Captives in American Indian Wars

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Treatment applied to captives in the American Indian Wars was specific to the local culture of each tribe. Captive adults might be killed, while children were, most of time, kept alive and adopted. History includes many examples of captives, and their associated treatment.


Cultural background

In the eastern woodlands cultural area (roughly encompassing the eastern one-half of the United States, and the southern portion of Quebec and Ontario), cultural traditions for dealing with captives predated the arrival of Europeans.

Some captives were adopted into their captors' tribe. Adoption frequently involved the captive receiving the name of a deceased member of the captors' tribe, and receiving the deceased's social status (i.e. becoming a member of the family of the deceased person).[1] Children seem to have been invariably adopted, as were teenage girls.

Those men and women [2] who were not adopted, as well as teenage boys,[3] could also face the alternative fate of death by torture. The torture had strong sacrificial overtones, usually to the sun.[4] Captives were expected to show extreme self-control and composure during torture, singing "death songs", bragging of one's courage or deeds in battle, and otherwise showing defiance.[5] The torture was conducted publicly in the captors' village, and the entire population (including children) watched and participated.[6] Common torture techniques included burning the captive- which was done one hot coal at a time, rather than the Hollywood-style pile of firewood around the captive - cuts from knives, beatings with switches and jabs from sharp sticks. Prisoners' fingernails were ripped out. Their fingers were broken, then twisted and yanked by children. Captives were made to eat pieces of their own flesh, and were scalped alive. To make the torture last longer, the Native Americans would revive captives with rest periods during which time they were given food and water. Tortures would begin with the lower limbs, then gradually spread to the arms, then the torso. The Native Americans spoke of "caressing" the prisoners gently at first, which meant that the initial tortures were designed to cause pain, but only minimal bodily harm. By these means, the execution of a captive, especially an adult male, could take several days and nights.[7]

1763 Pontiac's Rebellion

Because many children taken as captives had been adopted into Native families, their forced return often resulted in emotional scenes, as depicted in this engraving based on a painting by Benjamin West.

Colonel Henry Bouquet set out from Fort Pitt on October 3, 1764, with 1,150 men. After that treaties had been negotiated at Fort Niagara and Fort Detroit, the Ohio Natives were isolated and, with some exceptions, ready to make peace. In a council which began on 17 October, Bouquet demanded that the Ohio Natives return all captives, including those not yet returned from the French and Indian War. Guyasuta and other leaders reluctantly handed over more than 200 captives, many of whom had been adopted into Native families. Because not all of the captives were present, the Natives were compelled to surrender hostages as a guarantee that the other captives would be returned. The Ohio Natives agreed to attend a more formal peace conference with William Johnson, which was finalized in July 1765.[8]


  1. ^ A Companion To American History, DeLoria, Phillip, 2001, at 157
  2. ^ Handbook of the American Indians North of Mexico, Hodge, Frederick W., p124
  3. ^ Jesuit Relations of 1632, Father Paul Le Jeune
  4. ^ History of the American Indian, La Farge, Oliver, 1966, at 57
  5. ^ How Early America Sounded, Rath, 2005, at 156
  6. ^ Indian Wars of New England, by H. M. Sylvester, Vol. I page 45, 1910
  7. ^ Indians, by Brandon, Wm., 1968, p. 149
  8. ^ For Bouquet expedition, see Dixon, Never Come to Peace, 233–41; McConnell, A Country Between, 201–05; Dowd, War under Heaven, 162–65.

See also