The Year: 1676
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 wife, tending to her home and raising children.
Captured by the Narrangansett
While her husband was away in Boston trying to convince the Colony’s leaders to provide military protection for the town, Mary Rowlandson’s life was radically disrupted on February 10, 1676, when a contingent of Narraganset Indians attacked and burned Lancaster.
They killed seventeen people and took twenty-four others captive, including Rowlandson and her three children. Her six year old daughter Sarah was mortally wounded during the surrender. The captives were then taken west and north to what is now south western New Hampshire and Vermont.
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 provoked by Plymouth Colony’s decision to execute three members of the Wampanoag tribe, it was also 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 New England were suffering the devastating effects of disease and starvation, as European settlers encroached upon their homes and hunting grounds.
Image: Mary and her children being abducted
During her captivity, Rowlandson experienced the same physical hardships the Indians faced: she never had enough to eat and was constantly relocated from one camp to another. 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 and freed at Princeton, Massachusetts on May 2, 1676, for goods worth twenty pounds.
Because Lancaster had been destroyed in the raid, Mary Rowlandson and her husband spent the following year in Boston, then moved to Wethersfield, Connecticut, where Joseph Rowlandson became the town’s minister.
This incident is the basis of Rowlandson’s extraordinary account of her captivity among the Indians. Her short book, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, was published first in London, then in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1682. She became the founder of a significant literary and historical genre, the captivity narrative, which was also the first book in English published by a woman in North America.
Mary’s book became a bestseller. Readers were fascinated by the fearsomeness of Indian warfare, the courage of a woman captured and victimized, and the sorrow of a mother who lost her youngest daughter in the attack. Rowlandson survived disaster by the power of her belief in God and by submitting to God’s plan.
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.
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 toward 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.
After Joseph 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.