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Washington State University
Donna M. Campbell Amlit: Literary Movements

Captivity Narratives

Early American Captivity Narratives

For more information than is contained on this brief page, see the texts listed in the  Selected Bibliography on Captivity Narratives



According to Richard Slotkin, “In [a captivity narrative] a single individual, usually a woman, stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God. The sufferer represents the whole, chastened body of Puritan society; and the temporary bondage of the captive to the Indian is dual paradigm– of the bondage of the soul to the flesh and the temptations arising from original sin, and of the self-exile of the English Israel from England. In the Indian’s devilish clutches, the captive had to meet and reject the temptation of Indian marriage and/or the Indian’s “cannibal” Eucharist. To partake of the Indian’s love or of his equivalent of bread and wine was to debase, to un-English the very soul. The captive’s ultimate redemption by the grace of Christ and the efforts of the Puritan magistrates is likened to the regeneration of the soul in conversion. The ordeal is at once threatful of pain and evil and promising of ultimate salvation. Through the captive’s proxy, the promise of a similar salvation could be offered to the faithful among the reading public, while the captive’s torments remained to harrow the hearts of those not yet awakened to their fallen nature” (Regeneration Through Violence)


Seventeenth Century

Cotton MatherHumiliations Follow’d with Deliverances (1697): Hannah Swarton’s and Hannah Dustan’s narratives preached then.
Mary RowlandsonThe Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together, with the Faithfulness of his Promises Displayed Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) (Page images of the 1811 edition at
Jesuit Relations 1632-73, yearly installments.

Eighteenth Century 

John Williams, The Redeemed Captive (1704); see also John Demos’s contemporary work on the Deerfield captivities, The Unredeemed Captive.
Cotton MatherGood Fetch’d Out of Evil (1706): John Williams and another Puritan captive, Mary French
Cotton Mather, A Memorial of the Present Deplorable State of New England (1707), an account of Hannah Bradley, who was captured in 1697 and again in 1703.

Nineteenth Century
A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, dictated to James Everett Seaver (1824): Willing captivity.
Panther Captivity
Fanny Wiggins Kelly (1845 – ) Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians (1874)(page images at MOA)
Oatman, Lorenzo D. & Olive A. Oatman The Captivity of the Oatman Girls among the Apache and Mohave Indians
Smith, Mary.  An Affecting Narrative of the Captivity and Suffering of Mrs. Mary Smith (1815)
Larimer, Sarah L. The Capture and the Escape or Life Among the Sioux (1870)
Minnie Buce Carrigan, Captured by the Indians: Reminiscences of Pioneer Life in Minnesota (1903)
Bibliography of nineteenth-century captivity narratives about women on the Great Plains
Narrative of the capture and providential escape of the Misses Frances and Almira Hall . . .(1832)


  • revenge
  • ransom
  • replacement of tribal numbers decimated by war and disease


  • According to Kathryn Derounian-Stodola’s Introduction to Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives (New York: Penguin, 1998), “Statistics on the number of captives taken from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries are imprecise and unreliable since record-keeping was not consistent and the fate of hostages who disappeared or died was often not known. Yet conservative estimates run into the tens of thousands, and a more realistic figure may well be higher. For some statistical perspective, however, incomplete, consider these figures: between 1675 and 1763, approximately 1, 641 New Englanders were taken hostage (Vaughan and Richter, p. 53); and during the decades-long struggle between whites and Plains Indians in the mid-nineteenth century, hundreds of women and children were captured (White, p. 327)” (xv; emphasis added). The full citations for the sources Derounian-Stodola cites are these:Vaughan, Alden T., and Daniel K. Richter. “Crossing the Cultural Divide:Indians and New Englanders, 1605-1763.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 90 (1980): 23-99.White, Lonnie J. “White Women Captives of Southern Plains Indians, 1866-1875.” Journal of the West 8 (1969): 327-54.


  • Religious expression
  • Justification of westward expansion
  • Nineteenth-century: cultural symbol of American national heritage
  • Popular literature
  • Reinforcement of stereotypes
    1. a. Spanish: Indians as brutish beasts
    1. b. French: Indians as souls needing redemption
    1. c. English in Virginia: innocent exotics
    d. Puritans: Satanic threat to religious utopia

Themes and 

  • Fears of cannibalism
  • Fears of scalping
  • Hunter-predator myth: captive as cultural mediator between savagery and civilization
  • Judea capta, for Puritans: Israel suffering under Babylonian captivity.
  • Freudian view: captivity becomes adoption
  • Myths

a. Myth of Love in the Woods (Pocahontas and John Smith)
b. Myth of Good Companions in the Wilderness (Cooper’s Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook)
c. Myth of White Woman with a Tomahawk (Hannah Dustan; inverts Pocahontas; kills 10 Indians and scalps them when she escapes.)


  • Abruptly brought from state of protected innocence into confrontation with evil.
  • Forced existence in alien society.
  • Unable to submit or resist.
  • Yearns for freedom, yet fears perils of escape.
  • Struggle between assimilation and maintaining a separate cultural identity.
  • Condition of captive parallels suffering of all lowly and oppressed.
  • Growth in moral and spiritual strength.
  • Deliverance.


  • Separation: attack and capture
  • Torment, ordeals of physical and mental suffering
  • Transformation (accommodation, adoption)

Return (escape, release, or redemption)


Mary Rowlandson was born circa 1637-1638 in England.  With her parents John and Joan White, she sailed for Salem in 1639.  Joseph Rowlandson became a minister in 1654 and two years later he and Mary were married. They had a child, Mary, who lived for three years; their other children were Joseph, b. 1661; Mary, b. 1665; Sarah, b. 1669. At the time of their capture, the children were 14, 10, and 6.In 1675 Joseph Rowlandson. went to Boston to beg for help from the Massachusetts General Assembly, during which period Mary Rowlandson was captured. After her redemption, the couple lived in Boston and then moved 1677 to Wethersfield, Connecticut. Joseph Rowlandson died 24 November 1678 after preaching a powerful fast-day jeremiad. Mary Rowlandson remarried 6 Aug 1679 to Captain Samuel Talcott. He died in 1691; she lived until 1710. Disgrace later came to the family: her son Joseph got his brother-in-law drunk and sold him into servitude in Virginia.

While a prisoner, Mary Rowlandson travelled some 150 miles,  from Lancaster to Menamaset then north to Northfield and across the Connecticut river to meet with King Philip/Metacomet himself, sachem of the Wampanoags.  Next she traveled up into southwestern New Hampshire, south to Menamaset, and north to Mount Wachusett.

According to Kathryn Derounian-Stodola, “Introducing her work in all four 1682 editions was an anonymous preface to the reader, signed only ‘per Amicum’ (By a Friend), but almost certainly written by Increase Mather. In 1681, Mather had proposed to a group of Puritan ministers that they collect stories of ‘special providences’ concerning New England to be evaluated, sorted, and eventually anthologized. Quite probably Rowlandson’s narrative was among the providential accounts he received, but owing to its length, local currency, and intrinsic worth, he may have suggested separate publication and agreed to help. . .”