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Mary Rowlandson was abducted from her home in the English frontier settlement of Lancaster, Massachusetts, on February 10, 1676, by a band of Indian warriors. She spent three months in captivity and was eventually rescued. She witnessed the slaughter of relatives and friends, her own wounding by a musket ball, near starvation, and the death of her six-year-old daughter. The account of her travails, A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister’s Wife in New England (1682), became the first and best-known New England Indian captivity narrative to seize the public imagination and shape European/Native American relations for generations to come. while the popularity of her narrative has carried it through some thirty editions, little is known of her life beyond the facts contained in her account.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Puritans in the Wilderness
Born to John and Joan White of Somerset, England, around 1637, Mary Rowlandson was raised from infancy in New England. The Whites were among the original settlers of Lancaster, arriving there in 1653, when the town numbered only nine families. in 1656, Mary married the English-born, Harvard-educated Joseph Rowlandson, Lancaster’s first minister.
The settlers in Lancaster, called Puritans for their religious beliefs, originated from Europe. in the early 1600s, the Puritans had grown increasingly discontent with the religious environment in England. They finally decided in 1629 to migrate to America to begin a new existence based on their own religious ideals. They followed an earlier group—the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower in 1620—and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where Mary Rowlandson settled. Here, the Puritans constructed a society based on their Christian beliefs. Among these, they believed that God was pleased by hard work and diligence and would give due rewards to the faithful.
The Raid on Lancaster
On February 20, 1676, at sunrise, Mary Rowlandson was captured by a Wampanoag Indian war party. This occurred during King Philip’s War between the Native Americans and the English settlers (1675-1676). Taken with Mary Rowlandson were her daughters—six-year-old Sarah, who was wounded in the raid and died a week later, and ten-year-old Mary—and her son, Joseph, then fourteen. Captives ordinarily became the possession of the particular person by whom they were taken, but as Rowlandson’s narrative indicates, they were, on occasion, purchased or traded. As a consequence of this practice, Rowlandson was separated from her two older children immediately, she having been captured by a Narragansett, her son by a Nipmuck, and her daughter by a member of another, unidentified tribe.
For eleven weeks and five days Rowlandson lived and traveled with the Narragansetts, with her Indian “master” and “mistress,” as she designated them in her narrative. On May 3, 1676, after ”much prayer had been particularly made before the Lord on her behalf,” Rowlandson was ransomed by the English in exchange for goods. in late June, Joseph was released by the Nip-mucks, and Mary was brought to Providence by an unidentified indian woman.
Alive to Tell the Tale
Lancaster had by then been destroyed, and the Rowlandsons spent the following year in Boston, supported by their friends. in the spring of 1677, they moved to Wethersfield, Connecticut, where Joseph Rowlandson was called to the ministry. He died the following year at age forty-seven. Rowlandson married a Connecticut leader, Capt. Samuel Talcott, nine months later. The past assumption that both Rowlandson and her husband died in the late 1670s had left the means of the first publication of her narrative unexplained, but scholars now believe that Mary Rowlandson Talcott published her narrative well after her husband’s death with the encouragement of the Reverend increase Mather. He was the minister of the Second Church in Boston and a prominent political leader in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The first edition was printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1682. A London edition later that year republished the narrative under the full title by which it is now best known, A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister’s Wife in New-England: Wherein is set forth, The Cruel and Inhumane Usage she underwent amongst the Heathens for Eleven Weeks time: And her Deliverance from them. Written by her own Hand, for her Private Use: and now made public at the earnest Desire of some Friends, for the Benefit of the Afflicted.
Although Rowlandson was not the first white settler to be captured by Native Americans, her account originated what scholars usually consider the first Euro-American literary genre, the captivity narrative. This genre persisted well into the nineteenth century and influenced the form of the novel in America. It was one of the earliest examples of women’s autobiographical writing and, in some respects, a precursor to later slave narratives.
Rowlandson died on January 5, 1711, at the age of seventy-three.
Works in Literary Context
As the author of the earliest known Indian captivity narrative, Rowlandson figures importantly in the literary history of the United States as a definitive spokesperson for the experience of colonial captives and as the originator of a new and long-lived narrative genre.
The Captivity Narrative
A captivity narrative tells the story of a person held forcibly by a group of people and awaiting rescue. In the early American captivity tales, the person is usually a woman, and the captors are Native Americans. Puritan religion plays a key role in captivity tales. As a prevailing theme, the captive represents the whole of Puritan society. The suffering during captivity symbolizes how true believers must endure life’s sinful temptation and testing by God. In this scenario, the Native Americans represent sin and evil in the world. Redemption and approval by God is represented by the ultimate rescue from captivity.
As such, the significance of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative lies largely in its expression of profoundly felt religious experience. Most of her Biblical citations are strikingly appropriate to her captivity experience—Psalms 106:46, for example: ”He made them also to be pitied, of all those that carried them Captives.”
Ultimately, Rowlandson offers her experience as a morally instructive one; there were lessons to be drawn. For example, on the first Sabbath of her captivity, Rowlandson recalls ”how careless I had been of God’s holy time, how many Sabbaths I had lost and misspent.” When, after her release, she is troubled with small matters (”a shadow, a blast, a bubble, and things of no continuance”), she thinks upon her recent captivity: ”It was but the other day that if I had had the world, I would have given it for my freedom . . . I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles.” Perhaps the chief spiritual significance for both the captive-narrator and her reader lay in interpreting the captivity as an illustration of God’s providence. ”God was with me, in a wonderful manner, carrying me along and bearing up my spirit . . . that I might see more of his Power,” writes Rowlandson.
The genre continued on into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In particular, narratives by slaves during the mid-1800s exhibited similar themes of suffering while awaiting redemption by God. Slave narratives are rife with Biblical allusion and imagery, just as in captivity tales. The autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacob are amongst the great body of slave narratives in existence. Other prominent writers of captivity narratives include Ann Bleecker and James Riley, and more recently, John Ford and Thomas Berger.
Works in Critical Context
A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister’s Wife in New-England
Rowlandson’s high social standing as a minister’s wife and the notoriety of the Lancaster raid ensured the immediate success of her account of her captivity. The Puritans of Lancaster immediately accepted the symbolic representation of her captivity as a test of God, and the endurance of the trial a mark of spiritual fortitude for Rowlandson. Caroline Gleason writes: ”Through her use of scripture and portrayal of the relationship between the Indians and Puritan colonists, Rowlandson reinforced the traditional concept of providence preached by the founding Puritans forty years earlier.” Gleason goes on to say: ”By quoting the scriptural story of Joseph, Rowlandson illustrated her belief that the Puritans were the chosen people of God.”
Rowlandson’s and other early American captivity narratives were used to fuel the ongoing war between the New England settlers and the nearby Native American tribes, ultimately resulting in the defeat and removal of Indian populations from the areas. In these times, the captivity narratives helped to create the growing mythology that the Indians were a symbol of the wrath of God. Kathleen Canavan writes: ”The story of Mary Rowland-son fit in very nicely with this new mythology. She was a minister’s wife who . . . was called upon to suffer terrible hardship by His hand and comes truly to know Him.”
The narratives were also instrumental to religious leaders of the time in perpetuating the Puritan way of life. Some commentators suggest Rowlandson’s narrative shows influence by one of these leaders, Reverend Increase Mather, and that his voice appears strong in her writing. ”Of course, Mather’s opportunity of access and influence do not necessarily translate into a hands-on involvement with the narrative,” says Canavan. ”But the curious shifts in narrative voice that punctuate Rowlandson’s text echo the tenets of Mather’s religious agenda for New England.”
- Breitweiser, Mitchell R. American Puritanism and the Defense of Mourning: Religion, Grief, and Ethnology in Mary White Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
- VanDerBeets, Richard. The Indian Captivity Narrative: An American Genre. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1983.
- –. Introduction to Held Captive by Indians: Selected Narratives, 1642-1836, edited by VanDerBeets. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1973.
- Adams, Richard P. ”Hawthorne’s Provincial Tales.” New England Quarterly 30 (March 1957): 39-57.
- Burnham, Michelle. ”The Journey Between: Liminality and Dialogism in Mary White Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative.” Early American Literature 28 (1993): 60-75.
- Davis, Margaret H. ”Mary White Rowlandson’s Self-Fashioning as Puritan Goodwife.” Early American Literature 27 (1992): 49-60.
- Derounian, Kathryn Zabelle. ”The Publication, Promotion, and Distribution of Mary White Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative in the Seventeenth Century.” Early American Literature 23 (1988): 239-261.
- –. ”Puritan Orthodoxy and the ‘Survivor Syndrome’ in Mary Rowlandson’s Indian Captivity Narrative.” Early American Literature 22 (1987): 82-93.
- Diebold, Robert K. ”A Critical Edition of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative.” Dissertation, Yale University, 1972.
- Dietrich, Deborah J. ”Mary Rowlandson’s Great Declension.” Women’s Studies 24 (1995): 427-439.
- Pearce, Roy Harvey. ”The Significances of the Captivity Narrative.” American Literature 19 (March 1947): 1-20.
- Mather, Increase. A Brief History of the War with the Indians in New-England (1676). Accessed November 9, 2008, from http://national humanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/power/ text7/IndiansMather.pdf.
- Gleason, Caroline. The Chosen People of God: Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative. Retrieved November 14, 2008, from http://history. hanover.edu/hhr/hhr4-2.html.
- Sage History: An American Experience. Massachusetts Bay: A Puritan Commonwealth. Accessed November 14, 2008, from http://www.sagehistory.net/ colonial/topics/NewEngland.htm. Last updated on January 26, 2007.
- Washington State University Online. Early American Captivity Narratives. Accessed November 14, 2008, from http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/ captive.htm. Last updated on March 12, 2008.
- Canavan, Kathleen J. The Matron and the Minister: Duality of Voice in Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative. Accessed November 14, 2008, from http://www.nd.edu/~kcanava1/Mary%20Rowlandson.html.
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