The recent redemption of captive Bowe Bergdahl has interested me–not the political pissing match, which seems as drearily predictable as the plot of a Harlequin Romance. The details coming out about his experiences as a prisoner of war are what I want to know more about. The news that he has trouble speaking English now is especially fascinating to me. It called to my mind this passage 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 , 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).
Little Sylvanus Johnson has been on my mind recently, because I wrote an essay last summer about child war captives in early America, and I focused on his experiences in one portion of the essay. 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.* I hastened to the place, and found him in a deplorable situation; he was brought there by Major Putnam, afterwards Gen. Putnam, with Mrs. 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).
(This passage is identical to the passage in the 1834 edition, pp. 97-98.) I had always assumed that it was because of Sylvanus Johnson’s young age that he lost his English and picked up “Indian” (probably a Wabanaki dialect of Algonquian) and some French. Bergdahl’s case suggests that the loss of English (or any mother tongue) might not be something that only children experience in traumas like these.
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.) These might be opinions his mother couldn’t bear to acknowledge, let alone share with her audience. They might also have been opinions that were slightly more palatable to a majority white audience in 1876 than before Indian Removal, but considering the phase that year marks in the Frontier Army’s war on western U.S. Native peoples, many white Americans were far from regarding Indian people as part of a bygone romantic past.
The Bergdahl family’s journey is not yet at an end, but merely at a hopeful crossroads. It will be interesting to see how further information about Bowe Bergdahl’s captivity and injuries will change the stories we and his family will tell about his return. So far, it seems like the stories people are telling about Bergdahl’s captivity and redemption are really an index about how they feel about the war in Afghanistan, and suggest they fear that the past thirteen years of U.S. invasion and occupation were useless, or worse.
*perhaps a variation on scall, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a scaly or scabby disease of the skin.” The OED lists several sixteenth and seventeenth-century uses of scald in this manner.
**Jemima How, or Howe, and her family were taken in the same war from Hinsdale, New Hampshire; an account of her experiences was published by the Rev. Bunker Gay in 1792 as A Genuine and Correct Account of the Captivity, Sufferings, & Deliverance of Mrs. Jemima Howe. Perhaps interest in these older captivity stories was revived in the 1790s because of the new narratives of white captivity that came out of the wars in the Ohio Valley in the 1780s and 1790s. Also, there may have been a younger generation of Anglo-Americans who recognized that survivors of the traumas of the Seven Years’ War were dying out, and they acted to record their stories before it was too late.