Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Captivity among Amerindians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.]. The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[For further information, consult the article on captives in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians]



The treatment accorded captives was governed by those [.] ethical concepts which went hand in hand with clan, gentile, and other consanguineal organizations of Indian society. From the members of his own consanguineal group, or what was considered such, certain ethical duties were exacted of an Indian which could not be neglected without destroying the fabric of society or outlawing the transgressor. Toward other clans, gentes, or bands of the same tribe his actions were also governed by well recognized customs and usages which had grown up during ages of intercourse, but with remote bands or tribes good relations were assured only by some formal peace-making ceremony. A 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 some 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 peacemak­ing factors made themselves evident, for if the stranger belonged to a clan or gens represented in the tribe he was among, the members of that

clan or gens usually greeted him as a brother and extended their protection over him. Another defence for the stranger was - what with civilized people is one of the best guaranties 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 are not want­ing stories of great misfortune overtaking one who refused hospitality to a person in distress, and of great good fortune accruing to him who offered succour.


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 master to slave. This was particularly the case on the N. 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 persons 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 escape or 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 sledge or travois, and, if there were horses in the party these might he placed at their disposal, while 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 honour of a white woman was almost always respected by her captors among the tribes E. of the Mississippi ; but w. of that limit, on the plains, in the Columbia r. region, and in the s. w., 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 centre 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 Algonquians, 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, while the Creek peace towns also secured immunity from pursuit to the persons who entered them. 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 elsewhere than on the N. Pacific coast, but usually where their lives were spared they were held for ransom or adopted into the tribe. J. O. Dorsey says of some Siouan tribes, however, that their captives were allowed either to go home or settle among themselves, but were neither tortured nor regularly adopted. 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 and a. W. tribes, while the custom of ransoming slaves on the N. 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 Abenaki in 1889, 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 Navaho. 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 (Culin). Among the Plains tribes, 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 chief of the Comanche in 1855, and of another Mexican still a man of influence among the Zuni. The present chief of the Comanche, Quanah Parker, is the son of a captive American woman. The confederated tribes of Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache still hold at least 50 adopted white captives, and it is probable that fully one-third of the whole population have a traceable percentage of captive blood. The same is probably true in nearly equal measure of the Apache of Arizona.


From Oregon to S. 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 opprobrium which could be removed only by the expenditure of a great amount of property. At the same time it is related of the greatest Skidegate chief that he had been enslaved in his youth.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 78-80. Consult the entry under captives at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College