Daniel Mitchell’s Decade Among the Abenaki

One Saturday evening, in the early spring of in 1752, three boys were bringing home the cattle from the common pasture near the meetinghouse in North Yarmouth, Maine [1], back to Benjamin Mitchell’s farm. It should have been a relatively routine chore for the lads, aged seven, eleven and twelve.  But at the intersection of Main Street and the North Road, a stone’s throw from what’s now the northernmost route one exit for Yarmouth [2], the trio stumbled across a party of Abenaki lying in ambush. Though they had been hoping to capture adults, the Indians, fearing discovery, had no option but to kidnap the children and flee northwards.  Two of the youngsters, Solomon Mitchell and Joseph Chandler, would see home again relatively soon but the youngest, Solomon’s seven year-old brother Daniel, would not be reunited with his parents for another decade,by which time, according to tradition, he was “an Indian in instinct and in speech.” Details about one of the longest so-called “Indian captivities” are not abundant, but what we do know of the story paints an interesting picture that should raise some questions about our assumptions of Indian captivities in the colonial era.

In 1752, France and Great Britain were technically at peace.  But it was a fragile peace, and the truce signed between the two countries in 1748 would prove to be a brief respite before the formal resumption of hostilities in 1754 with the outbreak of what is traditionally known in the United States as the French and Indian War (among French Canadians, this conflict from 1754-63 is usually refereed to as the Guerre de la Conquete or War of the Conquest, because it resulted in the conquest of New France by Britain). North Yarmouth, now a sleepy town just inland from the coast of Maine, was then a frontier between New England and New France.  Conflict between Anglo-American colonists and Native Americans in the area was not uncommon.

Still, the capture of three young children must have come as a shock to the people of North Yarmouth. Joseph Chandler was ransomed back to his father within the year, having been sold by the Indians, who were members of the Saint François Abenaki, to a Dutch settler in upstate New York (Cornelius Cuyer). The two Mitchell boys, however, remained in Canada. Eleven year-old Solomon was sold by the Abenaki to a M. Despins of Montreal, while Daniel remained with the Indians along the Saint François River [3], about 75 miles to the north-east.

The boys’ father, Benjamin, was understandably set on his sons’ return. With the help of the Governor of Massachusetts, he even visited Montreal in 1753 to petition the French authorities in person. Although the French governor was initially receptive to Mitchell’s request to ransom back his children, the New Englander found that the task was not so simple. According to the established account, the governor had a change of heart and only one day after agreeing to let the New Englanders meet their children, he ordered them expelled from the city and the province.

Ostensibly, Mitchell and his companions were expelled because their translator was suspected of having been a spy.  However, there are interesting hints that the children themselves may not have been particularly eager to return home. The sources we have only tell this story from the New England perspective, and our authors are overwhelmingly hostile to both the French Canadians and the Abenaki. There’s a consistent assumption that life in Montreal or among the St François Abenaki must have been a real hardship. But those French sources which do exist, in the form of letters from the Governors of Canada in 1752[4] and again in 1754, clearly state that both Solomon and Daniel were well-treated, and even claim that both were attached to their new families.

Interestingly, having been carried off in an Indian raid on New England, Daniel may well have been subjected to a raid by New Englanders on the Abenaki settlement at Saint-François.  In October of 1759, Robert Rogers, led a company known as “Roger’s Rangers” in an attack on the Abenaki settlement, which killed around 30 Indians and resulted in the burning of the village and its church.

Solomon was ransomed back home to North Yarmouth in 1754, just before the outbreak of the final French and Indian War, but Daniel would remain among the Abenaki until the conquest of Canada by British and New England forces. He was ransomed home in March of 1762. By this time, he had spent the majority of his life living among the Native Americans, and he was apparently (and understandably) reluctant to return to Maine. Our history records the following account of his “homecoming.”

“He was very unwilling to leave the Indians, and even after he was on his way home he attempted to return to them but by the assistance of the savages was restored to his white friends. He had completely forgotten his parents and could not believe that he had any awaiting his return…So strong was the call of the wild that he was long closely watched and great care taken not to provoke him to anger lest he return to his old redskinned brothers in Canada”

William Rowe, Ancient North Yarmouth and Yarmouth, Maine, 1937

Daniel Mitchell would go on to be a relatively prominent man in North Yarmouth, marrying the daughter of a local judge, and becoming a ship’s captain.  Sadly, however, it seems that Mitchell left no written account of his time among the Abenaki, and the narrative presented by William Rowe, gathered from official documents and apparently some oral history, is all we have:

The whole story of his life among the savages has never been told, as he seldom spoke of it in after years…a single anecdote has been recorded by a member of his family, Mrs. Eliza Mitchell, who died in 1921 at the age of one hundred and two years. 

The anecdote in question was the use of rattlesnake venom by the Abenakis to cure young Daniel’s toothache. Elsewhere in Rowe’s account, Mitchell demonstrates his prowess at axe-throwing and a penchant for practical jokes.

There are two clear themes that emerge from both the official documents, and the semi-legendary accounts preserved by Rowe. One is that Daniel became attached to the Abenaki, and they to him. The other is that he retained some amount of number of Native American character and knowledge after his return. Together, those suggest that to call his stay among the Abenaki a “captivity” would be a disservice.

Without a first-hand account from either Mitchell or the Abenaki, it’s hard to be certain about a lot of this story.  But, given that the Abenaki had, after all, initially kidnapped him with the aim of ransoming the child back to his parents, it seems fair to assume that their attachment to Daniel was genuine. For his part, Daniel seems to have at the very least been content with his new home. He certainly wouldn’t have been the first or last New Englander to have assimilated into Native or French life in Canada. We certainly shouldn’t ignore the trauma that a child is likely to have faced having been taken from his parents at a young age, but equally, Daniel Mitchell’s story should make us question our assumptions about “captivity” among Native Americans in the colonial era.

 

 

Notes

1. Maine was a part of Massachusetts until it achieved statehood in 1820.  For simplicity, however, I will refer to places now in Maine as such throughout the piece.

2. Modern Yarmouth broke away from its parent town of North Yarmouth in 1849.

3. The Saint François Abenaki still maintain a reservation at Odanak, Quebec, which includes a museum of Abenaki culture.

4. The originals are available at the Massachusetts State Archives.  See here and here.  I was unable to access these prior to writing this.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.