James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales and the Rise of the American Culture

Term Paper, 1998

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Reasons for Captivity

3. Reasons for Writing a Captivity Narrative
3.1. Entertainment
3.2. Propaganda

4. Mary Rowlandson’s " A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson "

5. The Description of Native Americans

6. The Description of the Captive
6.1. Victims
6.2. Victors
6.3. Transculturation

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper deals with the captivity narrative and is intended to explain why captivity occurred, what impacts it had, and how captives reported about it. I am also going to outline how the captivity narrative influenced the attitude of white people towards Native Americans. Therefore, I am going to show in what way both capturers and captives are described.

In order to show one captivity narrative in greater detail, I chose Mary Rowlandson’s "A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mary Rowlandson," (1682) which is arguably the most famous captivity narrative. It set up a pattern, which was later adopted by many other authors.

Captivity occurred as early as in the middle of the sixteenth century, and its high time was from the beginning of American settlement in the 17th century until the end of the 19th century. It was a constant threat for settlers living at the frontier. Though no official figures with regard to the exact number of settlers being captured exists, estimations go as high as tens of thousands. Settlers feared captivity more than death, and many of them made it a habit to always save their last bullet, so they could kill themselves in order to prevent captivity. One of the first accounts of a settler being captured by Native Americans that we know of today is probably the captivity of Captain John Smith, whose life was saved by Pocahontas, the daughter of Indian Chief Powhatan. During ‑roughly‑ the next 200 years, thousands of captivities occurred, and a large number of those captives published their story for various reasons as I will show later. Many narratives contain only a small portion of truth, and are rather fictional to a large extent. So the use of the captivity narrative as usable evidence of the past is limited.

The plot of a typical captivity narrative usually follows a certain pattern: A group of Native Americans attacks a town, and in most cases there is a fight between white people and Native Americans, before they eventually capture one or more persons. Then they flee back into the wilderness, where the captives have to endure all sorts of hardships (e.g., long journeys, deprivation of food, physical abuse, etc.). After a while, the captive is released, or saved somehow . After his/her return to the ‘old’ community, s/he writes a captivity narrative.

Obviously, not all captivity narratives follow this concept, because not every captive returns from captivity, let alone writes a captivity narrative. However, a large number of narratives were structured that way and thus form the genuine type of captivity narrative that most people think of when they hear that term.

2. Reasons for Captivity

One reason was as simple as frequent: ransom. Settlers were being captured, and eventually released for money. Relatives and friends of a captive were oftentimes willing to pay an enormous sum to free the captive. Mary Rowlandson, for example, was released after the community raised the ransom of £ 20.

Some historians believe that because people were willing to pay a lot of money, many captives were spared, since the Native Americans preferred the money over the scalp. "[…]the high ransom captives could bring may have significantly reduced the numbers of captives who where ritualistically tortured and slain." (Calloway, quoted in Derounian-Stodola & Levernier, 5)

A second reason was revenge. Furious and angry because of the killing of their tribe members, Native Americans oftentimes sought revenge by taking a captive, torturing and eventually killing him/her. Most of the time, the Native Americans applied the principle an eye for an eye, i.e., they revenged the death of one of their warriors by killing a strong, middle-aged white man. The most frequent way of killing a captive was burning him/her at the stake.

The enlargement of their tribe was another reason that made Native Americans take captives. Warfare and diseases contributed a great deal to the diminishment of tribal numbers. The Native Americans were seldomly resistant to the diseases that the Europeans brought with them. Things like measles for example killed many of the Natives who got infected with it. So the captives replaced the dead tribe members. Those captives were usually treated well, for they were considered a full member of the Indian community. Usually, the Native Americans favored children, because it was easier to make them adopt to the Indian way of life than it was with adults. According to Washburn, "girls aged 7 through 15 were the most likely of all groups to be ‘transculturated.’" (Washburn, quoted in Derounian-Stodola & Levernier, 6). Nevertheless, the same could happen to adults too, and as I will show later, many of these captives chose to stay with the Native Americans even when they had the chance to go back to their old family and community.

Finally, some of the captives had to work as slaves. Usually, the first Native American to seize the captive was considered his/her owner. For slavery, the Indians did not have any preferences as it was the case when they wanted revenge. Instead, they captured people of any kind ‑ adults, children, men and women. Emeline Fuller, who had been taken captive near Fort Laramie, described an incident of slavery: "The Indians were seen leading the two little girls with collars around their necks, and chains to them to lead them by. A thousand pities that they had not all been killed with their parents." Fuller, quoted in Derounian-Stodola & Levernier, 8) It was also very possible that, after the captives had worked for some time, they were eventually released for a ransom, or they were ‘adopted’ later. John Dunn Hunter, who had been captured by the Kickapoos writes "I was adopted into the family of one of the principle warriors […] who claimed me as his property, from having taken me prisoner; his wife […] proved to me a kind of affectionate mother." (Hunter, quoted in Derounian-Stodola & Levernier, 8)

3. Reasons for Writing a Captivity Narrative

3.1 Entertainment.

The most obvious reason for writing a captivity narrative was merely to entertain. It contained a lot of what makes a story exciting and interesting to read: tension, a clear cut between good and evil, and a happy end ‑at least from a white person’s perspective‑ in most cases. During the nineteenth century, captivity narratives gained a lot of popularity as a genre in children’s literature. Prior to that, most literature for children was merely a variant of British literature. But now that the United States was an independent country, it longed for something typical and genuine American. Captivity narratives were a great tool for that, and so a lot of narratives were written especially for children (some, on the other hand, were merely rewritten). Compared with the adult versions, the narratives intended for children had more truth to them, although the view of the white protestant as being superior to the Indians prevailed in these works too. And by reporting on how the white man on the frontier risks his life to secure the land for the younger people, these narratives were also intended to create patriotism among the youth. Since many captivity narratives described God as the ultimate savior, children experienced also a religious lesson through those narratives. Nevertheless, they also focused on history and geography. This way, children were not only entertained, they also learned something about their country.

After the threat of the Native Americans had passed in the East, because most of them had been forced towards the West, captivity became a theme in folklore. Usually the Indian was romanticized in those works, he was seen as the ‘Noble Savage,’ or the ‘Unspoiled Child of Nature.’ Interestingly, the negative description gave way to a new idea of Native Americans that was very different from the previous one. Especially in the Eastern parts of the United States, where those stories were often told within the family, the Native American was no longer seen as the beast, as it had been the case in the past. More often than not, no harm was done in the end, and, almost like in a ferry tale, all parties lived happily thereafter.

The stories that were told in the west, where the frontier was still a fact and a threat, the image of Native Americans was not as positive. Also, many accounts were "more sexually suggestive because they were sung by cowboys to a male audience around a campfire." (Derounian-Stodola & Levernier, 176)

Often, one captivity narrative was altered to suit the different demands of the different audiences. So it was possible that the same account had two different plots, or two different endings. That is of course another proof, showing that many captivity narratives contain a great deal of fiction.

3.2 Propaganda.

However, especially the captivity narratives of the seventeenth and eighteenth century were used for other reasons than just offering an exciting and entertaining story. A very large number of the captivity narratives was used as propaganda. They were a great tool to influence a fairly large readership. For that purpose, many of the accounts started departing more and more from the truth, sometimes there was hardly any actual fact left. There were two types of propaganda, which most of the time melted together in one and the same narrative: pro God and against Indians.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales and the Rise of the American Culture
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department for Applied Language and Culture Science)
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
395 KB
James Fenimore Cooper; frontier; captivity narrative
Quote paper
Rene Hoffmann (Author), 1998, James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales and the Rise of the American Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/422


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