In August 1754, Susannah Johnson gave birth to a daughter in the Vermont wilderness during a forced march by her Indian captors.
The French and Indian War had started, and childbirth in the woods was only the beginning of her ordeal. Hunger, fatigue, fear and pain accompanied her on her march to an Indian village. The Indians sold her into slavery to the French, who eventually put her and her family into a Montreal prison. To return to her home in Charlestown, N.H., Susannah Johnson had to sail to England first.
Forty-five years later, Susannah Johnson hired a stonecutter to create two stone markers. She had them placed on the exact spot where she bore her daughter Captive and where they spent the night.
The markers still stand, though only near their original location. People know them as the Vermont Indian stones.
Susannah Johnson was born Feb. 20, 1729 or 1730, in Lunenberg, Mass., one of 12 children to Moses and Susanna Hastings Willard. She was descended from Maj. Simon Willard, who founded Concord, Mass., and Thomas Hastings, who immigrated to America in the Puritan Great Migration.
At the age of 14 she moved to Charlestown with her family. The New Hampshire settlement amounted to little more than a fort, a saw mill and a cluster of huts for about 10 families.
Susannah Johnson’s step-uncles settled Charlestown, but Indians killed one of them during King George’s War, the third of the four French and Indian Wars.
When still in her teens, she married James Johnson in Lunenberg, Mass.
Her new husband had already spent much of his life in captivity – but to the British. As a 10-year-old boy he went to sea with his uncle, a ship captain. His uncle died on the voyage, and the crew sold him to a ship taking Irish slaves to America.
When the ship landed in Boston, the boys were allowed to play on the wharf. Susannah Johnson’s great-uncle happened to walk by them, and he noticed young James Johnson, the only boy who spoke English. The great-uncle bought his indenture.
At the age of 20, James Johnson bought his freedom and obtained a lieutenant’s commission. He married Susannah Willard, and they moved to the northernmost British settlement on the Connecticut River. Known then as Fort at Number 4, it is now called Charlestown, N.H.
During the peaceful years between the third and fourth French and Indian wars, Charlestown doubled in size. James Johnson did some farming and traded with the Indians.
By May of 1754, James and Susannah Johnson had three children. That spring, he decided to go to Connecticut on a trading trip. In Connecticut he learned about an imminent war with the French and Indians, but he didn’t think Charlestown was in any immediate danger.
When James Johnson returned home in late August, neighbors came over to celebrate his return. They ate watermelons, drank flip, made merry and stayed in the Johnsons’ log house until midnight. When the neighbors left, the Johnsons went to bed and slept soundly.
Susannah was in the last days of pregnancy, happy her husband had returned.
The Indian Attack
Just before sunrise on Aug. 30, 1754, the Johnsons’ neighbor Peter Labarree knocked at the door. James Johnson got out of bed and put on his clothes to let him in.
Susannah Johnson heard him open the door and then shout “Indians! Indians!” He went to grab his gun, but a crowd of Indians burst in. Some hauled her 14-year-old sister out of bed, another grabbed Susannah and four Indians tied up her husband.
The Indians led her to the door, fainting and trembling, then brought her three naked children to her. She realized she herself had no clothes on. An Indian gave her a gown. She asked for a petticoat, but he refused.
The Indians took some plunder, bundled it up quickly then ordered them to march. Two Indians grabbed her arms and hurried her through thorny thickets. She lost a shoe.
They walked for a little while until they heard alarm guns from the fort. That hurried the Indians. After walking a mile and a half, Susannah Johnson grew faint and sat down. An Indian drew his knife; she thought he meant to kill her, but he just loosened her dress.
The marching party included 11 Abenaki Indians, who understood little English. Also included: James and Susannah Johnson, their son Sylvanus, 6, daughters Susanna, 4, and Polly 2, Susannah’s sister Miriam, 14, neighbor Peter Labbaree and Ebenezer Farnsworth, a hired hand.
Hours after they set out, Indians noticed the blood covering Susannah’s legs and feet, cut badly because she had lost her shoe. They gave her moccasins. Then they caught a stray horse, threw bags and blankets on top of him and put her on top.
They walked another eight miles or so before sleeping on the ground. On the next day’s march, Susannah Johnson sat on the horse, her husband walking next to her holding her on.
After about an hour, she went into labor. The Indians indicated they must go to a brook.
She later wrote of her distress. She was
…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 the 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.
Though the Indians remained aloof during her delivery, ‘they shewed some humanity,”
They built a small hut to shelter her, and at 10 am, she gave birth to a daughter, named Captive. The Indians expressed pleasure that they had another prisoner to sell.
The Indians let her rest during the day and made her a hut to sleep in at night. For two more days they marched on in glum silence and unvarying fatigue. On Day 5 they reached the banks of Lake Champlain, where they shot the horse she rode and ate it.
She couldn’t walk. Her husband had to carry her, which nearly killed them both.
“Inevitable death, in the midst of woods, one hundred miles wide, appeared my only portion,” she wrote.
They marched for four more days. At every meal, the Indians shared with them equally, and more than once they gave her a blanket, to shelter her from a thunderstorm.
On day 9 they reached East Bay in Lake Champlain. There, two Indians met them in four canoes, and they paddled all night to reach the western shore. The Indians built a fire and made the prisoners dance.
Again they embarked in canoes, and arrived at the French fort Crown Point at noon. The Indians took the prisoners to the French commander’s home. He gave them brandy, a good dinner, a change of linen and he put them up for four days. Susannah Johnson had a nurse, who dressed her infant in a French outfit she described as fantastical. Captive kept the outfit her whole life.
The Rest of the Story
They traveled north by water from French garrison to French garrison. Finally they arrived in St. Francis near Montreal, a village of about 30 wigwams and a Catholic church where a French friar said daily Mass.
Sylvanus went hunting with the Indians. Susannah Johnson wouldn’t see him again for years. The Indians put her in a large wigwam with three Indian men and three women. They took James Johnson to Montreal to sell him. Her daughters, her sister Miriam and Peter Labarree soon followed. In November, so did she.
After 11 days of travel she found her husband, children and friends in Montreal. Respectable people had bought them all and treated them well, except for the mayor, who treated her small daughter Polly badly.
James Johnson got two months’ parole to go to New England to raise cash to redeem his family. Massachusetts gave him 10 pounds and New Hampshire 150, but then the Massachusetts governor told him he had to stay.
When he didn’t return after two months, Susannah’s masters started to treat her badly. Finally James Johnson did return, only to be incarcerated with his family in a criminal jail. They were prisoners of war.
Susannah Johnson described conditions in the jail as shocking. The family all got smallpox, but survived.
After six months the Johnsons persuaded the French authorities to transfer them to a civil jail. There they had decent beds, candles, food and fuel.
In the spring of 1757 they petitioned for their freedom, and got it. She found passage to England and from there she hoped to return home. Her husband had to stay behind. She, her two little daughters and her sister sailed for Plymouth, then went to Portsmouth. They then sailed to Cork. Then to New York, three years, three months and 11 days after her capture.
On Jan. 1, 1758 she embraced James Johnson, her ‘dearest friend’ in Charlestown. Charlestown had suffered from the war, so the family went to Lancaster. Her husband won a captain’s commission.
Captivity, slavery and imprisonment hadn’t killed James Johnson. But shortly after he won his freedom, he died fighting the French and Indians at Ticonderoga.
In October 1758, Susannah Johnson tracked down her son, now 11, who didn’t know her and spoke only broken English. He knew perfect Abenaki, however, after living with the Indians for three years.
Susannah Johnson eventually remarried and had more children. She published a book about her captivity in 1796, when captivity narratives had become a popular literary genre. Hers was no exception.
In 1799, Susannah Johnson hired a stonecutter to engrave two slate slabs. One said,
On the 31 st of August 1754, Capt James Johnson had / a Daughter born on this Spot of Ground, being / Captivated with his whole Family by the Indians.
The other said,
This is near the Spot that the Indians Encamp/ the Night after they took Mr Johnson’s Family, / Mr Labarree & Farnsworth, August 30th 1754, and / Mrs Johnson was Delivered of her Child Half a mile up this Brook; // When troubles near the Lord is- kind, / He hears the Captives crys. / He can subdue the Savage mind, / And learn it sympathy.
She had the stone slabs placed on the spot where she gave birth to Captive, and the other near the place where they slept that night. In 1918, the stone markers were mounted on a single slab. You can still visit them.
Susannah Johnson died November 27, 1810.
To read her entire story, click here.
Elizabeth George based her young adult novel Calico Captive on Susannah Johnson’s story. You can find the Indian Stones at a small roadside pullout in southern Reading, Vt., on the east side of Route 106 at its junction with Knapp Brook Road.
Images: Stone marker with steps, By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34713735; small stone Indian stone By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34713733
This story was updated in 2020.