Yesterday I wrote about the five Boyd children who were brutally captured by Iroquois warriors in 1756.
If that sounds terrifying, it probably was. At least it started out that way.
The Boyd children were taken by force, their mother and youngest brother killed because they couldn’t keep up.
The children were with their captors for seven years. Then the frontier wars were settled. Treaties were signed stipulating that all captives be returned. Colonial troops went into the wilderness to rescue them, returning with hundreds at a time.
But several of the Boyd children fought against returning home.
When they were forced under guard to reunite with their European-American families, these children managed to escape, and returned to the communities of their captors.
Now I’m wondering about the explanations.
Why did not just these children, but so many others, and adult women and occasionally men as well, choose to stay with their Native captors?
Was it Stockholm Syndrome, wherein a captive irrationally identifies with her captor and blames her own people for not rescuing her?
Or was it something else, something the European Colonials did not want to even think about, that the Natives actually had the more desirable way of living?
If you’re expecting a definitive answer to that question, I can’t give it. I have only supposition, and some input from far more knowledgeable people than I.
Captive-taking by Native Americans was surprisingly common in Colonial times.
It was also common for captives to choose their Native communities over their Colonial families.
This puzzled the European Americans to no end.
They came to America believing that conversion would be easy once Natives saw the superiority of the Europeans’ religion, clothing, agriculture, dwellings, and every comfort known so far to man.
Yet there were very few Indians who converted to English culture, while large numbers of English chose to become Indian. Even Benjamin Franklin pondered why:
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”
One author put a bottom line on it in 1782, writing that,
“thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans!”
Those are not the popular writers of their time, the serial novelists and journalists who sensationalized stories of captor brutality that today’s academics call “capture narratives.”
These narratives were the thrillers of their time, and the public ate them up.
I have no doubt of much of their truth, aside from the sensationalism. A few were written as eye-witness captive accounts, after all.
Yet James Axtell, historian at Sarah Lawrence College, writes in the William and Mary Quarterly that the Natives treated their captives as equals nearly from the beginning of their captivity.
He notes that though food on the trail was scarce, it was shared equally with the captives. The children were given soft moccasins for running, lessons in survival, snow shoes for easier travel.
Once in the villages, the captives were given Indian clothes, taught Indian songs and dances, and welcomed as family members into specifically appointed adoptive families.
It wasn’t necessarily easy. There were often rituals and trials that had to be passed, such as a gauntlet to beat the whiteness out of them, and afterwards, a second ritual to wash it out.
But once these trials were passed, captives were awarded full integration into the tribe.
Compared to the stern and rigorous life of a New England Puritan, or the hardscrabble life of a pioneer farmer, this life might have seemed more compassionate and civilized. The English were new here, still trying to tame the wilderness, bring it to its knees before the saw and the plow, to furrow its land and regiment its growth, much as it did its children.
I can see where life would definitely be more difficult for a European-American child of that time.
Most of the thousands of “white Indians” left no explanation as to why they chose their adopted Native families and culture over the Colonials. They just traded in their hard shoes and disappeared into the wilderness.
The only narratives we have are from those who chose to return to Colonial society. In those writings, it is clear that the “white Indians” valued what Axtell calls the Natives’
“strong sense of community, abundant love, and uncommon integrity – values that the English colonists also honored, if less successfully.”
“social equality, mobility, adventure, and, as two adult converts acknowledged, ‘the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us.”
As I said, I’m no expert. I’ve read only a few academic papers, not even enough to make me dangerous.
But if what these academic researchers say is true – and I have no reason to doubt them – isn’t it a shame that the imposition of culture was so one-way? Isn’t it a tragedy that the annihilation so complete?
We lost a whole culture. But what did we also lose in not heeding the lessons of our own children who chose to have different families?