J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sylvanus Johnson “returned from captivity”

A few years ago, Ann M. Little shared this analysis of a passage, and an event, from A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. [Susanna] Johnson, Containing an Account of her Four Years of Suffering with the Indians and French:
First published in 1796, it told of her family’s experiences from 1754-58 as prisoners during the Seven Years War after they were captured in a raid on Fort Number Four in what’s now Charlestown, New Hampshire. Johnson relates this about the return of her son Sylvanus, whom she last saw at age six or seven. He was eleven before she saw him again:
In the October following [1758], I had the happiness to embrace my son Sylvanus; he had been above three years with the Indians, followed them in all their hunting excursions and learnt too many of their habits; to civilize him, and learn him his native language was a severe task, (136).
…In successive editions of her narrative, Susanna Johnson either gives us more details about Sylvanus’s condition, or she embroiders the story. From the 1814 third edition published after her death in 1810:
In October, 1758, I was informed that my son Sylvanus was at Northampton [Massachusetts], sick of a scald [a skin disease]. I hastened to the place, and found him in a deplorable situation; he was brought there by Major [Israel] Putnam, afterwards Gen. Putnam, with Mrs. [Jemima] How and her family, who had returned from captivity. The town of Northampton had taken the charge of him; his situation was miserable; when I found him, he had no recollection of me, but, after some conversation, he had some confused ideas of me, but no remembrance of his father. It was four years since I had seen him; he was then eleven years old. During his absence, he had entirely forgotten the English language, spoke a little broken French, but was perfect in Indian. He had been with the savages three years, and one year with the French. But his habits were somewhat Indian; he had been with them in their hunting excursions, and suffered numerous hardships; he could brandish a tomahawk or bend the bow; but these habits wore off by degrees, (130).
…The additions and changes in Susanna Johnson’s account also demonstrate the ways in which historical memory changes according to the times. Her account of her experiences in 1754-58 wasn’t published until nearly fifty years after the fact, but even then we see evidence of how the times continue to shape the story in the successive editions. By 1814, the “Indians” in the 1796 account became “the savages,” and she was much more fulsome about the injuries and changes that captivity had wrought on her young son in 1814, 1834, and perhaps successive editions too. In the later editions, what had been her “happiness to embrace [her] son Sylvanus” became a much more ambiguous account of their reunion, one that emphasized the child’s “deplorable” and “miserable” condition, as well as his trouble remembering his parents.

Henry Saunderson (among other nineteenth-century local historians) claims in his History of Charlestown, New Hampshire, that Sylvanus Johnson “so much preferred the modes of Indian life to the prevalent customs of civilization, that he often expressed regret at having been ransomed. He always maintained, and no arguments could convince him to the contrary, that the Indians were a far more moral race than the whites.” His boyhood captivity apparently had no long-term effects on his life and health, as he died at 84 in 1832, “leaving the reputation of an honest and upright man,” (458.)
Little was exploring the lives of captured children in connection with a biography she published last year, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright. Like Sylvanus Johnson, Esther Wheelwright was seized at age seven and adopted into a Wabanaki family. Unlike him, Esther never returned to her family.

Instead, Esther Wheelwright became an Ursuline nun in French Canada and eventually a superior of her order. Her family in Boston tried to lure her back with bequests if she returned, and she never did. Her British heritage, while mostly forgotten, proved useful when Gen. James Wolfe captured Québec the year after Sylvanus Johnson returned to his mother.

TOMORROW: Sylvanus Johnson in the woods.


G. Lovely said...

A fascinating anthology of early American women's narratives is "Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women's Narratives" published 1990 by the University of Wisconsin Press (available in Kindle format).

Interesting reading, i contains a group of works ranging from captive narratives to travelogues that provide views of the NE landscape and people from non-standard perspectives, and not all were extensively edited at the time.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Sylvanus is my 4 or 5 times great grandfather. I love your stories really. We are still learning.