Shawnee Captivity Ethnography
Dwight L. Smith
Ethnohistory, Vol. 2, No. 1. (Winter, 1955), pp. 29-41.
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SHAWNEE CAPTIVITY ETHNOGRAPHY
Dwight L. Smith
One of the fruits of the s t r i f e and w a r f a r e between European Whites
and the North American Indians is a considerable body of r a t h e r unique
l i t e r a t u r e commonly r e f e r r e d to a s captivities. The captivity has re-
mained a neglected field of scholarly pursuit although i t i s certainly a
legitimate one, particularly f r o m the standpoint of North American l i t
erature, ethnology, and h i ~ t o r y . Aside f r o m a few a r t i c l e s i n profes-
sional journals little has been published on the captivities.3 I t is the
purpose of this study to determine the value of the captivity for ethnol-
ogists and historians.
A r a i d on a pioneer settlement, a n attack on a n unsuspecting trav-
e l l e r on a Midwestern r i v e r o r i n the Old Northwest wilderness, o r
formal military combat quite often resulted in the Indians taking White
prisoners. Some of these p r i s o n e r s died of wounds i n c u r r e d while be-
ing captured. Some were tomahawked o r e l s e ingeniously t o r t u r e d to
a slow death to satisfy the anger of an intoxicated captor, to quench the
sadistic t h i r s t of a tribal gathering, to punish the captive if suspected
of attempting to escape, to revenge the death of a m e m b e r of the group,
o r because i t was much e a s i e r to c a r r y a s c a l p than to bother with a
prisoner.' But some captives survived.
Several factors motivated Indians to take p r i s o n e r s . Capture f r e -
quently occurred a s a natural outcome of w a r ; and the captives were
sometimes considered a s much a war trophy a s scalps. Revenge o r re-
taliation led to capture and torture, but often resulted in death. When
supplies were running low, o r if there were prospects of r i c h plunder,
a n unsuspecting cabin or p a r t y of t r a v e l l e r s was raided and p r i s o n e r s
taken a s p a r t of the booty. The hope of ransom a t times led to the tak-
ing of prisoners. An important person might be redeemed by a handsome
reward; and almost any p r i s o n e r had relatives o r friends willing to pur-
chase his freedom. Frequently a trader o r some official dictated by
humanitarian motives would buy the prisoner f r o m the Indians; and even
the renegade Simon Girty intervened at l e a s t once to s e c u r e a White
f r o m the Indians. There a r e s t i l l other interesting reasons why Whites,
and for that m a t t e r Indians of other tribes, were sometimes captured.
Several tribes practised adoption to replace a l o s t child, to provide a
husband for a recently widowed woman, o r to substitute for any deceased
person. Many North American Indians considered adoption more than
naturalization; i t was equivalent to birth i n the tribe itself.
Whatever the reason f o r capture, survival was v e r y much a m a t t e r
of conjecture. Sometimes circumstances permitted o r even dictated
survival. It is not possible to determine to what extent, but there a r e
known c a s e s i n which Whites lived, sometimes by their own choice, for
the remainder of their natural lives, with the tribe or family group into
which they had been adopted. Occasionally by escape, ransom, treaty,
o r diplomatic p r e s s u r e , a p r i s o n e r was released after he had been held
by the Indians f o r a few hours o r even s e v e r a l y e a r s . Chances of sur-
vival of a n Indian attack, and escape f r o m subsequent captivity, were
s l i m but not impossible.
Several of the fortunate ones recorded their experiences. Some of
their accounts manifestly w e r e written to arouse sentiment against the
Indians, others to warn those who entertained ideas of travel o r settle-
ment i n the Indian country, and still others for public consumption a s
adventure s t o r i e s , the equivalent in some respects of the dime novel
thrillers. Hence we have the captivity narrative which i s a thrilling
s t o r y of the p r i s o n e r ' s capture, life with the Indians, and escape.
be s u r e the w r i t e r ' s imagination sometimes runs wild, and some of the
Shawnee Captivity Ethnography 31
captivities a r e totally fictitious, but the basis for the narrative was a
common experience of hundreds on the Indian- White frontier.
Captivities as Ethnographic Sources
Since the narratives usually contain, in addition to the experiences
of the prisoners, descriptions and observations of the customs, tradi-
tions, and ways of life of their captors, i t has often been conjectured
that they a r e important sources of ethnographic information. The pre-
sent study was made to ascertain to what extent this i s true. The col-
lection of nearly five hundred captivities in the Edward E. Ayer Collec-
tion of the Newberry Library offered unique possibilities for such a
For study only those narratives dealing with tribes of the Old
Northwest were used. It soon became apparent that the conditions under
which the captivity was experienced, the motive for which the account
was written, the time interval after the escape bef3re the story was re-
corded, and the l i t e r a r y ability of the captive or his ghost writer, all
affect the narrative and the information i t contains. At best, i t was
found, the ethnographic material contained in captivities i s fragmentary,
and, in some cases, not too reliable. Elimination was made of those
accounts which were historically inaccurate, fictitious, and distorted,
o r which contained little or no ethnographic information. Thus the field
was narrowed down to sixteen captivities worthy of closer scrutiny.
Classifying the remainder according to tribes reduced the possibilities
even further. Only the Shawnee and Delaware were represented suffi-
ciently to be considered. For the Old Northwest, a t least, Indian cap-
tivity narratives furnish some isolated facts o r details, but can only be
safely used when the conditions under which the narratives were pro-
duced a r e known. They must be considered a s supplementary rather
than primary sources of ethnographic material.
Shawnee Captivities: Ethnographic Material
The ethnographic information on the Shawnee obtained f r o m the
l a r g e r study i s synthesized and p r e s e n t e d herein. At best this infor-
mation i s fragmentary.
Some captivities describe elaborate adoption ceremonies through
which p r i s o n e r s gained full m e m b e r s h i p i n the tribe. Only one specific
instance of Shawnee adoption of a White captive i s recorded, however.
This was a simple r i t e . The male captive was o r d e r e d to remove his
clothing. He was given two r e d calico hunting s h i r t s ; a blanket was tied
around him with a "buffalo tug;" and a piece of blanket was tied on his
head. After that his captor$ patted him on the head and said, "Indian. '16
This s a m e captive became the private p o s s e s s i o n of a particular chief
when "he put two s i l v e r rings on my f i n g e r s and a powder horn, with
some yellow l a c e to it, over my head.
Two i t e m s a r e noted with r e s p e c t to the training of children i n
another Shawnee captivity. A Shawnee woman f e l t the need of an e a r l y
morning year-round dip for h e r children, not allowing them to r e t u r n to
the hut until they had become d r y by running about. She was s o -concerned
that h e r children have an e r e c t posture that f o r s e v e r a l y e a r s , while they
w e r e young, b o a r d s were tied to their back^.^
According to the i m p r e s s i o n given by one White captive, the place
of women i n Indian society was " r a t h e r a s s l a v e s than a s companions.
In addition to the household chores, they w e r e expected to do the work
i n the fields. F o r the men work was considered a disgrace. Even i n
moving, the women and g i r l s shouldered the baggage and packs while
the men c a r r i e d only their blankets and guns.
Little comment i s found about Shawnee d r e s s i n any of the captiv-
ities. Among a l l women the f o r m was e s s e n t i a l l y the same. I t consisted
of a calico s h i r t which extended a few i n c h e s below the waist and which
was fastened a t the bosom with a s i l v e r brooch; a petticoat o r stroud,
"simply a yard and a half of s i x q u a r t e r blue cloth with white selvedge,
Shawnee Captivity Ethnography
confined about the waist with a girdle and extending below the knees;
leggings of the same material "sewed s o a s to fit the leg, leaving a
border of two inches projecting f r o m the outside and extending to the
instep;" and moccasins. These were elaborately decorated whenever
means were obtainable. Beads, ribbons,. and porcupine quills were
favorite moccasin decorations. Ribbons and vari- colored beads adorned
the b o r d e r s of the leggings and petticoats. Frequently small tufts of
d e e r ' s h a i r dyed r e d and "confined i n s m a l l pieces of tin" were fastened
on the moccasins and leggings. Shirts often s e e m e d to s e r v e a s a n ex-
cuse for the display of a l l the brooches their owners possessed. Silver
b r a c e l e t s were favorite decorations for the w r i s t s and a r m s . lo
The d r e s s of Shawnee men was s i m i l a r to that of the women with
the addition of a breech cloth and possibly a small round hat, "the s m a l l e r
.. . the m o r e fashionable. " The "fondne,ss f o r show1' was even s t r o n g e r
in the men. In addition to ornaments s i m i l a r to those worn by women.
men wore large gorgets and silver medals on their chests and heavy
silver pieces in their e a r s , "the r i m s of which, being separated f r o m
the cartilage by cutting, a r e weighed down two o r three inches f r o m the
head. " lZ
Frequent reference i s made in the Shawnee captivities t o huts, cab-
ins, and council houses. An occasional detail furnishes a brief descrip-
tion. Temporary encampments were s o m e t i m e s e r e c t e d for hunting
p a r t i e s o r roving bands, especially during bad weather. These s h e l t e r s
were simply made by stretching skins over poles in the form of tents. l3
So-called bark cabins were the more permanent abodes of the Shawnee.
One described was It.. .about twenty feet long and fourteen feet wide, the
sides and roof made of s m a l l poles and covered with bark. The entrance
was a t the end, and an old blanket hung a t the doorway:' Council
houses were constructed basically on the s a m e pattern, differing pri-
m a r i l y in size. One captivity describes a particular council house a s " ...
a l a r g e building about fifty yards in length, and about twenty five y a r d s
wide, and about sixteen feet in height, built of split poles covered with
Serious decisions were usually r e a c h e d a t meetings in the council
house. One such council meeting l a s t e d fifteen days. Since any w a r r i o r
was admitted, f r o m fifty to a hundred w e r e i n attendance. However,
only the chiefs o r head w a r r i o r s , whose status was determined by the
number of s c a l p s and p r i s o n e r s they had taken, could participate in the
I w a r was decided upon, a dance was held f o r luck and to get the
w a r r i o r s i n the mood and spirit. To p r e p a r e f o r the ceremony a war
pole was cut, and i t s bark removed; i t was then painted b l a c k w i t h diag-
onal s t r i p e s of r e d paint. One end was sharpened and s e t into the ground,
while a t the top e n d a number of scalps w e r e fastened. Some of the In-
chans painted t h e i r f a c e s black with r e d around the eyes; o t h e r s r e v e r s e d
t h i s c o l o r scheme. All wore f e a t h e r s i n t h e i r h a i r . The dance began
with the "fell war-whoop. I' They went around the pole, "writhing their
bodies and distorting their faces in a m o s t hideous manner." They sang
o r chanted about the injuries done them by t h e i r enemies the Whites:
lands taken, villages burned, cornfields l a i d waste, fathers and b r o t h e r s
killed, and women and children c a r r i e d into captivity. By repeating
these things over and over, they worked themselves into " a pitch of the
g r e a t e s t fury." Sometimes this c e r e m o n y was held s e v e r a l nights in
s u c c e s s i o n and usually continued a l m o s t until daybreak.
Scalps of those slain in battle w e r e brought back a s trophies of war.
An interesting s i d e light on s c a l p t a k i n g i s furnished by one captivity. A
Shawnee hunting p a r t y killed t h r e e buffalo. "Buffaloes have a c u r l right
on the hump, and long h a i r , s i x o r s e v e n inches long; just like a m a n ' s . "
F r o m the humps the Indians took l l s c a l p s ,' I s c r a p e d and stretched them
five o r s i x inches a c r o s s a hoop, and c a r r i e d t h e m with other t r u e scalps
i n th2ir b e l t s . I t was the opinion of the captive that the Indians intended
to s e l l them to the British for human s c a l p s . l8
Entertainment was an essential p a r t of Indian life. The Shawnee
captivities indicate some of i t s f o r m s . Other than the chanting which
Shawnee Captivity Ethnography 35
accompanied the war dance, only one mention i s made of music, produced
by a gourd with shot i n i t which Shawnee s i n g e r s held to their e a r s and
rattled, while singing the refrain, "Hee ho yoh! " l9
Games were popular. A game of chance i s briefly described. The
p u n g m e n and women players s a t in a s m a l l c i r c l e holding a blanket. In
the c e n t e r of the blanket were bits of wood painted white on one side and
black on the other. The blanket was thrown up, and the s c o r e reckoned
according to the total number of each color which fell uppermost. 'O One
Shawnee group thoroughly enjoyed a c a r d game called "Nosey." Two
hands w e r e dealt and the winner was the one who succeeded in retaining
p a r t of h i s own hand while his opponent lost all of his. The winner was
entitled t o the s a m e number of fillips at the l o s e r ' s nose a s the number
of c a r d s which he s t i l l held. If, while the onlookers roared with laughter,
the l o s e r did not maintain "a solemn gravity of countenance" the penalty
Smoking, although sometimes a pastime, was usually of a more
solemn nature. After a meal near the close of the day there was quite
often a n occasion which approached a religious ceremony. A small piece
of tobacco was cut fine "by passing the edge of.. . [the] knife between.. .
[the] forefinger and thumb." Solemnly and with devotion a few grains
were sprinkled on the coals while a silent petition was made to the Great
Spirit. The remainder was mixed with dried sumac leaves and put into
the bowl of a tomahawk pipe. After a few whiffs the pipe was passed
around. The Indians thus alternately puffed until the tobacco was con-
sumed, "frequently filling their mouths with smoke and forcing i t through
their n o s t r i l s , closing their brief use of the pipe with a peculiar suck of
the b r e a t h and a slight grinding of the teeth.
B e a r ' s oil was a n important food i t e m for the Shawnee.
the hunting season they collected and s t o r e d i t in deerskin containers.
The oil was eaten with jerked venison, and, according to one report, was
"as palatable an addition to the a r t i c l e of food, a s butter is to bread. wZ3
Since the Shawnee were frequently situated near s t r e a m s fish. "which
36 Ethnohis tor y
the Indians g e n e r a l l y take with a gig o r shoot with a r r o w s and sometimes
with r i f l e b a l l s , " was another i t e m i n their diet.U
When c o r n m a t u r e d but was s t i l l in the "soft milky state" the fes-
tival of g r e e n c o r n was c e l e b r a t e d a s an expression of gratitude to the
G r e a t S p i r i t for a plentiful harvest. After the usual greetings and a f t e r
the pipe had been p a s s e d around the c i r c l e s e v e r a l times, one of the
e l d e r s a r o s e to a d d r e s s the group. He spoke of the blessings of land,
food, and medicine f o r which they w e r e indebted t o the G r e a t Spirit. To
the Whites w e r e a s c r i b e d a l l their i l l s . It was their duty to exterminate
the Whites o r a t l e a s t to push them out of the country; fulfillment of this
duty was a p a s s p o r t to the hunting grounds of the h e r e a f t e r . When the
o r a t o r y was finished the s p o r t s , such a s foot r a c e s and wrestling, began.
Boiled jerk and f i s h , stewed s q u i r r e l s and venison, roasting e a r s , suc-
cotash, squash, and r o a s t e d pumpkin were the usual f a r e of the feast.
Besides the usual c o r n m e a l b r e a d a special bread was sometimes made.
G r e e n c o r n was c u t f r o m the cob, pounded i n a m o r t a r until i t had a
c r e a m - l i k e consistency, salted, poured into a mold of c o r n leaves, and
baked in the a s h e s . After another smoke and a drink, games and dancing
were r e s u m e d . During the e n t i r e festival drinking took place, and i t s
e f f e c t s gradually began to show, s o that the festival usually ended in a
Being exceedingly fond of spirituous liquor the Shawnee drank i t
whenever i t was obtainable. Usually liquor was taken i n e x c e s s , o r a s
long a s the supply l a s t e d . Experience taught the Shawnee, however, that
in the resulting b r a w l s they were often irresponsible and that their m o s t
savage actions c a m e into full play. Aware of this they deliberately se-
lected someone t o s t a y s o b e r and committed to h i m the c a r e of tomahawks,
knives, and other weapons until they had again sobered.26
With r e g a r d to the penalty for m u r d e r , the Shawnee, i n common
with other t r i b e s , held to a curious law. The m u r d e r e r was obligated
to make r e p a r a t i o n to the v i c t i m ' s family by payment of a c e r t a i n value
in property, o r by supplying a substitute for the deceased. If the l a t t e r
Shawnee Captivity Ethnography 37
procedure was followed, the substitute occupied the same station a s the
one he replaced within the family and the tribe. If reparation was not
made within a certain time the murderer was liable to death a t the hands
of the relatives o r members of the tribe of the deceased. 27
The results of this study show that the captivity can be considered
a s only a fragmentary source of ethnohistory for the Old Northwest.
The captivity narrative, the thrilling account of a White man's capture,
sojourn, and escape from the Indians, i s one of the most readable types
of American literature ever produced. As a part of this s t o r y the habits,
customs, and ways of life of the Indian garnish the simple details of the
account. These things a r e of interest to the ethnologist and historian.
In an objective appraisal, nevertheless, these items cannot all be ac-
cepted a t face value. The circumstances under which they were orig-
inally observed and the reasons for which they were written must be
considered before they can be used totally o r in part by ethnologists
and historians. At best, in the Old Northwest, the captivity can only
be used as a source of information supplemental to d t obtained else-
1. The captivity i s treated as a body of literature by Phillips
D. Carleton in his article, The Indian Captivity.
2. Roy H. P e a r c e , in The Significances of the Captivity Narra-
tive maintains the importance of this field of literature i s "what the nar-
rative was for the r e a d e r s for whom it was written." His thesis i s that
the captivity narrative i s interesting and valuable "not because i t can tell
us a great deal about the Indian or even about immediate frontier attitudes
toward the Indian, but rather because i t enables us to see more deeply
and more clearly into popular American culture, popular American
issues, and popular American tastes. I '
3. A r a t h e r complete annotated p r e - nineteenth century bibliog-
raphy of captivities is included in A Bibliography of North American
F r o n t i e r L i t e r a t u r e , 1542-1800 in R. W. G. Vail, The Voice of the Old
Frontier, pp. 84-492. Unfortunately, this does not include the hundreds
of captivities after 1800, and i t a l s o omits those before that date which
were published after 1800. In a selected bibliographical e s s a y (pp. 23-
61) Vail presents the captivity (as indicated by the e s s a y ' s subtitle, Run
f e r the Blockhouse. The Injuns a r e Cornin') as an old fashioned thriller.
4. Almost every captivity contains an eye-witness account i n
gruesome detail of torture of p r i s o n e r s . This phase of the captivity
narrative h a s been dealt with in Nathaniel Knowles, The Torture of
Captives by the Indians of E a s t e r n North America.
5. Most of these a r e catalogued i n Narratives of Captivity among
the Indians of North America, and C l a r a A. Smith, Narratives of Captiv-
ity, Supplement 1.
6. In December, 1790 Benjamin Allen, then seventeen, was
taken p r i s o n e r in Kentucky. About 1850 he related this experience to a
friend who wrote the account. Such circumstances modify the value and
authenticity of any document. See Beckner, John D. Shane's Interview,
f o r an account of the adoption ceremony, p. 74.
Ibid., p. 77.
8. P e r s i n g e r , The Life of Jacob P e r s i n g e r . Jacob P e r s i n g e r
was born in Virginia about 1735. This account was written by his son.
9. Quaife. The Indian Captivity of 0.M. Spencer, p. 75. Ten-
year-old Oliver Spencer was a prisoner of a Mohawk family living near
the Shawnee, for seven months. F o r t y y e a r s afterwards, i n 1834. the
account of his captivity was written for publication in the Western Chris-
tian Advocate. It h a s since appeared i n other periodicals and book f o r m
a number of times .
10. Quaife. Indian Captivity, pp. 87-88.
Shawnee Captivity Ethnography 39
11. Edgar, Ten Years of Upper Canada, p. 358. The Narrative
of the Captivity among the Shawanese Indians, in 1788, of Thomas Ridout
(pp. 339- 371) i s an appendix to Edgar's work. Ridout was captured a t
the age of thirty-four on the Ohio River, taken a c r o s s southern Indiana
and thence by the Wabash-Maumee route t o Detroit, where he secured
12. Quaife, Indian Captivity, p. 88.
13. [Charles Johnston]. A Narrative of the Incidents, pp. 28- 29.
Johnston, a young man of twenty y e a r s , was taken prisoner by the Indians
on the Ohio River. Thirty-five y e a r s a f t e r his five-week experience he
wrote the account of his adventures.
More than the l a s t half of this volume is concerned with Sketches
of Indian Character and Manners, with Illustrative Anecdotes. These
a r e not Johnston's personal observations, however, but a r e extracts
f r o m Schoolcraft, ~ h a r l e v o i x ,Heckewelder, and others. Since this
practice was common, the value of a captivity narrative a s ethnological
s o u r c e m a t e r i a l is modified.
14. Edgar, Ten Years, pp. 354- 355. Council houses were con-
s t r u c t e d basically on the s a m e pattern, differing p r i m a r i l y in size. One
captivity describes a particular council house a s "a l a r g e building about
fifty y a r d s i n length, and about twenty five yards wide, and about sixteen
feet i n height, built of split poles covered with bark." Brackenridge.
Indian Atrocities. p. 63. Knight
15. Brackenridge. Indian Atrocities, p. 63. Knight and Slover
were m e m b e r s of William Crawford's expedition against the Ohio Indians
i n 1782. Slover had been previously captured at the age of eight and had
lived with the Indians for twelve y e a r s . Slover's narrative of this, his
second captivity, was dictated to Brackenridge.
Ibid. p. 66.
17. Johnston, A Narrative, pp. 50- 51; Brackenridge, Indian
Atrocities, p. 65.
18. Beckner, Shane's Interview, p. 75.
19. Ibid., p. 77.
20. Edgar, Ten Years, p. 358.
21. Johnston. A Narrative, p. 31. A game called "Five Corns"
was a l s o mentioned but not described. Ibid., p. 45.
22. Quaife, Indian Captivity, pp. 54- 55; Johns ton. A Narrative,
23. Johnston. A Narrative, pp. 37-38.
24. Quaife. Indian Captivity, p. 85.
25. Ibid., pp. 102-107, 111- 113.
Ibid., pp. 109- 111.
27. One captive found himself i n the position of becoming the
substitute for the m u r d e r e d husband of a n Indian woman. Johnston, A
N a r r a t i v e , pp. 52- 53.
B e c k n e r , L u c i e n . John D. Shane's Interview with Benjamin Allen,
Clark County (The Filson Club History Quarterly, vol. 5, pp. 6 3 -
B r a c k e n r i d g e , H u g h . Indian Atrocities: N a r r a t i v e s of the P e r i l s
and Sufferings of Dr. Knight and John Slover among the Indians,
during the Revolutionary War (Nashville, 1843)
C a r 1e t o n , P h i 11i p s D . The American Captivity (American
L i t e r a t u r e , vol. 15, pp. 169-180, 1943-1944)
Edgar. Matilda. TenYearsofUpperCanadainPeaceandWar,
1805-1815 . ..
J 0 h n s t o n , C h a r 1 e s 1. A Narrative of the Incidents Attending the
Capture, Detention, and Ransom of Charles Johnston . . . Who Was
Made P r i s o n e r by the Indians, on the River Ohio, in the Year 1790
. . . (New York, 1827)
Shawnee Captivity Ethnography
Knowles, Nathaniel. The Torture of Captives by the Indians of
Eastern North America (Proceedings of the American Philosophical
Society, vol. 82. pp. 151-225, 1940)
N e w b e r r y L i b r a r y . Narratives of Captivity Among the Indians of
North America: A L i s t of Books and Manuscripts on this Subject
in the Edward E. Ayer Collection of Newberry L i b r a r y (Publica-
tions of the Newberry Library, no. 3. Chicago, 1912)
Pe a r c e , Roy H . The Significance of the Captivity Narrative
( ~ m e r i c a n i t e r a t u r e , vol. 19. pp. 1-20, 1947-1948)
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