This Week in New England Native Documentary History

1690 was a bad year for Nathaniel Niles.  Three times he was taken captive by French Indians and twice had his property plundered, all within a span of sixteen months.  By the fall of 1691, as King William’s War continued, Niles had moved to the New London, Connecticut area, seeking a new home and new life.  Hearing of his distress, some Mohegans offered to sell him land.  But before any property could be had, the law required that Niles obtain the permission of the colony’s General Court.  On October 9, 1691, Niles submitted his request “that the said Honored Court would be pleased so far to sympathize with me In my loses as to grant me liberty to trade with sd natives for sum land not exceeding foure or five hundred akers.”  The Court did commiserate with him, for in October the following year, they granted him one hundred and fifteen acres of land. 

Between 1650 and 1763, over 1600 New Englanders were seized and taken to New France, and few than half returned home.  Linda Colley says that “almost one in ten of the males involved, and close to a third of the females, opted or were compelled to stay with their Indian captors, or more commonly with the French.  Of those aged between seven and fifteen when captured, almost fifty percent remained in their new surroundings.”  Unlike Eunice Williams, the “unredeemed captive,” and Hannah Duston, who was also abducted during King William’s War, not much is known about Nathaniel Niles.  “In many cases,” continues Colley, “the ultimate fate of the captives, and even their existence, went unreported, especially if they were taken from isolated farmsteads, or while travelling alone, or if they disappeared in the course of a battle.”

Older historical narratives of colonial captivity usually portrayed one side of the drama, vilifying and demonizing the role of Native warriors.  More recent scholarship, however, is more nuanced, indicating that captivity raids were part of well-established Native customs and practices associated with changing social structure and community grieving. For more on captives, see the following resources. Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney, Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on DeerfieldJohn Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early AmericaEmma Lewis Coleman, New England Captives Carried to Canada Between 1677 and 1760 During the French and Indian Wars.

Niles’ petition is part of the Wyllys Papers at the Connecticut Historical Society.  To view an image of the document and its transcription, click here

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