Rowlandson, Mary White

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Rowlandson, Mary White

1635 (or 1637)

Somersetshire, England


Wethersfield, Connecticut

Writer of a famous captivity narrative

" . . . their glittering weapons so daunted my spirit, that I chose rather to go along with those (as I may say) ravenous Bears, then that moment to end my dayes."

From The Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.

Mary White Rowlandson, the wife of a Puritan clergyman, 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 Metacom entry) transformed Rowlandson from a typical Puritan woman to a best-selling author. On a night in February 1676, a Wampanoag raiding party abducted Rowlandson, her three children, and several other colonists. One of her children died in captivity. Three months later Rowlandson and her two surviving children were released when her husband paid a ransom to the Wampanoags. She wrote about this experience in The Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (a shortened title), which she originally composed for her children. The Narrative was published in 1682 to resounding success. Rowlandson's account is important to historians because it provides a realistic description of life on the American frontier and depicts the deep Christian faith of a Puritan woman. On another level, it also portrays the futile efforts of Native Americans to prevent colonists from taking over their land.

Settles on frontier

Mary White Rowlandson was born in Somersetshire, England, around 1635 (some sources report 1637), one of nine children of John and Joane (West) White. During her early childhood the Whites emigrated (moved from one country to another) to America and settled at Salem, a town in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts. (The Puritans were a Christian religious group who preached strict moral and spiritual codes.) 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 parson (clergyman) and the first permanent minister in Lancaster. 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 parson'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 and thrust into a permanent place in early American history.

Hostilities intensify

A few years after the Rowlandsons were married, hostilities intensified between the Puritans and local Native American tribes. Tensions had been building since the death, in 1661, of the Wampanoag leader Massasoit (see entry), an ally of the Puritans. Massasoit's son and successor, Metacom (called King Philip; see entry), maintained control of Wampanoag territory. Yet he became 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 1775 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 on the border between the Massachusetts colony and Native American territory.

Lancaster raided

Residents of Lancaster anticipated an attack, so Joseph Rowlandson went to Boston to obtain military aid. At dawn on February 10, 1676, while Rowlandson was away, 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. The warriors killed twelve people, including Rowlandson's sister. They captured the surviving colonists, among whom were Rowlandson and her children. When Joseph Rowlandson returned to Lancaster he found that his house had burned to the ground and his family had disappeared. Later, inThe Narrative, Mary Rowlandson recalled how she felt when she was being taken hostage: "I had often before this said, that if the Indians should come, I should chuse rather to be killed by them then taken alive but when it came to the tryal my mind changed; their glittering weapons so daunted my spirit, that I chose rather to go along with those (as I may say) ravenous Bears, then that moment to end my dayes."

Rowlandson a prisoner and slave

In the dead of winter the warriors took the captives westward into Native American territory, subjecting them to cruel treatment along the way. During the siege Mary Rowlandson and her six-year-old daughter Sarah had been wounded from gunshots. Her older children, Joseph Jr. and Mary, were apparently unharmed. 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 older 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. During this time she helped the Native Americans as they foraged (to wander in search of provisions) for food and hunted game (wild animals) in the New England region. Traveling to the Connecticut River and into New Hampshire, they then returned to the Lancaster area. In The Narrative Rowlandson described twenty "removes," or separate campsites, that the Native Americans set up on their journey. Because her wounds were soon healed with oak leaves, she usually walked and carried heavy loads. 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 daily. At first she was not treated well by her captors, who were frequently hungry and miserable themselves. Eventually, however, 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.

Hannah Duston scalps captors

Hannah Duston (1657–1736) was another frontier woman taken captive by Native Americans. She was living near Haverhill, Massachusetts, with her husband Thomas, a farmer and bricklayer, when Native American warriors attacked the town on March 15, 1697. Hannah had recently given birth to her twelfth child, and that day a neighbor, Mary Neff, was helping out during her recovery. Thomas witnessed the raid while he was working in the field. As the war party approached the farm, he took his eleven older children to a safe hiding place. However, he could not rescue Hannah, Neff, and his infant son. The three captives were taken north toward Canada by twenty Native Americans, and during the march the warriors killed the baby. Eventually they stopped at a Native American settlement on an island off the coast of New Hampshire. There Duston and Neff met Samuel Lennardson, an Englishman who was also a captive. When the three prisoners were told that harsh punishment was in store for them, they decided to fight for their lives. During the night of March 30, Duston and Lennardson attacked their sleeping captors with hatchets. Lennardson killed one Native American and Duston killed nine others. As Duston, Lennardson, and Neff started to run away they realized the settlers at Haverhill might not believe their story. So they went back and scalped their victims. After they returned to Haverhill they took the scalps to the General Court in Boston as evidence of their daring feat. Duston received a cash reward, then returned to Haverhill to live quietly with her husband. Later the Dustons had their thirteenth and last child.

Sustained by faith

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. She met Metacom, leader of King Philip's War, several times while she was in captivity. 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 established a degree of friendship with her captors. The Rowlandson children were freed from separate locations a few weeks later.

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.

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 a suckling child they knocked on the head; the other two they took and carried away alive. There were two others, who, being out of their garrison 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 not hearken to him, but knocked him in the head, and stripped him naked, and split open his bowels. 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 murderous wretches went on burning and destroying before them.

At length they came and beset our own house, and quickly it was the dolefulest [most grievous] 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 like hail, 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 they prevailed 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 bloody heathen [uncivilized or irreligious person] ready to knock us on the head if we stirred out. . . .

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

Soon after Rowlandson's release King Philip's War came to an end. In August 1676 the colonists executed Metacom and sold his wife and children into slavery in the West Indies. The Wampanoag population was devastated during the conflict. Although the settlers suffered six hundred casualties, three thousand Native Americans lost their lives.

Narrative immediate success

The Rowlandsons lived in Boston until April 1677, when Joseph was appointed pastor of the church at Wethersfield, Connecticut. Upon his death in 1678, the town of Wethersfield voted to give Mary Rowlandson 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 an immediate commercial success. The date of Rowlandson's death is not certain, but she is believed to have died in 1711.

In The Narrative Rowlandson uses a simple but vivid style to describe the Wampanoag raid on her home and the harrowing ordeal of her captivity. The account is also a testament to Rowlandson's deep religious faith. She cited passages from the Bible at least sixty-five times, and she wrote that her release was evidence of God's goodwill for true Christians. Rowlandson generally depicted the Wampanoags as instruments of the Devil, yet she also revealed their tender, human side. Scholars value the book for Rowlandson's portrayal of the Native Americans, especially Metacom, and for her description of a war that led to the end of Native culture in New England. Since 1682 The Narrative has appeared in at least thirty editions and has become a classic of frontier literature.

For further research

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

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

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

"Mary White Rowlandson" in The Puritans: American Literature Colonial Period (1608-1700). Available July 13, 1999.

Rowlandson, Mary. The Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration 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.

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