Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Captivity Narrative


Taken by Indians


The so-called captivity narrative, a story about a person of one tribe or race or religion taken and held by another, is pretty well as old as story-telling itself. It played on our fear of the ‘other’ and sent shivers down the spines of the listeners, readers or viewers as they imagined the horrors that the captives must have undergone, and excited joy at the rescue if there was one. An extra frisson of fear was added if the one taken was female, for then an unspeakable (but broadly hinted at) sexual dimension was added.



Such stories, some of them by survivors, for example accounts of Christians taken by Barbary pirates (between 1530 and 1780, North Africa-based corsairs were said to have enslaved as many as 1.25 million people) were very widely printed and read, and often they contained a strong element of divine providence having protected and saved the people concerned. In America too, Jonathan Dickinson’s journal God’s Protecting Providence … (1699) is an account by a Quaker of shipwreck survivors captured by Indians in Florida. He says they survived by placing their trust in God to protect them. These stories fed into the culture of New England settlers, who had their own ‘Barbary pirates’.



Other popular captivity narratives from the late 17th century include Cotton Mather’s A Notable Exploit: Dux Faemina Facti, on the captivity of Hannah Duston, as well as his account of Hannah Swarton’s captivity (1697), both well-known reports of the capture of women during King William’s War.


Cotton wrote a couple


The Puritans knew of members of their communities being taken by American Indians, and they circulated books and pamphlets about this widely, often with the suggestion that such a fate was a warning from God concerning the state of the Puritans’ souls.


But it wasn’t just tales to frighten people into being good. Captivity of this kind was really a thing. For example, in 1704, French and Abenaki warriors made the Raid on Deerfield, killing settlers and taking more than a hundred people captive. The prisoners were marched several hundred miles into Canada where they were held for an extended period, with some captives being adopted by First Nations families and others held for ransom.


The Raid on Deerfield


The accounts of these misadventures concentrated largely on the religious. Heaven knew what cults the Indians practiced. They might not even worship at all! And when the French and Indian wars came along, the poor captives might be taken by the French, and everyone knew the French were Papists. It didn’t bear thinking about.


When these stories fed into the Western genre, this religious aspect tended to be discarded. Perhaps movie makers were worried about offending ticket-buyers of varying faiths. The films were more inclined to concentrate on the deprivation, perhaps the torture, and, naturally, the ever-present (but not explicit for most of the history of the Western film) threat of rape.


Just how many people were actually taken is impossible to know precisely but there have been some scholarly estimates. According to Alden T Vaughan and Daniel K Richter, between King Philip’s War (1675) and the last of the French and Indian Wars (1763), approximately 1,641 New Englanders were taken captive. And Lonnie J White tells us that “During the decades-long struggle between whites and Plains Indians in the mid-19th century, hundreds of women and children were captured.”


On July 14, 1776, Daniel Boone’s daughter Jemima and two other girls were captured outside Boonesborough by a Shawnee war party, which carried the captives north into the Ohio country. Boone and a group of men set out in pursuit, finally catching up with the Indians two days later. The Boone party ambushed the Indians, rescuing the girls and driving off their captors. The incident became one of the most celebrated events of Boone’s life.


Carl Wimar, Abduction of Boone’s Daughter, 1855


There were many fictional captivity narratives too, often lurid and sensational. The most famous of these is probably James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (click the link for our look at that), first published in 1826, and this is in some ways the Ur-novel of the frontier genre. Hawkeye is escorting the posh Munro girls to Fort William Henry when the evil Huron Magua captures them. Worse, Magua lusts after one of them, Cora – quelle horreur. Fenimore Cooper was clearly influenced by the Daniel Boone story, and in some ways his Hawkeye is based on Boone. Fenimore Cooper’s world-famous yarn fed directly into the Western movie. It, and plots loosely inspired by it have been filmed very many times (the first was 1909). And the theme became a standard one for the genre.



From the 1860s onward, huge numbers of dime novels were published in the US, notably by Beadle & Adams, 75% of whose output was frontier stories. Many were based on the captivity narrative. For example, Edward S Ellis’s Seth Jones or, The Captives of the Frontier was a startlingly bloody and action-packed frontier adventure story, said to be the “perfect dime novel” according to Beadle & Adams editor, Orville Victor. Set in late eighteenth-century New York, it tells the story (clearly influenced by Fenimore Cooper) of the back-woodsman hero Jones, later revealed to be a gentleman, who skillfully fights Mohawk warriors to rescue a beautiful white damsel in distress. The story was apparently a favorite of Abraham Lincoln. It sold a remarkable 400,000 copies.



It was really not surprising that the captivity narrative should become a major plot subject when Western movies came along.


Right from the earliest silent Westerns, there were two main strands of the captivity narrative: you either had a hero who had been taken and raised by Indians and who, though maybe conflicted, combines the skills and attributes of white and red, or you had a woman taken by Indians who had to be rescued by a white, male hero. As Kim Newman said in his book Western Movies, “By and large the Western has a double standard: being captured and raised by Indians turns you into a hero if you are a boy, but is liable to create a tainted lunatic if you happen to be a woman.”


In the early days, as examples of the first strand, we had the various versions of The Squaw Man, William S Hart in The Captive God (1916) and Robert Frazer in Sioux Blood (1929). But the theme continued and in talkie Westerns we think first of Tom Mix in The Miracle Rider (1935), Charlton Heston in The Savage (1952), Dustin Hoffmann in Little Big Man (1970) and the same year Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse. But you will certainly be able to think of many other examples.



There was often the suggestion that when a white boy was taken and raised by Indians, he would automatically (because of his racial superiority, you see) rise to become a chief. Bill Hart even became a god. Hoffmann’s Little Big Man made a refreshing change as he veered erratically between the two worlds, white and red, seeming equally bewildered and nonplussed in each.


Richard Widmark’s Comanche Todd in The Last Wagon (1956) is more than half Comanche still. He is out to revenge his Comanche wife, and he uses his skills saving a party of young white settlers from the Apache. “Don’t be fooled by the color of his eyes and his skin,” the villain says. “Inside, he’s Comanche.”



Another such character, one I like particularly, is Paul Newman in Hombre (1967). He was raised by the Apache and though now in the white world, the blue-eyed Indian seems, like Comanche Todd, still to be more than half Apache, and he looks down on the effete whites. Nevertheless, he saves their (fairly worthless) lives, though unlike Todd sacrificing himself in the effort.



Hombre was loosely based on an Elmore Leonard story, and that in turn was also loosely based on a real-life adventure. The hero was modeled in some ways (in some ways only) on one Jimmy (Santiago) McKinn.


This is a fascinating tale. In May 1885, on a farm in the Mimbres Valley of south-west New Mexico, eleven-year-old Jimmy McKinn was kidnapped and his brother killed by Geronimo and a band of Apaches. The boy’s father, who had been away in Las Cruces at the time, gave chase upon his return and was relentless in his efforts. But after finding his son’s coat with a bullet hole in the back, the poor man gave up and gradually descended into insanity.


In fact, however, the boy had been taken by Geronimo into Mexico where the band was pursued and eventually persuaded to surrender by the men of General Crook, and Santiago was among them. The party left the reservation again but was later found again, by forces under General Nelson A Miles. A reporter, Lummis, wrote   “When told that he was to be taken back to his father and mother, Santiago began boo-hooing with great vigor. He said in Apache – for the little rascal has already become quite fluent in that language – that he didn’t want to go back – he wanted to always stay with the Indians. All sorts of rosy pictures of the delights of home were drawn, but he would have none of them, and acted like a young wild animal in a trap. When they lifted him into the wagon which was to take him to the [railroad] station, he renewed his wails, and was still at them as he disappeared from our view.”



Later the reporter wrote, “Santiago McKinn, the 11-year old white boy, the Apaches’ prisoner taken with Geronimo’s band, will be sent home tomorrow. It is learned that his parents were not killed, but reside at Hot Springs, at Hunter’s, N.M., near the railroad from Deming to Silver City. During his half-year of captivity the lad had grown fully Indianized. He joins their sports, and will have nothing to do with the whites. He understands English and Spanish, but can hardly be induced to speak in either. He has learned the Apache language and talks it exclusively.”


In reality, McKinn re-integrated and remained with the whites in Grant County, New Mexico where he later married, had children, and worked as a blacksmith. Later, he moved to Phoenix where he died in 1941.


This story takes us into another strand of the captivity narrative: the captives who integrated so well into their new society that they did not wish to be ‘rescued’.


The most notable example of this is John Ford’s Two Rode Together (1961) in which we see the local marshal (James Stewart) and an army lieutenant (Richard Widmark) set out to rescue captives taken by the Comanche. The cynical marshal accepts a thousand dollars to bring back any white male who is around seventeen to a local businessman who wants to get his nagging wife off his back, as she agreed to marry him only if he made every effort to bring back the son she had from a previous marriage. At the Indian camp, the two manage to take only two whites back – by trading for rifles. One is a fiercely violent seventeen-year-old boy named Running Wolf (David Kent), who most emphatically does not want to go. The boy was right, because he ends up lynched back in ‘civilization’ by whites, who are shown to be quite as savage as the savages.


It doesn’t go well for Running Wolf


There are other whites the two who rode together left behind who refused to return, and their lives are pictured as already ruined by the savages. In fact the best actor on the set apart from Stewart is Mae Marsh, ex-young heroine of Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation, a Ford regular in small roles, and she is here in a very short and sadly uncredited but nevertheless powerful part as an old broken woman who is too afraid and ashamed to go back to the white world.


Mae is too ashamed to return


Another picture which gives us captives reluctant (at best) to return to a ‘white’ life was Disney’s The Light in The Forest (1958), based on Conrad Richter’s 1953 novel, in which Johnny Butler, now known as True Son (James MacArthur) and honored as son and heir of the chief, finds himself, as the result of a treaty, returned to the family he does not remember and forced to live a new life that is as strange to him as it is unwelcome. It’s quite a thoughtful film.


He struggles to re-integrate


You can also get the reverse narrative, in which an Indian is brought up by the whites. In the 2009 film, The Only Good Indian, a young Kickapoo boy (Winter Fox Frank) is forcibly taken from his parents in the early 1900s and enrolled in a federal boarding school. In the (rather noxious) film Arrowhead (1953), Jack Palance is the Apache Toriano, also educated by the whites in the East, who comes back and shows that he has not been assimilated at all. His chief opponent, Ed Bannon (Charlton Heston) was raised by the Apache but that has led to a visceral loathing of them and all he wants is to exterminate the race, starting with Toriano.


Back from the East but still Apache


Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007), a sort of docudrama, tells the story of Charles Eastman (Adam Beach), the adopted ‘white’ name of the Sioux named Ohiyesa, who was forcibly educated in the East with the whites and who later returned West to the reservation to serve his people as a doctor. In the end, Ohiyesa realized he was being used by the white man as a tool to put down the Indian culture and never seemed to get over that. In The Unforgiven (1960), all the trouble starts because the Zachary family has adopted an Indian girl (Audrey Hepburn) and the Indians decide to kidnap her back. In Flaming Star the same year, there’s a similar situation, with Elvis Presley, in John McIntire’s family. So there are quite a few example of the captivity narrative in the other direction.


But of course the most powerful type of captivity narrative Western concerns a white girl abducted by the ‘savages’.


One of the very first Western films, in the same year as The Train Robbery, 1903, was the one-reeler The Pioneers. The synopsis tells us that Indians attack a cabin and a “little girl, terror-stricken by the awful scenes she has witnessed, is seized by the savages and carried off a prisoner.” But then trappers follow, and “the white men hurl themselves upon the Indians. A terrific hand-to-hand combat ensues, and the Indians are slain remorselessly. The little girl is quickly released from her bonds and, as the picture ends, she is in the arms of one of the brave trappers who have rescued her.”


That was classic captivity narrative stuff, and many silent Westerns exploited the plot.


When talkies came along the trend did not slacken. There are too many captivity-narrative Westerns for me to mention them all but let’s look at a couple of the big ones.


Take Paramount’s 1947 big-budget color epic Unconquered, directed by Cecil B DeMille. In that one, Gary Cooper rescues Paulette Goddard, who has been captured by the Seneca Indians of chief Guyasuta (Boris Karloff) – it’s 1763, with Pontiac and such. Coop hoodwinks the stupid savages with a ‘magic’ compass, then there’s a canoe chase in which Coop and Paulette shoot rapids and plunge over a waterfall. All dramatic stuff. It’s a seriously clunky film but a classic example of the captivity Western.






Probably the most famous captivity-narrative Western of them all was John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). When Ethan (John Wayne) undertakes the long search for Debbie (Lana Wood, then Natalie Wood), taken by the Comanche, Ford was using Alan Le May’s book based on the story of Cynthia Ann Parker. She was abducted in 1836 and became Na’ura, which means ‘was found’ or ‘someone found’. She married Peta Nocona, a chief, and became the mother of Quanah Parker and two other children. In 1860 she was captured by the Texas Rangers during the Battle of Pease River, also known as the Pease River Massacre, and taken back to her biological family, against her will. For the remaining ten years of her life, she could not re-adjust to white society. She escaped at least once but was recaptured. Heartbroken over her daughter’s death from influenza and pneumonia, Parker died within seven years.


Cynthia Ann


Ford’s film changes all that and is only very loosely based on the account. But Ethan’s implacable years-long search, his probable first intention to kill Debbie rather than bring her home, because she has become ‘polluted’, his visceral hatred of the Comanche, and the fact that the rock-hard Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon) is in many ways his mirror image, all combine to make this one of the most powerful Westerns of all time. It is interesting that Debbie too is at first reluctant to return, wanting to stay with her Comanche husband, though the film has a slightly surprising and almost unsatisfactory happy ending.



In Two Rode Together Ford reworked the theme. Like Debbie, Elena (Linda Cristal) can never be wholly ‘white’ again, and when her firebrand husband Stone Calf (Woody Strode) is killed – earning the gratitude of Quanah Parker (Henry Brandon again) – she keens a paean of grief over his body.


Sometimes there are justifications for the captive-taking and a more sympathetic slant, with the captives warming to the lifestyle and culture of the captors, as in Winterhawk (1976) in which in 1840s Montana Chief Winterhawk (Michael Dante) needs his hostages to trade for smallpox medicine to combat the “white man’s disease”. At the end, Clayanna (Dawn Wells) decides not to rejoin her family but instead stays with Winterhawk. Grayeagle (1978) is also set in 1840s Montana and concerns the Cheyenne Grayeagle (Alex Cord) kidnapping trapper Ben Johnson’s daughter Beth (Lana Wood again). At the Cheyenne camp, Beth meets Running Wolf (Paul Fix) and learns that the old chief is her real father. Grayeagle watches over and protects Beth and is finally acclaimed as a hero.



The captivity plot could even be played for laughs. In The Scalphunters (1968), “a likable, heavy-handed, cornball, liberal comedy” as Dennis Schwartz calls it, Shelley Winters, the woman of scalphunter Telly Savalas, calmly accepts her fate to be a Kiowa squaw. She says it can hardly be worse than being Savalas’s woman, and indeed she looks set to take over the tribe.



Sometimes women return to white society and are ostracized because they have been ‘tainted’ by their captivity, especially if they have had a child while with the Indians. In Trooper Hook, Joel McCrea rescues Barbara Stanwyck and her young son from the clutches of Apache renegade Nanchez (Rodolfo Acosta) but she is then insulted by bigoted whites. Her husband (John Dehner) won’t accept the half-breed child. In the last reel the escaped Nanchez tries to get back his son, and both husband and Indian are slain, neatly allowing Stanwyck to start life anew with her son. In The Stalking Moon (1968) also, army scout Gregory Peck escorts Eva Marie Saint and her ten-year-old half-breed son after she has been rescued from captivity by Apaches but the boy’s father Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco) refuses to let them go and hunts them down (quite grippingly). And in Duel at Diablo (1966), yet another tough army scout (James Garner this time) rescues white woman Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson), who had been a captive of the Apaches, and brings her home to her ungrateful storekeeper husband, Willard Grange (Dennis Weaver). But Grange says his wife should have killed herself rather than be a squaw. Ostracized and insulted, she flees back to the Apaches led by Chief Chata (John Hoyt).



In more recent times a new twist has been added to the captivity plot. In The Missing (2003), a young girl is abducted by a fearsome Indian (Eric Schweig). However, it is not the brave white male hero who goes after her but the child’s mother (Cate Blanchett). True, she is accompanied by her (disreputable) father (Tommy Lee Jones) but she is the prime mover, and she acts with courage and determination, and wins out.



So awful was the idea of a woman being taken by Indians that many films include the ‘save the last bullet’ theme. We think of Joel McCrea saving his for Barbara Stanwyck in Union Pacific, and gambler Hatfield gallantly saving his for the army wife in Stagecoach. John Ford borrowed that one from his brother Francis, who did it in The Invaders way back in 1912. The men do this in order to save the dame from a fate worse than death by, er, death. Shelley Winters knowingly told James Stewart in Winchester ’73 (this was before she agreed to live with the Kiowa in 1968) that she knew all about the last bullet. There’s a shocking bit in Ulzana’s Raid (1972) when a trooper shoots a woman in the head and then himself to prevent their falling into the hands of the Apaches.



The white girl taken by Indians plot is still being used. In News of the World (2020) Tom Hanks finds a white girl (Helena Zengel) who only speaks Kiowa. Johanna is an eleven-year-old white captive recently rescued. After unsuccessfully trying to leave her with Union Army officials, Hanks takes it upon himself to return her to her family.



A yarn which combined the two strands, i.e. male hero become superman by combining white and red abilities and missing white girl needing to be rescued, was The Quest on TV in 1996, in which a young Kurt Russell was raised by the Cheyenne and is now, with his fully white brother, searching for their sister, who is still with the Indians. It wasn’t great art (and was soon axed, in fact) but it did continue the captivity narrative into the 1970s.


Well, well, I’m sure you can think of other captivity-narrative Westerns, or variations on the theme. Leave a comment if so!


すぐに戻ってくる (hasta la vista in Japanese).


6 Responses

  1. Great story ! The following is typical too of these “captivity narratives” :
    within the beautiful Letchworth State Park (NY) crossed by “the Grand Canyon of the East” formed by the Genessee River, in the south east of Niagara Falls there is a small graveyard with the tomb and statue of Mary Jemison. “The White Indian of the Genesee”, after having been kidnapped (and family slaughtered and scalped) in Pennsylvania by the Shawnees at 12 in 1755 during the French Indian Wars, lived free afterwards among the Senecas she had been traded. She had an Indian husband twice and chose to remain a Seneca rather to come back to “civilization” and see her and children “despised” ad told in her memoirs, published in 1824, 9 years before her death at 90…
    Jeff you mentioned twice McIntire in your text. Audrey Hepburn family nane in the Unforgiven is Zachary. McIntire is in Flaming Star cast only in my opinion.

    1. Yes, that’s a classic captivity-narrative story right there.
      You’re right about McIntire. Don’t know how I got that into my head.

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