Chapter One, Prophetstown
The Drinking Gourd
The description of a youth being taken as a captive, who subsequently becomes a family member, is based upon four separate accounts from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The autobiographies of Oliver Spencer, John Tanner and Jonathan Alder are remarkably similar in describing a childhood experience in which the child, sometimes without knowing the significance of what he does, takes the offered hand of a warrior.* A fourth account is given by the Niagara resident Thomas Ridout who was captured by the Shawnee as a thirty-three year old adult. The spontaneously offered hand and its acceptance is basic to them all. Perhaps the most famous captive is the Quaker girl, Frances Slocum, who was taken captive at an early age and lived out her life among the Delaware, and finally, the Miami people in Indiana until her death in 1847. **
For enslaved blacks, freedom lay in the land pointed to by the North Star, at the extended edge of the Big Dipper or the Drinking Gourd constellation. This time period, of course, predates wide-spread, organized resistance in the United States to slavery through the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Assured safety for slaves required escape into the King’s Country, into Upper Canada, where provincial law precluded return of runaways to their owners.
The Midewiwin society of healers/religious leaders is described in detail by Walter James Hoffman in The Midewiwin, Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibway, first published in 1891. The Midewiwin were, and are, found among the Anishnabee People (the Three Fires of the Neshnabek, Ojibway, and Odawa), and their close relations in the area around the Great Lakes. Quoting Peter Jones of the Ontario Mississauga, “Each tribe has its medicine men and women – an order of priesthood consulted and employed in all times of sickness.”
[page 14 of the 2005 reprint by the University of Pacific Press.]
*The following are page citations at which captives describe the moment of their captures. Narrative of Oliver M. Spencer, published in 1842, page 97. The Spencer narrative recounts “Contrary to the expectation I had formed [of being killed,] the Indian, instead of seizing me with anger, approached with calmness, and extended his hand in token of peace. I took it; and from what I had heard of the character and customs of Indian life, I felt assured of present safety.”
Similar accounts are given in modern reprints of period publications: John Tanner, The Falcon, Penguin Classics, 1994, page 5, and on the occasion of a second adoption, page 15. A History of Jonathan Alder, University of Akron Press, 2002, page 30.
** The author's short story 'Kidnapped, 1792' is a fictionalized account of Oliver Spencer's experiences and will shortly be available in the appropriate section of this website.