The White Indians of Colonial America

TitleThe White Indians of Colonial America
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1975
AuthorsAxtell, James
JournalWilliam and Mary Quarterly

Captive-taking by Native Americans was surprisingly common in Colonial times. It was also common for captives to choose their Native communities over their Colonial families. James Axtell, historian at Sarah Lawrence College, explores the possible reasons that captive whites would choose their captors over a return to a white European lifestyle. He stated that the Natives treated their captives as equals nearly from the beginning of their captivity.

Axtell noted that though food on the trail was scarce, it was shared equally with the captives. The children were given soft moccasins for running, lessons in survival, snow shoes for easier travel.Once in the villages, the captives were given Indian clothes, taught Indian songs and dances, and welcomed as family members into specifically appointed adoptive families. It wasn’t necessarily easy. There were often rituals and trials that had to be passed, such as a gauntlet to beat the whiteness out of them, and afterwards, a second ritual to wash it out. But once these trials were passed, captives were awarded full integration into the tribe. Compared to the stern and rigorous life of a New England Puritan, or the hardscrabble life of a pioneer farmer, this life might have seemed more compassionate and civilized. The English were new here, still trying to tame the wilderness, bring it to its knees before the saw and the plow, to furrow its land and regiment its growth, much as it did its children.

Most of the thousands of “white Indians” left no explanation as to why they chose their adopted Native families and culture over the Colonials. They just traded in their hard shoes and disappeared into the wilderness.The only narratives we have are from those who chose to return to Colonial society. Those writings reveal that the “white Indians” valued what Axtell calls the Natives’ “strong sense of community, abundant love, and uncommon integrity – values that the English colonists also honored, if less successfully.”

Axtell also notes other values, such as: “social equality, mobility, adventure, and, as two adult converts acknowledged, ‘the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us.”

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