Sunday, September 4, 2016


Why didn’t she just run away?
by Alethea Williams

In my new historical novel Náápiikoan Winter, the main female character is abducted as a child and spends about 30 years with various Indian tribes, before coming into contact with English traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company. One of my beta readers asked why, in all that time, Isobel didn’t just run away. And why doesn’t she reveal to the Englishmen that she is a captive?
In the years preceding European settlement, there were few white people in the West beyond trappers and traders. I relied on historical accounts to reveal that in the 18th Century, abducted children raised by Indians seldom made it back to their families.
Mary Jemison, American girl captured by Native Americans in the 18th century. Shown being arrayed in Native clothing from the 1856 printing of "The Life of Mary Jemison, Deh-He-Wa-Mis" 1856,, James E. Seaver
In 1758, Mary Jemison was captured at age thirteen by a party of French and Indians. According to the website, “[f]rom that day until her death 78 years later she never left the Indian culture,” although her story of life with the Seneca did see publication in 1824.
According to the Texas State Historical Association’s website,, “[t]he practice of captive-taking among North American Indians goes back to prehistoric times.” Often, captured children, especially boys, “became so completely assimilated that they resisted attempts to redeem them. White girls captured before the age of puberty usually became assimilated and married chiefs or warriors,” although, it goes on to state, girls past puberty “sometimes risked their lives to escape.” The website also provides the information that by the time of Indian settlement on reservations, “it is estimated that 30 percent of Apaches, Comanches, and Kiowas had captive blood in their veins.”
In a Wikipedia article on captive Herman Lehmann, it is said that his Apache captors “lied and told Lehmann they had killed his entire family, depriving him of any incentive to attempt escape.”
In a review by Scott Zesch of the book The Captured: A True Story of Abductions by Indians on the Texas Frontier on the website, he states, “In fact the amazing thing is that of all the children held for over a year, they all came to much prefer the Indian way of life, and none of them willingly chose to return to their white families”. Later on, especially in the second half of the 19th Century, it became more common for Indians to release captives for ransom. Yet still, “Traumatic as it had been to be abducted, it was even more traumatic to be returned to their white families. They all had difficult adjustments, and retained many Indian characteristics for the rest of their lives.” 
Olive_Oatman,_1857, Wikipedia
In 1851 Olive Oatman, 14 years old, and eight-year-old Mary Ann Oatman, were captured by Apaches, while their family was moving West. According to the book The Captivity of the Oatman Girls, the enslaved sisters were marched 200 miles, but kept together as servants to the Apache women. These “Touton” Apaches had apparently fled from beneath the iron thumb of Catholic missionaries, and had contact with the Mojave Indians who lived more than 300 miles to the northwest. The Oatman sisters were sold to the Mojaves. The Indians themselves, according to Olive, ate worms and grasshoppers and reptiles, but Mary Ann, forced to find enough to sustain herself, died of starvation. Of the fifth year of her captivity, 1856, Olive is quoted as saying, “I knew that there were white persons at Fort Yuma, but did not know my distance from the place.”  Their brother Lorenzo, trying to discover some way to rescue them, says, “[M]en did not come across the plains to hunt captives among the Indians,” meaning that there was little interest among strangers, even soldiers, in dropping everything else to try to save a couple of white girls. After much public agitating to the authorities and the newspapers by Lorenzo, at last a Yuma Indian is dispatched with a letter from Fort Yuma asking whether Olive wanted to be released or to stay. Afraid to express her feelings one way or the other, Olive had to wait for the Mojaves to decide her fate. Accompanied by a Mohave chief’s daughter to obtain a horse for her release, Olive is finally let go. Olive spoke of the Mojaves with affection, and was later to say that “they never offered the least unchaste abuse to me".
So it is historically accurate to have my character, Isobel, never attempt to run away. Isobel was captured as a child and spent ten years among the Apache, viewed herself as Apache and then was captured again by a different tribe, traded and traded again all the way up the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, and spent a further 20 years among those various tribes. When she finally meets up with the English traders, Isobel not only has little memory of her early life on a New Mexico hacienda, she wouldn’t have considered the Europeans in any way her natural allies. Isobel didn’t run away because there was nowhere for her to possibly run, and because after 30 years with the Indians, she didn’t had no desire to run anywhere else.

Does my reasoning make sense to you as a reader? What do you think about Isobel never trying to escape her captivity? Does it make a difference if you think about what avenues of travel there are today, and those available to a female child or woman in about the year 1795?

Order Náápiikoan Winter: