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The Mythology of the Indian Captivity Narrative

From Richard Slotkinís Regeneration Through Violence:

The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.





Several identifiable factors brought about the development of the captivity mythology, shaped its course, and gave it its special character and direction. The prime source of its peculiar concerns and images is the psychological condition of the Puritans, their theory of human psychology, and their therapeutic rituals designed for dealing with states of mind or soul. The accuracy with which the captivities reflected this Puritan psychology gave them their great popularity and made them viable as components in Puritan sermons and other rituals; for this reason, discussion of the captivities must center around an analysis of their psychology. Other factors, however, conspired with psychology to make the captivities the starting point of an American mythology, especially the historical circumstances of the Indian wars and the deliberate intervention of conscious artists (notably Cotton Mather)--representatives of the Puritan ruling classes--in the process of myth-making.

The historical impact of the captivity experience on the New England mind can be suggested by a brief glance at the statistics of captivity and the reports of captives' fates that circulated in New England. Emma Lewis Coleman's New England Captives Carried to Canada, published in 1925, lists some 750 individual captivities between 1677 and 1750; and there is little doubt that this represents less than half of the total number of captives. Only those who were carried all the way to Canada and integrated into French-Canadian society are listed, since only these appear in Canadian records. Hundreds of children and women (and some men) who vanished into Indian villages have never been traced, and these were more likely than the Canadian captives to remain in captivity for life or to accept adoption into a tribe. Moreover, the inefficiency of colonial record-keeping, especially before 170O, makes it impossible to identify all those taken from New England villages. Other statistics indicate that two were captured for every name that was recorded. Of the 750 whose names and fates are known, 300 were ransomed and returned to New England after captivities ranging from six months to twenty years. Twenty-one captives were returned to the English after longer stays among the Indians and French. Of the remaining captives, 92 were killed in captivity, and more than 100 disappeared after brief stays in Canada--either dead, or escaped to other colonies, or carried into the deep woods by the Indians. One hundred and fifty captives were converted to Roman Catholicism (13 eventually returned to New England); most of them married, and a substantial number of the women became nuns. No fewer than 60 of the captives became Indians outright; and many of those listed as long-term captives were noted for their retention of Indian habits after their return.

From the viewpoint of New England, then, Indian captivity was almost certain to result in spiritual and physical catastrophe.

Indian captivity victimization by the wilderness was the hardest and most costly (and therefore the noblest) way of discovering the will of God in respect to one's soul, one's election or damnation. The captivity narratives were ideal for expressing this anxiety and for symbolically resolving it. They were based on an experience which was a unique feature of the community's American experience but which was strongly reminiscent of older myths intrinsic to Christianity: the fall of man, the apocalypse, and divine judgment. The structure of the captivity narratives embodied, in symbolically heightened terms, the experience of personal conversion (as the Puritans conceived !), as well as the pattern of the traumatic experience of emigration that had brought the Puritans to New England in the beginning.

The analogies among the structural formulas .of the captivity narratives, the Christian myths, Puritan psychology, and the community's historical experiences make it clear that the captivity narrative was a primary vehicle for the American Puritan's mythology. It reduced a complex of religious beliefs, philosophical concepts, and historical experiences to a single, compelling, symbolic ritual-drama. Transmuted into myth, each of these experiences--emigration, conversion, and captivity--like the myths of the fall and the apocalypse, " begins with man in a happy condition of innocence or complacence. By divine intervention, this happiness is disrupted; man is alienated from his happy state and plunged into a trial and ordeal in which his soul is in peril. Ultimately (assuming the soul is not predestined for hell) the experience results in a figurative rebirth, the attainment of a new soul. All are myths of self-transcendence, of initiation into a new state of being. Fallen man is initiated into the corrupted mortal life that we know as our own, but the souls brought to judgment pass through trial into heaven, purged of earthly dross. The convert is said to have overcome original sin, to have been "reborn" as a new and sinless being. Like Israel's Babylonian captivity, the experience of emigration is supposed to have initiated the Puritans into a better way of following the divine ordinances. The captivity narrative partakes of all these meanings and adds another: it constitutes the Puritan's peculiar vision of the only acceptable way of acculturating, of being initiated into the life of the wilderness. This last meaning was the most crucial because it spoke directly to the anxieties that arose from the situation of all European colonists in America. It was this that made the captivity narratives the root of a growing American mythology in which self-transcendence through acculturation and acculturation through acts of violence were the basic themes.






Source:Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence:The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK2000.Excerpts from pages 97-98; 101-102.Used with the authorís permission.


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