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Taken by Indians

May 2024
6min read

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

Lancaster, Massachusetts Bay Colony, February 10, 1676

At sunrise on this cold winter’s day, 39-year-old Mary Rowlandson awoke to the sound of musket fire rippling across her remote town in north central Massachusetts. A peek out of her family’s fortified house revealed her worst nightmare: a large number of Indians descending on the small village of 50 to 60 families, firing houses and killing anyone who set foot outside. A wounded man pleaded for his life. The Indians “knocked [him] in [the] head, and stripped him naked, and split open his bowels,” she recalled. Methodically, the Indians moved toward her house.

For two hours, “they shot against the House, so that the Bullets seemed to fly like hail . . . [and] “wounded one man among us, then another, and then a third.” The Indians set fire to flax and hemp they had jammed against the house’s outer walls. Her housemates found themselves “fighting for their lives, others wallowing in their blood, the House on fire over our heads, and the bloody Heathen ready to knock us on the head, if we stirred to [go] out.”

But they had no choice as the fire roared up behind them, so Rowlandson, cradling her six-year-old daughter, Sarah, stepped over the threshold only to see her brother-in-law cut down in front of her in a fusillade of bullets; a ball pierced her side, another penetrated her daughter’s bowels. “Thus we were butchered by those merciless heathen, standing amazed, with the blood running down to our heels.” The house’s front compound now contained “many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of sheep torn by wolves, all of them stripped naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out.” In all, 14 men, women, and children staying in Rowlandson’s garrison house perished, “some shot, some stab’d with their Spears, some knock’d down with their Hatchets.”

Rowlandson, mother of three and wife of the town’s absent minister, the Reverend Joseph Rowlandson, was one of a score of survivors who now found themselves force-marched to the Nipmuc town of Menamest, about 25 miles southwest of Lancaster. The Indians and their captives spent the first night upon a hill within sight of the town. “Oh the roaring, and singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell,” she remembered. Over the next 82 days, Rowlandson’s trek through a “vast and howling Wilderness” in midwinter would cover more than 150 miles. Each “Remove,” as she called a stage of her forced journey, took her farther from her familiar world and into that of her captors: “My Children gone, my Relations and Friends gone, our House and home and all our comforts within door, and without all gone, (except my life) and I knew not but the next moment that might go too.”

Her captors were Algonquian Indians: Wampanoags from Plymouth Colony; neighboring Nipmucs from central Massachusetts; and Narragansetts from what is today southern Rhode Island. In June 1675, Plymouth Colony’s mounting threats to Wampanoag lands and independence had set off a series of raids that erupted into sustained warfare. Some Nipmuc warriors and other tribesmen combined to attack colonial villages, and the conflict, later called King Philip’s War after the Wampanoag leader, spread to the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut. A preemptive assault on the Narragansett by colonial militiamen in December 1675 brought the Indians and the colony of Rhode Island into the war. In January the Indian allies had resolved to regain the initiative and strike a decisive blow by attacking five frontier towns, beginning with the February assault on Lancaster.

For Rowlandson, raised in Puritan New England and married to a minister, her journey into the “desolate wilderness” was spiritual as well as physical. On the ninth day of her captivity, during their “Third Remove,” her daughter Sarah died “in this miserable condition, without any refreshing of one nature or other, except a little cold water.” Rowlandson wrote, “I have thought since of the wonderful goodness of God to me in preserving me in the use of my reason and senses in that distressed time, that I did not use wicked and violent means to end my own miserable life.”

Rowlandson’s captors soon turned northward, heading cross-country toward a point on the Connecticut River not far from where it traverses the northern border of Massachusetts. During this “Fourth Remove” she was separated from the other Lancaster captives. Alone and despairing, she saw her journey as a test of her faith in “the Sovereignty and Goodness of God,” who had decided whether she would live or die. Her actions, and even those of her captors, were determined—actually predestined—by Him. Calling to mind the words of Psalm 27, she resolved to “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and He shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.”

And wait she did, trusting in the Lord, refusing to contemplate escape, and advising others not to run off. Sustained by her faith, Rowlandson displayed iron strength and firmness of spirit, overcoming the exhaustion and disorientation of long hunger, the wearying strain of constant travel over hard ground, the sleepless grief of Sarah’s lingering death, and the plain terror of not knowing what her captors might do. She traveled over mountains and through swamps, often sleeping directly on the frozen earth, at times thinking that “my heart and legs, and all would have broken, and failed me.” But she survived.

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.

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