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 and 5 days. 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 10, 1675, the settlement of Lancaster, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was attacked by Native Americans. The Native Americans burned down houses and opened fire on the English settlers, killing several of them and wounding more. They took many of the survivors captive, including Mary Rowlandson and her three children. Mary and her youngest child were among the injured, while others of her family, including her brother-in-law, were killed.
After spending a night in a nearby town, the Native Americans with their captives headed further into the wilderness. Being injured, the journey was difficult for Rowlandson and her daughter. They reached an Indian settlement called Wenimesset, where Rowlandson met another captive named Robert Pepper who tried to help the new captives. After staying in Wenimesset for about a week, Rowlandson's injured daughter, Sarah, died. Rowlandson was sold to another Indian who was related to King Philip by marriage. They buried Rowlandson's dead daughter, and she was allowed to visit her oldest daughter, Mary, who was also being held in Wenimesset. Her son was allowed to visit from a nearby Indian settlement. The Indians gave Rowlandson a Bible in which she found a great deal of hope.
After attacking another town, the Native Americans decided to head north, and Rowlandson was again separated from her family and her new friends. The Native Americans, along with Rowlandson, began to move quickly through the forest, as the English army was nearby. They came to the Baquaug River and crossed it with the English soldiers close behind. However, the English were not able to cross, and Rowlandson and the Indians continued northwest. They reached the Connecticut River and planned on meeting King Philip, but English scouts were present so they scattered and hid.
Rowlandson and the Native Americans soon crossed the river and met King Philip. At this settlement, Rowlandson sewed clothing for the Indians in return for food. Rowlandson wanted to go to Albany in hopes of being sold for gunpowder, but the Indians took her northward and crossed the river again. Rowlandson started hoping that she might be returned home, but the Indians turned south, continuing along the Connecticut River instead of heading east towards civilization. The Indians continued their attacks, and Thomas Read joined Rowlandson's group. Read told Rowlandson that her husband is alive and well, which gave her hope and comfort. Rowlandson and her group finally started to move east.
They crossed the Baquaug River again where they met messengers telling Rowlandson she had to go to Wachuset where the Indians would discuss the possibility of her returning to freedom. Rowlandson eagerly headed towards Wachuset, but the journey wore her down. She was disheartened by the sight of a colonist injured in a previous Indian attack. She reached Wachuset and spoke to King Philip, who guaranteed her freedom in two weeks. The council asked how much her husband would pay for her ransom and they sent a letter to Boston offering her freedom for twenty pounds.
After many more Indian attacks and victories, Rowlandson was allowed to travel back to Lancaster, then to Concord and finally to Boston. She was reunited with her husband after 11 long weeks. They stayed with a friend in Concord for a while until Rowlandson's sister, son, and daughter were returned. Back together, the family built a house in Boston where they lived 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 kind 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 wilderness. She cannot take anything for granted because she is not sure if she will even survive this long journey.
The next theme is the unwavering 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 of 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 a person 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
- Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- 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.
- "The Captive" Online, Gutenberg Libraries: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/851/851-h/851-h.html