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Some of us on Ricochet have been wondering how to teach people to prefer the liberty of free markets to the security of socialism. Others have been lecturing us about how capitalism has made life fantastically better for humans.
Each time one of these discussions comes up, I wish people here knew more about Indian captivity narratives — the true ones, that is. These stories have been popular in North America since the late 1600s, though not always been viewed as essential knowledge.
I learned of a new one today while working in the archives of the historical library in a small town in Texas. I’m following up on the three stagecoach owners who operated a line between Detroit and Chicago, and then all went to Texas following the 1832 Black Hawk War. It turns out that a descendant of one of the three, a woman who did a lot of research on her family history, was the granddaughter of a man who had spent his formative years as an Indian.
Keep in mind that to most Indians in North America, your DNA or blood lineage isn’t what made you Indian. Your biological parentage isn’t what made you Indian. We might say your upbringing is what made you Indian. That isn’t the way Indians would say it, and it doesn’t exactly cover all situations, but we can consider it close enough for present purposes.
In this case, the young boy had been captured at the age of two. There was no information about how he was brought back to his Anglo family as an almost-grown young man, but apparently it was not his own choice, because he tried at least once to swim across a river to escape back to his Indian family. He eventually adjusted, more or less, and raised a family. I learned, approximately, where he’s buried, and someday will try to go there by bicycle to visit his grave, if there is a marker for it.
It’s a sketchy story without the detail of some of the better-known stories in Texas, such as those of Herman Lehmann or Cynthia Ann Parker, whose stories have been told at book length. And there are many similar stories in the Great Lakes region, such as those of John Tanner, Jonathan Adler, and Frances Slocum. (Tanner’s book, by the way, is claimed to be the only one that is much liked by Native Americans.)
But these stories all have in common a captive’s reluctance to go back to Anglo society and a difficult readjustment, or in Slocum’s case, a successful refusal. Parker died unhappily in white society. Many of the captives who were forcibly repatriated to their original Anglo families attempted to escape back to their Indian families. Many of them who finally acquiesced to life in their Anglo families maintained a lifelong relationship with their Indian families, with visits taking place in both directions.
Benjamin Franklin famously remarked on this phenomenon, writing in the mid-18th century:
when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.
Franklin also pointed out, correctly, that this was a one-way phenomenon. It never worked the other way around. Indian children never learned to enjoy life among the English or stay with them.
But I think he was very wrong about one thing. The Indian way of life was not carefree. It had less of a hierarchical regimentation than the American settlers had, and was less structured around the clock. (Indians even today usually start their public meetings and celebrations late, with somebody sure to make a joke about running on Indian time. I have learned to be relaxed about getting to such events on time — where non-Indians are welcome, as they often are). But in the 18th and 19th centuries it was a brutal, care-laden existence.
John Tanner’s book told in stark detail of the marginal existence of Indian life. Starvation,
especially in winter, was often one hunting failure away. There was great joy and pride when he was able, with much exertion and risk, to provide for his Indian family. He formed strong bonds with his adoptive Indian mother and siblings, who went through these tribulations with him. Later in life, after he went back to visit his English family, a brother wanted to join him in his return to the Indians. But John didn’t let him, knowing that someone who had not been brought up in that life would be unable to take it.
By the way, John Tanner finally went back to white society voluntarily (though unhappily). And so did Jonathan Adler, perhaps more happily. It seems they did so for health care. Then as now, it was a destroyer of freedom. These two men started to feel their age, and it seems they knew they would not live as long in Indian society. They had been captured when they were old enough to remember their Anglo life, too.
But if Ben Franklin was wrong about life as an Indian being free of care, what was the attraction?
My hypothesis is that you develop strong bonds with other people when you depend on each other for life and death. You can develop bonds with others just by working with them at the office or the food bank, but even more so in matters of basic existence.
The opportunity to experience these bonds is destroyed by modern life. There was still some remnant of it in earlier agricultural life, where the family was an economic unit. But there is less now when work and family are usually two separate things. And there is even less where there are left-wingers who try to keep people from making any consequential decisions that leave them depending on each other rather than on the welfare state.
People are torn between a life of rich personal relationships on one hand, and on the other the conveniences and ease that modern capitalism or socialism offers.
So back to the original topics: Yes, capitalism has made some things better, but it has not necessarily made life better. It’s important to realize that life doesn’t consist of GDP, life-saving drugs, and ever-cheaper smartphones. Those things are certainly desirable on the one hand, but don’t expect your moralizing on this topic to keep people from coming out with torches and pitchforks to overthrow the regime that created them. Try to find some balance.
And for inducing people to prefer free markets to welfare socialism? Help them to observe the joy of taking risks together with loved ones. This can only be done in a society where we can still make decisions and choices. But if we run to government to make uniform regulations each time families make choices we don’t like, we’re not setting much of an example.
[The photo is of my bicycling destination on Labor Day 1998, where I was learning about the first of a number of Indian captivity narratives.]