Thursday, March 27, 2008

Scott Zesch, "The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier" (2004).

Imagine for the moment that it is the 19th Century. You are a 12-year-old boy whose parents recently decided to seek opportunity on the Texan frontier. Your nearest neighbor is a mile and a half away, so life is filled with a deep sense of isolation. It is a hardscrabble existence for you and your family, and everyone is expected to put in their share of work. One evening you are finishing up your chores at twilight. You are tired and lost in dreams of other places. Because you are preoccupied with your thoughts, you don't notice that there are three riders on horseback approaching your family's homestead. Only when they are within 300 yards do you snap out of your reverie to examine them. You have to assume that they are cowboys, as there are often buffalo hunts and cattle drives in the territory. But as they draw closer you realize that you were horribly mistaken. You are looking at Indian raiders.

There would have been plenty of opportunites to hear stories about the Plains tribes in the hill country of central Texas. The Comanches and the Apaches were notorious for resisting the pressures of the Federal Indian Affairs Office. There was little that these nomadic peoples could do to stop white folks (especially German-American farmers) from encroaching on their tribal lands. The situation was increasingly desperate, and the vast herds of game that the Natives relied on were rapidly dispersing and leaving the area because of the presence of the White Man. Still the Plains tribes were fierce and proud, and loathe to voluntarily come in off the range in order to settle in reservations and adapt to an entirely foreign way of living. So they held on to their way of life, and made periodic raids on the white settlements.

One of the most extreme dangers you'd face if you were that preteen caught unawares out on the outskirts of your property was the prospect of being snatched up by the "savage" Indian raiders. Initially the Indians snatched little boys and girls in order to ransom them back to their distraught families. But eventually their numbers started to suffer because birthrates in the tribes were decreasing. More and more, Comanches and Apaches looked to bolster their strength through forced adoption. They were entirely race-neutral when selecting their captives. They grabbed Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, and European-Americans with the aim of transforming them into brave warriors. In order to have the best chance of turning captives into "Indians", they needed to get to kids before they were able to fully form their cultural identities.

You might expect that it would be difficult to get these young white children to embrace an entirely new way of living, especially after being kidnapped by strange and foreign men. But life on the frontier was grueling and confining for adolescents. Many of the hostages eagerly took to the adventure and freedom of Indian life. Scott Zesch's The Captured examines the cases of ten (or so) such children. In each instance boys and girls were seized by force, often with accompanying violence to their family members. The descriptions of the abductions are harrowing. It's hard for the modern reader to understand how these kids overcame the horror and brutality they witnessed firsthand, visited on their friends and family by marauders from the wilderness. Yet as Zesch reports, they did. And they often came to identify with tribal life more than their birth culture.

The stories in The Captured are truly unforgettable. Zesch is fascinated by the psychological processes that allowed these captives to respond favorably to an invading people. Withon a period of only a few months, several of these kids found themselves willingly participating in raids against the very settlements they had been recently stolen from. Contemporary observers might suggest the Stockholm Syndrome as the reason for this phenomena. But every one of these "white Indians" would retain their love for their adoptive tribes for the remainder of their lives. It didn't matter if they were recovered after six months or twelve years. Something about the lifestyle of the Plains Indians was inescapably compelling for these young individuals. Fortunately for readers, Zesch has the skills necessary to enliven a time-and-place that has vanished forever. This is a remarkable book.

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