Selected Papers From The 1987 And 1988 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences
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George H. Carroll
Urbana University

After more than 40 years' experience studying the native American populations of the Upper Ohio Valley, Moravian missionary David Zeisberger confided to his diary on May 11, 1787 that ". . . the worst and most oppressive is that among the Indians it is hard to come behind a thing and learn the truth . ." [1] In 1976 historian Preston Holder, in attempting to recreate the fur trade as seen from the Indian perspective, concluded that "Strictly speaking there is no Indian point of view, only the viewpoint of Indians." [2] One can thus survey both the primary and secondary source authorities and emphatically be warned about the dangers of developing a too facile overview of historic period Indians.

The rationale for offering a review of Upper Ohio Valley captivity narratives (ca. 1755-95) stems from the conviction that herein a reader is most likely to meet historic Indians as definable human beings. A second objective is to present their fur trade and horticultural society as being a cohesive and reasonable lifestyle. Of the 11 journals reviewed herein, seven were either contemporaneously kept accounts or those composed within a year of the captives' return. An eighth journal was dictated late in life by a woman who never left her Indian family. All accounts reflect an internal consistency that has made them acceptable to present day academic scrutiny.

Though it may be reasonably observed that a captive's testimony is not that of an "Indian," it should be remembered that adopted captives were counted as Indians by members of their host societies. The practical result was that upon adoption, the captives experienced Indian life as full-fledged participants. This perspective is in contrast to observations collected from missionaries, military personnel, or fur traders and trappers. Even under circumstances of prolonged exposure to Indian societies, these latter individuals seldom found themselves constrained to psychologically surrender their original cultural identities. Conversely, the adopted captives had to accept Indian identity and thus acclimate themselves to native customs. As adopted captives were returned and resumed their white cultural identities, they did so by offering accounts that paid tribute to the equality of treatment they had received. To these returned members of an emerging democratic nationality, the narratives indicate that Indian egalitarianism had made a profound impression.

As to general utility of captivity narratives, Marius Barbeau suggested one conclusion of scholarly opinion which has involved itself with this literature. "Their value is enhanced by the candor of the observers who found themselves among the natives before the ancient customs had been abandoned, and the ethnographers had entered the field." [3] Dwight Smith tempered this observation with a salutary note of caution. He affirms the obligation of assessing the various rationales for publishing the narratives, and for an accounting of when and how they were brought before the public. He suggests that, "At best, in the Old Northwest, the captivity can only be used as a source of information supplemental to data obtained elsewhere." [4]

Smith's perspective is parallel with the position of Julian H. Steward. In his own studies of captivities Steward found it necessary to distinguish between what could be reported quantitatively and/or perceived as basic subsistence skills versus an in-depth qualitative report of societal attitudes concerning ". . . marriage, social groups, religion and other things not visible in a literal or physical sense . . ." [5] While Smith and Steward are correct to maintain the most vigorous standards attainable for describing aboriginal culture, the captivity narratives still should be seen to convey an important insight into Indian cultural status in the Upper Ohio Valley of 1755-1795. A due regard for bias should not serve to disqualify captivity testimony upon even the attitudinal perceptions as held by Indians of the period. The following data on subsistence is indicative not only of quantifiable practice, but it also is replete with attitudinal inferences. It justifiably might be observed that a captive's sensitivity to the adopting society's economic agenda probably formed one of the most important criteria in determining the stark issue of a new member's survival. Even within this period of continuous military action, the narratives offer far more description of family and band-level daily routine.

Uncritical reflection upon the quality of life incident to hunter-gatherer-horticulturalist existence can persist in making the historic Amerind peoples seem incomprehensible and unattractive. Beginning in 1755 when the Mingo, Delaware and Shawnee peoples of Mary Jemison's youth still were occupying some of their optimum territories, she commented of them that "Their wants were few, and easily satisfied; and their cares were only for today; the bounds of their calculations for future comfort not extending to the incalculable uncertainties of tomorrow." [6] When Jonathan Alder was captured in 1781, the unidentified white man operating with the Indians attempted to abate Alder's fears by depicting their destination as "a fine country where we could live easy and without work and besides a great deal of fine sport in taking the wild game." [7] Though these two statements can be interpreted as being the idyllic and self-serving vindications offered by acculturated individuals, their reflections sound more factually oriented when compared with recent anthropological analysis of hunter-gatherers.

Unfamiliar subsistence methods sometimes caused the adopted captives to undergo a considerable readjustment. Amerind society was divided sharply into two food-producing social patterns which were differentiated by well-defined gender roles. David Zeisberger noted in 1780 that men hunted to provide "meat for the household, clothing for their wives and children, getting it in exchange for hides." [8] He further remarked that men built houses and helped their wives clear and fence land. The women procured the firewood and pursued horticultural activities with hand tools. The missionary indicated that the women's produce included corn, pumpkins, potatoes, beans and vegetables, such as cabbage and turnips, adapted from the Euro-Americans. Mary Jemison, who eventually had a large farm along the Genessee River and employed a succession of white tenant farmers, remembered her Ohio Valley Indian routine as a horticulturalist in the following manner.

In the summer season we planted, tended and harvested our corn, and generally had all our children with us; but had no master to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased. We had no ploughs on the Ohio; but performed the whole process of planting and hoeing with a small tool that resembled, in some respects, a hoe with a very short handle. [9]

She observed that since their possessions were few and diets so uncomplicated, little time was needed to maintain a household. This judgment seemed especially true to Mary Jemison as she compared the aboriginal female role with "that endless variety" of laborious chores common to women of Euro-American agricultural society.

Hunting was conducted with equipment derived from both Euro-American technology and traditional aboriginal manufacture. Colonel James Smith recorded that during his captivity from 1755-1759, the Indians harvested beaver "with wooden and steel traps." [10] Smith's adopted brother, Tontileaugo, carried a rifle gun. On one occasion the captive and his adopted brother were smoking a bear out of its winter hibernation den in a hollow tree. Since the bear did not appear until after dark, accurate sighting with the rifle was impossible. As the animal descended the tree trunk, Tontileaugo set his rifle aside "and instantly bent his bow, took hold of an arrow, and shot the bear a little behind the shoulder." [11]

European weaponry was not always an unmixed blessing for aboriginal hunters who found themselves caught up in the fortunes of war. Charles Stuart recorded during the French and Indian War that he heard some Indians openly condemn other tribesmen for aiding the French in reducing the British post at Oswego. The result was that all goods were higher when purchased from the French. According to Stuart, an even more serious dilemma was the fact that in 1757 only one gunsmith was working among the French at Detroit. No other smith work could be obtained closer than Montreal. [12]

Nevertheless, the lure of surer methods continuously eroded the utilization of aboriginal technology. Jonathan Alder remembered hunting deer at night from a canoe by use of what was called a shade board. The shade board was fixed in the front of the canoe and contained a lighted candle. With the aid of this simple yet significant European lighting device, the hunter could "sit behind it and you could push right up to a deer, that was the easiest and surest." [13]

Along with their horticultural occupations, the women's winter activities included food preparation and storage. Important among such employments were the making and storing of maple sugar and the collecting and storing of bear fat or grease. In these tasks as in the men's hunting routines, a combination of Amerind and European artifacts customarily was used.

During a winter season, Colonel Smith described the women's construction and use of their own containers while also using those of European manufacture. Smith's band possessed two brass kettles of 15 gallons each and several others of smaller capacity. These were insufficient for the volume of sugar produced for storage which eventually totalled "about 200 weight of sugar." Besides the processing of maple sugar, bear fat also was being collected. To accommodate these commodities the women constructed vessels of elm bark for the sugar and deer skin pouches for the bear fat. Numerous two-gallon elm bark containers were fashioned for syrup collecting and several 100-gallon elm bark vessels were prepared to store syrup until it could be boiled. Bear oil vessels were prepared by pulling off the deer skin so that no openings were made except at the neck. These were then blown up and allowed to dry. Closure was accomplished by use of string ties and plugs at the neck. When completed, the deer skins furnished containers of four to five gallons. These were transported two at a time across the back of a horse. [14]

Common European domestic items often were found in use within Indian households. In 1788, the wife of Thomas Ridout's captor heated her tea water "in a small copper kettle." Ridout was served venison on a pewter plate. His meat was prepared in a metallic frying pan which was unusual because the Indian mode of cooking was nearly always that of boiling or roasting. [15] O. M. Spencer mentioned that his captor's mother, in whose charge he had been placed, provided several guests with "horn, wooden and pewter spoons." Use of acculturated artifacts in this instance is even more likely because Cooh-coo-chee's daughter was married to George Ironside, a resident English trader. [16] He took some responsibility for his mother-in-law's maintenance.

Euro-Americans usually experienced difficulties in adjusting to what they considered the filthiness of Indian cookery and the unusual food items. O. M. Spencer's testimony for 1792 indicates that he generally found Indian fare to be quite good. The Green Corn Festival menu was even termed a "splendid feast." It consisted of

boiled jerk and fish, stewed squirrels and venison, and green corn boiled some in the ear and some cut from the cob and mixed with beans, besides squashes and roasted pumpkins. For bread, besides that prepared in the ordinary way from corn meal we had some made of green corn cut from the cob and pounded in a mortar until it was brought to the consistency of thick cream, then being salted and poured into a sort of mold of an oblong form more than half the length and twice the thickness of a man's hand, made of corn leaves, and baked in the ashes, was very palatable. [17]

On a more normal occasion, Spencer was taken on a visit to his captor's home, and as custom required, immediately was invited to eat. The "refreshment consisted of some dried green corn boiled with beans and dried pumpkins and making, as I thought, a very excellent dish." [18] Colonel Smith recorded what he thought to be good food. Bear fat was saturated with maple sugar and served as a dip for roasted venison. He also liked cranberries mixed with sugar. [19] Charles Johnston reported bear fat to be quite an acceptable substitute for butter when used in conjunction with venison. [20]

Other captives were not so fortunate in their experiences. Hugh Gibson found that his Delaware captors often suffered want during the French and Indian War. Their dietary habits under these circumstances were especially difficult for Gibson:

their ordinary way of living is miserable and poor, often without food. They are amazing dirty in their cookery, sometimes they catch a number of frogs, and hang them up to dry, when a deer is killed they will split up the guts and give them a plunge or two in the water, and then dry them, and when they run out of provisions, they will take some of the dryed frogs, and some of the deer guts and boil them, till the flesh of the frogs is dissolved, then sup the broth. [21]

On the journey to Ft. Niagara in 1780, Sarah Gilbert was afrighted by the suggestion of her Indian guard that should hunting continue to fail, the two of them would be forced to cannibalize the 11-year-old Benjamin Gilbert, Jr. [22] Fortunately some mouldy corn was found in a burned out village which recently had been destroyed by General Sullivan's army. Thomas Peart of the Gilbert party of captives reported that after the killing of an elk, the weather turned warm and "it soon became putrid, and was filled with maggots, which they, notwithstanding, eat without reserve." [23]

Matters of diet were dependent upon several variables. These included custom, the current military situation, and the personalities and abilities of those adopting or holding prisoners. The family of a chief who adopted Rebecca Gilbert and Benjamin Gilbert, Jr., had the single advantage of having greater access to British government stores. Accordingly, they were fed better and more regularly. Otherwise all women of the family labored throughout the summer to produce about 75 bushels of corn. In this endeavor they worked in common with all other Indian women of whatever rank or station. [24]

A practice common to hunter-gatherers of eating all available food stores often perplexed the captives. Joseph Gilbert complained of the irregularity of meals, and the usual indulgences by the Indians of "their voracious appetites, which soon consumed their stock, and a famine succeeded." [25] Colonel Smith recounted an occasion when a Wyandot stopped at his camp while an adopted kinsman was hunting. Smith readily provided him with venison then roasting on the fire, but neglected to offer his guest either sugar or bear oil. Upon Tontileaugo's return he censored the adopted captive for behaving "just like a Dutchman." Visitors always were entitled to the best; Smith was informed that a great warrior never must be suspected of basely hoarding provisions from anyone in need. [26]

The captivity accounts confirm the economic influences of Euro-American fur trade and military patterns upon native society. The aboriginal attitude of allowing the future to take its own course apparently was still very strong, but the effects of acculturation were evident in the widespread use of material culture items and the credit schedules of the fur trade. In addition to other financial benefits that derived from military enterprises, Indians of the area were utilizing captives as economic commodities. Prisoners could be productive of labor or ransom; a traffic in stolen horses was also in evidence. [27]

An Indian nativistic emphasis upon a return to aboriginal subsistence skills would make itself strongly felt by the opening of the nineteenth century. This was an important theme of Tecumseh and his brother, The Prophet. [28] During the period of the greatest white and Black captivity traffic from 1755 to 1795, only one instance of a return to a complete reliance upon native crafts is recorded in these narratives. This effort signaled an Indian attempt to forestall further economic dependence upon Euro-American technology. In 1756, John McCullough reported a single band of Indians who withdrew from fur trade and military contact with white society during the French and Indian War. This group attempted a livelihood with traditional bows, arrows, and horticulture. They were reacting to an unnamed Delaware prophet who counseled such action. McCullough reported that several women "resorted to their encampments," and that his own knowledge of their new lifestyle extended over a two year period. [29] Notwithstanding this early precursor of a periodic nativist trend, the bulk of the Indians remained attached to the Euro-American acculturated lifestyle throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century.

Perhaps economic acculturation best is illustrated with the evidence indicating a Euro-American exchange medium and widespread usage of the fur trade credit structure. O. M. Spencer's captors encountered "a small company of Indian hunters" when bringing the new prisoner up the Great Miami River Valley. The Mohawk delivered a complete accounting of his exploits, and then purchased "of them for a small silver brooch a few pieces of dried venison." [30] Spencer later observed of Indian economic transactions that a hybrid barter and silver circulating medium was common during his 1792 sojourn. Trade was carried on with "venison and skins and brooches." [31] Charles Johnston described his 1790 ransom by the trader Francis Duchouquet as being accomplished when "The price was paid down in six hundred silver brooches; which answers all the purposes of a circulating medium with them." [32] At Matthew Bunn's ransom in 1791, the Indians received $120 and provided the purchasing trader with a receipt "bill of me." [33]

Commerce was facilitated by resident fur traders who lived in proximity to the scattered Indian bands during the winter hunting season. Johnston described the trader's operations after having observed his ransoming benefactor, Francis Duchouquet. This trader, in common with others of his profession, met the Indians during the fall and equipped them on credit for the winter hunt. The Indians returned in the spring and paid for their earlier purchases "as well as for the few light articles necessary to them through the summer." [34] Most collections and transactions were complete by the beginning of June. The traders then transported their peltry to a central depot such as Detroit or Pittsburgh. Johnston found that the Indians were thought of as being "in general, punctual to their engagements" David Zeisberger commented that "If a debtor is unable to pay, the creditor duns his friends, who must pay and rarely refuse to do so." [35]

Colonel Smith described the Indians as being prodigal with their assets after the winter hunt. [36] When the Indians again gathered after the rigors of the hunt, they gave over to feasting and open-handed consumption of all they possessed. Any visitor to an Indian abode received an invitation to eat as long as anything remained. Failure to accept the invitation was tantamount to an insult or a signal of grave displeasure. Smith indicated that the Indians were well able to afford this expensive leisure. During the spring of 1757 he recorded that after having paid for "fine clothes, ammunition, paint, tobacco, etc." in addition to a new gun for himself, the Indians "had parted with only about one-third of our beaver." Much of this surplus subsequently was spent on alcoholic sprees. When an individual's band had consumed its own resources, the Indian only had to visit another nearby camp and be invited for the ensuing revelry.

The position taken in offering this review is that while none of the captives were qualified ethnohistorical observers, they obtained data from a rare perspective which accords their testimony a singular importance. They had to grasp the essentials of their host culture from a position of unparalleled personal involvement and abject dependence. Even fragmentary data from this vantage should be considered of value because the captives had not only to observe and to record, but they were impelled to successfully act out their new cultural roles in order to remain alive.

Indian desire to obtain more trade goods encouraged the natives to become partners in the trading enterprises of the European Commercial Revolution. In so doing, the aborigines began to harvest surplus furs, employ European credit schedules to accomplish this end, and to accept a broadening of their cultural reliance upon military activity for adjudicating problems. By the period under consideration, Amerind society in the Upper Ohio Valley had become what Alfred A. Kroeber described as "a partly new, assimilated, hybrid-Caucasian culture." Anthropologist James A. Clifton, in commenting upon Amerind groups historically occupying the Upper Ohio Valley, noted that all of these peoples had moved into the area during the eighteenth century. Clifton underscored their acculturated economic status of this period in commenting, "Let me emphasize again that these societies settled in Ohio at that time were not Indian." [37]

The captivity accounts exhibited little evidence that the bands and tribes composing this hybrid society were undergoing substantial cultural alteration during the years under investigation. Though Indians increasingly were conscious of a mutuality in their interests, most remained uninterested in a return to some form of nativist precontact lifestyle. The cultural synthesis described in the narratives had been forged during the first half of the eighteenth century in what William W. Newcomb described as the ca. 1690-1750 "Period of Consolidation." The important exception is found in the increased military role evident for the Delawares. The ruin of this acculturated synthesis of Amerind and European traits lay in its subsistence base. The practitioners of the fur trade, red and white, could not withstand the expansion of the agricultural frontier.

The seeming availability of western territory was not only an "escape valve" for Euro-American easterners of the Frederick Jackson Turner mold; it encouraged a native resistance to altering what had become a successfully acculturated subsistence pattern by ca. 1755-1795. The Indian male was still a hunter and trapper, but he now functioned within a market economy. It was also possible for him to become a trader and perhaps an artisan within this new economic context. In addition, nearly two generations of war had established a military role providing wartime pay, annuities during intervening periods of uneasy peace, and the omnipresent lure of plunder.

William W. Newcomb's analysis of Amerind society led him to the following conclusions regarding the Delawares in the Northeastern woodland cultural area.

There has been considerable dispute about why the population density for the Eastern Area as a whole was low when the subsistence potential was relatively high . . . for the Delaware economy to support a larger population would have required male participation in agriculture, stronger government mechanisms to control larger cooperative groups of workers, various sorts of specialists, more effective political groupings for offense and defense, and perhaps other alterations in the social system. The small, individually oriented, kin group socioeconomic institutions were sufficient to operate the basic technology, but nothing more. [38]

This judgment doubtless reflects the social orientation of other closely associated native people inhabiting the Upper Ohio Valley during the late eighteenth century.


1Eugene F. Bliss, ed. & trans., Diary of David Zeisberger: A Moravian Missionary Among the Indians of Ohio (Cincinnati: Robert Clark & Co., 1885) Vol. I, p. 342.

2Preston Holder, "The Fur Trade as Seen from the Indian Point of View," in John F. McDermott, ed, The Frontier Re-examined. (1967), p. 129.

3Marius Barbeau, "Indian Captivities," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 94 (Nov., 1950): p. 531.

4Dwight Smith, "Shawnee Captivity Ethnography," Ethnohistory 2 (Winter, 1955): p. 17.

5Julian H. Steward, Theory of Cultural Change (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), p. 300.

6James E. Seaver, ed., A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (Canandaigua, N.Y.: J.D. Bemis & Co., 1824), p. 72.

7Henry Alder, recorder. A History of Jonathan Alder: His Captivity and Life with the Indians (Typescript copy by Doyle H. Davidson, The Ohio Historical Society, 1935), p. 5.

8A. B. Hulbert and W. H. Schwarze, eds., David Zeisberger's History of the Northern American Indians (Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1910), p. 13.

9James E. Seaver, ed., Mary Jemison, p. 55.

10Col. James Smith, An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1870), p. 60.

11Ibid., p. 34.

12Beverly W. Bond, ed., "The Captivity of Charles Stuart," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 13(1926), pp. 77, 80.

13Henry Alder, recorder, Jonathan Alder, p. 36.

14Col. James Smith, Remarkable Occurrences, pp. 36-38.

15Matilda Edgar, ed., Ten Years of Upper Canada in Peace and War, 1805-1815: An Appendix of the Narrative of the Captivity Among the Shawanese Indians in 1788 of Thomas Ridout (Toronto: William Briggs, 1890), p. 355.

16Milo Milton Quaife, ed., The Indian Captivity of O. M Spencer (New York: The Citadel Press, 1968), pp. 86, 107.

17Ibid., p. 107.

18Ibid., p. 89.

19Col. James Smith, Remarkable Occurrences, pp. 37, 58.

20Charles Johnston, A Narrative of the Incidents Attending the Capture, Detention, and Ransom of Charles Johnston (New York: J. J. Harper, 1827), p. 38.

21Archibold Louden, ed., A Selection of Some of the Most Interesting Narratives of Outrages Committed by the Indians in Their Wars with the White People (Carlisle, PA.: A. Louden, 1808), Vol. II., p. 183.

22Ibid., p. 134.

23Ibid., p. 144.

24Ibid., p. 125.

25Ibid., p. 102.

26Col. James Smith, Remarkable Occurrences, pp. 43-44.

27Marie LeRoy and Barbara Leininger were hired out to work for members of the French garrison at Ft. Duquesne during the French and Indian War while their Indian master received the wages. Charles Stuart indicated that in the conduct of the raid in which he was captured, the Indians took over 100 horses. Charles Johnston described his captor's sale of horses to a Wyandot trading Indian for five gallons of whiskey per horse. See John B. Lain and William H. Engle, eds., "The Narrative of Marie LeRoy and Barbara Leininger, Who Spent Three and One Half Years as Prisoners Among the Indians, and Arrived Safely in This City on the Sixth of May," Pennsylvania Archives 7 (1890): p. 342; Beverly Bond, ed., Charles Stuart, p. 162; Charles Johnston, A Narrative, pp. 58-59.

28William W. Newcomb, The Culture and Acculturation of the Delaware Indians (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1956), p. 94.

29Archibold Louden, ed., Narratives of Outrages, Vol. I, pp. 273-275.

30Milo Milton Quaife, ed., O. M Spencer, p. 72.

31Ibid., p. 86.

32Charles Johnston, A Narrative, p. 60.

33Frank H. Severance, ed., Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Matthew Bunn, In an Expedition Against the Northwestern Indians, In the Years 1791, 1792, 1793, 1794 & 1795, (Buffalo: Buffalo Historical Society, 1904), p. 407.

34Charles Johnston, A Narrative, p. 66.

35A. B. Hulbert and W. H. Schwarze, eds., David Zeisberger's History, p. 92.

36Col. James Smith, Remarkable Occurrences, p. 45.

37Alfred A. Kroeber, Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1939), p. 90; James Clifton, "The Post-Removal Aftermath," in Randall L. Buchman, ed., The Historic Indian in Ohio (Columbus: The Ohio American Revolution Bicentennial Advisory Commission, 1976), p. 40.

38William W. Newcomb, Culture and Acculturation of the Delaware Indians, p. 77.

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Last Updated: 23-Mar-2011