Feared or Family: Portrayal of Native Americans in Redeemed and Unredeemed Captivity Narratives


This essay examines how Native Americans were portrayed in two American captivity narratives: an older one, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson (1682), and a more recent text, The Ransom of Mercy Carter (2002). In both, the acculturation of the captive affected her representation of Native peoples. This paper argues that Rowlandson’s narrative ends with her return to white society and therefore portrays Natives in a negative manner while Carter’s ends with her acculturation and therefore presents Natives in a positive light. Ample textual evidence shows that more-recently-written captivity narratives, like Carter’s, represent acculturation and Native Americans much more positively than do older narratives, like Rowlandson’s.

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    Every American captivity narrative portrays Native Americans in such manner as to suggest how the captive feels about his or her captors. Many early narratives, especially those in which the captives are redeemed, or returned to white society, show Native Americans as savage and inhuman. More recent captivity narratives, including those in which captives spend the rest of their lives with their captors, are more likely to feature positive depictions of Native Americans. The contrast between these two basic types of American captivity narratives is conspicuous in Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) and in Caroline B. Cooney’s The Ransom of Mercy Carter (2002). Rowlandson, finally redeemed through ransom, writes negatively of her captors to demonstrate that captivity had not changed her core values. Rather different is Caroline B. Cooney’s fictive The Ransom of Mercy Carter (2002), which focuses on an acculturated captive, offering a more positive account of Native Americans to demonstrate how a captive might come to see her captors as family.

    A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

    Rowlandson’s story is a prime example of a redeemed captivity narrative, one where the captive is eventually rescued, or escapes to her own society. In the main, Rowlandson characterizes her Native American captors as merciless and barbarous, though she sometimes acknowledges their potential to be kind. One suspects that her return to English society and her sense of audience dictate the overall negativity of her narrative as she wastes no time in showing readers exactly how she sees the Native Americans who attacked her home and abducted her. She begins by describing the death of a neighbor: though he begged for his life, the Native Americans did not listen, and instead “knock’d him on the head, stripped him naked, and split open his Bowels” (Rowlandson 12). And after Rowlandson is taken captive, she gives the reader a survey of the carnage she is leaving behind: “There were twelve killed, some shot, some stabb’d with their Spears, some knock’d down with their Hatchets” (14). Her language here is very matter-of-fact: she includes exact numbers and simple, straightforward descriptions of how her neighbors were killed. This shows the reader that Rowlandson was not surprised by these events. It gives the impression that Rowlandson was perhaps raised to expect this kind of behavior from Native Americans and taught to see them only as violent predators.

    What follows in Rowlandson’s narrative brings us to the crux her attitude toward, and therefore her representation of, Native Americans. She writes in the same paragraph, “It is a Solemn sight to see so many Christians lying in their Blood, some here, and some there, like a company of Sheep torn by wolves” (Rowlandson 14). On the surface, she is simply giving the reader a shocking mental image. But this sentence is carefully constructed to reveal several things about the way that Native Americans will be portrayed in the rest of the piece. The rhetoric frames the massacre of the English people by the Native Americans with analogy to a pack of bloodthirsty wolves attacking docile sheep. This disposes the reader to think of Native Americans as animalistic. There is also religious imagery within the sentence, since. Rowlandson refers to her fallen neighbors not as “friends” or even “Englishmen” but as “Christians,” further inviting readers to apprehend the slain as the innocent lamb of the Bible while rendering the Native Americans as the Godless sinners.

    A series of simpler yet still very negative descriptions follows. Rowlandson refers to her captors as “ravenous Bears,” “barbarous creatures,” and “merciless enemies,” also lamenting “the savageness and brutishness of this barbarous enemy” (14-15). “Barbarous” seems to be a favorite adjective of Rowlandson’s; this adjective connotes both cruelty and wildness. Her use of this word, and similar ones like “merciless,” reinforces Rowlandson’s view of the Native Americans as animals—creatures with no refinement, just a taste for violence. Rowlandson also calls the Native Americans “inhuman,” as evidenced by their laughing at her when, weakened by a wound, she falls from a horse (15). Because of the way Rowlandson interjects such descriptions throughout this part of the narrative, readers repeatedly understand that Rowlandson sees the Native Americans as terrifying, merciless beasts.

    Still, Rowlandson’s characterization of Native Americans begins to change after a Native American man joins the group and offers Rowlandson is with and offers her a Bible. But rather than thank the man, she writes, “I cannot but take notice of the wonderful mercy of God to me in those afflictions, in sending me a Bible” (Rowlandson 19). This is one of several instances in which Rowlandson avoids rendering her captors in a positive; rather, she strips them of their autonomy in doing good deeds by attributing those action to  God’s will or goodness. By extension, she therefore continues to regard the Native Americans as animals possessing neither autonomy nor personal agency.

    Similar characterizations occur in the second quarter of the narrative but eventually become more positive. Rowlandson starts to become acculturated, and there are even examples of kindnesses that she does not immediately attribute to God. Take, for instance, the “Squaw who shewed herself very kind” to Rowlandson, giving her food and allowing her to cook it in her kettle (27). And in the second, an old Native American couple gives Rowlandson food and lodging for the night (29). Rowlandson is inclined to attribute this generosity to the Native Americans rather than to God. Still, when recording these events, Rowlandson evidences dismissiveness in the brevity of her descriptions of such good will. The focus remains on her own hunger and discomfort rather than on those who help her. Moreover, Rowlandson describes her meals of bear, ground-nuts, tree bark, and pees while calling her benefactors as “a Squaw” and “an old Indian,” offering no further detail, such as their real names or physical descriptions (27, 29). Because of this, the reader gets the impression that Rowlandson is keeping the focus on herself in order to gloss over these events because they don’t fit the stereotype of Native Americans.

    These examples are nonetheless Rowlandson’s optimal description of Native Americans, whom she returns to characterizing as cruel heathens. She calls them liars and repeats the phrase “barbarous creatures” from the beginning of the story (Rowlandson 29). As Rowlandson struggles to wade through a river, the Native Americans stand “laughing to see [her] staggering along,” echoing the earlier incident, when Rowlandson fell from the horse, and allowing the reader to forget the kindness the Native Americans had shown to Rowlandson just pages before. She also returns to attributing acts of kindness to God rather, for instance, than to a Native American man who at one point provides her food and a place to sleep. She simply writes, “Now my Spirit is revived again: though means be never so inconsiderable, yet if the Lord bestow his blessing upon them, they shall refresh both Soul and Body” (36). Her language here is prayer-like, as if Rowlandson has realized that thinking of the Native Americans as kind and human is some kind of transgression for which she must ask forgiveness. She was beginning to see her captors in a somewhat positive light, but now she is making up for what she probably sees as a momentary lapse in judgment by demonstrating that she once again regards Native Americans as animalistic, cruel, and lacking personal agency.

    This attitude thereafter prevails. Rowlandson writes at length about her views of the Native Americans and their relationship to the English, and in the process, working to convince her readers that she merits redemption (43). She inserts such thoughts just prior to accounting for her redemption, at once preparing the reader for an account of the ransom and demonstrating that her experience has not changed her core values. Without this section, the reader might have seen Rowlandson’s redemption as undeserved due to her short-lived acceptance of the Native Americans as kind and human. Rowlandson reassures her audience that she is a good Englishwoman and pastor’s wife by re-embracing the English views of Native Americans enthusiastically. For example, Rowlandson accounts for ways in which the Lord provided for the Native Americans in one way or another, something that might have helped to change her opinion of them. But rather than speculate that the Lord views the English and the Native Americans as equals, she writes, “strangely did the Lord provide for them” (44). The use of the word “strangely” shows that Rowlandson has seen evidence of the Lord’s providence for the Native Americans, but does not understand why He provides for them, implying that she believes they do not deserve the Lord’s providence because they are outside of the covenanted society. But Rowlandson does concede that “God strengthened them to be a scourge to his People,” meaning that God strengthens them so that He can use them to punish the English for their sins (44). Including this concession allows both Rowlandson and her audience to maintain their belief that their Lord provides for their enemy by showing that He does so with a purpose in mind that will, in time, lead to the betterment of his chosen. Rowlandson, therefore, predominantly describes the Native Americans as “merciless and cruel Heathen” (47), and the English good-hearted Christians, thereby affirming—as she had earlier, with reference to wolves and sheep-that captivity has not changed her.

    In the end, Rowlandson arrives at the same conclusions about the Native Americans that she had at the outset. Although she does briefly acknowledge the humanity of the Native Americans during the latter half of the narrative, she more generally portrays them as savage sinners who exist only to serve a purpose to the English on behalf of God. Rowlandson goes to lengths to make this clear, particularly after her redemption, at which time she finds it vital to emphasize that her feelings toward her captors never truly deviated from those with which she had been raised.

    The Ransom of Mercy Carter

    However, some captivity narratives do chronicle a significant change in the opinions of their subject about Native Americans. Caroline B. Cooney’s novel The Ransom of Mercy Carter is built on this change. Mercy Carter is a fictionalized account of the captivity of a young girl from Deerfield, Massachusetts, and her life among the Mohawks in Kahnawake.  Both Mercy Carter and Rowlandson’s captivity narrative follow the plotline of the common captivity narrative, but end with rather distant emphases. An important difference between the two is the level of acculturation that the captive achieves. Evon Z. Vogt writes that the term “acculturation” can be understood as the interaction between two sets of variables, “the nature of the two cultures which come in to contact” (the similarities and differences between the two) and “the contact conditions” (forced or voluntary), and that this interaction leads to “a complex and varied set of processes of change” (139). Vogt is writing about the acculturation of Native Americans into white American society at a later point in history, but the idea can as readily account for white captives joining Native American society. Some captivity narratives do not end with redemption, like Rowlandson’s, but rather show a captive going through the process of change caused by acculturation, as Vogt describes, and conclude with that captive’s decision to stay with her captors—now her family. This is how Mercy Carter’s story unfolds. Whereas Rowlandson rejoins English society and persists in negative opinion of Native Americans, Mercy stays with the Mohawks and retains the positive opinions of her “new” family following acculturation. Rather than portray Native Americans as both favorably and otherwise, as does Rowlandson, Cooney has her heroine travel from distain to admiration of Native Americans.

    At the outset of Cooney’s novel, Mercy knows, as all good English girls do, that Native Americans are to be feared. The language she learns from her elders to describe the Native Americans is similar to that used by Rowlandson in her narrative: “It was true then, what Mr. Williams said. Indians were not human. No real person could endure such a thing” (Cooney 14). The alternative to human is, obviously, animal. Mercy has been told this before, by Mr. John Williams, the (real-life) pastor of Deerfield. After  encountering a Native American man inside her house, she believes as much and, when marching in captivity to Canada, thinks, “Mr. Williams often said that if you were Catholic, you hated God and were evil” (Cooney 51), a sentiment that generalizes Puritan rejection of the “other.” Here, though, Mercy’s own thoughts on the matter are absent, already leading the reader to believe that perhaps these negative views of Native Americans aren’t Mercy’s own views, just those she has been told to have.

    It hardly surprises when Mercy’s opinion of her captors begins changing for the better. Still on the march, she notices that a strap on one of the Native American’s leather sacks is intricately beaded and wonders about the beadwork: “She always thought of Indians as being men; warriors. But the strap was proof that there were also Indian women…who loved beauty” (Cooney 60). Mercy compares the beadwork to her mother’s embroidery. The use of the word “always” and then the word “but” show that Mercy’s ideas of the Native Americans are changing. All her life, she had considered them to be violent men; now that she realizes that some of them are just like her own English mother, seeking beauty. Her view of them therefore softens.

    Mercy further develops the capacity for empathy when she speculates, “Perhaps the Indians came to Deerfield on a hunt for children (Cooney 87) to compensate for their diminished population. The emphasis reflects Mercy’s insight into the lives of her Native American captors, allowing her to begin to sympathizing with them, despite the dissonance between sought-after children and hunted animals. Still, she remains attuned to the possibility that Native Americans women never have as many children as the English do. Sympathy, rather than demonization, ensues.

    Vital turning points occur after Mercy arrives in Kahnawake, the Mohawk village that she will come to call home. First, when she is shown her new dwelling place, she thinks, “When you lived with nothing between you and the weather, you were indeed savage…But a roof! And walls! You could breathe again. You could sleep without fear” (Cooney 125). She uses the word “savage,” a common word for describing Native Americans in a negatively charged manner, but does not apply it exclusively to her captors; instead, one is a savage when one has no house to call home, no roof to sleep under. Mercy is, essentially, excusing the Native Americans for their “savagery,” at least on the trail, and acknowledging that their savage ways must not be chalked up to their true nature, but rather to their situation. The second turning point for Mercy is evident when she must humbly approach her new family for their help in an important matter. She begins her appeal to them by saying, “Honored mother…Honored sister. We are in need and we beg you to hear our petition” (Cooney 187). This is extremely respectful rhetoric in any language, and Mercy takes it to another level by saying it in Mohawk, signaling the high level of acculturation into Native American society that she has achieved. She is being deferential to her captors, whom she is beginning to see as family, and she is quite obviously expecting an equal level of respect in return, showing the reader that the Native Americans should be respected just like any other human being, and that they are civil enough to return the sentiment.

    Nearing the end of Mercy Carter, the instances in which Mercy sees the Native Americans in a positive way are overt and everywhere conspicuous. At one point, Mercy finds herself aboard a French ship in Montreal; when she is startled by the French men who approach her in a lewd manner, she thinks of how she “had never heard of an Indian man forcing himself on a woman” (Cooney 206). Mercy is very matter-of-factly showing the reader that, at least sometimes, the most savage man in a situation is the white man, not the Native American. The contrast makes Mercy’s Native American father into the hero of the scene, an undoubtedly positive position for him to be in. And just after her father saves her, Mercy asks him to explain the name that he had given her during the march, Munnonock, the meaning of which, “Alone Star,” Mercy found upsetting, thinking it was an insult. But he explains that it means that she can stand on her own and shine with courage (Cooney 209). Mercy’s lack of a response in the scene is very telling; previously, when she was upset with her captors, she would express it, either to herself or out loud. Her Native American father meant for Mercy’s new name to be a symbol of his respect and love for her; and while she does not embrace that love with open arms, neither does she reject it. This shows that Mercy is at least beginning to believe that Native Americans are, in fact, human beings who have love in their hearts.

    The best evidence of Mercy’s acculturation and transformation—from an English girl who sees Native Americans as the enemy to a Mohawk child who comes to love her new family—occurs toward the end of the story. After witnessing another white captive’s adoption into a Native American family and wondering if he has forgiven his new family for murdering his old one, she muses, “I have forgiven” (Cooney 221). And the other is the last line of the novel, which reads: “’It is my choice,’ said Nistenha’s daughter,” and is Mercy’s response when her Mohawk mother asks if she wants to stay in Kahnawake rather than be ransomed back to Deerfield (Cooney 242). Both of these lines are extremely poignant, containing direct quotes or thoughts from Mercy herself. They convey how secure Mercy is in her acceptance of her place in Kahnawake and as a Mohawk, and this acceptance assures the reader of the humanity of her new family.

    In the end of Mercy’s story, she never returns to thinking of Native Americans as animals or as evil. Instead, she regards them as elders to be respected—men that protect her, women that love her as their own daughter. It takes Mercy a long time to reach a place where she can think those things and be truly comfortable with them (the novel spans over a year), but she does get there in the end. Her acculturation, because it involves moving from one culture to another, is not a quick process, but once that process is complete, she is truly Native American, no longer English. And because the Native American people are her people, her family, she can no longer think of them as negatively as she did when she was English.


    If one graphed the change shown in the captive in The Ransom of Mercy Carter, the line would definitely slope steadily upward from a negative point to a positive one over time. In contrast, the line of change over time present in A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson would slope slowly from a negative point to a positive point, hitting a peak before returning sharply to a place even more negative than where it began. The difference between the two graphs would be attributable to the way, in The Ransom of Mercy Carter, the captive, Mercy Carter, goes through a process of acculturation and never returns to English society, while A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson does indeed contain Mary Rowlandson’s happy restoration to her white family. Because Rowlandson returned to the English, she needed to reassure everyone that her experience had not changed her opinions of Native Americans, and that redemption comes to those who persevere and keep their faith. But because Mercy became part of the Mohawk tribe, and her narrative (and similar non-fictional ones) was meant to show the other side of captivity, she was allowed to change her mind about her captors in the end. In short, Rowlandson was redeemed and Mercy was assimilated, making all the difference in depiction of Native Americans in varied captivity narratives.

    Work Cited

    • Cooney, Caroline B. The Ransom of Mercy Carter. New York: Delacorte, 2001. Print.
    • Rowlandson, Mary. “A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. New York: Penguin, 1998. 3-51. Print.
    • Vogt, Evon Z. "The Acculturation of American Indians." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 311 (1957): 137-46. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1032361.