Progressive Era Memory of Frontier Captivity
Published by: University of Oklahoma Press
Imprint: University of Oklahoma Press
For Americans in the Progressive Era (1890–1916) these stories of Indian captivity seemed to prove that the violence of national expansion had been justified, that citizens’ individual suffering had been heroic, and that settlers’ contact with Indians and wilderness still characterized the nation’s “soul.” Furthermore, in the act of memorializing white Indian captives—through statues, parks, and reissued narratives—small towns found a way of inscribing themselves into the national story.
By drawing out the connections between actual captivity, captivity narratives, and the memorializing of white captives, Varley shows how Indian captivity became a means for Progressive Era Americans to look forward by looking back. Local boosters and cultural commentators used Indian captivity to define “Americanism” and to renew those frontier qualities deemed vital to the survival of the nation in the post-frontier world, such as individualism, bravery, ingenuity, enthusiasm, “manliness,” and patriotism. In Varley’s analysis of the Progressive Era mentality, contact between white captives and Indians represented a stage in the evolution of a new American people and affirmed the contemporary notion of America as a melting pot.
Revealing how the recitation and interpretation of these captivity narratives changed over time—with shifting emphasis on brutality, gender, and ethnographic and historical accuracy—Americans Recaptured shows that tales of Indian captivity were no more fixed than American identity, but were consistently used to give that identity its own useful, ever-evolving shape.
“Americans Recaptured makes important connections among actual captivity, captivity narratives, and monuments memorializing and celebrating white captives during the Progressive Era. While the topic of captivity has attracted a great deal of attention in the past several decades, no book competes with this one in terms of period or emphasis. Molly K. Varley weaves together history, literature, and material culture to analyze the uses of captivity in innovative and illuminating ways.”
—Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, author of War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict through the Captivity Literature, and editor of Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives