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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise Mary Rowlandson (c. 1636-1711)


[2788] Mary Rowlandson, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister’s Wife in New England (1682), courtesy of Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.

Born around 1637 in Somerset, England, Mary White was the sixth of ten children. Her family immigrated to New England when she was very young, settling first in Salem and later in the frontier town of Lancaster, in the Massachusetts colony. In 1656, Mary married Joseph Rowlandson, the Harvard-educated Puritan minister of Lancaster, and for the next twenty years she occupied the role of a Puritan goodwife, tending to her home and raising children. Her life was radically disrupted on February 10, 1676, when a contingent of Narraganset Indians attacked and burned Lancaster, killing seventeen people and tak

ing twenty-four others (including Rowlandson and three of her children) captive. This incident is the basis of Rowlandson’s extraordinary account of her captivity among the Indians, a narrative which was widely read in her own time and which today is often regarded as one of the most significant early texts in the American canon. Rowlandson’s tale shaped the conventions of the captivity narrative, a genre that influenced the development of both autobiographical writings and the novel in America.

The attack on Lancaster and on Rowlandson’s home was part of a series of raids in the conflict that has become known as King Philip’s War, named for the Indian leader Metacom (called “Philip” by the English). Although the war was immediately provoked by the Plymouth colony’s decision to execute three members of the Wampanoag tribe, it should also be understood as the culmination of long-standing tensions between Native Americans and European settlers over land rights and colonial expansion. By the late seventeenth century, many Native Americans in the New England region were suffering the devastating effects of disease and starvation as European settlers encroached upon their homes and hunting grounds.

During her captivity, Rowlandson experienced the same physical hardships the Indians faced: she never had enough to eat and constantly relocated from one camp to another in a series of what she termed “removes.” Her traumatic experience was made all the more harrowing by her Puritan conviction that all Native Americans were agents of Satan, sent to punish and torment her and her community. After eleven weeks and a journey of over 150 miles, Rowlandson was finally ransomed on May 2, 1676, for goods worth twenty pounds. Because Lancaster had been destroyed in the raid, she and her husband spent the following year in Boston, then moved to Wethersfield, Connecticut, where Joseph Rowlandson became the town’s minister. After he died in 1678, Mary Rowlandson married Captain Samuel Talcott and lived in Wethersfield with him until her death in 1711 at the age of seventy-three.

Rowlandson tells her readers that she composed her narrative out of gratitude for her deliverance from captivity and in the hopes of conveying the spiritual meaning of her experience to other members of the Puritan community. In many ways, her narrative conforms to the conventions of the jeremiad, a form usually associated with second-generation Puritan sermons but also relevant to many other kinds of Puritan writing. Drawing from the Old Testament books of Jeremiah and Isaiah, jeremiads work by lamenting the spiritual and moral decline of a community and interpreting recent misfortunes as God’s just punishment for that decline. But at the same time that jeremiads bemoan their communities’ fall from grace, they also read the misfortunes and punishments that result from that fall as paradoxical proofs of God’s love and of the group’s status as his “chosen people.” According to jeremidic logic, God would not bother chastising or testing people he did not view as special or important to his divine plan. Rowlandson is careful to interpret her traumatic experience according to these orthodox spiritual ideals, understanding her captivity as God’s punishment for her (and the entire Puritan community’s) sinfulness and inadequacy and interpreting her deliverance as evidence of God’s mercy.

But in spite of its standardized jeremidic rhetoric, Rowlandson’s narrative is also marked by contradictions and tensions that sometimes seem to subvert accepted Puritan ideals. On occasion, the demands of life in the wilderness led Rowlandson to accommodate herself to Native American culture, which she viewed as “barbaric,” in order to work actively for her own survival even as she cherished an ideal of waiting patiently and passively for God to lead her, and to express anger and resentment even as she preached the submissive acceptance of God’s will. Thus, Rowlandson’s Narrative provides important insight not only into orthodox Puritan ideals and values but also, however unintentionally, into the conflicted nature of her own Puritan identity.

Teaching Tips

  • When Rowlandson’s Narrative was first published in 1682, it was printed with a “Preface” written by the influential Puritan minister Increase Mather, and with a sermon composed by her husband, Joseph Rowlandson. Some scholars have speculated that Joseph Rowlandson and Mather were also extensively involved in the production of the Narrative itself; the frequency and aptness of biblical quotations in the text might indicate the hand of an experienced cleric. After providing students with this background information, ask for their opinions on whether or not (or to what extent) Rowlandson was mediated and guided by Puritan authorities when composing this text. Ask them to offer specific textual evidence to back up their speculations. You might point students toward the numerous biblical quotations and toward Rowlandson’s explanations of how she accessed and derived comfort from these particular lines of scripture.
  • Rowlandson opens her Narrative with totalizing, dehumanizing descriptions of Native Americans as “hell-hounds,” “ravenous beasts,” and “barbarous creatures.” As the text progresses, however, she seems to become more willing to see her captors as individuals, and even as people capable of humanity and charity. Ask students to analyze her portraits of individual Indians and to trace the evolution of her attitude toward Indians in general. Which Native Americans come in for the most criticism? Which does she view more positively? What might motivate her varying assessments? How might changes in Rowlandson’s own status within the Wampanoag encampment influence her attitude toward individual Indians? You might point students toward her discussions of the various Native Americans who engage in economic transactions with her or give her food, her quite positive portrait of Metacom (or “Philip,” as she calls him), and her bitter description of Weetamoo, a Wampanoag “squawsachem,” or female leader.
  • Students may want to compare Rowlandson’s description of Weetamoo to Benjamin Church’s description of other Wampanoag squawsachems in his Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War. How does each text portray these Native American female leaders?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: The subject of food receives a great deal of attention in Rowlandson’s Narrative. How does Rowlandson’s attitude toward food change over the course of her captivity? Why is she so concerned with recording the specifics of what she ate, how she acquired it, and how she prepared it? What kinds of conflicts arise over food? What do her descriptions of eating tell us about Native American culture and about Rowlandson’s ability to acculturate?
  2. Context: How does Rowlandson use typology within her Narrative? What kinds of biblical images does she rely on to make sense of her captivity? How does her use of typology compare with that of other writers in this unit (Winthrop or Taylor, for example)?
  3. Context: In his preface to the first edition of Rowlandson’s Narrative, published in 1682, Increase Mather describes her story as “a dispensation of publick note and of Universal concernment” and urges all Puritans to “view” and “ponder” the lessons it holds for them. Does Rowlandson always seem to understand her captivity in Mather’s terms? How do the moments when Rowlandson narrates her experience as personal and individual complicate this imperative to function as a “public,” representative lesson for the entire community?
  4. Exploration: Many scholars view the captivity narrative as the first American genre and trace its influence in the development of other forms of American autobiographical and fictional writings. Why do you think the captivity narrative became so popular and influential? What might make it seem particularly “American”? Can you think of any nineteenth- or twentieth-century novels or films that draw on the conventions of the captivity narrative?
  5. Exploration: Compare Rowlandson’s captivity narrative with Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relation from Unit 2. How do these texts portray Native Americans differently? What do they have in common? What kind of audience does each author write for? How does each of these narratives differ from the Yellow Woman stories in Unit 1?

Selected Archive Items

[2115] Harper’s Magazine, The Captivity of Mrs. Rowlandson (1857),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-113682].
This is an illustration from an 1857 Harper’s Magazine feature on “The Adventures of the Early Settlers in New England.” This wood-carving print depicts events chronicled in the Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.

[2788] Mary Rowlandson, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister’s Wife in New England (1682),
courtesy of Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
Subtitle: “Written by her own Hand, for her Private Use: And now made Publlick at the earnest Desire of some Friends, for the Benefit of the Afflicted.”

[2916] Charles H. Lincoln, ed., Map of Mrs. Rowlandson’s Removes, Narratives of the Indian Wars (1913),
courtesy of Charles Scribner’s Sons.
This map shows Rowlandson’s “removes” in terms of twentieth-century landmarks.

[4439] Judea Capta Coin (71 c.e.),
courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.
This Roman coin depicts the biblical image of Judea capta (Israel in bondage). Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative typologizes her experience in terms of the Judea capta ideal, understanding her purifying ordeal in the wilderness as a parallel of God’s punishment and ultimate redemption of the “New Israel.”

[7178] Vera Palmer, Interview: “Erdrich and the Captivity Narrative” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Palmer, a distinguished American Indian activist and scholar (Ph.D. Cornell), discusses themes of the captivity narrative as they appear in the poetry of Louise Erdrich.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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