Rowlandson, Mary

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Rowlandson, Mary

Excerpt from The Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration
of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

Reprinted in Eyewitness to America

Published in 1997

Edited by David Colbert

"I had often before this said, that if the Indians should come, I should choose rather to be killed by them than taken alive, but when it came to the trial, my mind changed";

New England Puritans were not allowed to read novels, plays, and many kinds of poetry. (The Puritans were a Protestant Christian group who observed strict moral and religious codes.) They disapproved of any kind of literature or entertainment that did not lead to spiritual improvement, so the only reading materials permitted by church leaders were the Bible (Christian holy book), sermons (ministers' lectures), and history books. Nevertheless Puritan clergymen (ministers) approved of captivity narratives (accounts written by colonists who had been captured by Native Americans) because they were true tales about suffering and triumph. The stories could also be read as sermons or as spiritual autobiographies (records of the individual soul's struggle with God and Satan, or the Devil). Many Puritan ministers even encouraged church members to write about intense personal suffering. One of the most famous spiritual autobiographies was written by John Winthrop (1588–1649), founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (see John Winthrop's Christian Experience). The captivity narrative was especially popular because Puritans believed that Native Americans were agents (helpers) of Satan, and that captives were being punished by God for failing to obey his will.

The first and best-known captivity narrative was The Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (also titled The Soveraignty & Goodness of God) by Mary White Rowlandson (1635 or 1637–c. 1711). The wife of a Puritan clergyman, Rowlandson lived with her family on the New England frontier during the late seventeenth century. The violent events of King Philip's War (1675–76; see "A Relacion of the Indyan Warre") transformed Rowlandson from a typical Puritan woman to a best-selling author.

On a night in February 1676, a Wampanoag raiding party kidnapped Rowlandson, her three children, and several other colonists. One of her children died in captivity. Three months later Rowlandson and the surviving children were released when her husband paid a ransom (payment made for release) to the Wampanoags. Rowlandson wrote about this experience in The Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, which she originally composed for her children. Rowlandson's account is valuable to historians because it describes life on the American frontier. The book also depicts the deep Christian faith of a Puritan woman and portrays the futile (unsuccessful) efforts of Native Americans to prevent colonists from taking over their land.

Rowlandson was born in Somersetshire, England, around 1635 (some sources report 1637), one of nine children of John and Joane (West) White. During Mary's early childhood the Whites migrated (moved from one country to another) to America and settled at Salem, a town in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay. In 1653 the family moved to Lancaster, Massachusetts, a new village on the frontier, about thirty miles west of Boston. In 1656 Mary White married Joseph Rowlandson, a Puritan minister. The couple made their home on a hill overlooking Ropers Brook (a commemorative plaque now marks the site). For the next twenty years Mary Rowlandson led the life of a typical mother and minister's wife. From 1657 to 1669 she gave birth to four children, one of whom died in infancy. Then, in early 1676, Rowlandson was snatched from her frontier existence and thrust into a permanent place in early American history.

A few years after the Rowlandsons were married, hostilities intensified between the Puritans and Native Americans. Tensions had been building since the death, in 1661, of the Wampanoag leader Massasoit (c.1580–1661), an ally of the Puritans. Massasoit's son and successor, Metacom (1640–1676; called King Philip), tried to maintain control of Wampanoag territory. Alarmed when the Puritans began taking more and more Native American land, Metacom feared the survival of his people was being threatened. War broke out in January 1675 when Puritan authorities in the town of Plymouth executed three Wampanoag warriors on the charge of murdering an Englishman. The conflict raged for eighteen months, mainly in towns along the western border of the Massachusetts colony and Native American territory.

The residents of Lancaster anticipated an attack at any moment, and Joseph Rowlandson went to Boston to obtain military aid. At dawn on February 10, 1676, while he was still in Boston, a party of four hundred Native Americans raided Lancaster. Burning houses and killing settlers, they attacked the Rowlandson home, where Mary, her three children, and thirty-two villagers were hiding. Twelve colonists died, including Rowlandson's sister and other relatives, and the warriors captured Rowlandson, her children, and the rest of the survivors. In the dead of winter the Wampanoags took the captives westward into Native American territory, subjecting them to cruel treatment along the way. When Joseph Rowlandson returned to Lancaster he found that his house had burned to the ground and his family had disappeared.

Rowlandson and her six-year-old daughter Sarah had been shot during the siege. Her older children, Joseph Jr. and Mary, were apparently unharmed, but on the trip through the wilderness Sarah was deprived of food and water. She died nine days later. Rowlandson was then separated from the two surviving children and sent to live as a slave with Sagamore (secondary chief) Quanopin, brother-in-law of Metacom, and his wife Wetamoo. Rowlandson was in captivity for nearly twelve weeks. She went with the Native Americans as they wandered around the New England region in search of food and game (wild birds) before returning to the Lancaster area.

Things to Remember While Reading an excerpt from The Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson:

  • In The Narrative Rowlandson used a simple but vivid style to describe the Wampanoag raid on her home and the harrowing ordeal of her captivity. She was taken to twenty "removes," or separate campsites, that the Native Americans set up on their journey. Usually she walked and carried heavy loads. She often suffered from hunger and loss of strength. She learned to tolerate Native American food such as nuts, grain meal, horsemeat, and game. Rowlandson described sleeping on the frozen ground and being sick, lonely, and frightened.
  • A continuing theme in The Narrative is the possibility of violence and death that threatened both Rowlandson and the Native Americans on a daily basis. At first she was not treated well by her captors, who were frequently hungry and miserable themselves. Eventually she won them over with her sewing and knitting skills. Wetamoo in particular was charitable toward her. Rowlandson was allowed to see her two children on occasion, but they remained separated from her.
  • Rowlandson was sustained throughout the ordeal by her Christian faith. She found great comfort in a Bible that was given to her by a Wampanoag warrior, who had stolen it during a raid. In her account, she cites passages from the Bible at least sixty-five times, and she asserts that her release was evidence of God's goodwill toward true Christians. Rowlandson generally depicts the Wampanoags as instruments of the Devil, yet she also reveals their tender, human side.
  • The following excerpt is Rowlandson's description of the Wampanoag attack on her home.

Excerpt from The Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

On the 10th of February, 1675, came the Indians with great numbers upon Lancaster. Their first coming was about sunrising.


Suckling: Still being fed from its mother's breast

Hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven. There were five persons taken in one house; the father and the mother and asuckling child they knocked on the head; the other two they took and carriedaway alive. There were two others, who, being out of theirgarrison upon some occasion, were set upon; one was knocked on the head, the other escaped. Another there was who, running along, was shot and wounded, and fell down; he begged of them his life, promising them money (as they told me), but they would nothearken to him, but knocked him in the head, and stripped him naked, and split open hisbowels. Another seeing many of the Indians about his barn ventured and went out, but was quickly shot down. There were three others belonging to the same garrison who were killed; the Indians, getting up upon the roof of the barn, had advantage to shoot down upon them over their fortification. Thus these murderouswretches went on burning and destroying before them.

At length they came and beset our own house, and quickly it was thedolefulest day that ever mine eyes saw. The house stood upon the edge of a hill; some of the Indians got behind the hill, others into the barn, and others behind anything that could shelter them; from all which places they shot against the house, so that the bullets seemed to fly likehail, and quickly they wounded one man among us, then another, and then a third. About two hours (according to my observation in that amazing time) they had been about the house before theyprevailed to fire it; they fired it once, and one ventured out and quenched it, but they quickly fired it again, and that took. Now is the dreadful hour come that I have often heard of, but now mine eyes see it. Some in our house were fighting for their lives, others wallowing in their blood, the house on fire over our heads, and the bloodyheathen ready to knock us on the head if we stirred out. Now might we hear mothers and children crying out for themselves and one another, "Lord, what shall we do?" Then I took my children (and one of my sisters hers) to go forth and leave the house, but, as soon as we came to the door and appeared, the Indians shot so thick that the bullets rattled against the house as if one had taken a handful of stones and threw them, so that we were forced to give [move] back. We had sixstout dogs belonging to our garrison, but none of them would stir, though another time if any Indian had come to the door, they were ready to fly upon him and tear him down. The Lord hereby would make us the more to acknowledge His hand, and to see that our help is always in Him. But out we must go, the fire increasing, and coming along behind us roaring, and the Indians gaping before us with their guns, spears, and hatchets to devour us.


Garrison: A military post


Hearken: To listen to


Bowels: Intestines in the digestive tract


Wretches: Mean people


Dolefulest: Full of grief


Hail: Small balls of icy rain or snow


Prevailed: To be victorious


Heathen: An uncivilized or irreligious person


Stout: Sturdy, vigorous

No sooner were we out of the house but my brother-in-law (being before wounded in defending the house, in or near the throat) felldown dead, whereat the Indians scornfully shouted andhallooed, and were presently upon him, stripping off his clothes. The bullets flying thick, one went through my side, and the same (as would seem) through the bowels and hand of my dear child in my arms. One of my elder sister's children (named William) had then his leg broke, which the Indians perceiving they knocked him on the head. Thus were we butchered by those merciless heathen, standing amazed, with the blood running down to our heels. My eldest sister being yet in the


Hallooed: Yelled

house, and seeing thosewoeful sights, theinfidels hauling mothers one way and children another, and some wallowing in their blood; and her elder son telling her that her son William was dead, and myself wounded, she said, "And, Lord, let me die with them"; which was no sooner said, but she was struck with a bullet, and fell down dead over thethreshold. I hope she isreaping the fruit of her good labors, being faithful to the service of God in her place.

I had often before this said, that if the Indians should come, I should choose rather to be killed by them than taken alive, but when it came to the trial, my mind changed; their glittering weapons sodaunted my spirit, that I chose rather to go along with those (as I may say)ravenous bears, than that moment to end my days.


Woeful: Mournful; sad


Infidels: One who is not a Christian or who opposes Christianity


Threshold:" Strip of wood under a door


Reaping: Receiving a reward


Daunted: Intimidated; discouraged


Ravenous: Very eager or greedy for food, satisfaction, or gratification

What happened next . . .

In early March, Metacom summoned Rowlandson to his "General Court" to discuss selling her back to her husband. Once they had agreed upon a ransom—two coats, half a bushel of seed corn, some tobacco, and twenty pounds (an amount of British money)—a message was sent to Boston. Joseph Rowlandson and several others, including John Hoar, a resident of Concord, engaged in negotiations with Metacom. Finally, on May 2, 1676, Hoar arrived unarmed at the Wampanoag camp with the ransom. When Rowlandson was released the Native Americans bid her a fond farewell, evidence that she had made friends among her captors. The Rowlandson children were freed from separate locations a few weeks later. King Philip's War ended a short time later.

The Rowlandsons lived in Boston until April 1677, when Joseph was appointed pastor of the church at Wethers-field, Connecticut. Upon his death in 1678, the town of Wethersfield voted to give Mary a pension of thirty pounds a year for the rest of her life. By 1682 Rowlandson had written The Narrative, an account of her experiences in captivity, which she had intended to give her children. The manuscript was published that year in Boston, however, and was immediately a commercial success. The date of Rowlandson's death is not certain, but she is believed to have died in 1711. Since 1682 The Narrative has appeared in at least thirty editions and has become a classic of frontier literature.

Did you know . . .

  • Encouraged by the French, Native Americans continued to conduct raids on English colonists after King Philip's War, especially in sparsely populated areas. In 1677 Quentin Stockwell, a resident of Deerfield, Massachusetts, was taken prisoner and held for eight months. He wrote about his experience in "Quentin Stockwell's Relation of His Captivity and Redemption," which was first published in An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684) by Puritan minister Increase Mather.
  • Ten-year-old John Gyles was captured in Pemaquid, Maine, in 1689 and was held for six years among Native Americans and nearly three years with the French. An account of his adventures was published as Memoirs of Odd Adventures, Strange Deliverances, etc., in the Captivity of John Gyles, Esq. in 1736.
  • The outbreak of Queen Anne's War (a conflict involving the French and their Native American allies against the English in 1702) brought fresh trouble for settlements along the New England frontier. Many townspeople in Deerfield, Massachusetts, were killed during a raid in February 1704. Among the dead were two sons of John Williams, a minister. In his popular narrative, The Redeemed Captive, Returning to Zion (1707), Williams recounted how he and other survivors were forced to walk to Canada. His wife died during this long march. For three years Williams struggled to win freedom for his children and members of his congregation. He also tried to prevent them from being pressured by the French to convert to Roman Catholicism (a Christian religion based in Rome, Italy, and headed by pope who is the supreme authority in church affairs). Although Williams was eventually released, the Native Americans would not free his ten-yearold daughter Eunice. She not only became a Catholic but she also married a Native American and lived for the rest of her life with his tribe.

For more information

Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, pp. 33–34.

James, Edward T., and others, eds. Notable American Women, Volume III. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 200–03.

"Hannah Duston," in The Young Oxford History of Women in the UnitedStates: Biographical Supplement and Index. Nancy F. Cott, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 54.

Rowlandson, Mary. The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs.Mary Rowlandson. Excerpted in American Literature: A Prentice-Hall Anthology. Emory Elliott and others, eds. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1991, pp. 169–85.

Salisbury, Neal, ed. Sovereignty and Goodness of God. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

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