Mary White Rowlandson
Mary White Rowlandson’s narrative of her three-month captivity by
Algonkian Indians during King Philip’s War (1675–1678) was one of the first
bestsellers in American literature. Four editions of the The
Soveraignty and Goodness of GOD, Together With the Faithfulness of His Promises
Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary
Rowlandson appeared in 1682, and it remained a popular success into the
early nineteenth century. In moments of national crisis such as the American
Revolution, new editions of Rowlandson’s text figured prominently in the
discourse of national rights and of God’s challenges to the nation. More than
thirty editions have been published to date, and the Narrative is
acknowledged as a major contribution to an early American genre, the
captivity narrative, which extends back to the period of European exploration.
(See, for instance, the Hopi account, “The Coming of the Spanish.”) The genre
was explored by many other early writers, including John Gyles and Elizabeth
Meader Hanson, who experienced real-life captivities. Early novels (most
notably, Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie and James Fenimore
Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans) again expanded the genre when their
authors crafted fictionalized versions of captivity narratives. Thus one
woman’s trauma-ridden experience of captivity became an icon of a national
Mary White was born in
Somerset, England, probably in 1637. With her parents, Joan and John White, she
and her nine siblings emigrated to New England, settling first in Salem,
Massachusetts, and finally in the frontier town of Lancaster, Massachusetts.
Around 1656 she married the Reverend Joseph Rowlandson of Lancaster. Their
first child, Mary, died just after her third birthday; three other children
were born to the Rowlandsons.
When the events that
led to King Philip’s War began to emerge in New England, a forty-year period of
relative tranquillity between the colonists and the indigenous people of the
region was destroyed, and Rowlandson’s comfortable life in Lancaster was
shattered. Inter-colonial and inter-tribal differences—between the governments
of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Rhode Island on the one hand, and between
Algonkian tribes such as the Wampanoags, Narragansetts, and the Mohegans on the
other—created an atmosphere of strained relations that abetted the outbreak of
war. The major impetus for King Philip’s War, however, was the continuing
encroachment by Euro-American settlers onto lands occupied by the Algonkians.
In 1664, the leaders
of Plymouth Colony seized Wamsutta, a Wampanoag chief, hoping to convince
Wamsutta to relinquish an early pact with England that granted his people full
rights to their land, so Plymouth Colony could purchase the land. While in
captivity, Wamsutta died, and Metacom became chief and agreed to the colonists’
demands. Yet the colonists continued their unprecedented encroachment.
Ironically, in 1671 the leadership of Plymouth Colony demanded that Metacom (or
“Philip,” as the white settlers referred to him) appear before them to answer
charges of aggression. Then, in 1674 events escalated into a series of
retributive acts, the facts of which are blurred by charges and
counter-charges. A “praying Indian,” John Sassamon, was murdered; the colonists
assumed Metacom’s people were responsible, and they executed three Wampanoags
in retaliation. On June 20, 1675, Metacom counter-retaliated by leading an
attack on the village of Swansea, Massachusetts. At this point, the colonies of
Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island joined with Plymouth and sent combined
troops in pursuit of Metacom. War was officially declared on September 9, 1675.
King Philip’s War lasted for almost three years; it devastated the New England
region and decimated the Algonkians.
The war completely
altered Mary Rowlandson’s life as well. On February 10, 1676, a group of
Narragansett Indians attacked the village of Lancaster. Joseph Rowlandson was
in Boston attempting to raise aid for the defense of Lancaster. Mary Rowlandson
and their three children—Joseph (age 14), Mary (age 10), and Sarah (age 6)—were
taken captive, and many of her relatives and neighbors were killed or also
taken captive. The events of Rowlandson’s captivity are related in her
autobiographical narrative, as she closely details the twenty “removes” that
she and her captors underwent. Sarah died within a week of the attack.
Rowlandson was ransomed on May 2, 1676, but it was several weeks later before
she and her husband were able to effect the release of their two remaining
For a year after their
reunion, the Rowlandsons remained in Boston; in 1677 they sought to
re-establish their lives when Joseph Rowlandson accepted a position in
Wethersfield, Connecticut, and the family resettled in that community. He died
less than two years later, however. Following seventeenth-century expectations,
Mary remarried on August 6, 1679. Her second husband was Captain Samuel
Talcott, a Harvard-educated farmer and community leader. As a member of the War
Council during the years of King Philip’s War, Talcott undoubtedly empathized
with the trauma Rowlandson had endured. Mary Rowlandson Talcott lived for a
decade after her second husband’s death in 1691, but she did not marry again.
At the age of seventy-three, she died in Wethersfield on January 5, 1711.
Although thirty years
eclipsed the 1682 publication of Rowlandson’s narrative and her death, the Narrative
remains her only known comment on her months of captivity. The narrative was
written in the years between her ransom and Joseph’s death; she asserted that
her purpose in writing about her experiences was simply for the edification of
her children and friends.
In the Puritan
culture, which repressed women’s public speaking and writing, the decision to
publish her account was almost as exceptional as the experience itself. Several
reasons may be considered for the encouragement of the publication of this text.
Attesting to her experiences as God’s means of testing her faith, Rowlandson’s
text appeared at a time when Congregationalist church membership had declined
in New England. The decision to publish her narrative, therefore, had the
support of the leading Congregationalist clergymen, including Increase Mather,
who is assumed to be the author of a preface that accompanied the first
editions. In a broader sense, the text also supported the colonists’ negative
representations of Native Americans as “savages” who inhabited Satan’s domain.
Through such depictions, the dominant culture could thus argue that the removal
of the Algonkians and other native peoples was in the “national” interest.
is also a powerful account of one woman’s endurance in captivity and of the
psychological means and behavioral adaptations she used to survive. Although
her account reflected her religious beliefs and prejudices, she also honestly
expressed her opinions about the personal, psychological consequences of her experiences.