What is it about the captivity story that so captures the public’s imagination? It’s a narrative that can be told over and over again, in different settings. What is it that people in the 1800s were latching onto with this captivity story and captivity myth?
The same thing that people coming to America had been doing with it since really the 17th century. The first American bestseller was by Mary Rowlandson in 1682, writing about her captivity by Narragansett Indians in New England. There’s something about being in this land and having the ‘other’ savages, these people, these natural, scary, people, come and take you, take your family, take your wife, take your children, and haul them off into the wilderness. It’s scary, and it’s a little bit sexy. It raises all of these difficult issues. At the same time, besides all of this sort of personal and psychological tension involved, it becomes a sort of justification for the conquest of the West. Because if these Natives are gonna come forward and steal our women and children, then we have the right to conquer them, we have the right to tame them. So it’s part of the imperial narrative too. It serves both purposes. An important part of all this is the question of sex with the Indians. What happens to these women when they’re taken off? They’re forced to have sex with Indians. Either willingly, unwillingly, it doesn’t matter. It becomes known as a “fate worse than death,” the idea that you would be forced into this position. So there are these psychological, psychosexual tensions involved, there are these imperial notions, and Americans continue to tell these stories. Around the time Cynthia Ann was kidnapped in 1836, if you look at the bestseller list, three of the four top bestsellers in America are James Fenimore Cooper novels, all of which have captivity themes. And then the fourth one was a non-fiction book about Mary Jamison, a woman who was captured by Seneca Indians in upstate New York in the 18th century. So this is something that continues on into Texas. And really throughout our history, [the captivity narrative] has been an important genre.
In many of our contemporary narratives that involve Native Americans, they’re portrayed now as very noble people, like in Dances With Wolves, or Terrence Malick’s The New World. Back in the 1950s, when the novel and film of The Searchers came out, it wasn’t uncommon for Native American tribes to be depicted as exceedingly violent toward the white man, and it had been that way for quite some time. But it seems that based on history, there really was quite a lot of—at least with the Comanche tribe—scariness. Talk about the reality of the Comanche versus the fictional depictions in book and film.
Well Comanche were nomadic warriors on the limestone plains of north Texas. It was a tough place to make a living. Their birthrate was low, their resources were scarce. They became wonderful horsemen, maybe the best horsemen of all Native American groupings. They were great in terms of buffalo, and they had huge horse herds, and they were labor intensive, so they needed outsiders. They could be enormously kind and generous to each other, but they could be very cruel to outsiders because of this warrior culture. But you have to put it in context, both of what they were up against and that they became involved in a 40-year protracted war with Texans, really the longest war fought on American soil. And this was a real clash of civilizations. These two cultures shared nothing in common. It was also an intimate war. Some wars, it’s two armies fighting against each other, and if civilians get killed, that’s collateral damage. Well, in the Texan-Comanche wars, the families—in essence—were the targets. Each side wanted to wipe out the other side, to wipe out its culture, to wipe out its family. It becomes a very intimate war in that sense. There are no drones, you’re killing the person you’re fighting, you’re looking in the face as you kill him or her, or abduct their family. It’s a horrifying event in many ways, and it brings out incredible cruelty on both sides, I would argue.