The Captivity Of James Smith


The stories of captivity among the Ohio Indians during the war that ended in 1794 would of themselves fill a much larger book than this is meant to be. Most of them were never set down, but some of them were very thrillingly told, and others very touchingly, either by the captives themselves, or by such of their friends as were better able to write them out. One, at least, is charming, and the narrative of Colonel James Smith deserves a chapter by itself, not only because it is charming, but because it shows the Indians in a truer and kindlier light than they were often able to show themselves.

Smith was born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, which in 1737 was the frontier of the white settlement, and he was taken prisoner in 1755, by a small party of Delawares, near Bedford, while he was helping to cut a road for the passage of General Braddock's ill-fated expedition against the French. The Indians hurried from the English border, and forced him to run with them nearly the whole way to Fort Duquesne, which afterwards became Fort Pitt, and is now Pittsburg. A large body of savages was encamped outside the post, and there Smith expected to be burned to death with the tortures he afterwards saw inflicted upon many other prisoners; but he was only made to run the gantlet. Two lines of Indians were drawn up, with sticks in their hands, and Smith dashed at the top of his speed between their ranks. He was cruelly beaten, and before he reached the goal he fell senseless. When he came to himself he was in the hands of a French surgeon. He was well cared for, and he lived in hopes of rescue by Braddock's army, which was marching against Fort Duquesne in greater force than had ever been sent into the wilderness. But while he was still so broken and bruised as to be scarcely able to walk, the Indians came in with plunder and prisoners from the scene of their bloody victory over the British troops.

A little later, Smith's captors claimed him from the French, and carried him to an Indian town on the Muskingum. The day after their arrival a number of the Indians came to him, and one of them began to pull out his hair, dipping his fingers in ashes to get a better hold, and plucking it away hair by hair till it was all gone except a lock on the crown. This they plaited with strings of beadwork and silver brooches, and then they bored his ears and nose and put rings in them. They painted his face and body in different colors, hung a band of wampum about his neck, and fitted his arm with bracelets of silver. An old chief led him into the street of the village, and gave the alarm halloo, when all the Delawares, Caughnewagas, and Mohicans of the place came running, and formed round the chief, who held Smith by the hand, and made them a long speech. He then gave Smith over to three young squaws, who pulled him into the river waist-deep, and made signs to him that he should plunge his head into the water. But Smith's head was full of the tortures of the prisoners whom he had seen burnt at Fort Duquesne; he believed all these ceremonies were the preparations for his death, and he would neither duck.

He struggled with them, amidst the shouts and laughter of the Indians on the shore, until one of them managed to say in English, "No hurt you," when he suffered them to plunge him under the water and rub at him as long as they chose.

By this means they washed away his white blood, and he was adopted into the tribe in place of a great chief who had lately died. He seems never to have known why this honor was done him; but he was then a lusty young fellow of eighteen who might well have taken the fancy of some of his captors; and he probably fell into their hands at a moment which their superstition rendered fortunate for him.

When the squaws had done with him, he was taken up into the council house of the village, where he was dressed in a new ruffled shirt, leggins trimmed with ribbons and wrought with beads, and moccasins embroidered with porcupine quills. His face was painted afresh, and his scalp lock tied up with red feathers; he was given a pipe and tobacco pouch and seated upon a bear skin, while one of the chiefs addressed him in the presence of the assembled warriors. "My son," so the speech was interpreted to Smith, "you are now flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. You are taken into the Caughnewaga nation, and initiated into a warlike tribe; you are adopted into a great family... in the room and place of a great man. After what has passed this day, you are now one of us by an old strong law and custom. My son, you have now nothing to fear; we are now under the same obligations to love, support, and defend you, that we are to love and defend one another; therefore you are to consider yourself as one of our people."

A grand feast of boiled venison and green corn followed, and Smith took part in it on the same terms as all the rest of his tribe and family. In due time he found out that no word the chief had addressed him was idly spoken, and he began to live the life of the savages like one of themselves, under the affectionate care and constant instruction of his brethren. He was given a gun, at first, and sent to hunt turkeys, but he came upon the trace of buffalo, and was lured on by the hope of larger game, and so lost his way. The Indians found him again easily enough, but as a punishment for his rashness his gun was taken from him, and for two years he was allowed to carry only a bow and arrows. Once when the hunters had killed a bear and he went out with a party to bring in the meat, Smith complained of the weight of his load; the Indians laughed at him, and to shame him they gave part of his burden to a young squaw who already had as much as he to carry. At another time, he went to the fields with some other young men to watch the squaws hoeing corn; one of these challenged him to take her hoe, and he did so, and hoed for some time with the women. They were delighted and praised his skill, but when he came back to the village, the old chiefs rebuked him, telling him that he was adopted in the place of a great man, and it was unworthy of him to hoe corn like a squaw.

Smith owns that he never gave them a chance to chide him a second time for such unseemly behavior. After that he left all the hard work to the squaws like a true Indian, and guarded his dignity as a hunter. He was never trusted, or at least he was never asked, to take part in any of the forays against the white frontier, when from time to time parties were sent to the Pennsylvania borders to take scalps and steal horses. It was a sorrowful thing for him when his savage brethren set forth on these errands of theft and murder among his kindred by race, and it was long before he could make the least show of returning their affection.

It was not until they gave him back some books which they had brought him from other prisoners, but had then taken from him for some caprice, that he says he felt his heart warm towards them. They pretended that the books had been lost, but declared that they were glad they had been found, for they knew that he was grieved at the loss of them. "Though they had been exceedingly kind to me," he says, "I still as before detested them, on account of the barbarity I beheld after Braddock's defeat. Neither had I ever before pretended kindness, or expressed myself in a friendly manner; but now I began to excuse the Indians on account of their want of information."

The family which Smith had been taken into did not stay long in the Muskingum country, but began the wandering life of the hunters and trappers, working northward mostly, and visiting the shores and waters of Lake Erie. It was all very pleasant and full of a wild charm while the fine weather lasted, especially for the men, who had nothing to do but to bring in the game and fish for the squaws to cook and care for. The squaws made the sugar in the spring; they felled the trees and fashioned from the barks the troughs to catch the maple sap, which they boiled down into sugar; they planted and tended the fields of corn and beans; they did everything that was like work, indoors and out, and the men did nothing that was not like play or war. While their plenty lasted, it was for all; when the dearth came, every one shared it. But in this free, sylvan life there was the grace of an unstinted hospitality. The stranger was pressed to make the lodge of his host his home, and he was given the best of his store. One day when his Indian brother came in from the hunt, Smith told him that a passing Wyandot had visited their camp, and he had given him roast venison. "And I suppose you gave him also sugar and bear's oil to eat with his venison?" Smith confessed that as the sugar and bear's oil were in the canoe, he did not go for them. His brother told him he had behaved just like a Dutchman, and he asked, "Do you not know that when strangers come to our camp we are to give them the best we have?" Smith owned that he had been wrong, and then his brother excused him because he was so young; but he bade him learn to behave like a warrior, and do great things, and never be caught in any such mean actions again.

The Indians were as prompt to praise and reward what they thought fine in him, as to rebuke what they deemed unworthy; and the second winter that they spent in Northern Ohio, they gave him a gun again for the courage and endurance he twice showed when he had lost his way from camp. Once when he was caught in a heavy storm of snow; he passed the night in the hollow of a tree, which he made snug by blocking it up with brush and pieces of wood, and by chopping the rotten inside of the trunk with his hatchet until he had a soft, warm bed. Another time, when he was looking at his beaver traps he was overtaken by the dark, and kept himself from freezing by dancing and shouting till daylight. His Indian friends honored him for his wise behavior, and as they had now beaver skins enough, they carried them to the French post at Detroit, where they bought a gun for him. They bought for themselves a keg of brandy, and they paid Smith the compliment, when he refused to drink, of making him one of the guards set over the drinkers to keep them from killing one another. He helped bring them safely through their debauch, but nothing could prevent their spending all they had got for their beaver skins in more and more brandy. Then they went back sick and sorry to the woods again.

The family Smith was taken into was honored for its uncommon virtue and wisdom. His two brothers, Tontileaugo and Tecaughretanego were men of great sense, with good heads and good hearts. They treated Smith with the greatest love and patience, and took him to task with affectionate mildness when he transgressed the laws of taste or feeling. The Indians all despised the white settlers, whom they thought stupid and cowardly, and they expected to drive them beyond the sea. They despised them for their impiety, and Tecaughretanego once said to Smith, "As you have lived with the white people, you have not had the same advantage of knowing that the Great Being above feeds his people and gives them their meat in due season, as we Indians have, who are wonderfully supplied, and that so frequently that it is evidently the hand of the Great Owaneeyo that doeth this; whereas the white people have commonly large flocks of tame cattle, that they can kill when they please, and also their barns and cribs filled with grain, and therefore have not the same opportunity of seeing and knowing that they are supported by the ruler of Heaven and Earth."

At this time the Indians were suffering from the famine that their waste and improvidence had brought upon them; and perhaps Smith might have said something on the white man's side. But he had nothing to say when rebuked for smiling at Tecaughretanego's sacrifice of the last leaf of his tobacco to the Great Spirit "Brother, I have something to say to you, and I hope you will not be offended when I tell you of your faults. You know that when you were reading your books, I would not let the boys or any one disturb you; but now when I was praying I saw you laughing. I do not think you look upon praying as a foolish thing; I believe you pray yourself. But perhaps you think my mode or manner of prayer foolish; if so, you ought in a friendly manner to instruct me, and not make sport of sacred things."

The prayer which Tecaughretanego thought ought to have escaped Smith's derision was one which he made after he began to get well from a long sickness; and it was certainly very quaint; but if the Father of all listens most kindly to those children of his who come to him simply and humbly, he could not have been displeased with this old Indian's petition.

"Oh, Great Being, I thank thee that I have obtained the use of my legs again, that I am now able to walk about and kill turkeys without feeling exquisite pain and misery: I know that thou art a hearer and a helper, and therefore I will call upon thee. _Oh, ho, ho, ho!_ grant that my ankles and knees may be right well, and that I may be able not only to walk, but to run and to jump as I did last fall. _Oh, ho, ho, ho!_ grant that on this voyage we may frequently kill bears, as they may be crossing the Scioto and Sandusky. _Oh, ho, ho, ho!_ grant that we may kill plenty of turkeys along the banks, to stew with our bear meat. _Oh, ho, ho, ho!_ grant that rain may come to raise the Olentangy about two or three feet, that we may cross in safety down to the Scioto, without danger of our canoe being wrecked on the rocks. And now, oh, Great Being, thou knowest how matters stand--thou knowest that I am a great lover of tobacco, and that though I know not when I may get any more, I now make a present of the last I have unto thee, as a free burnt offering. Therefore I request that thou wilt hear and grant these requests, and I thy servant will return thee thanks, and love thee for thy gifts."

Smith tells us that a few days after Tecaughretanego made his prayer and offered up his tobacco, rain came and raised the Olentangy high enough to let them pass safely into the Scioto. He does not say whether he thought this was the effect of the old Indian's piety, but he always speaks reverently of Tecaughretanego's religion. He is careful to impress the reader again and again with the importance of the Indian family he had been taken into, and with the wisdom as well as the goodness of Tecaughretanego, who held some such place among the Ottawas, he says, as Socrates held among the Athenians. He was against the Indians' taking part in the war between the French and English; he believed they ought to leave these to fight out their own quarrels; and in all the affairs of his people, he favored justice, truth, and honesty. The Indians, indeed, never stole from one another, but they thought it quite right to rob even their French allies; and it will help us to a real understanding of their principles, if we remember that the good and wise Tecaughretanego is never shown as rebuking the cruelty and treachery of the war parties in their attacks on the English settlements. The Indian's virtues are always for his own tribe; outside of it, all the crimes are virtues, and it is right to lie, to cheat, to steal, to kill; as it was with our own ancestors when they lived as tribes.

Smith was always treated like one of themselves by his Indian brothers, and he had a deep affection for them. Once, in a time of famine, when Tecaughretanego lay helpless in his cabin, suffering patiently with the rheumatism which crippled him, Smith hunted two whole days without killing any game, and then came home faint with hunger and fatigue. Tecaughretanego bade his little son bring him a broth which the boy had made with some wildcat bones left by the buzzards near the camp, and when Smith had eaten he rebuked him for his despair, and charged him never again to doubt that God would care for him, because God always cared for those children of his who trusted in him, as the Indians did, while the white men trusted in themselves. The next day Smith went out again, but the noise made by the snow crust breaking under his feet frightened the deer he saw, and he could not get a shot at them. Suddenly, he felt that he could bear his captivity no longer, and he resolved to try and make his way back to Pennsylvania. The Indians might kill him, long before he could reach home; but if he staid, he must die of hunger. He hurried ten or twelve miles eastward, when he came upon fresh buffalo tracks, and soon caught sight of the buffalo. He shot one of them, but he could not stop to cook the meat, and he ate it almost raw. Then the thought of the old man and little child whom he had left starving in the cabin behind him became too much for him. He remembered what Tecaughretanego had said of God's care for those who trusted in him; and he packed up all the meat he could carry, and went back to the camp. The boy ate ravenously of the half-raw meat, as Smith had done, but the old man waited patiently till it was well boiled. "Let it be done enough," he said, when Smith wished to take off the kettle too soon; and when they had all satisfied their hunger, he made Smith a speech upon the duty of receiving the bounty of Owaneeyo with thankfulness. After this, Smith seems to have had no farther thoughts of running away, and he made no attempt to escape until he had been four years in captivity. He was then at Caughnewaga, the old Indian village which the traveler may still see from his steamboat on the St. Lawrence River near Montreal. He had come to this place with Tecaughretanego and his little son in an elm-bark canoe, all the way from Detroit; and now, hearing that a French ship was at Montreal with English prisoners of war, he stole away from the Indians and got on board with the rest. The prisoners were shortly afterwards exchanged, and Smith got home to his friends early in 1760. They had never known whether he had been killed or captured, and they were overjoyed to see him, though they found him quite like an Indian in his walk and bearing.

He married, and settled down on a farm, but he was soon in arms against the Indians. He served as a lieutenant in Bouquet's expedition, and became a colonel of the Revolutionary army. After the war he took his family to Kentucky, where he lived until he died in 1812. The Indians left him unmolested in his reading or writing while he was among them, and he had kept a journal, which he wrote out in the delightful narrative of his captivity, first published in 1799. He modestly says in his preface that the chief use he hopes for it is from his observations on Indian warfare; but these have long ceased to be of practical value, while his pictures of Indian life and his studies of Indian character have a charm that will always last.


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