Returning POWs, eighteenth-century style

The recent redemption of captive Bowe Bergdahl has interested me–not the political pissing match, which seems as drearily predictable as the plot of a Harlequin Romance.  The details coming out about his experiences as a prisoner of war are what I want to know more about.  The news that he has trouble speaking English now is especially fascinating to me.  It called to my mind this passage from A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. [Susanna] Johnson, Containing an Account of her Four Years of Suffering with the Indians and French.  First published in 1796, it told of her family’s experiences from 1754-58 as prisoners during the Seven Years War after they were captured in a raid on Fort Number Four in what’s now Charlestown, New Hampshire.  Johnson relates this about the return of her son Sylvanus, whom she last saw at age six or seven.  He was eleven before she saw him again:

In the October following [1758], I had the happiness to embrace my son Sylvanus; he had been above three years with the Indians, followed them in all their hunting excursions and learnt too many of their habits; to civilize him, and learn him his native language was a severe task, (136).

Little Sylvanus Johnson has been on my mind recently, because I wrote an essay last summer about child war captives in early America, and I focused on his experiences in one portion of the essay.  In successive editions of her narrative, Susanna Johnson either gives us more details about Sylvanus’s condition, or she embroiders the story.  From the 1814 third edition published after her death in 1810:

In October, 1758, I was informed that my son Sylvanus was at Northampton [Massachusetts], sick of a scald.*  I hastened to the place, and found him in a deplorable situation; he was brought there by Major Putnam, afterwards Gen. Putnam, with Mrs. How and her family, who had returned from captivity.**  The town of Northampton had taken the charge of him; his situation was miserable; when I found him, he had no recollection of me, but, after some conversation, he had some confused ideas of me, but no remembrance of his father.  It was four years since I had seen him; he was then eleven years old.  During his absence, he had entirely forgotten the English language, spoke a little broken French, but was perfect in Indian.  He had been with the savages three years, and one year with the French.  But his habits were somewhat Indian; he had been with them in their hunting excursions, and suffered numerous hardships; he could brandish a tomahawk or bend the bow; but these habits wore off by degrees, (130).

(This passage is identical to the passage in the 1834 edition, pp. 97-98.)  I had always assumed that it was because of Sylvanus Johnson’s young age that he lost his English and picked up “Indian” (probably a Wabanaki dialect of Algonquian) and some French.  Bergdahl’s case suggests that the loss of English (or any mother tongue) might not be something that only children experience in traumas like these.

The additions and changes in Susanna Johnson’s account also demonstrate the ways in which historical memory changes according to the times.  Her account of her experiences in 1754-58 wasn’t published until nearly fifty years after the fact, but even then we see evidence of how the times continue to shape the story in the successive editions.  By 1814, the “Indians” in the 1796 account became “the savages,” and she was much more fulsome about the injuries and changes that captivity had wrought on her young son in 1814, 1834, and perhaps successive editions too.  In the later editions, what had been her “happiness to embrace [her] son Sylvanus” became a much more ambiguous account of their reunion, one that emphasized the child’s “deplorable” and “miserable” condition, as well as his trouble remembering his parents.

Henry Saunderson (among other nineteenth-century local historians) claims in his History of Charlestown, New Hampshire, that Sylvanus Johnson “so much preferred the modes of Indian life to the prevalent customs of civilization, that he often expressed regret at having been ransomed.  He always maintained, and no arguments could convince him to the contrary, that the Indians were a far more moral race than the whites.”  His boyhood captivity apparently had no long-term effects on his life and health, as he died at 84 in 1832, “leaving the reputation of an honest and upright man,” (458.)  These might be opinions his mother couldn’t bear to acknowledge, let alone share with her audience.  They might also have been opinions that were slightly more palatable to a majority white audience in 1876 than before Indian Removal, but considering the phase that year marks in the Frontier Army’s war on western U.S. Native peoples, many white Americans were far from regarding Indian people as part of a bygone romantic past.

The Bergdahl family’s journey is not yet at an end, but merely at a hopeful crossroads.  It will be interesting to see how further information about Bowe Bergdahl’s captivity and injuries will change the stories we and his family will tell about his return.  So far, it seems like the stories people are telling about Bergdahl’s captivity and redemption are really an index about how they feel about the war in Afghanistan, and suggest they fear that the past thirteen years of U.S. invasion and occupation were useless, or worse.

*perhaps a variation on scall, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a scaly or scabby disease of the skin.”  The OED lists several sixteenth and seventeenth-century uses of scald in this manner.

**Jemima How, or Howe, and her family were taken in the same war from Hinsdale, New Hampshire; an account of her experiences was published by the Rev. Bunker Gay in 1792 as A Genuine and Correct Account of the Captivity, Sufferings, & Deliverance of Mrs. Jemima Howe.  Perhaps interest in these older captivity stories was revived in the 1790s because of the new narratives of white captivity that came out of the wars in the Ohio Valley in the 1780s and 1790s.  Also, there may have been a younger generation of Anglo-Americans who recognized that survivors of the traumas of the Seven Years’ War were dying out, and they acted to record their stories before it was too late.

25 thoughts on “Returning POWs, eighteenth-century style

  1. Fascinating perspective.

    I’m assuming people are taking Bergdahl’s rustiness in English as a symptom of some degree of Stockholm syndrome? (I’m not following media accounts since the whole “Harlequin” aspect of people’s reactions disgusts me.)

    Anyway, I wanted to add a bit from a bilingual’s perspective. I realize that outside of a traumatic situation, the pressures are totally different. I just want to say that absent those pressures it’s quite possible to grow rusty in your native language and five years is plenty of time to do that. I lived in Holland for a few years in my 20s, and after a couple of years I was thinking in Dutch and using Dutch sentence constructions when I spoke in English. I could easily imagine that if I hadn’t spoken any English in five years, I’d be having trouble finding words and speaking, at least for the first couple of weeks. And that’s without the psychological pressure of captivity and fear.


  2. After living in the US for 22 years, I often find it difficult to express myself in Hindi. Sometimes I don’t remember common words and phrases. This is true even though I go back to India every year for a couple of weeks, and talk regularly with my family and friends on the phone, and have Indian friends around me.


  3. The same thing happened with Eunice Williams or “Gannenstenhawi” … kidnapped by Mohawk Indians, impressed into the tribe, and married a Mohawk. In 1713 her father finally got to visit her but she had forgotten English so she needed a translator. Would she return home with her father? She replied, “Jaghte Oghte” (maybe not).


  4. Eunice Williams and Esther Wheelwright (the subject of the book I’m finishing) were the two other children whose experiences I focused on in the essay I wrote last summer. I focused on Sylvanus Johnson here because he’s the only one of them who returned to New England & had to function again in an English-speaking Protestant environment (versus a French or Native Catholic community).

    Esther Wheelwright also forgot how to read English–either that, or she never learned. She may have retained some English, or have had the opportunity in middle-age to refresh her spoken English, but we don’t know for sure what her English proficiency was. (I think it was mostly gone after 5 years among the Wabanaki, and then 70+ years in a French-speaking community.)

    Thanks to Kali and quixote for sharing your experiences with language & mother-tongue loss/challenges. I know that even just a week or 10 days in Quebec finds me thinking about speaking English like it’s been translated from Canadian French, so I can only imagine what a longer immersion would do to me!


  5. p.s. John Demos, who wrote the book on Eunice Williams (The Unredeemed Captive, 1994), says her Mowhawk name was A’ongote. Why do you call her “Gannenstenhawi,” smalltownprof?

    (Also, I don’t think John Williams was present at that interview with Schuyler and A’ongote/Eunice; her husband and Mowhawk family were there, but I don’t remember any of her English family being actually present, as I believe that meeting took place in or near Albany.)


  6. Maybe Bergdahl started to un-learn English in the outpost where he was stationed before he “walked off” the place. A long article in the NYT the other day made it seem like a pretty bizarre piece of unit real estate. One of the many narrators of the “Bergdahl backstory” at that place observed that the troops had taken to betting during their daily patrols in their recently up-armored vehicles “who would get hit” that day with roadside explosives. This was interesting to me in part because I had long since taken to noticing all of the weird ways in which structured gambling (i.e. betting) has intersected with military operations in the early modern world. Insiders and outsiders placing bets on the ebb and flow of campaigns, and the like. The best and most detailed accounts of this phenomenon are buried in a vast collection deep in the archival rooms of what will be your campus next year, Historiann!

    Thus, likewise, maybe Sylvanus’s troubles began with traumas already underway in Fort Number Four under the anxiety of perpetual exposure to unknown terrors. The story of the Seven Years’ War, and Pontiac’s War, from *within* those Juniata Valley house-forts in Pennsylvania looking out, has not been that well told yet, beyond the relatively infrequent captivity stories.


  7. On a side note, in 1876, it would not have been contradictory to think both that a) dead colonial Indians were noble and unspoiled in character and thus more moral than whites and b) that Indians of contemporary times were hopelessly spoiled by capitalism and thus corrupted from their true nature neither noble savages nor white men. This was Jackson’s big innovation in Indian policy – that removal was for the Indians own good to keep them as noble savages. See: Bernard Sheehan Seeds of Extinction; Berkhoffer, White Man’s Indian; P. Deloria, Playing Indian (I read the diss, not the book but he was great on the disconnect between Indians past and present so I assume that part made it to the book); Drinnon, Facing West and the first two of the Slotkin trilogy. See also, Blackface minstrelsy.


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  9. THE AMERICAN NATION by Garraty and Carnes, 14th edition, volume 1, page 91. You are right, her father was not present at the meeting. It was attended by “a trader sent by her father.” But this module in the book specifically states her Indian name as “Gannenstenhawi”or “she who brings in corn.” I’ll be real honest here, I didn’t expect to get grilled so much for my posting, I just thought it was an interesting similarity. I have used this module many times with my students and it has sparked some interesting discussion. In the fall I can compare her situation to that of Bergdahl. Thanks so much and have a great day.


  10. Thanks! I was just curious about your source, not giving you the third degree (or at least I didn’t want it to seem that aggro.) That’s all–I wasn’t familiar with the name Gannenstenhawi & was interested to hear your source.

    If you’re interested, I have a copy of the “true and perfect Memoriall” Schuyler writes about his May 26, 1713 meeting with Eunice/Margaret/A’ongote/Gannenstenhawi. Interestingly, in this document he calls her only “Margaret,” her French Catholic baptismal name, perhaps because their meeting was brokered by a priest. If you think it might be interesting or useful to you in your teaching, let me know at my email address and I’ll send you a copy.


  11. Hi Historiann,

    Longtime reader, first time contributor. Garraty and Carnes’ textbook no doubt used Demos’s book as their source, as he himself does note that Eunice took on the name of Gannenstenhawi — She Brings In the Corn — and takes the opportunity to riff on Mohawk naming practices and gender roles. In my edition of Unredeemed Captive: pp. 159-162.

    Warm regards,



  12. Thanks, Father Charlevoix! I was away from my copy of UC when I wrote that comment, & am even farther away now. (Though Google books might be a source, too.)

    (I am speaking to P.F.X. Charlevoix, no?)


  13. Wow–that’s interesting. Thanks for letting me know. It’s a little sad, although I wonder if this is just the natural consequence of the aging of the order. With no nuns teaching there any longer (at least, I thought that’s been the case for several years, since before they admitted boys), giving up administrative control of the school seems like a natural consequence.

    Feminism and prosperity have doomed women’s religious orders, at least for our time I think. Maybe contagion, economic and/or environmental collapse, or some other major catastrope will fill the monasteries again. I was just thinking that that generation of young Quebecois women who came into the order b/c of the depression were likely mostly superannuated, if not all dead yet. Perhaps there are a few pre-Vat II nuns around, but not that many.

    I’ve been out of town but will update my blogroll v. soon as promised. Peace be with you Father.


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