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Taken by Indians
Mary Rowlandson, captured by Indians in 1676 and marched into the “vast and howling Wilderness”, survived to write the first and perhaps most powerful example of the captivity narrative
Fall 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 5
At the same time, to a degree she did not always realize or later acknowledge, Rowlandson stayed alive due to the actions and restraint of her captors and her own ability to adapt and negotiate. The Indians heaped verbal and physical abuse on her and, having little food for themselves, gave her even less. Still, they had a stake in keeping her and the other captives alive. By taking and keeping these prisoners, the Indians humiliated the seemingly impotent English, and gained valuable pledges that could be bartered for desperately needed gunpowder or, possibly, exchanged for the Nipmuc and other Indians imprisoned by Massachusetts authorities on Deer Isle in Boston Harbor. As the wife of a minister, Rowlandson was particularly valuable, and from the outset received special treatment. Her captors placed her and Sarah on a horse during the first part of their journey, and one of them gave her a stolen Bible, a “wonderful mercy of God to me in those afflictions.” Rowlandson was surprised that “not one of them offered the least imaginable miscarriage to me,” not realizing that Algonquian customs guarded her from sexual assault. Because she was unaware of these protections, she took seriously every threat that she would “be knockt in [the] head.”
As she was trekked northwest to the Connecticut River on her fourth through seventh “Removes” in late February and early March, Rowlandson learned, for instance, to eat whatever food came her way. “The first week of my being among them, I hardly ate any thing; the second week, I found my stomach grow very faint for want of something; and yet it was very hard to get down their filthy trash.” Her diet included raw horse liver, boiled horses’ hooves, raw corn on the cob, peas and groundnuts in broth thickened with bark; and bear meat, the very thought of which at first made her “tremble.” By the third week they were all “sweet and savory to my taste.”
In some ways, Rowlandson, who was used to being mistress of her own home, found it hard to adjust socially. Soon after being taken prisoner, she had been sold by her captor to Quinnapin, a prominent Narragansett, whom she soon came to regard as “her master,” and his three wives as her mistresses. Among the latter was the “severe and proud” Weetamoo, a Wampanoag and a leader in her own right, who was in the opinion of one colonist “next to Philip in respect of the mischief she hath done.” Rowlandson studied the women’s moods and learned, if not to show them respect, to avoid displaying any disrespect that might bring a blow with fist or stick. By playing one wife against another, she moderated Weetamoo’s often abusive behavior. She also knitted stockings for one wife and sewed a shirt for the young child of another. She even made a shirt for the Wampanoag leader Metacom (King Philip); in return, he gave her a shilling that she used to buy “a piece of Horse flesh.” Trading upon her skills as a needlewoman, she obtained other things—including a knife—which she presented to Quinnapin and Weetamoo as gifts. Gradually she came to look upon Quinnapin as her protector and “the best friend that I had of an Indian,” even acknowledging that “glad I was to see him” after one period of separation.
This period of separation ended some days after the Indians reversed course on their “Thirteenth Remove” and headed east from the Connecticut River toward central Massachusetts. Short of food and ammunition, harried by Mohawk raiders in the west, and confronted by colonial militiamen now reinforced by native allies, Rowlandson’s captors found themselves back near Lancaster in late April. There the Nipmuc leaders opened negotiations to trade their prisoners. After some hesitation, Rowlandson set the price of her own ransom at 20 pounds and effectively dispensed gifts brought to her by an English negotiator to accelerate the process.
After three anxious days, her captors released her on May 2, 1676. Eventually she was reunited with her husband and children, Mary and Joseph, who had survived their own captivities. Six years later, Rowlandson wrote an account of her captivity, A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson—part adventure story, part spiritual autobiography, but mostly an extended sermon reminding New Englanders of the power and mercy of Him who had saved one so unworthy.
Mary Rowlandson, who lived to 73, saw her book go through four printings in one year to become the first and perhaps most powerful example of the captivity narrative, an American genre that would influence future generations of American writers and moviemakers, from James Fenimore Cooper to John Ford.