Indian Captivity Stories/Introduction


Index to Articles
"The Abduction of Boone's Daughter"
"The Abduction of Boone's Daughter"

This series of articles is concerned with Indian Captivity Stories that are told by the descendants of certain Walker, Cowan, and Handley families. These families settled on the Virginia frontier, and in Blount County, TN in the mid to late 18th century. In some cases other families bearing the same surname settled near by. All of these families have oral and/or written family traditions that involve the capture and death of family members during the Indian Wars in the Virginia and Tennessee frontiers. There are broad similarities between these stories. In many cases the families used the same given names, with John, Samuel, and Mary being especially popular among all of them. These factors have made it difficult for members of subsequent generations to recognize which of these stories represented their own family history, and which were for other families with the same surnames.

The stories in which we are here interested mostly deal with captivity or death of women from the Walker, Cowan, and Handley families. Our records for these stories vary in quality. One record is a first person account by one of the captives, and another is by a contemporary of one of the captives. One record relates what one of the captive told his son. Most of the other records date to the 1880's or later, and are told by distantly related relatives.

Many people have relied on these stories as primary sources in piecing together their family genealogy. John K. Fleming, in his "The Cowans From County Down" used some of these stories in laying out Cowan family history. (Indeed, some of these stories are best known through his efforts). The "Cowans of County Down" has been greatly influential in shaping peoples understanding of Cowan family history. Unfortunately, Fleming relied heavily on secondary sources. This may have led to the acceptance of some "facts" whose validity is questionable. More particularly, some elements of these stories seem to contradict each other.

The distinction between primary and secondary sources is a significant one for this article. In most cases the stories represent the workings of oral tradition, written down long after the events themselves, by persons who knew the stories only second hand or third hand. Descendants heard the stories, told and retold by family members. Father told son, son told daughter, and daughter told grandson. Eventually someone wrote them down. And at each step in the transmission process there was some potential for information loss---and for augmentation and embellishment. The final product we read today may bear only a shadowy resemblance to the original events.

One of the purposes of this article is to place these stories in a context where they can be readily compared, and through that comparison identify the elements of the story most likely to reflect the original events and family relationships described. This is, admittedly, a bit tricky. One might ask "how can we know 250 years after the event, what really occurred?" How can you accept one element of a story and reject others? One might give the short answer as "with great difficulty", but in truth, there are ways to separate out the truth from the fiction. The best way to achieve this is to compare the facts given by the stories with historical facts. While the events themselves are often not captured in contemporary records of the time and place, we can sometimes find data that supports or refutes the possibility of a particular event occurring in the way described. If historical events, or persons well known and documented in contemporary records, are mentioned, we can look to see if their mention is consistent with what we know of them from other sources. We can sometimes pare out the implausible and the impossible, then look to see what remains.

More importantly in the present case, since the stories revolve around related families, or families thought to be related, we can examine them side by side, and see which elements, of which stories, are consistent with each other, and with known genealogical relationships established via primary sources.