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Captives in American Indian Wars

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Captives in American Indian Wars

Treatment applied to European captives taken in wars or raids in the present-day United States varied according to the culture of each tribe. Before the arrival of Europeans, Native American peoples all across the country had developed customs for dealing with captives. Depending on the cultural region, captives could be killed, kept alive and assimilated into the tribe, or enslaved. When Native American peoples came into contact with European settlers, they applied longstanding customary traditions for dealing with Native captives to the European newcomers. United States history, particularly in the colonial period, includes many examples of captives, and their associated treatment; the American Indian Wars and migrations of the 19th century also resulted in many captives being taken.


Captivity narratives were often written by European Americans who were ransomed or escaped from captivity.

Cultural background

In the eastern woodlands cultural area (roughly encompassing the eastern one-half of the United States, and the southern portion of Quebec and Ontario), cultural traditions for dealing with captives predated the arrival of Europeans, and involved either adoption or execution by torture.

Some captives were adopted into their captors' tribe. Adoption frequently involved the captive receiving the name of a deceased member of the captors' tribe, and receiving the deceased's social status (becoming a member of the family of the deceased person). Children and teenage girls seem to have been normally adopted.

Men and women captives as well as teenage boys, would usually face death by ritual torture. The torture had strong sacrificial overtones, usually to the sun. Captives, especially warriors, were expected to show extreme self-control and composure during torture, singing "death songs", bragging of one's courage or deeds in battle, and otherwise showing defiance. The torture was conducted publicly in the captors' village, and the entire population (including children) watched and participated. Common torture techniques included burning the captive, which was done one hot coal at a time, rather than the Hollywood-style firewood pyres; cutting with knives, beatings with switches or sticks, and jabs from sharp sticks. Prisoners' fingernails were ripped out. Their fingers were broken, then twisted and yanked by children. Captives were made to eat pieces of their own flesh, and were scalped alive. To make the torture last longer, the Native Americans would revive captives with rest periods during which time they were given food and water. Tortures typically began on the lower limbs, then gradually spread to the arms, then the torso. The Native Americans spoke of "caressing" the prisoners gently at first, which meant that the initial tortures were designed to cause pain, but only minimal bodily harm. By these means, the execution of a captive, especially an adult male, could take several days and nights.

In contrast to the Eastern Woodlands tribes, peoples of the Northwest Coast (encompassing the coastal regions of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and southeastern Alaska), enslaved war captives. Slaves were traded and were a valuable commodity. More importantly, slaves were given as gifts during a potlatch ceremony to enhance the prestige of the gift giver. Slaves performed major economic roles in this region, and comprised a permanent social class and a significant proportion of the population.

Exchange of captives after 1763 Pontiac's Rebellion

Colonel Henry Bouquet set out from Fort Pitt on October 3, 1764, with 1,150 men. After that, treaties were negotiated at Fort Niagara and Fort Detroit; the Ohio Natives were isolated and, with some exceptions, ready to make peace. In a council which began on 17 October, Bouquet demanded that the Ohio Natives return all captives, including those not yet returned from the French and Indian War. Guyasuta and other leaders reluctantly handed over more than 200 captives, many of whom had been adopted into Native families. Because not all of the captives were present that day, the Natives were compelled to surrender hostages as a guarantee that the other captives would be returned. The Ohio Natives agreed to attend a more formal peace conference with William Johnson, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, which was finalized in July 1765.


Captives in American Indian Wars Wikipedia

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