Author explains research on children captured by Indians

Author Scott Zesch gave two performances on March 20, shown here in the Meyer Theater, and earlier in a talk to students and staff.

Scott Zesch, author of “Captured:  A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier,” spoke at MCCC about his book and the untold stories of children abducted by Native Americans.

Zesch appeared twice on March 20, first in the morning in the atrium of the La-Z-Boy Center for a question and answer session with students and staff, then in an evening speech in the Meyer Theater.

Zesch’s book is a companion read to this year’s One Book, One Community novel, “News of the World,” by Paulette Jiles.

Zesch explained how he first began researching the topic of abducted children in the American West.

“I got interested in this story when I accidentally found the grave of my Comanche-captive ancestor. There wasn't much of a marker, the one date that was there, I thought was incorrect,” he said.

“Originally, all I was going to do was find out enough about him to get some dates for a marker and to find out when he was with the Indians.”

Zesch also offered insight into his research process.

“When I am researching a new topic that I don't have a very solid background in, I always start by reading the scholarly literature that is available on the topic and using that as a starting point,” he said.

Zesch emphasized the importance and validity of sources that are not available online.

“So many of the documents I used had not been digitized and are not available online,” he continued. “I actually did go through boxes of documents that had never even been microfilmed. You want to make sure that when you are doing primary research, you don't want to limit yourself to what is available online.”

The use of these primary sources is not without difficulty.

“If I found a letter that I wanted a copy of, sometimes I could copy it off the microfilm printer. If I couldn’t, I would actually be there with my laptop or a note pad and hand transcribe all of these letters.”

The process was time consuming, but ultimately it proved to be important research for his book.

“It was a slow process, but it turned out to be something invaluable,” Zesch said.

Zesch said the entire research process took 18 months.

“The core research took me about nine months. That involved several trips, primarily to Oklahoma,” he said. “I spent about nine months gathering information about these kids, and the writing of the first draft was about another nine months.”

Zesch’s evening presentation opened with a video introducing Jiles, the author of the 2019 One Book One Community novel, “News of the World.”

In the video she described the inspiration behind her writing.

“I write books about people who are driven by external events,” Jiles said.

“News of the World” is a historical fiction novel that revolves around a young girl who was captured by Native Americans and her integration back to her “original” life.

This closely relates to the work of Zesch, as he has collected nonfiction accounts of captured children.

Zesch began his presentation with a reading of the prologue from his book.

“I decided it was time to find out who this shadowy figure (his distant uncle) really was, or at least get enough information to give him a decent headstone” he read.

Zesch began to find that his ancestor was not alone, and in fact, many captured children went through similar situations.

“To better understand my ancestor’s captivity, I expanded my search to include eight other children,” he said.

Zesch described how many of these children came to be captured.

“The Southern Plains Indians went on raids in Texas mainly to get more horses,” he said. “The Comanches in particular depend on horses, not only for transport, but also for currency. Horses were their main form of wealth,” he said.

He said that the children were seen as prizes and victory over their enemies.

“These captives taken by a raiding party were seen as spoils of war, in fact they were practically the property of the person who took them,” he explained. “Their captor could use them as household servants, could trade them to someone else for horses and blankets, or in some cases could sell them back to the government for ransom.”

Zesch went on to describe the stories of several captive children and the effects of their captivity.

The Native Americans did not treat the children poorly, he said.

“After these children had been with an Indian family for a few months, it was fairly common for them to be adopted as sons or daughters of that family. These adopted children became converts to the Indian way of life,” Zesch explained.

He compared the stories of the young boys versus girls. He believes that in many cases the young boys had a much harder time adjusting to their original lifestyle after their abduction.

He explained that many of the men who had been captured went on to have troubled lives, often having many failed marriages, where their women counterparts were more likely to fall back into their original lifestyle.

That being said, Zesch said that a vast majority of the captured kids were able to go on to live a normal life.

“Most of these captives eventually readjusted to white society, but it was difficult. In fact, I think they spent the rest of their lives somewhat in limbo between the two cultures,” Zesch said.

Eventually, Zesch was able to give his ancestor the headstone that Zesch felt he deserved.

As a former Peace Corp volunteer, Zesch said he could relate to the experiences of the captured children, experiencing a new culture and then having to readjust to “normal” life.

“The best way to dispel bigotry and the fear of people who are different is to live among them and to get to know them as individuals instead of this generic ‘other’,” he said.  “Once people start to do that, all of the stereotypes start to fall away.”

Zesch believes that culture is not the whole, but it is the people.

“Every culture, despite the similarities, is made up of individuals.”