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War, Captivity and the American Civilising Process on the Colonial Frontier of the Eighteenth Century American Studies Today Online

This article examines the ordeal of James Smith whose captivity by Indians during the French and Indian War occurs at a pivotal moment in the history of relations between the British and its subject populations. These it is argued are increasingly strained by social processes of estrangement from colonial systems of authority, and by developing interdependencies amongst diversifying settler populations within and amongst the native habitus.

by Andrew Panay, Division of Sociology, School of Social and Health Sciences, University of Abertay, Dundee


Posted 20-Mar-2014


Backcountry Settlement, Migration and Conflict

The Backcountry on the Brink of War

Captivity and Defeat in the Ohio Valley

Captivity and Cultural Assimilation

Works Cited

Further Reading




Throughout the eighteenth century, and on two continents, the British and the French fought one another for imperial supremacy. At first, during the conflict known as Queen Anne’s War (1702-13), the action in North America, though significant internally, was something of a sideshow to the greater contest being staged in the European theatre. Subsequently, the two imperial aggressors would fight each other in simultaneous European/North American conflicts in each consecutive decade until the 1760s. By the time of the Seven Years War, the final conclusive conflict in this trans-Atlantic sequence, as Gregory Nobles writes, “the North American frontier was the main theatre of fighting, and both the British and the French committed thousands of regular troops to the fight” (1998, p82). At its conclusion, France was eliminated from North America, forced to abandon its territories in Canada and its possessions east of the Mississippi River. The British, who gained all of these territories, were destined soon to lose them as well.

All this, however, obscures the various and variable fortunes of the conflict’s two distinctly American entities: the various Native American nations and the growing and rapidly American identifying, former European, settler populations. For Native Americans, deprived in the aftermath of conflict of the French, whom they had skilfully played off against the British over many decades of carefully contrived and cunning diplomacy, the result would be one of diminished diplomatic and political influence to go with their declining military power. Soon after, and despite incidents of armed resistance to white encroachment, they would be powerless to halt backcountry expansion across the Appalachians, which they had for so long sought to prevent. Crucially, so would their sometime former allies: the British. In the aftermath of conflict, alarmed by the swift and rapid resumption of trans-Appalachian migration by Anglo-Americans of the backcountry, the British authorities moved to stem the flow, creating a so-called Proclamation Line that they trusted would restrain the notoriously fluid backcountry habitats. Almost inevitably this proved no barrier at all to a backcountry population believing itself justified by right in its claims to the commercial and territorial wealth of neighbouring habitats. That rights of trade and settlement were denied by the British authorities is significant to the general historical tide, since, as Stephen Aron argues, the determined colonisation of trans-Appalachia in the immediate post-war aftermath coincided with the first military skirmishes of the War of Independence: “In the same month that Massachusetts minutemen engaged British soldiers at Lexington and Concord, Daniel Boone led thirty men to the Kentucky River” (2007, p14). In Kentucky, Boone and his backcountry compatriots, against all prohibition by the British, proceeded to build a military outpost that they intended to become the headquarters of a new colony.

This article will examine the growing mistrust of and defiance towards British colonial authorities felt by backcountry inhabitants arising from the Seven Years War, which is then given political shape through a developing awareness of separation of European and Anglo-American destinies. I want to argue that significant here is the identification by Anglo-Americans of the frontier and borderlands with a distinctly American social milieu, in which interaction with Indians and with Indian modes of existence and cultural expression were of considerable historical importance. In so doing, I agree with both Richard Slotkin (1973) and with Stephen Mennell (2005), that this historical interaction does not lead to greater interdependence and mutual identification with native inhabitants, but rather to the remorseless destruction of their societies and modes of existence.


General Edward Braddock
General Edward Braddock

The article is organised in four sections. Firstly,  I will sketch out the background to the full eruption of the Seven Year’s War in 1755, before focussing specifically on the particular contexts of the Ohio backcountry and giving some consideration to the distinctively frontier character of this theatre of conflict and habitation. Here I will briefly reference several of Mennell’s insights into North American state formation. Secondly, following accounts given by Colley and Anderson, I will describe British General Braddock’s doomed expedition leading a large force of English regulars and their few Indian and Anglo-American irregular troops into the Ohio country, and the subsequent massacre suffered by them at the hands of the greatly more acculturated French forces along with their Indian allies. Concomitantly, I will also describe the capture of one James Smith, a backcountry youth accompanying Braddock’s army, who is snatched by Indians allied to the French and forced into captivity. His subsequent captivity account enters a growing canon of North American literature that by the mid-eighteenth century is emerging as a cultural expression of a developing, distinctly American national character.

Braddock’s remarkable military defeat and James Smith’s account of his captivity and subsequent escape is, I argue in the third and fourth sections, instructive of a developing sense of autonomy from the British of increasingly Americanised Anglos, particularly of the frontiers and borderlands. Smith’s assimilation by Indians and eventual acceptance by them as one of their own is a process of Americanisation which he details throughout his narrative, describing how he first learns, and then masters the wilderness ways of life of the Indians before making good his final escape and return to his ‘rightful’ habitus. Smith’s narrative is, I argue, indicative of what Slotkin (1973) identifies as the development of a distinctively American character type during this pre-revolutionary phase of Anglo-American history, one that will become totemic of a developing sense of national American identity in the decade leading to the full outbreak of the American Revolution.

Backcountry Settlement, Migration and Conflict

The French and British conflict in North America was, as it was in Europe, a clash of Empires, and as such was fought for territorial supremacy and control, and for the elimination of opponents. In the North American theatre, unlike in Europe, it was fought in an environment that was, to a greater or lesser extent, alien for the principal antagonists Britain and France. Indigenous peoples, as they had done ever since first contact, attempted to deploy their subtle and skilful diplomatic and military strategies, favouring one side or the other depending on the calculation of benefits to be gained from these tactics. Then there were the European settlers, who by the mid-eighteenth century were quite different from those of previous generations, and whose living space was often far from the Eastern coastal region and the established centres of British colonial governance. Indeed, recent European immigrants were not exclusively Anglos or even English speaking, but increasingly immigrants from central Europe, particularly German speakers (Hinderaker, 2003, p80). 

Nonetheless, it was still Anglo-Americans who dominated, although, as Linda Colley notes, “It was now, in the era of the Seven Years War, that Britain learnt at first hand the sheer physical extent and complexity of the lands that they and their settlers had so casually accumulated … and the degree to which their own white settlers were more than simply mirrors of themselves” (2002, p172). By 1750, it is estimated that the population of the Eastern Seaboard to the Appalachian Mountains was 1.3 million. Increasingly, English-speaking settlers were coming from all parts of the British Isles, not just from England. Indeed, Pennsylvania, which became rapidly populated as a result of such immigration, was known amongst the so-called Scots-Irish “as the best poor man’s country” (Hinderaker, 2003, p80), immediately indicating, as McFarlane notes, that “unlike the Puritan migrations to New England or the Quaker movements into Pennsylvania (formerly), it was motivated more by hopes of material improvement than by flight from religious or political persecution, or the pursuit of utopian ideals” (McFarlane, p174). McFarlane identifies these new immigrants as consisting “mainly of people of lowly social origin, drawn from the ranks of poor peasant farmers, farm labourers, artisans and petty traders” (174-5). What is clear is that by the mid-eighteenth century the settler population was more heterogeneous, more numerous and more culturally diffuse than it had ever been. Concentrated in the Pennsylvania backcountry, but increasingly spilling into the Ohio valley, first as traders, then as settlers, the consequences of Anglo expansion in the colonial west had two immediate effects.

First, Shawnees and Delawares, previously displaced by aggressive Indians of the Iroquois confederacy, returned to the Ohio country and built a string of settlements to take advantage of newly opened Pennsylvania trade routes. Second, and as Aron notes, “dwelling in similarly constructed log cabins and drawing sustenance from a comparable mix of hunting, herding and farming, Pennsylvania Indians and settlers seemed to converge not only geographically but culturally as well” (2007, p10). This growing state of affairs was viewed by one Boston based British official after the conclusion of the Seven Years War in the following terms: commenting on the inability of British authority to prevent settlers expanding into Indian territories from the backcountry, Sir William Johnson lamented that backcountry residents, “differed little from Indians in their manner of life,” and were “a lawless set of people as fond of independency as Indians and more regardless of government, owing to ignorance, prejudice, democratical principles and their remote situation” (Aron, p13).

The exasperation exhibited here refers to what Aron contends is the confusion produced through the political and spatial designation “frontier”; a physical and symbolic space “where political control was undetermined and boundaries – cultural and geographic – were uncertain” (p6). Central to Aron’s conceptualisation of the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, what he refers to as “the first American west”, is the identification of distinct geo-political zones. “Frontier,” he argues, “refers to territories where Indians and colonials intersected; borderlands delineate the overlay of imperial rivalries” (p7). Utilising these definitions, the Pennsylvania region at this time is most obviously described as a frontier region, whilst the Ohio valley region is both a frontier between Pennsylvania and Indian traders, and a borderland region between British/Pennsylvanians and the French and the Indians allied to them. Both terms are borrowed, famously, from Frederick Jackson Turner and have enjoyed a torrid history in American scholarship. Aron states that he wishes, “to recast frontier in more neutral terms as the meeting point between indigenous and intrusive societies. Operating from this definition, historians have probed the intersection between Indians and Europeans and recovered a frontier past in which cultures not only collided, but also coincided” (p6). The Pennsylvania frontier, then, and the Ohio valley borderlands, represent two geo-political and cultural zones under a single historical rubric, that of state formation and empire building.

Here I want to identify insights provided by Stephen Mennell (2007) in respect of state formation in North America that extend and develop the sociology of his collaborator and mentor Norbert Elias. Elias’s most enduring work, The Civilising Process (2000), details the long term historical processes of state formation in Europe, what Europeans themselves regard as trends towards civilised society at the level of the state and civilised values and manners at the community and individual levels. Following Max Weber, Mennell argues that state formation “successfully upholds a claim to a binding rule making over a territory, by virtue of commanding a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence” (2007, p159). Most obviously, “state formation was a violent competitive process through which there emerged successively larger territorial units with more effective monopoly apparatuses” (p15). Securing this state, and successfully maintaining it for the long term, “involves, on the one hand, securing and extending the boundaries of a territory, to a considerable extent by means of the use of violence against external opponents and on the other, it involves internal pacification of the territory” (p159). By the mid-eighteenth century, it appears that conditions in the Ohio valley borderlands reflect a necessary preoccupation with extending boundaries and confronting enemies militarily, whilst the Pennsylvania frontier reflects at this historical juncture a process of internal pacification of the territory, a necessary prerequisite leading to state formation with a single sovereign monopoly.

Internal pacification, what Mennell (following Elias) believes Europeans are referring to when they talk of the historical process of “civilising”, occurs at many levels. Some are obvious, such as restraints against the unauthorised use of violence, others, less so, such as increasing self-restraint in the conduct of one’s personal manners. Internal pacification additionally produces those features of state society derived from Western Europe, which “facilitates trade, which facilitates the growth of towns and division of labour and generates taxes which support larger territories and so on – a cumulative process experienced as an increasingly compelling, inescapable force by people caught up in it” (Mennell, p16-17).

At the level of individuals and communities, Mennell further adds that they become inextricably bound together, “interdependent with each other in a variety of ways. They may be allies or opponents. Sometimes their interdependence is relatively equal, but more often it is unequal; and thus it always involves balances of power between the people and groups concerned, balances that change over time.” This leads him to conclude, [that] “central to history and the social sciences therefore, is the study of asymmetrical power balances that fluctuate and shift in the course of social conflicts” (p21). The conditions leading to the eruption of the Seven Years War in the borderlands of the Ohio valley and on the Pennsylvania Frontier are ones in which trends in migration and settlement of peoples of various origins and backgrounds, commerce, trade and contact between them and cultural modes of living, are showing increasing complexity of interdependence, and prior to the mid-1750s at least, developing pacification.

Here, however, Mennell identifies a crucial departure between the European civilising process developed by Elias, and the one he discerns in the context of North America. He makes the point that, according to the European civilising process, increasing interdependence should produce increasing mutual identification over time, though “what happened in North America, of course was the opposite” (p163). To account for this he identifies three variables of the North American context that he believes undermines mutual identification: the technology gap between European settlers and Native Americans; the rapid acceleration of the settler population against the long term decline of the indigenous one; and the equally rapid diminishing of European reliance on Indians. Each of these, by the mid-eighteenth century, is more and more apparent.

The Backcountry on the Brink of War

During the 1740s a fragile peace existed on the Ohio valley frontier, although Indians were becoming increasingly concerned and angered by the extent of Anglo incursions onto lands they considered to be theirs. The French, having been marginalised, now saw their chance to reassert their own territorial claims. The British, in the guise of the Ohio company and supported by the government of Virginia, were consolidating trade and acting upon designs to take full control of the Ohio valley, deceiving the Indians as to the true purpose of their presence there. However,  as Nobles points out, “Indians did not need census figures to know that land-hungry Anglo-Americans were pushing westward” (1988, p82). This encroachment served ultimately to push the most influential Indians back into an alliance with the French, as events leading to the Seven Years War, and the imperial struggle for North America gathered momentum. Hinderaker and Mancall (2003) note that by 1754 French attempts to reassert their influence and control of the Ohio valley were almost complete, having defeated the British in a series of clashes in which British forces proved themselves inept against combined forces of French and their Indian allies (2003, p103). The French had previously overseen the building of a series of forts, including the heavy fortress Fort Duquesne strategically located in the upper Ohio valley. Alarmed by what they rightly determined were French attempts to control the flows of frontier trade and migration, the British responded by dispatching two full regiments from active service in Ireland, and appointing Major-General Edward Braddock as Commander in Chief for all British military operations on the continent. Braddock’s orders were deceptively straightforward. He was sent to North America with the express instruction to march on Fort Duquesne as early as the following spring of 1755 and take it from the French, thus driving them out of the Ohio country for good.

For Anglo-Americans of the backcountry on the eve of this continent defining conflict we have already noted their increasing remoteness from colonial centres of power, their developing cultural interconnectedness with indigenous peoples, and the inevitability of their identification with the geography and special character of the North American frontier. Typical of them was Pennsylvania youth James Smith, employed as a road builder and sent ahead of Braddock’s redcoats to clear the way, when he was ambushed and taken captive by a branch of the Mowhawk Indians allied with the French. If this changed and changing habitus, to use the term employed by Mennell, was significant between the settlers of the frontiers and borderlands and the by this point settled and “civilised” Eastern coastal settlements, it was even more profound between that of frontier settlers and the British back across the Atlantic. Indeed,  as Colley points out (2002, p176), by the 1750s the social and cultural gap between the colonies and the British “mother country” was far wider than the British realised. 

James Smith was eighteen when he was made a captive and would subsequently spend four years living amongst various Indian tribes, before his escape. In the words of one of his biographers, he “was treated like a brother… [and] acquired a profound understanding of Indian customs and psychology, and a deep respect for Indians themselves” (Drimmer, 1985, p26). Smith would eventually publish the account of his dramatic captivity story, Prisoner of the Caughnawagas, and serve first Revolutionary forces, then American ones in numerous campaigns against Indians using the skills and knowledge he had learned during his captivity amongst them.

Captivity and Defeat in the Ohio Valley

Braddock's Military Road
Map of Braddock's Military Road from Cumberland to present-day Braddock, PA, 1755.
John Kennedy Lacock, published 1912

In Prisoner of the Caughnawagas, James Smith explains how it was that he came to be a member of a road building gang. “In May 1755, the province of Pennsylvania agreed to send out three hundred men to cut a wagon road from Fort Loudon to join Braddock’s road” (Drimmer, 1985, p26). In the course of this work, Smith was ambushed by Indians who had concealed themselves behind scrub and witnessed the death of his companion, who was subsequently scalped. Smith was spared, but forced to accompany the Indians who took him with them to Fort Duquesne, which was Braddock’s target. Inside, Smith notes, “I concluded that there were thousands of Indians there ready to receive General Braddock” (p28). Smith was “welcomed” into the Fort by way of a ritual trial of personal fortitude in which he was forced to “run the gauntlet” between two lines of Indians and French in which “I was flogged the whole way”. Afterwards as he was tended by a French doctor, he was questioned aggressively as to the strength and intentions of Braddock’s forces. He learnt that the French, using their Indian allies as scouts, were well aware of the approach of the British who, nevertheless, remained unaware they were being tracked.

Braddock's Expedition
Route of the Braddock Expedition, June-July 1755 "Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin."

The British plan, such as it was, proved wildly ambitious. According to Fred Anderson it was approved by men in London using fanciful maps of the North American interior and who, “in their ignorance of American geography, politics and military capacities had foredoomed it to failure” (Anderson, 2000, p88). Prior to setting out, Braddock had already alienated the few potential Indian allies the British had by “insisting that Native warriors would only interfere in the working of a disciplined army” (Hinderaker, 2003, 106). Ward observes that after this Indians subsequently raided the Pennsylvania backcountry and Ohio valley with particular ferocity. “The targeting of vulnerable groups and the acquisition of booty and prisoners in raids were traditional features of warfare for the Northeastern woodlands Indians” (p58). Ward goes on to make the further point that Indians also used  “psychological warfare … to destroy civilian as well as military morale, the interception of important supply routes, and the siege and even capture of isolated frontier posts” (p58). He points out that such tactics were borrowed from the Europeans and provide further evidence of interdependency in operation on the frontier, and evidence also of the contrary flows that operate between and amongst interdependent communities (p58).

Fort Duquesne
Fort Duquesne
Sébastien Paquin 2002

As James Smith would later learn from the triumphal return of Indians and French, Braddock’s force, comprising about twelve hundred redcoats with little or no North American experience, a very few Virginia colonials and even fewer Indians was intercepted before it ever reached Fort Duquesne. Ward comments that during the march to Ohio, the practice of capturing stragglers from the main column and placing their mutilated bodies along the line of the march so terrified the British regulars that when Braddock was attacked, “the whoop of the Indians … struck terror into the hearts of the troops.” (p55). French forces subsequently dispatched from Fort Duquesne and using cover of the forest attacked Braddock’s column, to which the British responded by falling back on their training and experience in the European theatre. In only three hours of battle they were defeated and routed. Braddock himself died of wounds during an unseemly retreat and was buried, unmarked, along the road. Captive all this time at Fort Duquesne, James Smith describes how in the immediate aftermath of the battle returning Indians and their French allies “had a great many bloody scalps and grenadiers caps, British canteens, bayonets, etc.,. They brought news that Braddock was defeated” (Drimmer, 1985, p30). For Smith, previously hopeful of British victory and with it his own early liberation, shock of Braddock’s defeat was accompanied by revulsion at the depredations exhibited by the victorious Indians. “It seemed to me that almost every one of this company was carrying scalps” (p30). In addition, they brought with them “about a dozen prisoners, stripped naked” were subsequently “burned to death” in a scene which, unsurprisingly, Smith describes as “shocking to behold” (p30).

Anderson (2000, p105) notes that the debate that Braddock’s defeat aroused in the colonies and further away in Britain was considerable. In the colonies a powerful argument emerged in which Braddock was blamed for what was considered his stubborn and “wrong” adherence to European modes of warfare in the very different conditions of North America. Indeed, Colley observes that “many of the British troops dispatched to North America were deficient in local knowledge, deficient in training and proper equipment” (2002, p172).  When the British finally broke and ran, the Indians chased them through the forest, hacking, mutilating and taking captives as they went. Colley suggests that such was the ferocity of this assault it caused in the redcoats “a sort of torpor and insensibility … an enemy of a kind nothing in Europe had prepared them for” (2002, p179). This, she says, had a profound effect in Britain where “the romanticism with which many Britons had earlier viewed Native Americans – their sense that these people were potentially useful, assimilable, wild, noble savages of the woodlands – shuddered and sometimes shattered irretrievably under the shock of actual contact and conflict” (p181). Braddock’s defeat and the subsequent reactions to it highlight what I want to contend is a growing divergence at this historical juncture between the British authorities in Boston and London, and the Anglo-American colonials of the frontier. This divergence is made apparent by the different interpretations that they each make of Braddock’s military defeat, and particularly of the methods used to prosecute the campaign.

Braddock’s ineffectual European warfare in a North American context is but one facet of an apparent ignorance born of arrogance, typical, one might say, of colonisers throughout history, and is the position taken ultimately by historians Colley and Anderson. However, using Elias’s sociology and particularly the insight that European societies have come to view their historically unfolding conduct as civilised, a further insight can be made into the developing separation between the European centred and Anglo-American societies co-existing on the North American continent of the eighteenth century. Colley observes that atrocities committed by Indians on Braddock’s forces and during other bloody conflicts of the Seven Years War, as well as the violence implicit in the taking of captives, “rubbed against western European’s heightened conceit about themselves at this stage … a sense that they were coming to conduct war more humanely, as well as on a much larger scale” (p181).  This “heightened conceit” is important for  European self-identity and in the belief in a trajectory towards what they define as increasingly “civilised” modes of conduct at all levels of behaviour including warfare, since what are described as atrocities committed by Indians against “civilised2 British troops is greeted by shock, outrage and sorrow and a decline in former sympathies in Britain.

The public reception accompanying Braddock’s defeat in Britain is important for the contrast it provides with Anglo-Americans living on the North American frontier and the meanings that are made by them both of the conduct of “civilised” European warfare, and their perceptions of Indian methods of warfare and Indian modes of behaviour and conduct more generally. Quite clearly, as we have already seen, British warfare is contrasted unfavourably with the indigenous warfare conducted by Native Americans. Native American methods are precisely those adopted by both French and Virginian irregulars to better effect during Braddock’s campaign, and are accepted presumably as being the most effective or “authentic” mode of prosecuting conflict in the North American theatre. Indeed, as Anderson concludes of Braddock’s defeat, “the extent to which the debacle at the Monongahela could be blamed on Braddock himself was a matter of intense concern to contemporary Americans, who searched the event for its meanings and generally concluded that a mindless adherence to European tactics had caused his downfall. In their conclusion lay the origins of the myth that Americans were uniquely fitted for fighting in the wilderness and by extension the belief in the superiority of American irregular troops over European regulars” (p105).

I want to argue that a significant aspect of this is the growing identification by Anglo-Americans with Indianised forms of behaviour and existence, prevalent in particular among those that dwell, farm, hunt and trade along borders and frontiers. However, as I have earlier noted, along with Mennell, this does not lead to greater interdependence and mutual identification as Elias argues it does in the European Civilising Process, but ultimately to the destruction of Native American societies and the elimination of their modes of behaviour (2007, p163). These historically developing trends in the processes of state formation in North America are able to be discerned through rapidly establishing cultural genres and practices such as the captivity narrative told by James Smith.

Captivity and Cultural Assimilation

Colley makes the point that “Ever since 1689 … wars between the French and British had led the former’s colonial authorities in New France to sponsor Indian raids for loot, captives and destruction against the latter’s American colonists” (2002, p169). She further contends that by the 1750s the capturing of British colonists had taken on something of a routine quality; certainly it was now a much more formal practice based upon an economy of exchange, since the French would pay the Indians for British captives and use them as political barter with the British in turn.  Indians had always taken captives, but to replenish losses in war or more usually by capturing women and children from rival tribes, to affect rapid population increase. Pauline Turner-Strong further notes that narratives of this period, including Smith’s, keenly “demonstrates both a familiarity with Indian ways and the personal flexibility that came to be called ‘Yankee Ingenuity’” (2000, p193). The kind of interdependence envisaged by these narratives seems calculated to serve ends through “an initiation not into Indian life but into the savagery they associated with the wilderness – a savagery they produced and appropriated in order to ‘chase the wily savage’ from his secret haunts and claim his land” (p195).

After witnessing the horrific deaths of British captives from Braddock’s defeat, James Smith describes an initiation ritual that he is made to undergo and misinterprets at first as being a preparation for his own death, but which in actual fact is a rite that instead makes him a full member of the tribe. From this point onward, Smith’s narrative becomes an instruction into the education of a young man into the ways of wilderness survival through the development of personal resourcefulness gained through direct lived experience. Smith goes on to describe in anthropological detail how he is tested by his adopted tribe for his skills in hunting, tracking and survival. Smith’s narrative then reads like a rite of passage in which he completes a journey from novice initiate to respected and honoured member of Indian society. After having been captive for three years or so, this journey culminates in an episode in which he is separated from his Indian benefactors in a severe winter snowstorm and forced to survive by constructing a shelter in the hollow of a dead tree. He survives the terrible weather and is able once the storm has abated to orient himself and return uninjured to the tribe. At this point Smith describes great joy amongst the tribe. Smith is given a feast which he says all members of the tribe attend. He is asked by a tribal elder to give a full account of his adventures, which, when he is finished, is loudly applauded and acclaimed. Smith then describes a speech this elder makes in praise of him in which it is admitted that the Indians assumed he would not survive, “as you had not been accustomed to hardships in your country to the east” (Drimmer, 1985, p48). The tribal elder then goes on to deliver what amounts to the significant conclusion to Smith’s entire captivity drama, and the meaning of it which is made by Anglo-American audiences, that “You have given us evidence of your fortitude, skill and resolution. We hope you will go on to do great actions, as it is only great actions that can make a great man” (p48).

The character of the colonial backcountry, those uncertain zones of “cultural fusion” to borrow Aron’s term, (2007, p9) is characterised by interdependencies formed through encounters with Indians and by the mid-eighteenth century is popularised through narratives of the type described by James Smith. Interdependence, as previously mentioned, plays a crucial determining role in Mennell’s conception of American state formation and the changes in balances of power that occur within territories between people. In his influential book Regeneration through Violence (1973), Richard Slotkin provides a compelling analysis of colonial cultural history through a reading of its cultural texts and (mainly) religious rites and practices, and concludes that, “Americans sanctioned the temporary immersion of frontier individuals into ‘savage’ society ... for the reform of their own culture” (p260).

Mennell describes this cultural interdependency as being significant for understanding the frontier contexts of the emerging United States wherein individuals may be periodically or permanently cast into a “situation of extreme danger,” with the necessity of utilising “extreme measures necessary to survival” (2007, p201). Figures like James Smith then, “had given birth to a secular myth, the legend of the frontiersman as ‘archetypal American’ and mediator between civilisation and wilderness” (Siemenski, 1999, p42). These captivity narratives increasingly came to represent, as Colley notes, after the Seven Years War “those growing ranks of white American colonists who were growing increasingly impatient by now both of the claims of Native Americans, and the claims of George II, Parliament and imperial power” (2002, p202).

All this seems to have served to exacerbate a general sense of British frustration at what appeared to be an inability to maintain order and control over its farthest territories. A growing sense of backcountry identity with a separate character independent of the British and exemplified by the likes of James Smith was developing within a distinctly New World habitus of experience that appears at this juncture to be very much at odds with British designs and with European processes of “civilizational” development. Thus a divide created by distance, estrangement and by the experience of relative liberty and autonomy from domineering authorities amongst backcountry inhabitants, could not easily be reconciled with the observation by Nobles that amongst the British “the frontier was hardly intended to be an open space of unfettered freedom for the pioneer farmer or trapper” (1988, p59). For them “it was envisioned as an ordered environment in which productive settlers accepted the authority of their superiors and supported the economic strategy of their sponsoring nation” (p59).

For inhabitants of the western backcountry in the immediate pre-Revolutionary era after the conclusion of the Seven Years War the experience and legacy of that conflict was one of profound shifts towards greater social and cultural independence and estrangement from British colonial authority and rule. The emergence in war time of heroic cultural figures of a distinctly American type, whose wilderness skills were taught by Indians and whose experience of “de-civilising” processes were characteristic of the North American frontier habitus, provided archetypes for future nation building, of which James Smith is one, and in whose spirit iconic figures such as Daniel Boone would soon follow. Such figures and the narratives they would tell exemplify a backcountry patriotism described by McFarlane in which “political liberty was not based on ideas of tolerance or notions of community, nor ordered by internalised concepts of deference. On the frontier, far from centres of government on the coast, freedom from government and its agents was more important than freedom within the state, exercised through the apparatus of government and its institutions” (1994, p174). Within a few years of the Seven Years War, these backcountry citizens would establish new settlements further displacing Native peoples, often violently, openly defying British rule as it sought to impose legal boundaries to further expansion, and, as Nobles, observes, the portents of this were clear, “the sustained colonisation of trans Appalachia coincided with the beginning of the Revolutionary War” (1997, p13).



Works Cited

Anderson, F (2001) Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 – 1766. London: Faber & Faber.

Aron, S ‘The Making of the First American West and the Unmaking of Other Realms’in Deverell, W ed (2006) A Companion to the History of the American West. (Blackwell Companions to American History). London: Blackwell.

Colley., L (2002) Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850, London: Jonathan Cape.

Derounian-Stodola, KZ & Leverneir, JA (1993) The Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550-1900. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Drimmer, F (1986) Captured by the Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts, 1750-1870. Dover Publications.

Elias, N (2000) The Civilising Process. London: WileyBlackwell.

Hinderaker, E and Mancall, P C.   (2003) At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America (Regional Perspectives on Early America). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mcfarlane, A (1994) The British in the Americas, 1480-1815 (Studies In Modern History). Longman

Mennell, S (2007) The American Civilising Process. Cambridge: Polity.

Nobles, G (1998) American Frontiers. London, Penguin.

Sayre, G M ed (2003) American Captivity Narratives: Selected Narratives with Introduction / Olaudah Equiano, Mary Rowlandson and Others. Houghton-Mifflin.

Siemenski, G ‘The Puritan Captivity Narrative and the Politics of the American Revolution’ American Quarterly, 1999.

Slotkin, R (1973) Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, University of Oklahoma Press.

Turner Strong , P (2000) Captive Selves, Captivating Others: The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity Narratives. Westview Press, Inc.

Ward, M.C, (2003) Breaking the Backcountry: The Seven Years War in Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1754-1765. University of Pittsburgh Press.



Further Reading

Settler on board the Mayflower IIHere is another account of how captivity narratives helped to shape our perception of American history by Andrew Panay. God was with me in a wonderful manner': the Puritan Origins of the Indian Captivity Narrative By Andrew Panay The origins of the Indian captivity narrative should be understood in the historical contexts of its production in the New World as a narrative that is at once descriptive of the personal experiences of frontier captives of the seventeenth century, and is symbolic too of the Puritan errand of separation, settlement and eventual conquest of the land.

To read about how puritan thinking influenced the American Enlightenment and helped to frame the US Constitution, read Joel Wilson's Article, Enlightened Independence and the Origins of its American Radicalization.

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