On February 29, 1704, between 200 and 300 French soldiers and their Native American allies raided the tiny frontier settlement of Deerfield, Massachusetts. The assault was a tiny skirmish in Queen Anne’s War—a broader conflict between France and England. As a precaution, the townsfolk had sheltered in the town’s palisade but they were surprised by the mid-winter attack and Deerfield quickly fell to the invaders. Some fifty English men, women, and children were killed and over 100 residents began a forced march through heavy snows to Canada (New France).
Deerfield’s minister, Reverend John Williams, his wife, and five children, were among the captives. Although approximately twenty prisoners died along the way, including Mrs. Williams, the minister survived the trip. Held for more than two years in captivity—first by the Abenaki Indians, next in French Catholic communities near Montreal–he and nearly sixty other colonists were ransomed by Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley.They arrived by boat in Boston in November 1706. Williams memorialized his Canadian experience in The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion. First printed in 1707, the book was reprinted again and again.
Several young Deerfield captives never returned to their families. Instead, they joined either Native American or French society. Four Williams children were released; one child, Eunice Williams, remained in Canada. Eunice took the Mohawk name A’ongote, which means “She (was) taken and placed (as a member of their tribe).” Eunice married a Mohawk man when she was sixteen; they had three children.
Reverend Williams’ testimonial was neither the first nor the last popular account of a captivity experience. Captivity narratives were frequently bestsellers and were among the first American books published; the genre profoundly influenced the nation’s literary imagination.
Mary White Rowlandson’s widely read treatise The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was published in Massachusetts and London in 1682. Held hostage by Native Americans for eleven weeks, she was ransomed for £20. Rowlandson’s effort was followed by similar works depicting women as hapless victims of mysterious savages.
In 1823, James E. Seaver’s A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison challenged the traditional narrative. Seaver related the true story of Mary Jemison who, in 1758, was carried off by the raiding party of French soldiers and Shawnee who killed her parents. Adopted by a Seneca family, she refused to return to “civilization.” Eventually, Jemison married a Seneca warrior and became one of the largest tribal landowners.
In 1713, Queen Anne’s War ended when Great Britain, France, and Spain settled the War of the Spanish. England gained North American assets including Newfoundland and French Acadia (renamed Nova Scotia). France and England did not fight in America again until the 1754 French and Indian War. All of these wars were colonial counterparts of widespread European conflicts.
- Read Captured by the Indians: Reminiscences of Pioneer Life in Minnesota by Minnie Buce Carrigan. On August 18, 1862, when Carrigan was only seven years old, her parents and two of her siblings were killed during a Sioux uprising. She was taken captive with a brother and sister and spent ten weeks among the Sioux before the U.S. Army compelled the return of all captives. Several other survivors relate their experiences in a final section of the book. Carrigan’s story is one of many first-person accounts of frontier life contained in Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910.
- Explore stories of captivity contained in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. “The Navajos” mentions the kidnapping of a small Navajo girl by Americans in New Mexico. In Harry Buffington Cody, Cody relates the story of his childhood adoption by Chief Red Cloud, his life as a roving cowboy, and his subsequent show business career with his famous cousin Buffalo Bill.
- Listen to two very different songs focusing on captivity. “The Fair Captive,” a romantic Anglo-American ballad from California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, tells of a captive so assimilated to her tribe that returning to her birth family breaks her heart. “Na’gthewaan Song,” a captive song from the collection Omaha Indian Music, expresses an Omaha warrior’s feelings about war and death. In the Omaha tradition, captive songs, also referred to as death songs, were composed and sung by warriors about to face death as captives of their enemies.
- Read the section on Indian Captivity Narratives in the American Women Series research guide contributed by the Rare Books & Special Collections Division. View a list of all of the Library’s Research Guides.
- See also France in America, a bilingual digital library of the Library of Congress and the Bibliothèque nationale de France that explores the history of the French presence in North America from the first decades of the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century.