Captivity narratives are tales of people captured by enemies from uncivilized nations. A theme of redemption through faith is prevalent in these narratives. In America and Europe, American Indian captivity narratives were popular from the 17th century until the 19th century.
White-Indian relations were echoed by these narratives. The basic captivity experience can be seen within the larger context of the fight for ownership of the continent. In early years, the battle for white survival against the Indian was the singleminded focus of the genre. Later narratives, working on the assumption that Native Americans were declining into extinction, gave attention to some greater issues. Frontier romances, a genre that emerged in the USA in the 1800s, were superimposed upon captivity narratives.
Earlier captivity narratives focused on the individual experience of the captive. The Indian kidnapper immediately retreated in the wild, his ability to travel rapidly guaranteeing a successful evasion of any pursuing whites. Heroic rescues were rare. The captive's loved ones were usually killed or wounded, or at least left in shock, by the Indian raid.
Indian chiefs seldom play a part in captivity narratives. Real captives were usually released by ransom, either directly from the Indians or from the Indians' French allies. Occasionally, their resilience enabled them to escape on their own. Most captives were men or married women. Captive maidens, i.e. unmarried women, were able to make romantic capital out of their situation. Real captives were released due to negotiations by an official group. They attributed their salvation to divine mercy instead of to an individual's initiative.
Some captivity narratives were authentic stories of real people, while others were fictional. In fictional captivity narratives, a victim was taken during an Indian raid, brought on a trek through the wilderness, and landed at a permanent place that was either a French or Indian village. The majority of the narrative covered the journey and the time in the Indian camp. The stories concluded with a short description of the negotiated rescue and the return home. The Indians' practice of separating and distributing captives prevented a group escape effort.
The earliest captivity narratives reflected a cultural script that manifested the spiritual drama of suffering and redemption. The Indians and the forest were props of the script.
The Puritans' beliefs are obvious in captivity narratives that demonstrated minimal sympathy for the Indian cause. The depictions of Indians in these narratives were often exploited to justify the Puritans' plans for genocide.
The Puritans' goal of colonizing the land is further demonstrated by the protagonists' dislike of nature. The captives in the story show no appreciation for the wilderness through which they are forced to travel. The wilderness became a symbol as the antithesis of paradise. The Puritans believed that paradise could be regained only through the establishment of congregations and towns.
Later captivity narratives, in the second half of the 18th century, carried an entirely different tone. The narratives no longer bore a controlling structure of organized religion. Instead, the new narratives spoke to the generation that demanded its independence from the British Empire. The new generation needed different constructs with which to face the wilderness of the New World.
Interestingly, women in these new captivity narratives continued to encounter hostility, while men became stronger. The stories portrayed white women captives who experienced inexpressible affliction in the American wilderness. Male-centered narratives displayed adaptation and acculturation, mirroring the whites' gradual acceptance of the wilderness of the new world.
Some of the later captivity narratives briefly described captivity and its resolution, creating the sense that the story was simply a pretext for the real subject of the story. The stories' real purpose was to establish women's suffering in the wilderness. The captive's lack of wilderness skills reflected the experiences of many frontier women, who were leaving cities and confronting independence for the first time.
Historians describe captivity narratives as byproducts of the wars all across America. France, Spain, and England wanted to expand their empires, and wars with the Indians ensued. A large number of captives survived to write about their exploits. Fiction writers' imaginations were aroused by the narratives, so they continued along the same theme.
The result was that the Indians were portrayed as unrelentingly bad, without nuance. The Indians in the stories were dirty, covered with lice, mud, and grease. They lived on decaying fish because they were too lazy to hunt. They were in every way unsavory: cruel, animalistic, savage, and degenerate.
The Native Americans were thus defined by Euro-Americans seeking to describe authentic natives. Europeans reading the captive narrative accounts were left with a one-sided, simplistic impression of the "Indians."