Rowlandson, Mary (c. 1635–after 1682)

views updated

Rowlandson, Mary (c. 1635–after 1682)

Colonial American whose memoirs of her years in captivity with the Narragansett tribe were published in 1682. Born Mary White Rowlandson around 1635 in Somersetshire, England; died after 1682 in Wethersfield, Connecticut; daughter of John White and Joane West White; married Reverend Joseph Rowlandson, in 1656, in Lancaster, Massachusetts; children: Joseph (b. 1661); Mary (b. 1665); Sarah (1669–1676).

Mary Rowlandson is known for the memoirs she composed after being held captive by Narragansett Indians. She was born in Somersetshire, England, around 1635, but as a child she traveled with her Puritan family to the colony of Massachusetts. About age 21, she married a minister, Joseph Rowlandson of Lancaster, Massachusetts, then had three surviving children. In February 1676, Lancaster was attacked and burned by a party of Narragansett Indians during the Native American uprising against the English colonists known as King Philip's War. Joseph was away at the time. Mary tried to shelter many of Lancaster villagers in her home, but the house was invaded and many of its occupants killed, including Mary's sister and other family members. Rowlandson and her infant Sarah were wounded and taken captive, as were her two older children. Separated from her children, Mary was held captive as a slave for three months, suffering from terrible hunger and cold as well as from bullet wounds. The Narragansett Indians, themselves suffering from the devastation of the war and the harsh winter and constantly on the move in search of food, shared little of their meager food supply with their English captive. Her daughter Sarah died from starvation after a week.

Rowlandson worked for the Indians as a servant and seamstress. As she records in her memoirs, an Indian gave her a Bible seized in a raid which helped sustain her morale and faith during her captivity. A devout Puritan, Rowlandson resisted the urge to try to escape and instead waited patiently for her freedom. After three months, the Indians allowed her to be ransomed by her husband for £20; her two remaining children were eventually freed as well. King Philip's War ended in August, and the Rowlandsons settled in Boston, then in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Joseph Rowlandson died in November 1678.

Rowlandson's vivid memoirs of the captivity were published in 1682 as The Sovereignty and Goodness of God; as the title indicates, the book focuses on her religious faith during her captivity. She composed the memoirs as a spiritual lesson for the benefit of her children, in which her trial and deliverance are examples of God's desire that Christians suffer for their faith to prove their worthiness for salvation. At the same time, the book is a fascinating, detailed account of day-today life among the Narragansett in a period of great hardship and violence. It became a model for other autobiographies, and is considered a classic colonial American work. The exact year of Rowlandson's death is not known.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Rowlandson, Mary. The Captive: The True Story of the Captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Tucson, AZ: American Eagle, 1987.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California