Narrative of the Captivity and
Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

Introduction by Bette A. Reagan: (original website).

At sunrise on February 10, 1676, a group of Indians attacked "with great numbers" on the English frontier settlement of Lancaster, Massachusetts. As Mary Rowlandson, wife of Lancaster’s minister and author of the first Indian captivity describes it, "the attack was launched not by human contestants in a struggle for land and power but by wolves, hellhounds, ravenous bears." For Rowlandson, a well-educated daughter of Puritans, the Indians were "black creatures in the night." She felt that the Indians had denied God and were allied with the forces of the devil.

The attack on Lancaster in February was part of an ongoing Indian offensive begun not long after the Great Swamp Fight (Breitwieser, 1990). In expectation of such an attack, the people of Lancaster had organized themselves in six garrisoned houses; only one of these went under attack in the February raid, although many of the ungarrisoned houses in the town were burned (Clark & Vaughan, 1981). Of the thirty-seven people occupying the garrison that went under attack, twelve were killed, one escaped, and twenty-four were taken captive (Andrews, 1990).

Among the people taken captured was "God’s precious servant and hand-maid," Mary Rowlandson and her three children. The social distinction was demonstrated by Rowlandson’s capture, for she was no ordinary citizen of Lancaster. She was born to John and Joan White in Somerset, England in 1637 (Andrews, 1990). She was the sixth of ten children. Her father immigrated to Salem, Massachusetts in 1638. His family was to follow him on year later. The family eventually moved to Wenham, Massachusetts where they stayed for a while. The Whites were among the original settlers of Lancaster, arriving there in 1653 when the town numbered only nine families (Andrews, 1990). At that time John White was the settlement’s single wealthiest landholder (Andrews, 1990). In 1656, Mary White married the English-born, Harvard-educated Joseph Rowlandson. Together the couple had four children, one of which was still born at birth. He was the towns very first minister. It was this "near relation to the Man of God" that set Mary White Rowlandson apart from her neighbors.

Because she was the wife of a minister, Mary Rowlandson’s captivity was widely regarded as an especially forceful sign of God’s displeasure with his people (Breitwieser, 1990). Likewise, as a well-known minister’s wife, Rowlandson was of special value as a captive, a fact which was recognized by the Indians, as well as, the colonists (Clark & Vaughan, 1981). As a casualty of the Lancaster raid, however, Rowlandson’s relationship to Lancaster’s minister was anything but distinctive. At the time of the attack, Joseph Rowlandson and his brother-in-law, Henry Kerley, were on their way to Boston to plead with the colonial government for Lancaster’s protection (Breitwieser, 1990). They returned to find their families torn apart. Mary Rowlandson’s sister, Elizabeth Kerley and two of her children had been killed in the Rowlandson garrison (Breitwieser, 1990). Mary’s sister Hannah’s husband and son and a Rowlandson nephew had also been killed. Of those captured at the garrison that day, thirteen were members of the Rowlandson family (Andrews, 1990).

Taken along with Mary Rowlandson were her daughters; six year-old Sarah, who was wounded in the raid and died a week later, and her ten year-old Mary (Andrews, 1990). Her fourteen year-old son Joseph was also taken captive. She was immediately separated from the two older children. She herself was captured by the Narragansetts, her son by the Nipmucks, and her daughter by an unidentified tribe (Clark & Vaughan, 1981). Captives usually became the possession of the particular Indian by whom they were taken, although they could, as Rowlandson’s narrative indicates, be purchased or traded.

For eleven weeks and five days, Rowlandson lived and traveled with the Narragansetts. Her "master and mistress" as she calls them, were a Narragansett division. Their names were Quanopen and Weetamoo (Andrews, 1990). They were originally of the Pocassets tribe, who by 1675 had joined the Narragansetts in Nipmuck territory. On May 3, 1976 after "much prayer had particularly been made before the Lord on her behalf," Rowlandson was released to the English in exchange for a small amount of goods. In late June, Joseph was released by the Nipmucks and Mary was brought to Providence, Rhode Island by an unnamed Indian woman (Breitwieser, 1990).

Lancaster had by then been destroyed, and the Rowlandson’s spent the following year in Boston, supported by their friends. In the spring of 1677 they moved to Wethersfield, Connecticut, where Joseph Rowlandson was recalled to the ministry (Andrews, 1990). He died the following year at the age of forty-seven. Until recently, historians believed that Mary Rowlandson did shortly after her husband. It now appears, however, that Mary Rowlandson was simply lost from view. It seems that a year after Joseph Rowlandson’s death she remarried Captain Samuel Talcott. He was one of the leaders of the time in Connecticut. Mary White Rowlandson Talcott died on January 5, 1711 at the age of seventy-three (Breitwieser, 1990).

Our new knowledge of Rowlandson’s life after her captivity sets the historical record straight but, more important, it clarifies two problems that have left readers wondering about her narrative. The first of these concerns the publication of Rowlandson’s work. "A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" was apparently written shortly after the Rowlanson’s arrival in Wethersfield in 1677. However, the first edition of the narrative did not appear until 1682. The assumption that both Rowlandson and her husband died in the late 1670’s, shortly after her release from captivity, left the means of publication of her narrative a mystery. Likewise, this assumption encouraged a view of an emotionally destroyed Rowlandson, unable to resume a normal life after her tragic misfortune. This image of Rowlandson matches a popular view of the captive as a victim, unwilling to risk escape and unable to return victorious. The disappointment with Rowlandson’s passivity lies in expectations set forth by much more recent tales of pioneers and Indians.

First published in New England in 1682 under the title "The Sovereignty and Goodness of God," Rowlandson’s account of her captivity was an instant success (Breitwieser, 1990). In it’s first year in print there were four editions. By 1828, twenty-three editions had been printed (Andrews, 1990). As early as 1990, at least forty editions of the narrative have appeared (Andrews, 1990). Although Rowlandson was not the first caucasion taken captive by Indians, her narrative started what scholars regard as the first distinctively American literary genre (Andrews, 1990). Following Rowlandson, the captivity narrative became a staple of American letters.

Rowlandson’s narrative is anything but a gruesome tale of a woman taken captive by exotic savages. Her story is meant not the thrill but to teach. It is a story not of Indian rituals but Christian beliefs. In fact, it is a story about Indians in the most limited sense. Rowlandson’s journey is not about her one-hundred and fifty mile hike with the Narragansetts, but about her interior journey. From the beginning Rowlandson’s physical suffering is reflected by spiritual beliefs. She marks time as "Removes" from both civilization and from the gospel. She comes to believe that redemption is both release from captivity and assurance of salvation.

Rowlandson tells us, "All was gone, my husband children gone, my relation and friends gone, our house and home...all was gone (except my life)." Rowlandson was removed form everything she once know and loved. She was forced to rebuild her life. As a woman, a wife, and a mother, she must define her "life" in the absence of everything that once made up her life (Breitwieser, 1990). As a faithful Puritan, she must find meaning in her religion. She was held captive by strange people who she could not depend on for even the barest necessities of life. She must learn to provide herself. At the same time as she is making a new life for herself she is also moving towards complete submission to God and self-sufficiency.

These two movements are closely related in Rowlandson’s narrative. First, the voice of the Christian woman crying out for help from their God. Secondly, the voice of a survivor obsessively recording the details of her traumatic experience.

The wilderness itself, as Rowlandson describes it, symbolizes this double-life of hers. On one hand it is a menacing place in which she is unable to travel one mile without getting lost, in which she is unable to find food or shelter without assistance. On the other hand, it is a spiritual place which is very personally significant. Rowlandson feels as though the darkness of the wilderness is a destiny which has been dealt to her by God. She feels that if she acknowledges her whole dependence of God than she will be freed. She feels that any appreciation for the wilderness will be defying God and should by resisted. As she travels through the wilderness, she makes no mention of the scenery. She finds no beauty in untamed wilderness, only terror.

Rowlandson sees her inability to learn the ways of the wilderness not as the frailty of a woman, but as the strength of her spirit. She feels that instead of taking care of herself, the Lord will take card of her and thereby depends on him whole heartedly. Rowlandson’s narrative tends to be a kind of spiritual guide. As she points out in the narrative, she may lose her way in the woods, but she plots her way through the course of the wilderness of Christian existence.

Rowlandson’s process of spiritual fulfillment requires patience and passivity, but survival in the wilderness makes different demands. As a prisoner among people she regards as "heathens" and "barbarians" she must make her place among them. As a Christian who continually reminds herself to "be still" and believes that her salvation lies in submitting herself to her religion, she faces the problem of negotiating with people of a foreign culture. Somehow, Rowlandson’s movement towards passive acceptance of God’s will must go hand in hand with a movement towards accommodation with the Indian World.

The difficulties with this accommodation are perhaps best described by Rowlandson’ attitude toward food. Naragansetts were cut off from the food they had stored for the winter and they were starving. As Rowlandson makes clear, they were reduced to eating whatever they could find, from acorns and bark to bear, beaver, and "horse guts." To Rowlandson, the eating of the Indians’ "filthy trash," although essential to survival, signifies submitting to the wilderness. During the first week of her captivity she fasts; the second week she overcomes her fear, but barely. By the third week, however, she finds that the food that once turned her stomach tastes "pleasant and savory."

Just as she learns to eat Indian food, she learns to tell the difference between her various captors. Gradually the "wild beasts of the forest" reveal themselves as distinct individuals. Some, like Metacom, were generous, others were very heartless. By the middle of the narrative Rowlandson speaks of Quanopen as "the best friend that I had of an Indian." Although Rowlandson portrays the Narragansetts as acts of God than as real people, she intently records their acts of kindness as well as those of violence. She describes her captors drunkenness and instances of sexual abuse of female captives with genuine concern and interest.

Rowlandson’s change in her view towards the Narragansetts seems to come from her change in status. She made a place for herself in the Indian economy in order to help meet her need for food and shelter. Rowlandson knitted and sewed in exchange for food and portrayed herself as being in a good position to negotiate the terms of the barter (Andrews, 1990). In fact, as her time with the Narragansetts lengthens, se becomes more willing to assert herself.

Rowlandson seems to be ambiguous about whether this kind of negotiation is a form of complaisance to her captors. She often explores the feelings of guilt she has that her life has been spared when so many others have died. Nevertheless, Rowlandson the survivor, always remains secondary to the Rowlandson who constantly searches for faith and dependence on God. However, Rowlandson understand the lessons of her captivity. She sees suffering and adversity as God’s way of chastising his obedient children, each adverse situation, Rowlandson finds an appropriate public meaning in her private experience (Breitwieser, 1990). She normalizes the extraordinary experience of captivity by finding in it the familiar patterns of her own culture.

Rowlandson’s remarkable capacity to bring her experiences and emotions as a captive into perfect agreement with the meanings offered by official Puritan culture is what enables her to speak publicly (Clark & Vaughan, 1981). Rowlandson’s life is remarkable because of the narrative she brought into existence, but also because it is the only sustained prose work known to have been written by a woman in the seventeenth century. It is also among the more intense stories of experience as a conflict between culture and real American literature. She wrote this remarkable narrative because she considered her life to be remarkable, and so do many other people who have read it.

Return to the syllabus.
Return to the History Department.