The Phenomenon of White Indians: Captive Women in Early American History

The Phenomenon of White Indians: Captive Women in Early American History
Rachel Jackson: Religion, Social Issues and Reform

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Three to four class periods.


The phenomenon of “White Indians” is part of the story of colonial America on into the 19th century as whites continued their march inland from the Atlantic coast and settled in lands held by Native Americans.  Stories of whites captured by various Indian tribes fall into the category called “captivity narratives,” and relate “capture stories” of both men and women. However, stories of women captives became highly popular, as well as highly sensationalized, in part because the lives of women in these years were  rigidly controlled by values that regarded women as “lesser, “ “weaker,” and less able to cope with violence, hard work, and difficult travel than men.  In addition, the white perception of Native Americans as savages was supported by these stories and helped whites rationalize their steady encroachment into Indian lands.


Students who participate in this lesson will have the opportunity to research the stories of several captured “white Indians:” to compare their narratives; to make judgments about the degree to which the narratives support or undermine contemporary (at the time of capture) prejudices about both women and Native Americans; and to give a presentation of their findings to the class.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.  Access to print reference materials.


1.  Begin the lesson by eliciting ideas of what “White Indian” might mean.  Lead the discussion to an understanding that these were colonists or Americans who had either (a) chosen to live with Native Americans as a renunciation of “white man’s ways”; or (b) were women who had been kidnapped as children or young adults by Native American tribes and who had been raised within the Native American culture.
2.  Organize students into seven groups. Assign each group (or let each group select) one of the “captive” women listed below.
3.  Each group should research the “captivity narrative” of its chosen person.  Included in the research should be the following: 
         Where was the person born and what was her life like before capture? 
         When was the person captured? 
         What else was going on at the time of the capture?  (see First Ladies Timeline) 
         By what Native American group was the person captured? 
         What was happening to that particular group at the time? 
         How long was the person held in captivity? 
         How did the person respond to her captivity? 
         What happened to the person after release (if release occurred)?
         How does the “captivity narrative” support or undermine contemporary (at the time of  capture) prejudices about both women and Native Americans? 
         How and where did the person die?
4.  Each group a should prepare a presentation of their findings and present to the whole class; the presentation should be from the point of view of the captured person.

5.  As a matter of class discussion, ask students to compare and contrast the views that each source provides into the life and culture of the “White Indians.”  What do the stories have in common?  How are they different?

Extending the Lesson:

It is possible that you would prefer to have each group write a report rather than have a full presentation; however, some “sharing out” is recommended so that all students have the benefit of each group’s research.  Teachers may want to expand this lesson by having students create a journal entry that reflects their understanding of the cultural dissonance experiences by “White Indians.”  It is possible that a joint lesson with American literature and American History will enhance students’ understanding.

Sources & Resources:


Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, ed. Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Penguin Classics, 1998.       

Captivity Naratives 

About Captivity Narratives in Women’s History 
Mary White Rowlandson
Eunice Williams 

Mary Jemison 
Rachel Parker Plummer 

Cynthia Ann Parker 

Olive Ann Oatman Fairchild
Sarah F. Wakefield  

This lesson was a joint effort by Bette Brooks and Averil McClelland, Kent State University.