By Frederick Webb Hodge in 1906
The treatment accorded captives was governed by ethical concepts that went hand in hand with a clan, gentile, and other blood-related organizations of Native American society. From the members of his own group, or what was considered such, certain ethical duties were exacted of tribal members which could not be neglected without destroying the fabric of society or outlawing the transgressor.
Toward other clans or bands of the same tribe, actions were also governed by well-recognized customs and usages which had developed over hundreds of years, but with remote bands or tribes, good relations were assured only by some formal peace-making ceremony. Peace of this kind was very tenuous; however, especially where there had been a long-standing feud and might be broken in an instant.
Toward a person belonging to a tribe with which there was neither war nor peace, the attitude was governed largely by the interest of the moment. In such cases, the virtues of the clan or gentile organizations as peace-making factors made themselves evident, for if the stranger belonged to a clan represented in the tribe he was among, the members of that clan usually greeted him as a brother and extended their protection over him. Another defense for the stranger was, what with civilized people is one of the best guarantees against war, the fear of disturbing or deflecting trade. If he brought among them certain much-desired commodities, the first impulse might be to take these from him by force and seize or destroy his person, but, it would quickly be seen by wiser heads that the source of further supplies of this kind might thereby be imperiled, if not entirely cut off. If nothing were to be had from the stranger, he might be entirely ignored. And finally, the existence of a higher ethical feeling toward strangers, even when there was apparently no self-interest to be served in extending hospitality, is often in evidence. There numerous stories of great misfortune overtaking one who refused hospitality to a person in distress, and of great good fortune accruing to him who offered assistance.
At the same time, the attitude assumed toward a person thrown among Indians too far from his own people to be protected by any ulterior hopes or fears on the part of his captors, was usually that of the master to slave. This was particularly the case on the North Pacific Coast, where slavery was an institution. Thus, John Jewitt, at the beginning of the 19th century, was preserved as a slave by the Nootka Chief Maquinna, because he was an ironworker and would be valuable property. Most of the other whites who fell into the hands of Indians on this coast were treated in a similar manner.
The majority of captives; however, were those taken in war. These were considered to have forfeited their lives and to have been actually dead as to their previous existence. It was often thought that the captive’s supernatural helper had been destroyed or made to submit to that of the captor, though were not put to death with torture to satisfy the victor’s desire for revenge and to give the captive an opportunity to show his fortitude, he might in a way be reborn by undergoing a form of adoption.
It is learned from the numerous accounts of white settlers who had been taken by Indians that the principal immediate hardships they endured were due to the rapid movements of their captors in order to escape pursuers and the continual threats to which they were subjected. These threats were not usually carried out; however, unless they attempted to escape, were unable to keep up with the band, or unless the band was pursued too hotly. Each person taken was considered the property of the one who first laid hands on him, and the character of this individual had much to do in determining the extent of his hardships.
When two or more claimed a prisoner he was sometimes kept by all conjointly, but, sometimes they settled the controversy by torturing him to death on the spot. The rapid retreat of a war party bore particularly hard upon women and children, yet, a certain amount of consideration was often shown them. Sometimes, the male captives were allowed to help them along, sometimes they were drawn on an improvised sled or travois, and if there were horses in the party, these might be placed at their disposal.
One instance is recorded in which the child of a female captive was carried by her master for several days. It is worthy of remark that the honor of a white woman was almost always respected by her captors among the tribes east of the Mississippi River; but west of that limit, on the plains, in the Columbia River region, and in the southwest, the contrary was often the case.
Among the eastern tribes, on arriving at the village, a dance was held, at which the captives were expected to play a conspicuous part. They were often placed in the center of a circle of dancers, were sometimes compelled to sing and dance also, and a few were usually subjected to revolting tortures and finally burned at the stake. Instances of cannibalism are recorded in connection with these dances after the return from war, and among some of the Texas and Louisiana tribes, this disposition of the bodies of captives appears to have been something more than occasional. The Iroquois, some Algonquian, and several western tribes forced prisoners to run between two lines of people armed with clubs, tomahawks, and other weapons, and spared, at least temporarily, those who reached the chief’s house, a certain post, or some other goal. Among many other tribes,an escaped captive who reached the chief’s house was regarded as safe. Offering food to a visitor was usually equivalent to extending the host’s protection over him.
From the experiences of the Spaniard Juan Ortiz, taken prisoner by the Florida Chief Utica, in 1528, as well as those of other whites, it would appear that captives were sometimes held in a sort of bondage, but usually, their lives were spared, as they were held for ransom or adopted into the tribe. Some Siouan tribes eventually allowed their captives either to go home or settle among themselves and were not tortured. Although the custom among the eastern Indians of holding white prisoners for ransom, dates from early times, it is questionable whether it was founded on aboriginal usage. The ransoming or sale of captives; however, was common among the Plains Indians and southwest tribes, while the custom of ransoming slaves on the North Pacific Coast was certainly pre-Columbian.
In most of North America, however, it was probably a rare procedure, especially since many tribes are said to have disowned any person who once had been taken prisoner. Doubtless, it became common in dealing with white captives owing to the difficulty of reconciling adult whites to Indian life and customs, while captives taken from another tribe no doubt settled down into their new relationships and surroundings very contentedly. The usual object in thus adopting a prisoner was that he might fill the place of someone who had died, and it is affirmed by one writer that, whatever his own character, he was treated exactly as if he possessed the character of his predecessor. John Gyles, who was captured by the Abnaki in 1689, informs us that a prisoner was brought out to be beaten and tortured during the war dances unless his master paid over a certain amount of property. Women and children were generally preserved and adopted, though there are instances in which white women were tortured to death, and it is said of the Ute that female captives from other Indian tribes were given over to the women to be tortured, while male prisoners who had distinguished themselves were sometimes dismissed unhurt.
Among tribes possessing clans, the adoption of captured women was of special importance, as it often resulted in the formation of a new clan from their descendants. Such, no doubt, was the origin of the Zuni and Mexican clans of the Navajo. The Ute clan of the latter was recruited by a systematic capture and purchase of Ute girls undertaken with the object of supplying the tribe with good basket makers. Among the Plains Indians captives, especially children, were sometimes taken for the express purpose of being trained to the performance of certain ceremonial duties. Besides the numbers of white persons carried away by Indians and subsequently ransomed, it is evident from all the accounts that have reached us that many of English, French, and Spanish descent were taken into the tribe of their captors and, either because carried off when very young or because they developed a taste for their new life, never returned.
Some of these even rose to high positions, as in the case of a Frenchman who became chief of the Attacapa, of a Mexican who is recorded as the most prominent and successful war thief of the Comanche in 1855, and of another Mexican still a man of influence among the Zuni. top: Comanche Chief, Quannah Parker, was the son of a captive American woman. During this time, the confederated tribes of Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache continued to hold at least 50 adopted white captives, and it is probable that fully one-third of the whole population had a traceable percentage of captive blood. The same was probably true in nearly equal measure of the Apache of Arizona.
From Oregon to south Alaska a different treatment of captives was brought about by the existence of a slave class. Since slaves were the most valuable property a man could have, the lives of those taken in war were always spared unless such captives had committed some great injury to the victorious tribe that prompted immediate revenge. After this they might be killed at any moment by their masters; but such a fate seldom overtook them until they grew too old to work, unless their masters became involved in a property contest, or the people of the town from which they had been taken had committed depredations.
Among the Tlingit, however, slaves were killed during mortuary feasts, and bodies of slaves were thrown into the holes dug for the posts of a new house. Slave women, especially if they were known to be of noble descent, sometimes married their captors and became free. Four prominent Haida clans and one clan among the Tsimshian are said to have originated from marriages of this kind, while another prominent Haida clan was called “the Slaves,” though it is impossible to say whether they were descended from slaves or whether the term is applied ironically. Whether male slaves ever rose to a high position is doubtful, owing to the strong caste system that here prevailed. Instead of receiving commendation, a slave who had escaped suffered a certain disgrace which could only be removed by the expenditure of a great amount of property. At the same time, one of the greatest Skidegate chiefs was said to have been enslaved in his youth.
By Frederick Webb Hodge, 1906. Compiled by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October 2019.
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About the Article: The majority of this historic text was published in the Handbook of American Indians, written by Frederick Webb Hodge and published in 1906. Hodge (1864-1956) was an editor, anthropologist, archaeologist, and historian who published more than 350 items, including books, monographs, and articles in scientific and historical journals. He was also employed by the Smithsonian Institution, the Bureau of American Ethnology, and the Museum of the American Indian in New York City; as well as serving as a member and officer of several organizations. Though the essence of his article is essentially intact, the text that appears here is far from verbatim, as additions, updates, and editing have occurred for clarity and ease for the modern reader.