“I chose rather to go along with those . . . ravenous beasts, than that moment to end my days. . . . I was not willing to run away, but desired to wait God’s time, that I might go home quietly, and without fear.”
In February 1676, Narragansett, Nipmuc, and Wampanoag warriors raided Lancaster, Massachusetts, taking twenty-four townspeople captive, including Mary Rowlandson, the wife of the town minister. She remained a captive for eleven weeks before Massachusetts colonial officials obtained her release in exchange for cloth, provisions, and money. Six years later, she published an account of her experience as The Sovereignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed, Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. As indicated by the title, she presented her experience in terms of religious guidance. Her Puritan message of faith, patience, fortitude, and plain living surely resonated with readers, but it was her vivid personal account of her physical and spiritual struggle to survive in harsh conditions and vastly different culture that brought the book immediate and continued popularity.
King Philip’s War began in June 1675 when Wampanoag warriors attacked settlers in the town of Swansea in Plymouth Colony. Over the next year, the Wampanoags, joined by Nipmuc and Narragansett allies, raided numerous English settlements in southern New England. At first, the colonists were unprepared for an extensive conflict. Lax military training, poor tactics, limited resources, and a general misunderstanding of the American Indian situation all contributed to a botched initial response by colonial officials and military commanders. With considerable help from friendly Indian bands and enemy defectors, the military situation shifted in the colonists’ favor in the spring of 1676, and by August, the Wampanoags and their allies were defeated.
In her account of her captivity, Mary Rowlandson appeared to be little concerned with the overall course of the war. For her, it was primarily a personal and spiritual conflict, with her story of precarious survival providing a framework for an interpretive overlay drawn from Puritan religious ideology. Puritan censors allowed and likely encouraged Rowlandson’s story to be published at a time when women’s voices were suspect. In 1637, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth had been rocked by the religious teachings of Anne Hutchinson and her followers, and in 1660, Massachusetts Bay Colony executed Mary Dyer, an outspoken Quaker religious leader. Against this context of disruptive women religious figures, Rowlandson counseled patience, not action. Rather than showing resistance, she adopted the mostly submissive role of servant to her captors. Even the book’s title page situated her as a person with no wish to become a public figure, informing readers that the text had been written “for her private use,” and its teachings were “especially” meant for her “dear children and relations.”
While religious instruction was the intended purpose, Mary Rowlandson’s story allowed far broader interpretations and emotional responses. The account’s gritty realism of day-to-day survival provided an empathetic model of personal courage. It also gave an unmatched perspective on American Indian individuals and their community. Rowlandson, however, represented her captors, with their “wild” and “savage” behavior and practices, as irredeemably alien, as “beasts” inhabiting a “wilderness.” Before the war, the American Indians had often been close neighbors, trading partners, servants, and potential Christian converts. With her depiction, Rowlandson reinforced a predominant postwar view. Thoughts of economic, religious, and political integration mostly vanished both because of an ideological shift and because the war so decimated the southern New England Indian bands that they no longer held a significant place in English public affairs.
Mary Rowlandson was born around 1637 in Somerset County, England, one of nine children born to John and Joan White. In 1639, the Whites joined the mass migration of English Puritans to the recently established colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. The Whites first settled in Salem, Massachusetts. Around 1653, the Whites moved to Lancaster, Massachusetts, which the colony established as a township the following year.
Around the same time as the Whites moved to Lancaster so did Reverend Joseph Rowlandson, a recent graduate from Harvard College who had been invited to become the town’s minister. Mary White and Joseph Rowlandson were married a few years later, probably in 1656, and on January 15, 1658, their first child, Mary, was born. She died three years later. The Rowlandsons had three more children: Joseph (b. March 7, 1662), Mary (b. August 12, 1665), and Sarah (b. September 15, 1669).
On the day following her release from captivity, May 3, 1676, Mary Rowlandson joined her husband in Boston. Some weeks later, the family was reunited after their two surviving children were also released. Unable to return to the devastated town of Lancaster, the Rowlandsons moved to Boston. In April 1677, Joseph Rowlandson became the pastor of the church in Wethersfield, Connecticut. The following year, in November 1678, he died at about the age of forty-seven.
In the conclusion of her story, Rowlandson implies that her husband is alive so it is assumed that she completed it before his death. In 1682, she published her account accompanied by her husband’s final sermon. The book was an instance success, with American and English editions published that same year.
Rowlandson did not remain a widow for long. On August 6, 1679, she married Samuel Talcott, a wealthy farmer and land speculator and a prominent colonial leader in Connecticut, serving as a deputy to the Connecticut General Court from 1669 to 1684 and as an assistant from 1685 to 1691. Talcott died on November 11, 1691; she outlived him by nearly two decades, dying in Wethersfield on January 5, 1711.
Six years after the brutal and destructive conflict called King Philip’s War, Mary Rowlandson published an account of her traumatic experience of being held captive for eleven weeks and five days by a group of Nipmucs, Narragansetts, and Wampanoags. Rowlandson offered her personal account of suffering and survival as a devotional work meant to enlighten a Puritan readership, many of whom had begun to stray from the sect’s strict doctrines. One of the implicit themes in the book regarded the role a woman should play in the religious and social sphere. In many ways, however, her story transcended that underlying Puritan ideology. Her journey served as a metaphor for any progression through personal suffering, a way of finding spiritual and psychological meaning in hardship. She declared her intention to live even as she had everything she formerly valued taken from her. By not focusing on the specifics of the war, her account seemed closer to myth than history. American Indians served as symbolic “beasts” inhabiting what she saw as a “vast and howling wilderness.” To her, their very existence threatened the sanctity of home, family, religion, and society. While Rowlandson sought to portray her captors as base animals, her narrative to some extent also individualized and humanized them, giving readers a glimpse into their daily life and condition. Just like her, the American Indians were undergoing their own journey, struggling to survive and escape.
When the Indian allies attacked Lancaster, Massachusetts, on February 10, 1676, neighbors and family members gathered for protection in the home of Joseph and Mary Rowlandson. Joseph, the town’s minister, was away from home at the time, having gone to Boston in an effort to persuade the colonial leaders to station troops in the town. For about two hours, those inside the house exchanged gunfire with the attackers. Then the Indians set the house on fire. As the occupants fled from the burning building, they were killed or captured. Mary Rowlandson and her six-year-old daughter, Sarah, were wounded and taken prisoner along with ten-year-old Mary and fourteen-year-old Joseph. Twelve or thirteen townspeople were killed in the raid, and twenty-four were taken as prisoners.
Mary Rowlandson’s captors moved from place to place, first traveling about twenty miles west to near the Nipmuc village of Menameset and then going north about fifty miles into southwest New Hampshire before turning back into Massachusetts and traveling over fifty miles to Mount Wachusett, not far from where she was originally captured. At several places, they made long encampments, but during much of their journey, they stayed for one night or a few days before moving on. Rowlandson structured her account using each of the moves, twenty in all, as chapter divisions. She called each chapter a “remove,” a term that signified a new residence but also carried a sense of a remote or distant place, suggesting that with each move she saw herself going further from her own culture.
On the third day of her captivity, the Indians arrived near Menameset (“Wenimesset”), a large Nipmuc settlement, where they would remain for fourteen days. During their stay, Rowlandson’s daughter Sarah died from the gunshot wound she received during the Lancaster raid. In one of the book’s most heartfelt and tragic scenes, Rowlandson describes how for eight days her daughter ate no food and kept moaning. When Sarah finally died, Rowlandson resisted abandoning the body until forced to by her captors who then buried the child in what Rowlandson viewed as the unhallowed “wilderness,” separated from church and family. Rowlandson also went without food much of the time, but her wound healed after she took another captive’s advice to cover it with oak leaves.
Rowlandson became the property of Quinnapin, a prominent Narragansett leader, having been sold to him by the warrior who had taken her captive. Her primary and often callus overseer was Weetamoo, one of Quinnapin’s three wives. Weetamoo was likely the most powerful woman among the allied Indians. She had joined with Quinnapin as part of a political alliance between the Narragansetts and the Wampanoags, two formerly rival bands. Weetamoo’s first husband was Wamsutta (called Alexander), the Wampanoag leader from 1660 to his death in 1662. Probably more than anything else, it was his death that signaled the shift away from previously friendly relations with the English settlers. Armed soldiers had forced Wamsutta to attend a meeting with Plymouth Colony leaders. On his way back, he became suddenly ill and died, a circumstance that raised suspicions among the Wampanoags that he had been poisoned by the colonists. Wamsutta’s younger brother Metacom (whom the English called Philip) then became the head of the band, but Weetamoo controlled a faction and remained a powerful leader. When King Philip’s War commenced in June 1675, Metacom looked to the Narragansetts for support, and Weetamoo likely joined Quinnapin around this time. While the Narragansett leaders promised the colonists that the band would remain neutral, the colonial leaders heard that the Narragansetts aided the fleeing Wampanoags and suspected that the Narragansetts would eventually join the fight. In December, the colonial forces launched a brutal preemptory attack that ended with setting fire to the band’s main compound and killing the Narragansetts as they fled. This action drove the surviving Narragansetts to enter the war, and it likely led to the raid on Lancaster. Within weeks of having their friends and families killed, the Narragansetts treated their captives with far more care than their band members had received at the hands of the English soldiers.
When her captors left Menameset to travel north, they separated Mary Rowlandson from many of the other Lancaster captives, including her two surviving children and four young cousins. The “Fourth Remove” chapter begins with her departure and subsequent encampment at “a desolate place in the Wilderness.” Rather than the usual focus on her condition, this chapter features one the most sensationalistic accounts in the entire narrative. In the previous chapter, Rowlandson mentions speaking with a pregnant woman captive. Even though she would soon give birth and had a two-year-old child, this woman wanted to run away. Rowlandson counseled her against such an action and read to her a biblical passage that instructed “wait on the Lord.” Failing to embrace the biblical message, the woman kept pleading for her release. Because of this, the Indians decided to kill her. Using this story, Rowlandson likely intended to show the wickedness of the Indians but ended up demonstrating something more. Rather than being a wanton execution, the killing required an exceptional ceremonial event involving tribal participation.
Rowlandson’s story of the execution illustrates one of her main themes, that events should not be forced. Rather than construe her captivity in terms of heroic accomplishments or actions, Rowlandson celebrated her patience and survival tactics. Willing herself to cooperate with her captors and to acknowledge their assumed authority, she even calls Quinnapin “master” and Weetamoo “mistress.” By using such titles in her account, Rowlandson wanted her readers not only to know the extent of her degradation but more importantly to understand that servitude was another sacrifice that she needed to make as part of her spiritual journey. This obedience did not come easily, and at several points, she struggled for control before surrendering. At one such moment, she read another biblical passage that told her to “be still.”
Because of Rowlandson’s emphasis on patient survival, the narrative lacks a clear sense of progress. If anything, the story involves regression, a process of removal of excess material goods and parts of her self-identity. In an archetypal heroic journey, a hero goes stage by stage acquiring knowledge, goods, and skills. Legends about frontier heroes, such as Daniel Boone, tend to feature a hero who goes into the wilderness and acquires Indian skills and knowledge so that he can conquer the land and the native inhabitants. Captivity narratives that began appearing a generation after Rowlandson’s tale often had more in common with the frontiersman story. One example was the Hannah Dustin story as told by Cotton Mather in 1697. When Dustin was captured by Indians, she did not wait for God’s time. Instead, she escaped after killing and scalping her captors, enacting the archetypal frontiersman hero. Rowlandson, in contrast, gives no indication that she learned anything from the Indians or that she would kill them if given the opportunity. When offered a chance to escape, for example, she told her potential Indian guides that she “desired to wait God’s time.” She believed that her captivity was a test of God who would release her “quietly” and “without fear” when her time had come.
Death was on the horizon in each chapter. Either the Indians or the harsh conditions and physical demands of the journey could easily kill her. Many of her seventeenth-century readers would have registered Rowlandson’s chapter term “remove” as a euphemism for death, particularly death by murder. At several places in the book, Rowlandson emphasizes that her personal pilgrimage involved making a choice to live even when all appeared lost and she found herself faced with the question of how far would she go in order to survive. The story of the executed woman in the fourth remove shows one direction that she might have taken. She introduces the theme of choosing life at the end of the opening section, explaining how she had often “said that if the Indians should come, I should choose rather to be killed by them than taken alive.” When the time came, however, she changed her mind, deciding to “chose rather to go along with those (as I may say) ravenous beasts, than that moment to end my days.” Similarly, in the “distressed time” after the death of her child, she tells how “I did not use wicked and violent means to end my own miserable life,” attributing her maintenance of “reason and senses” to God.
Food is by far the most prominent descriptive subject in the book. In nearly every chapter, Rowlandson refers to some aspect of her hunger, her efforts to obtain food, and what she ate to survive. During her third week in captivity, around the time of the fourth remove, she became desperate enough partake in what she described as the “filthy trash” that the Indians ate. In the fifth remove, she describes a meal consisting of broth made from boiling a horse’s leg. “I could think how formerly my stomach would turn against this or that,” she explains, “and I could starve and die before I could eat such things, yet they were sweet and savory to my taste.” Similarly, she tells how at a low moment near the end of her journey, she took a piece of boiled horse hoof from a small child who struggled to chew it, explaining, “The Lord made that pleasant refreshing, which another time would have been an abomination.” In detailing the poor food offerings, perhaps she intended to portray the Indians as animals who would eat anything. Her insightful view into Indian food practices, however, allows her readers a sympathetic perspective on how the Indians struggled to find sustenance in the middle of winter. Most of the food stores of the Narragansetts and the Wampanoags had been destroyed or abandoned when they fled their homelands, and the Nipmucs, with these extra mouths to feed, likely had exhausted their supplies. Some of their attacks on the English settlements could well have been driven by a need to acquire food.
Rowlandson’s narrative of her near starvation and acceptance of Indian food formed part of the book’s overall message regarding her spiritual pilgrimage. For her, each “remove” was not just a physical displacement but a shedding of outward “vanities” and personal “comforts,” such as palatable food. Once these were removed, she could discover the bedrock of her existence. “The Lord hath showed me the vanity of these outward things,” she concludes, “That they are the vanity of vanities, and vexation of spirit, that they are but a shadow, a blast, a bubble, and things of no continuance.” At several points in the narrative, Rowlandson interprets her captivity in the biblical context of the Book of Job, which tells how God, for inscrutable reasons, stripped Job of his family, wealth, and health. Even though Job questions his treatment and wishes he had never been born, he retains a faith in God’s plan and is eventually restored to his former state.
Rowlandson struggled to hold onto her cultural and religious identity in the face of constant pressure for her to become more like the Indians, a process that, for Puritans, would mean spiritual death. As she adapted to each removal of comfort and vanity, as she battled starvation, she got ever closer to shedding her identity, both as an Englishwoman and as a Puritan. What saved her, both physically and spiritually, was her “pocket,” a kind of purse that women at that time wore under their skirts. Here, she carried her most important items: food, the Bible she acquired from an Indian, and her knitting materials. At each remove, she read biblical passages for comfort, calling her Bible “my guide by day, and my pillow by night.” Her knitting materials provided the means for her physical survival. She bartered knitted goods with the Indians for food, shelter, and money, and even received a small reward from Metacom himself for a shirt she made for his son.
In many ways, the pocket served as a symbol of Puritan English identity; Rowlandson’s Bible and knitting distinguish her from the Indians whom she describes as having no such capabilities. The Indians, in Rowlandson’s view, did not have these things because they were closer to the wild “beasts” that inhabited the wilderness. Comparing her story with the biblical story of Daniel, who survived being thrown into a lion’s den, she describes the Indians as “roaring lions, and savage bears.” By dehumanizing the Indians in this way, she classifies them as alien creatures to be killed or tamed. Partly because Rowlandson depicts her captors more as animals than enemies, her narrative allows for a somewhat sympathetic view. A reader could imagine them facing starvation and trying to escape the soldiers who were hunting them down. In addition, throughout the account Rowlandson tells of individual Indians who came to her rescue; one gave her the Bible, several fed her and provided shelter, another offered to help her escape, and “not one of them,” she testifies, “ever offered me the least abuse of unchastity to me, in word or action.” Even though Indians could be seen to have positive qualities, Rowlandson’s depiction still does not recognize them as equally human. In equating Indians with the wilderness, she situates the act of killing them as similar to clearing a forest—it lacks a moral component.
The three months of Rowlandson’s captivity, between February and May 1676, turned out to be the pivotal time in the conflict. The Nipmuc, Narragansett, and Wampanoag attack on Lancaster came at the height of their success as they pillaged town after town. Their fortunes, however, soon turned sour. When her captors reached southwest New Hampshire at the beginning of March, they were joined by Metacom and his followers who had recently returned from near Albany, New York, where they hoped to obtain supplies and to enlist Mahican allies. Mohawks attacked, however, devastating Metacom’s band. Realizing they were caught between two superior forces and likely demoralized by the Mohawk attack, the Indian allies began negotiating with the colonists about ransoming the captives and surrendering. Most of the remaining battles were decided in the colonists’ favor and various Indians bands surrendered in hopes of receiving amnesty. Three months after Rowlandson’s release, the war ended. On August 12, colonial soldiers and their Indian allies found and killed Metacom. The week before, Rowlandson’s mistress Weetamoo drowned while escaping the troops. Later in that month, Rowlandson’s master Quinnapin was captured and taken to Newport, Rhode Island, where he was put on trial and executed on August 25.
Few American works have had the lasting influence enjoyed by Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, and fewer still are those written by women. This work has been frequently analyzed and anthologized in scholarship on early America, captivity narratives, women’s writing, and American Indian studies.
Among the most discussed topics in recent scholarship concerns the duality of Rowlandson’s description of real events within the framework of her religious interpretations. Some scholars have argued that operating in Rowlandson’s text is a significant tension between the two narrative levels, particularly regarding her role as a woman within a Puritan social structure. Numerous scholars have explored questions regarding Rowlandson’s use of available gendered forms of self-perception and presentation. Both the text and the accompanying anonymous introduction attempted to circumscribe and situate a woman’s proper voice in society. Yet, certain passages can be understood as both supporting and potentially undermining certain social and religious values. At times, the text shows Rowlandson remaining submissive and obedient to her captors, and at other times, she is more confrontational and active in negotiating with them and in effecting the means for her survival. Within Rowlandson’s descriptions and biblical passages, scholars have located attempts at carving out a self-identity from the ideology imposed by Puritan society.
Rowlandson’s account is considered the prototype of the genre of captivity narratives, an extremely popular storyline featuring descriptions of white women taken captive by American Indians. These types of stories had significant influence on the public’s perception of American Indian people, helping to justify centuries of Euro-American displacement and destruction of the native inhabitants. Scholar Richard Slotkin, in Regeneration through Violence (1973), relates the captivity narrative to the frontier hero narrative, seeing them both as the providing a mythical foundation of American identity. The physical home that came under attack in captivity narratives, according to Slotkin, served as a symbol of American society being threatened by “uncivilized” outside forces. The captivity story opens with the social fabric being torn apart by the American Indians’ hostile actions and concludes with the captive’s family, and thus the society, being restored whole. Rowlandson and many of the early writers understood this as a spiritual journey in which one’s religious beliefs were threatened and ultimately secured. Later writers adopted more secular meanings, with the political nation under attack and in need of restoration. The later frontier stories also shifted away from Rowlandson’s depiction of the wilderness as a godless place to be avoided if possible. Instead, the wilderness provided frontiersmen with a proving ground where they could grow stronger and obtain the goods and skills that society needed. This shift coincided with the popularity of what has been called “vanishing Indian” narratives in which the disappearance of the American Indians and symbiotic wilderness was viewed as both necessary and regrettable.
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