Introduction: America's Oldest Literature, and a Centuries' Long Folk Memory

In the early part of this century, William L.R. Gifford, Head Librarian of the St. Louis Mercantile Library (indeed the man who held the post longer than anyone in the institution's long history) attached a note to a duplicate copy of James DeShield's Cynthia Ann Parker; the Story of Her Capture, which the Library had recently bought: "To be kept in reserve and used if needed, particularly in case of accident to our other copy." As if to justify such an extravagance, Gifford continued: "The cost price ($8.50) is a low one, as all Indian captivity books are increasing in value." It is evident that Gifford was understating the case. Most private collectors and research institutions have seen this romantic field of Americana grow in monetary value as well as in other gauges of bibliographical desirability almost geometrically in the last few generations.

Perhaps the reason for this heightened interest is that the Indian captivity narrative, in all its many printed manifestations, is paradoxically almost as broad a genre as the early literature of the American Indian. The fascination with the field is manifold. A strong case can be made that the Indian captivity narrative is America's oldest literary type. The best narratives follow rigid stylistic conventions within which the telling, and the retelling, the subtle twists of descriptions and setting, while necessarily crucial to overall mood, are still subordinate to the narrator's emotions, tone, and veracity. Not a few narratives print emblematically on their title pages, "Truth is stranger than fiction."

These accounts have a timelessness about them. The earliest are as old as the discovery of America itself, dating at least from the account put down by the Spanish Cabeza de Vaca or Bressani in New France. By the 1600's the stories start in an ever quickening pace to follow the events of the English settlers' association with one tribe or another, from King Philip's War in the Mathers' New England, to the pressures put on the colonists by the French and Indian War. The long struggles continued into the Northwest Territory and Old Southwest, from St. Clair's Defeat, in which hundreds of soldiers were killed, being a quite serious strategic disaster, to "mop-up" affairs such as the Black Hawk "War", or the Indian campaigns of Andrew Jackson. These later confrontations coincided with a marked growth in creative writing in the early Republic. They exist romantically stage center in the pages of would-be poets and writers of ballads and epics, as much or even more, if possible, than they did in real life.