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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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 ideology.

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 children.

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.

The Narrative 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.

Sharon M. Harris
Texas Christian University

In the Heath Anthology
from A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image fileJudging a Captivity Narrative by Its Cover

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Cultural Readings
Scans of the 1773 edition of Mary Rowlandson's narrative.

Mary Rowlandson - Captive in 1675/76
Information about Rowlandson's captivity and the (material) places she inhabited during the years of her confinement.

Selected Bibliography on Mary Rowlandson and Captivity Narratives
An extensive list of secondary sources.

Secondary Sources