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Mary Rowlandson Captivity Narrative Essay

From the violent and brutal clash between Indians [1], and British colonists in Massachusetts during King Philip's War (1675-6) grew a new literary genre. After their redemption, some colonists who had been prisoners of the Indians wrote autobiographical accounts of their experiences. These captivity narratives developed a large audience, and interest in the narratives continued into the nineteenth century.[2] After her capture and redemption, Mary Rowlandson published what some historians call "America's first best seller," entitled Narrative Of the Captivity and Restoratio;t of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.[3] 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 fortv years earlier.

Mary Rowlandson relied on her faith in the providence of God to sustain herself during her period of captivity. Indians ransacked the town of Lancaster in February of 1675. Rowlandson, the wife of a minister, was one of twenty-four townspeople taken captive.[4] Separated from her husband and all but one of her children, during her captivity she depended upon a Bible obtained from an Indian's plunder for spiritual survival.[5] Her eventual redemption and reunification with her surviving children and husband affirmed her faith in the providence of her God.

The founding Puritans based their concept of divine providence on a special covenant with God. John Winthrop, in "A Modell of Christian Charity," expressed the belief that the Puritans were the chosen people of God. In 1630, when Winthrop spoke to Puritaii colonists sailing to the New World on the ship Arbelia, he referred to God as "Our God" and to the Puritans as "his oune people." He remin ied his fellow colonists: "We are entered into Covenant with Him. ... wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us."[6] Winthrop believed that the Puritans had a duty tc) fulfill their covenant with God bv serving as an example of an ideal Christian community to the world. In return, God would protect his chosen people. In "God's Promise to His Plantations," John Cotton, one of Winthrop's contemporaries, explained that "what hee [God] hath planted he will maintain ... his owne plantation shall prosper, & flourish." Cotton urged Puritans to "Have speciall care that you have had the ordinances [of God] planted amongst you," because "As soon as God's ordinances cease, yor security ceaseth likewise."[7] Cotton warned his fellow Puritans that breaking the covenant with God would result in a loss of his protection for his chosen.

By quoting the scriptural story of Joseph, Rowlaridson illustrated her belief that the Puritans were the chosen people of God. When pondering the timely attack of the Indians on Lancaster, which took place shortly after the troops protecting the town left for want of provisions, she wrote that God "orders all things for his holy ends":

Shall there be evil in the city find the Lord hath not done it? They are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph; there fore they shall go captive with the first that go captive. It is Lord's doing and it should be marvelous in our eyes.[8]

God punished Joseph's brothers, who lacked remorse for selling Joseph into slavery, by making them the unknowing captives of Joseph years after they had committed their sin. By referring to this biblical story, Rowlandson compared the sinful brothers of Joseph to the sinful Puritan colonists of New England. When the Indians forbade Rowlandson to visit her daughter Mary, she began to reflect on her "one child dead, another in the wilderness I knew not where, the third they would not let me come near to." She recalled the woe of Jacob, who said to God "Me (as he said) have ye bereaved of any children; Joseph is not; Simeon is not; and ye will take Benjamin also."[9] By likening her separation from her children and her captivity to the story of Joseph, Rowlandson linked the Puritan colonists to God's first chosen people of the scriptures, the Israelites.

Rowlandson believed that God was punishing his people for breaking their special covenant as his chosen people. She described the relationship between the Indians and the colonists as one orchestrated by God. As she surveyed her home after the attack bv the Indians, she credited the destruction not to the Indians, but to God, when she quoted "Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations He has made in the earth-"[10] When pondering the escape of the Indians, weighed down with the burden of their wounded captives, from the English army, Rowlandson concluded that "God strengthened [the Indians] to be a scourge to His people." Rowlandson believed that "our perverse and evil carriages in the sight of the Lord have so offended Him that, instead of turning his hand against [the Indians], the Lord feeds and nourishes them." She reinforced her conviction that God punished her people through the Indians by quoting the scriptural voice of God saying "Oh, that my people had harkened to me, and Israel had walked in my ways; I should soon have subdued their enemies and turned my hand against their adversaries."[11] The Indians' success over the Puritans was a result of the failure of the Puritans to uphold their covenant with God. The warning that John Cotton preached over forty years earlier, that if the colonist, "degenerate, to take loose courses, God will surely plucke you up," had become prophetic to Mary Rowlandson.[12]

Rowlandson's Puritan-centered perception of her captivity revealed that she perceived the Indians as mere instruments used by God within the terms of his covenant with the Puritans. Throughout the narrative, Rowlandson referred to the New England Puritans, and never the Indians, as motivation for God's actions. When the Indians were successful, Rowlandson believed this success came not from the merit of the Indians but from the sins of the colonists. After Rowlandson's redemption and reunification with her daughter, she wrote:

Now I have seen that scripture also fulfilled....If any of thine be driven out to the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will the Lord thy God gather thee. . . .And thine God will put all these curses upon thine enemies, and on them that hate thee, which persecuted thee.[13]

Thus, Rowlandson revealed her belief that God would act against other people simply because they were enemies to the Puritans. Rowlandson believed that the sins of the colonists, which deviated from their covenant with God, led God to use the Indians as a means for punishment.

Quoting scripture in her narrative, Rowlandson concluded that God had orchestrated the events of her captivity, and, as an omnipotent being controlling all humanity, had acted with special purpose. God manipulated the relationship between the Indians and the Puritan colonists, favoring the Indians when the colonists had fallen to sinful ways, then favoring the colonists when they began to recognize their dependence on God. God was neither punishing nor rewarding the Indians, who were merely agents whom God controlled as a manifestation of his wrath on the New England Puritans. Rowlandson believed that the punishment that God had inflicted on the colonists via the Indians was a manifestation of his love: "For whom the Lord lovethe he chasteneth, and scourge every son he receiveth."[14] Because Rowlindson believed in the covenant between the Puritans and God, she strove to live by the scripture and fulfill her side of the covenant. Her eventual redemption affirmed her faith in God's special relation- ship with his chosen.


1. I chose the word Indians to write of the Native Americans to be consistant with Mary Rowlandson's choice of words.

2. David Freeman Hawke, The Colonial Experience (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), 307.

3. John Demos, "War and Captivity," Remarkable Providences, ed. John Demos (Boston: North Eastern UP, 1991), 344.

4. Mary Rowlandson, "Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson: Extracts," Remarkable Providences, 347.

5. Ibid., 347.

6. John Winthrop, "A Modell of Christian Charity," Settlements to Society: 1607-1763, ed. Jack P. Greene. (New York: Norton, 1975), 68.

7. John Cotton, "God's Promise to His Plantations," Settlements to Society, 65-6.

8. Rowlandson, 364.

9. Ibid., 351.

10. Ibid., 346.

11. Ibid., 355.

12. Cotton, 65.

13. Rowlandson, 369-70.

14. Ibid., 371.

Back to Hanover College Department of History

Mary Rowlandson 1637?-1711

American autobiographer.

Rowlandson was the author of a single work, The Soveraignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), a chronicle of her eleven-week captivity by Algonquian Indians. This account—generally referred to simply as Rowlandson's Narrative— was one of the earliest autobiographical works published by an Anglo-American woman and was arguably the first Indian captivity narrative, marking the beginning of a new genre that would remain popular until the nineteenth century. Many critics consider it one of the best works of its type ever written and point to its influence on not only on subsequent captivity narratives, but on the development of the novel and on the formation of white attitudes towards Native Americans. Rowlandson's Narrative is also valued by scholars for what it reveals about Puritan and Native American cultures and societies.

Biographical Information

Rowlandson was born Mary White around 1637 in Somerset, England, one of ten children born to John and Joan White. While she was an infant she immigrated with her mother and siblings to the American colonies, joining her father, who had preceded them. The family lived in several communities in Massachusetts before settling in the new village of Lancaster in 1653. There, the Whites became prominent landowners. In 1656 Rowlandson married Joseph Rowlandson, the minister of the local Puritan church. The couple had four children, three of whom survived infancy. On February 10, 1676, during the so-called King Philip's War, which pitted the united Algonquian tribes against the English colonists, a Wampanoag war party attacked Lancaster, killing many of the residents and destroying the town. However, the Wampanoags took Rowlandson, her three children, Mary, Joseph, and Sarah, and several other colonists captive. Rowlandson was injured in the attack, but her wounds were not as severe as those of her youngest child, Sarah, who later died during captivity. Separated from her older children, Rowlandson was held for eleven weeks. She experienced starvation, physical abuse, and hardship from the many “removes,” or forced relocations; she saw acquaintances brutalized and killed. Rowlandson relied on her faith in God to survive, interpretating her experiences in religious terms. After being ransomed on May 2, 1676, Rowlandson was reunited with her husband; their surviving children were released shortly thereafter. The family spent the next year in Boston before moving to Wethersfield, Connecticut, in 1677. Rowlandson probably wrote the original draft of the Narrative in this period and circulated the work among friends. Within a year of her husband's death in 1678, Rowlandson was remarried, to Captain Samuel Talcott, a gentleman farmer and leader of the Connecticut colony. Her Narrative was published in 1682, probably at the urging of Increase Mather, who prized it as a work of moral instruction. Mather likely assisted in its publication and was probably the author of the preface featured in early editions of the book. Rowlandson herself was apparently involved in the publication of the first edition only. Little else is known about the rest of Rowlandson's life, save that she outlived her second husband as well. Rowlandson died in Wethersfield on January 5, 1711.

Major Works

Rowlandson's Narrative chronicles her experiences during the eleven weeks in 1676 that she was held captive by Native Americans after a raid on her community. The account is written in a simple, colloquial style, which at intervals gives way to a more elevated and rhetorical style employing biblical quotation and allusion. Throughout, Rowlandson casts her story as a spiritual autobiography, presenting her captivity and its tribulations as a test or punishment from God and using the occasion as an opportunity for a close examination of her soul. Divided into twenty sections corresponding to the “removes,” the Narrative begins with a description of the raid, progresses through the actual captivity experience with its enforced marches between locations, and ends with Rowlandson's release. In the process of telling her story, Rowlandson reveals much about Puritan culture and attitudes towards women and Native Americans; similarly, she provides information about Native American culture, though often without appreciating or even clearly understanding it. Rowlandson's autobiographical account of her internment established the model for subsequent captivity narratives, and her emphasis on her role as mother laid the groundwork for later women's writing, including some African American slave narratives.

Critical Reception

Immediately popular upon its release in 1682, Rowlandson's Narrative went through four editions in its first year alone and has been published in some forty editions since that time. Early on it was admired as a fervent expression of Puritan religious belief. Almost from the first, however, Rowlandson's account and subsequent captivity narratives were used to justify the removal of Native Americans from lands being settled by English colonists. By the eighteenth century the depictions in these works of white settlers—especially women—suffering at the hands of Indians were used to garner support for wars against Native Americans. In the nineteenth century aspects of captivity narratives were incorporated into popular novels by James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Brockden Brown, and others. By the twentieth century, as the popularity of Rowlandson's book waned, critical interest in it increased. Scholars such as Richard Slotkin and James K. Folsom, Margaret H. Davis, Deborah J. Dietrich, and many others have analyzed the Puritan culture represented in Rowlandson's Narrative, while others, including Laura Arnold, have examined the picture of Algonquian culture the text provides. Related studies by Deborah J. Dietrich, Christopher Castiglia, Teresa A. Toulouse, and Steven Neuwirth, have focused on gender roles and the process of identity-formation in the Puritan society Rowlandson depicts. Parley Ann Boswell has stressed Rowlandson's presentation of herself as a mother and has traced the influence of the Narrative on later women's writing. David Downing and Dawn Henwood have explored Rowlandson's use of biblical references, and Michelle Burnham has linked the author's use of such material to the presence of dual narrative voices in the work. Burnham has seen the use of separate “colloquial” and “biblical” voices as deriving from the contact between European and Native American cultures in the text. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian for her part has viewed this narrative split as resulting from “a clash of codes between Rowlandson's psychological and religious interpretations of her experience.” Critics have also examined the Narrative as an influential work of literature, comparing it to other captivity narratives and, by common consensus, judging it the founding work of a uniquely American genre. Many have characterized its influence in even broader terms, regarding Rowlandson's Narrative as a work that contributed to the creation of a national identity. Rebecca Blevins Faery has investigated how the account was employed in the process of formulating an American identity based on white male superiority. Slotkin and Folsom, summarizing the central role the Narrative played in the development of American culture, have declared: “Rowlandson's book is … to be taken not only as the creation of a Puritan myth, but as the starting point of a cultural myth affecting America as a whole. Gradually, ‘the captivity’ became part of the basic vocabulary of American writers and historians, offering a symbolic key to the drama of American history: a white woman, symbolizing the values of Christianity and American civilization, is captured and threatened by a racial enemy and must be rescued by the grace of God (or, after the Puritan times, by an American hero).”

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