Indian Captives

By Frederick Webb Hodge in 1906

Indian Captive

Indian Captive

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.

John Jewitt

John Jewitt was held as a slave by the Nootka tribe.

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 where 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.

Indian Captives

Indian Captives

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.

The Prisoner by Henry F. Farny, 1886

The Prisoner by Henry F. Farny, 1886

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 Ucita, 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.

The Captive, by Irving Couse, 1891.

The Captive, by Irving Couse, 1891.

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.

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