is driven to return to her family’s New York frontier homestead after many years building a life with the People. At the boundary of her father’s property, Willa discovers a wounded Scotsman lying in her path. Feeling obliged to nurse his injuries, the two quickly find much has changed during her twelve-year absence—her childhood home is in disrepair, her missing parents are rumored to be Tories, and the young Richard Waring she once admired is now grown into a man twisted by the horrors of war and claiming ownership of the Obenchain land.
I asked her questions about the native captivity “genre.”
What drew you to the native captivity story?
I wanted to write a story about a woman caught between two worlds, and I’d chosen to write a historical set during the late 1700s. The greatest contrasting two worlds I could think of during that time period was that of the European settler and the Native American.
Was there one in particular that prompted Burning Sky?
Not that prompted the story, but the captivity narrative I studied most closely was that of Mary Jemison, who was captured and eventually assimilated into the Seneca Nation, one of the Iroquois nations. She chose to live as a Seneca for the rest of her life.
Describe your research.
Aside from reading Mary Jemison’s narrative, I read every book I could get my hands on about the experiences of white captives/adoptees among the eastern Native American nations.
Do you think the captured settlers were better off staying with the Native Americans than trying to re-assimilate into a settler culture?
It depended on the individual, their experience, sex, age, personality, and length of captivity.
While all the nations experienced much tragedy as they were pushed westward or overrun or displaced by white settlement, for the individual in some places and times remaining with their Native family or spouse was more appealing than returning to a white world where they would either find acceptance impossible or re-assimilation too difficult to bear.
What was the "tipping" age?
I think early teens for most cases, especially males, but sometimes grown women elected to remain with their adopted family because they’d married a Native man, or because of the aforementioned lack of acceptance of them returning to their white family. Also, women adopted into a family held the rights of native-born women and in many of the nations these rights exceeded what they’d known in white/European culture.
Why did Native Americans take captives?
Common to the Iroquois was a practice known as a “mourning war.” This was when the women of a clan requested the warriors go out and bring them a captive to replace someone in their clan who had died, either of disease or warfare. The captive, if found acceptable, would be given the name of the dead person and assume their place in the clan.
Other reasons for taking captives were for vengeance—for torture and ritualistic death—or for ransom. During both the French & Indian War and the Revolutionary War, Native Americans took captives in battle and sold them to one side or the other, who in turn ransomed them in exchange for their soldiers being held by the other side.
Which would you have preferred to be in those times--Native American or Settler?
I think it would have been a hard life either way.
Can you recommend any other books for those interested in these types of stories?
Ransom’s Mark, a Story Based on the life of Pioneer Olive Oatman, by Wendy Lawton
The Ransom of Mercy Carter, by Caroline B. Cooney
Native Captivity, settler stories and culture. Click to Tweet
Indian Captive and Burning Sky: bookends of native captivity stories. Click to Tweet
Michelle Ule is the author of five historical novellas and an outlier Navy SEAL novel. Her latest release is The 12 Days of Christmas, available now: 12 historical romance novellas set at Christmas time. You can learn more about her, and read her twice a week blog, at www.michelleule.com