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The true story behind Calico Captive

One of my favorite books from childhood (and ok, maybe even still!) is Calico Captive, by Elizabeth George Speare. She is better known for The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow, but Calico Captive is her best book, in my opinion.

Sorry, there is no non-weird cover for this awesome book. This is actually the best of the four choices!
The story of Calico Captive follows the true story of Miriam Willard. In 1754, during the pre-French and Indian War tensions, she and her sister's family were kidnapped from an isolated fort/settlement on the Connecticut River. Miriam, her 9-months-pregnant sister Susanna, her sister's husband James, and their three children Sylvanus (6), Sue (4), and Polly (2), along with a neighbor, Labaree, were marched by their Indian kidnappers through the wilderness of Vermont into French Canada. The book tells Miriam's story, but Speare based it on a memoir written in 1810 by Susanna Willard Johnson herself, then 80 years old.

You can read the memoir here. I had read it a few years ago, but now that (my daughter) Miriam is reading Calico Captive, I decided to read it again so I could discuss it with her. It is an amazing story (and the book stays pretty true to it, at least as far as Miriam's experience goes). Here is more about the life of Susanna Johnson, as told in her memoir.

Susanna didn't like living at the fort (called Number Four) on the Connecticut frontier. She, her husband James, and their three children had a farm outside the fort's walls, but in August of 1754, tensions with the Indians were running high and the settlers had sought refuge inside the fort. "The fears of the night were horrible beyond description," she said, "and even the light of day was far from dispelling painful anxiety." At the time, her husband was away trading. I imagine her cramped inside a fort with other settler families, husbandless, hot, extremely pregnant, scared all the time, but having to put on a brave face for her three young children.

Near the end of the month, her husband returned. He brought two pieces of good news. First, he felt the situation with the Indians had improved enough that they could move back to their own home outside the fort's walls. But only for a few weeks, because his second piece of good news was that they would soon be heading back to civilization (Springfield). Susanna (and Miriam) would only have to endure the hardships of Number Four for a little while longer. To celebrate, they held a party with their neighbors on August 29th. They "spent the time very cheerfully, with watermelons and flip, till midnight."

Early the next morning, their home was invaded by 17 Indians. They were taken prisoner and marched into the forest: "My little children were crying, my husband and the other two men [neighbors] were bound, and my sister and myself were obliged to make the best of our way, with all our might. The loss of my shoe rendered travelling extremely painful."

Susanna went into labor on the trail the next morning. "Here the compassionate reader will drop a fresh tear for my inexpressible distress: fifteen or twenty miles from the abode of any civilized being, in the open wilderness, rendered cold by a rainy day, in one of the most perilous hours, and unsupplied with the least necessary, that could yield convenience in this hazardous moment. My children were crying at a distance, where they were held by their masters, and only my husband and sister to attend me...About ten o'clock a daughter was born." They named the baby Captive.

(Forty-three years later, Susanna and Captive returned to the area to try to find the exact spot where this happened. It took some time, but Susanna eventually identified the brook near which she remembered giving birth. In her memoir, she says they erected a monument there. I wonder if it still stands? What's even more interesting to me is that the spot is not far from Middlebury, Vermont, where I gave birth to Magdalena 250+ years later in considerably greater comfort!)

Over the next few weeks as they continued their hike north into French Canada, Susanna and her baby almost died a number of times. Susanna was able to ride on a horse (no picnic after just having had a baby - "every step of the horse almost deprived me of life") until they were starving to death and had to kill the horse and eat it: "Appetite is said to be the best sauce; yet our abundance of it did not render savory this novel steak. My children, however, [ate] too much, which made them very unwell for a number of days." Then the baby was lost in some river rapids during a crossing and almost drowned (their neighbor Labaree, who had been kidnapped with them, "reached a corner of its blanket, and saved its life"). James had to carry Susanna on his back as they marched until he was "emaciated and almost exhausted: often he laid me on the ground, to save his own life and mine...While prostrate upon the earth, I often begged him to leave me there, to end a life which could last but a short time, and would take his with it, if he continued his exertions to save me."

After six weeks, Susanna and her family made it to French Canada. One by one, they were sold off and separated. Susanna's 6-year-old son was kept by the Indians ("he threw his little arms around me, begging, in the agony of grief, that I would keep him...the last words I heard, intermingled with his cries, were, 'Ma'am, I shall never see you again.'"); the rest were taken to Montreal. Susanna and the baby Captive followed soon after.

Susanna found out that 2-year-old Polly was owned by the mayor and his wife. They would not let Susanna see her daughter. Four-year-old Sue had been bought by three elderly women, who were caring for her in their home. Susanna's husband James was granted permission to travel to Boston to get ransom money to secure his family's release. In the meantime, Miriam, Susanna, and her baby stayed with a family named Du Quesne.

They were treated well - "with great attention and vicility, dined frequently in the first families, received cards to attend them on parties of pleasure, and was introduced to a large and respectable acquaintance," - until James didn't return according to the agreed-upon schedule. The authorities in Boston wouldn't let him travel back to Montreal because the war was now raging. In Montreal, they assumed he had disappeared so he didn't have to pay the ransom money. Miriam, Susanna, and the baby had to move out of the Du Quesne's house, rent a room in town, and work as seamstresses. Susanna "observed, with pain, the gradual change in [her] friends, from coldness to neglect, and from neglect to contempt."

When James was finally able to return, he, Polly, Susanna, and baby Captive (now nearly a year old) were put in prison. "This jail was a place too shocking for description. In one corner sat a poor being, half dead with the smallpox; in another were some lousy blankets and straw; in the centre stood a few dirty dishes, and the whole presented a scene miserable to view. The terrors of starvation, and the fear of suffocating in filth, were overpowered by the more alarming evil of the smallpox."

They all ended up contracting smallpox, but they all recovered. The jail was an awful place, but after a few months they were moved to a less-awful jail (but still awful). In December 1756, a little over two years since being taken, Susanna gave birth to a baby boy in prison. The baby died after a few hours. Around the same time, Susanna received news that her father had been killed by Indians back home.

In May 1757, they were allowed to leave prison and live in Montreal. They also saw Miriam for the first time in two years. Arrangements were made for the family to be released and sail to England, including Sylvanus (now 9) and Sue (now 7). At the last minute, however, permission was only granted for Miriam, Susanna, Polly, and Captive to leave. It was a difficult choice for Susanna: "This was calamity indeed, to leave a husband and two children in the hands of enemies, was too abhorrent for reflection...but I had so long been accustomed to danger and distress."

The four of them sailed to England and then caught a ship back to New York. On December 10th, 1757, they "dropped anchor at Sandy Hook; on the eleventh, [Susanna] had the supreme felicity to find [herself] in [her] native country, after an absence of three years, three months, and eleven days."

James was reunited with her on New Year's Day, 1758. However, he joined the war effort and was killed at Fort Ticonderoga seven months later.

Sylvanus (age 10) was reunited with Susanna after a four-year absence in October of 1758. He did not remember his mother and had forgotten how to speak English; "he spoke a little broken French, but was perfect in Indian."

Sue was returned a year after that, aged 9. "My daughter did not know me at her return, and spoke nothing but French." She went on to have fifteen children, including, apparently, twins and triplets ("among which were five at two births").

In all, Susanna had seven children with James, four of whom survived infancy. She married again in 1762 and had seven more children, two of whom survived infancy. She had 38 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren, and "lived, till within a few years [in 1810], on the same spot where the Indians took us from in 1754; but the face of nature has so changed, that old savage fears are all banished."

WHAT A LIFE, am I right?? I even left out the part where she got in not one but TWO horrific wagon/horse accidents that almost killed her. She died of old age just a few months after the final updated publication of her memoir, in November 1810, age 80.

I can see why Elizabeth George Speare was so taken by this woman and her story, and why she decided to flesh out Miriam's side of it. I can't wait to discuss the true story behind the fiction with (my daughter) Miriam once she finishes the book!

June 2014 books

June 27th, outsourced