A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson
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Mary (White) Rowlandson was a colonial American woman who was captured during an attack by Native Americans during King Philip's War and held ransom for 11 weeks. After being released, she wrote A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, also known as The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. It is a work in the literary genre of captivity narratives. It is considered to be one of America's first bestsellers, four editions appearing in 1682 when it was first published.
On February 20, 1675, the settlement of Lancaster, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was attacked by Native Americans. The Native Americans burnt houses down and opened fire on the British settlers, killing several of them and wounding more. They take many of the survivors captive, including Mary Rowlandson and her three children. Mary and her youngest child are among the injured while others of her family, like her brother-in-law, are killed. The Native Americans lead the captured survivors from their settlement into the wilderness. Rowlandson and her youngest, Sarah are allowed to stay together, but her two oldest, Joseph and Mary, are separated.
After spending a night in a nearby town, the Native Americans and the captives head further into the wilderness. Being injured, the journey is difficult for Rowlandson and her daughter. They reach an Indian settlement called Wenimesset, where Rowlandson meets another captive named Robert Pepper who tries to help the new captives. After staying in Wenimesset for about a week, Rowlandson’s injured daughter, Sarah, dies. Rowlandson is sold to another Indian who is related to King Philip by marriage. They bury Rowlandson’s dead daughter, and she is allowed to visit her oldest daughter Mary who is also being held in Wenimesset, and her oldest son who is allowed to visit from a nearby Indian settlement. The Indians give Rowlandson a Bible where she finds hope.
After attacking another town the Native Americans decide to head north and Rowlandson is again taken away from her family and “friends” she made. The Native Americans Rowlandson is with begin to move quickly through the forest as she suspects the British army must be close by. They come to the Baquaug River and cross it with the British soldiers close behind. However the British are not able to cross and Rowlandson and the Indians continue northwest. They reach the Connecticut River and plan on meeting King Philip, but English scouts are present so they must scatter and hide.
Rowlandson and the Indians soon cross the river and meet King Philip. At this settlement, Rowlandson sews for the Indians for food. Rowlandson wants to go to Albany in hopes of being sold for gunpowder but the Indians take her northward and cross the river again. Rowlandson starts hoping she will be returned home, but now the Indians turn south continuing along the Connecticut River instead of turning east towards civilization. The Indians continue their attacks, and Thomas Read joins Rowlandson’s group. Read tells Rowlandson that her husband is alive and well, which gives her hope and comfort. Rowlandson and her group finally start to move east.
They cross the Baquaug River again where they meet messengers telling Rowlandson she must go to Wachuset where the Indians will discuss her possibility of returning to freedom. Rowlandson eagerly heads toward Wachuset, but the journey wears her down and she is disheartened by the sight of an injured colonist from a previous Indian attack. She reaches Wachuset and speaks to King Philip who guarantees she will be free in two weeks. The council asks how much her husband would pay for her ransom and they send a letter to Boston saying she can be free for twenty pounds.
After many more Indian attacks and victories Rowlandson is allowed to travel back to Lancaster, then to Concord and finally to Boston. She is reunited with her husband after 11 long weeks. They stay with a friend in Concord for a while until Rowlandson’s sister, son, and daughter are returned. Now back together, the family builds a house in Boston where they live until 1677.
There are apparent themes in this captivity narrative such as the uncertainty of life. Rowlandson learns from the attack that no one is guaranteed life, and life can be short. The stability of life including material things such as a house can disappear without warning at any given moment. Rowlandson realizes that she is lucky to even be alive; that is why she does not take her own life. During her captivity, she also finds that nothing is certain. One day the Indians may be nice to her and treat her well, while the next day they may starve her without any explanation.. They might tell her one day she will be returned to her family while the next day she is dragged farther into the forest. She cannot take anything for granted because she is not sure if she will even survive this long journey.
The next theme is the faith in God's will. Throughout the whole experience, Rowlandson keeps her faith and returns everything that happens into a blessing or a doing of God. "Yet the Lord still showed mercy to me; and as He wounded me with one hand, so he healed me with the other". Much of this thought was common Puritan belief. Puritans believed that God arranges everything with a purpose. Rowlandson thinks humans have no choice but to accept the will of God and attempt to make sense of it. She often compares Bible verses with situations in her own life. She even believes the British troops did not defeat the Indians sooner because she and the Puritans have not yet learned their lesson, and therefore do not deserve victory.
Rowlandson learns that there is a thin line between savagery and civilization. Her forced journey from civilization to the wilderness changes her perception on what is and what is not "civilized". She first views civilization as things that are not savage and are not wild. Naturally she depicts the Native Americans as violent savages but later the similarities of the Native Americans and the settlers become apparent to her. Some of the Indians wear the colonists clothes and pray, claiming that they have converted to Christianity. Rowlandson finds herself eating and enjoying the Indian food and often behaving like the Indians. This causes savagery and civilization to be indistinct.
Because the narrative is from Mary Rowlandson's point of view, the story could be completely different if it were told by an outside observer. This is the nature of a captivity narrative. It has value, not because it is historically accurate, but because it captures the perceptions of an individual living through particularly harrowing historical experiences.
- Lauter, Paul, et al., eds. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 3rd ed. vol. 1. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1998, p. 425
- Baym, Nina, Wayne Franklin, Philip F. Gura, and Arnold Krupat. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. A. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2007. Print.