(HOST) Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Vermont and New Hampshire were frontier territories, caught up in the French and Indian Wars. Commentator Peter Gilbert says that, for some families, it was a time of captivity and ransom.
(GILBERT) When our fourth-grader told us about Calico Captive, the historical novel that her class was reading in school, I thought the story sounded familiar. Sure enough, it’s based on the story of the Johnson family, taken from their home on the Connecticut Riv- er in Charlestown, New Hampshire in August 1754. It was a time when native tribes used captives to replace losses in their own families and to ransom to the French and English.
You’ll find Susanna Johnson’s first-person narrative in North Coun- try Captives, compiled by Colin Calloway, Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth College.
After emigrating from Ireland as a boy, John Johnson settled in Charlestown, New Hampshire and married Susanna. They had four children – Sylvanus, Susanna, Mary and a daughter born in cap- tivity en route to Canada, and therefore named Elizabeth Captive. They were taken to the important native village of St. Francis, on the St. Lawrence River east of Montreal. Later, they were held in a French prison in Quebec that was ridden with smallpox, but they managed to survive.
Mother and two daughters were sent to England, exchanged for French prisoners and eventually returned to America. Husband and wife were reunited, but he was killed the following year attack- ing the fortress at Ticonderoga, which at the time was in the hands of the French.
Widowed, Susanna returned to Charlestown, remarried and had seven more children before dying old in 1810. Son Sylvanus also returned to Charlestown, but may have regretted it: throughout his long life, he asserted that the native companions of his youth were morally superior to the whites with whom he lived as an adult.
The Johnsons’ story is not unique; 250 years ago this summer, Jemima Howe and her seven children were taken captive from Bridgman’s Fort, which was in what is now Vernon, Vermont. Her husband was killed when they were taken prisoner. They, with two other widows and their children, were marched across the width of Vermont, then taken by canoe to Crown Point. Like the Johnson family, the Howes were taken up Lake Champ- lain to St. Francis.
When repeated attempts to sell them to the French failed, family members were disbursed to different Indian villages. Jemima’s six-month-old son died, her oldest daughter was sent to France and married, but eventually Jemima was ransomed home. In due course, she was reunited with all their other children, remarried, had two more children and died in 1805 at the age of 82.
The narratives of captives are compelling stories of human resilience. But as Professor Calloway, author and editor of 14 books about Native Americans, has noted, they also provide valuable insights into the lives of both settlers and native peoples – and into the complex, multi-faceted interaction between them.
In recalling her own captivity, Jemima Howe said, “…the captives, by divine assistance, were enabled to endure [the trek north to Canada] with less trouble and difficulty than they had reason to expect. From such savage masters, in such indigent circum- stances, we could not rationally hope for kinder treatment than
This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.
Peter Gilbert is the executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.