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An Interview With Scott Zesch


An Interview With Scott Zesch

“It seems to have been universal throughout North America. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, abductions by Indians were common along the eastern seaboard, especially in colonial Massachusetts and Virginia. A large number of those children also came to prefer the natives’ way of life.”

An Interview With Scott Zesch 1

Scott Zesch in the cave where his “white Indian” ancestor lived as a hermit in the 1890s.

Scott Zesch’s great-great-great-uncle Adolph Korn was the 10 year old son of German immigrant farmers in the Texas Hill Country. On New Year’s Day 1870, he was kidnapped by the Apaches and for nearly three years fought with the Plains Indians against white settlers, soldiers and buffalo hunters. He was not the only one. The children of other white settlers in the area were captured by the Apaches and Comanches and lived life as full fledged members of the tribe. Scott Zesch has written a fascinating book, The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier, that tells the story of these child captives. Scott is a graduate of Texas A&M University and Harvard Law School. The following is an interview he recently gave to the California Literary Review.

When did you first hear stories of your great-great-great-uncle’s capture by the Apaches?
Sitting at my grandparents’ table for Sunday lunch, when I was about ten.
How did you feel about it at the time?
Indifferent, I’m sorry to say. I’d grown up in a region where raids and kidnappings by Indians had once been commonplace, so I didn’t think it was anything unusual. I was an adult before I realized how extraordinary his experience must have been.
Why do you think Native American tribes kidnapped white children?
One reason was commercial. These kids could be sold for ransom or traded to another Native American tribe. But I think the more important reason, especially after 1850, was adoption. By that time, the Plains Indians had lost a huge number of their own people to smallpox, cholera and warfare. They thought that if they captured young boys before their cultural identities were completely set, they could retrain them as Indian warriors and get them to fight willingly for the tribe. And that’s exactly what happened. An Interview With Scott Zesch 2 By the way, not all the captives were white. In fact, the majority were Mexican or Mexican-American. The Plains Indians also captured a number of Euro-American and a few African-American kids, as well as Native Americans from other tribes. In my book, I focused on the white children because their experiences were better documented. Also, I wanted to study kids whose circumstances were similar to my own relative’s
Wouldn’t the kidnappings just cause the Native Americans more problems with the white settlers?
I don’t think they worried about that. Right up until the reservation period, the Plains Indians still believed they could whip the invaders. Most of them had never seen population centers such as San Antonio or Galveston, so they had no idea how badly outnumbered they were.
Was captivity unique to the Plains Indians or did kidnappings also occur in other parts of the country?
It seems to have been universal throughout North America. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, abductions by Indians were common along the eastern seaboard, especially in colonial Massachusetts and Virginia. A large number of those children also came to prefer the natives’ way of life.
What do you think it is about these stories that fascinate us?
Indian captivity has always been one of those “sexy” topics in popular culture. In earlier times, I think people were drawn to the contrast between primitive and advanced civilizations. They debated who was really the “savage.” Today I think we’re more interested in the psychology. How could these captives shed their old ways of thinking in a year or less and adopt an entirely new value system? And, of course, the ways in which different cultures in this country relate to each other is as timely a topic as ever. There’s one other part of the captives’ experience that’s especially relevant after the attacks of 9/11/01. These children didn’t transfer their hatred of the horrible acts of certain individuals from another culture to the other people as a whole.
No matter how brutal and violent their capture, no matter how harsh the conditions they lived under, the captives all seem to have a very strong affinity for Native American culture. Some simply could not readjust to white civilization. What do you think are the reasons for this?
There were a number of reasons. They came to enjoy the freedom of Plains Indian life, the mobility, the leisure of the camps. Life for children on the Texas frontier was very hard. Most of the kids couldn’t go to school and spent every day working long hours. The captives were in a unique position to compare native communities with their own. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, so I can understand why they clung to the things they admired in the other culture long after they came home. I also think it’s very significant that their Native American families invested a lot of time teaching and training them—something their natural parents hadn’t been able to do. As a child, I remember feeling proud when an adult treated me as an equal and entrusted me with responsibility. I think these child captives felt the same way. They wanted to please their adoptive parents, because the Indians gave these kids opportunities they’d never had before.
That’s interesting. Do you think there are other lessons we can learn from these stories, either as parents or as a society?
The captives overcame their stereotypes of people who were different by actually living among them. After a while, they no longer saw them as generic “Indians” but as individuals—both good people and bad. It’s not practical for everyone to spend time in a foreign culture, but I think these stories remind us to take advantage of every opportunity we get to go beyond our usual boundaries.
The Native Americans seemed to test the captives for their level of fear and toughness. Was there a certain type of child who thrived with their Indian captors?
It’s hard to generalize, but I came to believe that the children who adapted best were those who liked adventure, were risk-takers, were somewhat assertive, and were open to new ways of thinking.
Did you come across stories of a child who may have been more sensitive and unable physically or psychologically to survive their capture?
One of the captives I studied, Clinton Smith, didn’t seem to enjoy raids and battles. But he was a smart kid, and he learned to negotiate with the Comanches, doing favors for the warriors so they wouldn’t make him go on their raiding trips.
Are you working on another book?
I’ve had three different book ideas bouncing around in my head for some time, and I’m trying to settle on one of them. I hope to be working soon.
Thank you for sharing your insights with the California Literary Review.

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  1. Texaswede

    October 21, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    As I am about to retire and hopefully move back to Texas, I decided to start with an effort to read all I could before the end of Jan 2013 (retirement) to refresh and learn more about my home state.
    I started with “Empire of the Summer Moon” and enjoyed it immensely! Then I found Scott’s book! I could not put it down! He wove a tapestry of Texas history, South Plains Indian culture, and family tales that makes that long ago period come dramatically alive.
    I was very moved by these captured children and their uprooting twice while still young. And I gained a better appreciation of my Indian ancestry too. Thanks for a wonderful book!

  2. Rose

    January 22, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Just finished reading your book: The Captured. You did a great job as I could not put the book down! I first heard of Herman Lehrmann’s story in elementary school in the early 1960’s when one of my history teachers read out loud his story from a magazine. Must have been the one from Frontier Times that you mentioned in your book. Since I grew up in the Gillespie County area your book made events in history really come alive. Good luck in your future writing endeavors.

  3. sandy Youman

    June 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Hola, I contact U when our Austin Book Club read your book. It was a well rec’d book;and sorry that you weren’t able to come to Star, TX

    NOW on July 17 I would like to invite you to Star, TX for a summer evening “Prairie Experience”:Google Legacy Plaza,Goldthwaithe,TX and see the exciting
    reason for the evening,hosted with the Smithsonian native American Museum: the chef from the Museums’ superb restaurant along with some curators!
    If you might find yourself in Texas let me know.

  4. Nancy L. Melenyzer

    December 30, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    I am interested in writing a book about Little Arkansas and in particular Liza Howell. Can you tell me if any of your research has uncovered any info on her? I want to know more about the history of the area…send me an e-mail please?

  5. Nicole (Nicolas) McKinley

    August 27, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Hi Scott! I just finished Captured and was impressed with the research you did. I plan to recommend this to the high school history teachers, as the textbooks tend to paint a sterilized version of the interaction between the settlers and the Native People. Keep writing – I know I’ll keep reading!

  6. Mary

    August 9, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Hi, Scott,

    I just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed your book, “The Captured.” I ran across it in a bookstore in Fredericksburg, and I started reading it on the spot. It completely captured my imagination. I ended up reading it on my annual family beach trip, and I couldn’t stop talking about it the whole time! At one point, my mom cut me off and said, “Why don’t you just email the author and let him know how much you like his book?” Anyway, I hope this post reaches you!

  7. Bill Newsom

    May 13, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    The discriptions of the outrages inflicted on the children of the settlers caused my blood to run cold.
    I continue to be amazed by people who wince at the use of the term “Savage” social evolution is some tuff stuff, with all that said the right folks won.

    I am half “Osage”

  8. Joseph G.Garcia

    April 27, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Mr. Zesch,
    I heard your story during my lunch hour today on KKYK radio. I was amazed how your story was so similar to my great, great grandfathers. He was abducted by Commanches while with two older teenagers, their throats were cut to scare my GGgrandfather into cooperating. After he escaped 9 yrs later, he left Texas to become a trapper in Louisiana. He led a solitary life until he came back and settled in Bear Creek. My family still has 9,000 acres close to Ft.Mckavett and thats were he is buried, we have a mass and family reunion every year. Thank you, I cant wait to share your book of similar stories with the rest of the family.

    Joseph G. Garcia
    Great, Great, Grandson of Melton Morales (Kimble County)

  9. Alton Klier

    December 2, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    Scott, I just finished reading “The Captured”. I was greatly impressed with your detailed research which enabled you to share this unique information with us. As a native from Fredericksburg, I would also like to share with you some interesting information about the Germans in Frederickksburg during the Civil War that came to light just a few years ago. If you are interested, please let me know at the above e-mail address. By the way, since you are an attorney, you might know an attorney and a dear friend in Mason by the name of Gerald Gesitweidt.
    Best regards, Alton Klier

  10. bruce bordes

    May 28, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    As a 71 year old I sometime feel I have read it all! Thanks Scott Zesch for a book I could not put down. Hope you continue your writing.
    bruce bordes

  11. Kendra Bassett

    May 28, 2007 at 9:42 pm

    You and I are distant cousins. I am curretly reading you book” captured”. Somone in the family sent one to my Mom. Carole Sue Korn. Then she gave it to my brother, which then gave it to me.
    Great work on the book, I first heard the name Uncle Adolph in the book Kernels of Korn but not much was said about what had happened.
    Thanks for writing your book it’s nice to get to hear the stories that go with the name and places of our past.
    I looked you up on line to see if I could see a better photo of you, I think you look like a mix between my cousin Lynn Korn and my cousin Scott Korn, I looked you up in Kernels of Korn and you are 4 year older than me and one year younger than my brother Dana.
    Just wanted to say Hello!
    Kendra Bassett

  12. Sharon Heinaman-Jensen

    May 28, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    I ran across your book in Fredericksburg, TX & upon reading the cover found the name of one of my family members – Lee Temple Friend. I have various pictures of Asa Johnson & family along with copies of the original documenting of the story titled, “The Scalping of Matilda Friend”. I am very interested in contacting you to find out what other information you have regarding my family. I hope this reaches you.

  13. Heike

    May 28, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    Mr. Zesch,

    I’ve read your book THE CAPTURED, and I did not want it to end! It made me cry and sometimes laugh, but most of all it made my heart ache for the “White Indians” and their adoptive families!!

    To be honest, though it may sound a bit much, I was completely overwhelmed by your book. It was thoroughly fascinating and your research was unnerving. It must have been very time-consuming to say the least.

    Truthfully, I can’t say why but I have always felt a sort of “kinship” with the true Conquerers of this land! They’d probably laugh me right off their reservations but it’s true. Obviously, I can’t pretend to understand their ways, though I’ve always wanted to learn and love their way of life, though we may as well be from different planets. I’ll always have tremendous respect and awe for the Native Peoples of this land, and words cannot express how it touches me what and how much they have lost!

    I thank you for writing this book and hope to one day have the honor of visiting your Uncle Adolph’s grave.


  14. Annie

    May 28, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    Dear Sir:
    I’ve just started reading your book and am finding it extremely
    fascinating. I can certainly understand how a child could want to stay with the adoptive culture. As a child I used to entertain the romantic notion of running away and living with the American Indians. Not so strange, perhaps, except that I was born and raised in the Philippines and dreaming of this. I am Caucasion, raised by Caucasions as an American, but as far as I’m concerned, I will always be Filipino. Actually, the new term is “Third-culture Kid”. This is where you are one culture but raised in another culture. You are not fully one culture nor the other, but a blending of both. Talk about culture shock when I returned at the age of fourteen, with my parents, to live in the States. I imagine that these children who were taken captive by the Indians were probably some of our first “third-culture kids” and their assimilation back in their own culture may have been more successful and less painful if they’d been understood and allowed to actually acknowledge and embrace that “third culture”. I know of several adults, today, who are “third-culture kids” and who, for all intents and purposes, are living like your Uncle Adolph Korn, perhaps not physically in a cave, but emotionally.

    Thank you so much for tackling this topic and I’m looking forward to reading more of your books.


  15. mayme hause

    May 28, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    GIG ‘EM
    Yesterday we were in Mason researchng my husband’s ancestors that lived in Streeter. We visited the library, and a very nice librarian gave the information about you and your book. We have ordered it and others, as we are very interested in the area. Look frorward to reading and sharing your book with others. Your view is very interesting to me.

    My family has a long long history at TAMU back to the 1920’s, and a grand daughter there now.

    My very best to you and much success in your future writngs.

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