Reading Mary Rowlandson


On the tenth of February 1675, came the Indians in great numbers upon Lancaster: Their first coming was about sun-rising; hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to Heaven.

So begins Mary Rowland’s memoir of her captivity among the Indians.  She and twelve friends and relatives, including her three children, were seized in a raid on the frontier town of Lancaster, Massachusetts – a raid that wounded Mary and her six-year-old daughter, Sarah, and left twenty-two people dead.  For eleven weeks, Mary and the other captives were marched around what is now western Massachusetts, evading the English soldiers who pursued them.  In early May, Mary was ransomed back to the English colonists and reunited with her husband in Boston.  Her two oldest children survived their captivity, but Sarah died of her wounds only eight days after the attack.

In the three months of Mary’s captivity, King Philip’s War reached its apex.  By the time she was released, starvation and disease had so overwhelmed the Indians that Philip’s alliance had fallen apart.  Their people had been devastated; approximately 40% of natives had lost their lives.  And though English losses were not as severe, the war had been a blow to their population and economy.  Both sides were weary of the blood-letting and ready for the hostilities to end.

Mary’s memoir was first published in 1682 under the cumbersome title The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed.  Her harrowing experience is told in a blunt, fast-paced style.  It was an instant bestseller and is now widely regarded as one of the most valuable primary-source documents for researchers of 17th century American Indian woodlands culture.  However, the author – or someone working with her – has overlaid the straightforward details of her story with scriptural references, Puritan generalizations and pieties and narrow-minded self-righteousness that can bog down a 21st century reader.

Yet Mary Rowlandson’s memoir gives us a rare window into the events of King Philip’s War and, with careful reading, may help us to dispel some of our own misconceptions about the two cultures that clashed in that war.  We can learn from Mary’s limitations and use her book to enlarge our own ability to be more understanding of unfamiliar and unpopular cultures.  There has never been a time in our history when such understanding is more necessary than it is today.


A City on a Hill


Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting from John Winthrop’s seventeenth century lecture, “A Model of Christian Charity,” in which he called on the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be “as a city on a hill.” and reminded his fellow Puritans that “the eyes of all people are upon us.”  But the popular symbol of America as a shining beacon of freedom for the world is a long way from Winthrop’s original concept.  The city he envisioned was one in which community – not freedom – was the dominant theme.

“We must delight in each other,” Winthrop said, “make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together.”  The city on a hill was one in which people would put the common good before their own desires and ambitions, “that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.”  (Yes, even including the Church of England.)

They were more concerned with their dependence on each other than with independence from any authority.

The Puritans who came to New England‘s shore in the 1630s believed they were bound in a covenant with God.  If they failed to keep their end of the bargain, they should expect to be punished – not individually but as a community.  “If we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken,” said Winthrop, “we shall be made a story and byword through the world.”  In other words, they would be a public humiliation, a scourge upon the earth.  The city on a hill was a warning as much as a promise.  Keeping that covenant put the Puritans under specific obligations.

It required them to be charitable to each other.  “There is a time when a Christian must sell all and give to the poor,” Winthrop insisted.  “There is a time also when Christians (though they give not all yet) must give beyond their ability.”  They were to let no one go hungry or without shelter.  They had a duty to visit the sick, and to comfort those whose loved ones had died. They were supposed to watch out for each other.   “Mutual watch,” they called it, and they took it very seriously.

If “mutual watch” sounds comforting, we should remember that it has a dark side.  It’s the uncomfortable part of living in community.  It means that if you beat your wife, you should expect to be reported to the authorities.  Your absence from worship will be noticed and if you miss enough services, you will be reprimanded.  If you get drunk and insult your neighbor, you’ll have to apologize for it –  in public.

Anyone who’s lived in a small town has experienced this to some extent.  If you grew up in a community under 2,000 people chances are you never quite lost that sense that everyone knows your business.  And you know everyone else’s.  You don’t forget that everything you do and say will likely be recorded in someone’s memory and played back to someone else. You remember you need to take care of your reputation, because once you lose it, you can’t get it back.

The “mutual watch” was a duty, and it went way beyond sharing information.  It required doing whatever was necessary to relieve the suffering of others in the community.  Winthrop spoke of a “double law” that regulated all their relationships: “This law requires two things,” he said. “First, that every man afford his help to another in every want or distress.  Secondly, that he perform this out of the same affection which makes him careful of his own goods.”

This understanding of each person’s responsibility for the common good of all was integral to life in the “city on the hill” that was Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Not exactly what Ronald Reagan had in mind.

In fact, the Puritans were as wary of personal freedom as we are entranced by it.  Their commitment was to community.  They understood its costs and its perils.  They knew that community wasn’t easily accomplished; it was a difficult and often frustrating undertaking.  Charity was not an option, but a duty.

They also knew that freedom, unharnessed by a self-reflective humility, was a dangerous thing.  It had the potential to loose the demons of greed and corruption, to elevate self-righteousness, and ultimately to destroy community itself.

America has come a long way from the Puritan dream.  Few of us would want to go back to it, even if we could.  But have we perhaps forgotten something life-affirming and necessary in our pursuit of freedom?  Does personal freedom, when taken to an extreme, have a way of isolating us?  Even in crowds, we seem to find ourselves alone as we listen privately to music on our iphones or carry on texting conversations as we walk down the street.  We often feel anonymous, just numbers on a social security or credit card.  We receive phone calls from robots.  We spend hours sitting alone in our cars, commuting to work, driving to shopping malls.  We try to fill our need for community with characters from television series shows or by joining special interest groups, or drinking in bars.  We chase our dreams across the globe, but they’re never quite within our grasp.

Community makes demands on us.  It intrudes on our personal space and requires us to relinquish some of our own freedom for the good of all.  As Winthrop says, it requires us to “abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply others’ necessities.”  But it is through these sacrifices that we become part of something greater than ourselves.  “Love,” claims Winthrop, “is the bond of perfection.”  In this bond people “partake of each other’s strength and infirmity, joy and sorrow, weal and woe.”  This is true community.  This is life-changing,  world-changing hard work.

War and Terror

Pequot WarWe live in a time when terrorism is in the news every day. The word has become synonymous with evil. We have lived with a declared “Global War on Terror” for twelve years. Yet it seems to me we are no less fearful, and no less terrified. When we hear the word “terrorism” we think of suicide bombings and airplanes flying into buildings. But “terrorism” is as old as human conflict; it’s the way tribes fight their wars.

Before the arrival of the European colonists in New England, war between native tribes was limited in scope and intensity because the warriors exercised deliberate restraint. They prided themselves on their accuracy in battle. The English, however, brought with them the new technology of muskets, weapons which were customarily discharged in volleys, making them impractical in New England forests. They also brought the practice of unrestrained, total war.

In 1675, when Wampanoag warriors went to war against the colonists of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, they used tactics they had used for generations, tactics that the Puritans regarded as “uncivilized” and that we would probably label “terrorist” today. Natives didn’t line up on broad, open battlefields and march toward the enemy, as the Europeans did at that time.  Instead, they attacked individual farms, looting barns and houses and killing livestock. They struck without warning, often just before dawn when the colonists couldn’t see them coming. They killed settlers in their fields and dooryards, sometimes stripping them naked and hacking off their heads. When they captured enemies, they sometimes tortured them in grisly ceremonies. The Puritans called their strategies “a skulking way of war.”

Natives also used a war strategy that was new to them, one they had learned from the English: burning homes and sometimes whole villages. This strange deviation was a replication of what the English had done to the Pequot people in 1637.

The Pequots were  based in what is now southern Connecticut; they had long controlled the supply of wampum in New England.  In the early 1600’s they aggressively expanded their control of the fur trade, fighting with their traditional enemies, the Mohegan, and pushing into Wampanoag and Narragansett territory. Meanwhile the English and the Dutch were struggling for trade dominance in the same area. After a period of escalating tensions a trader was attacked in July of 1636. He and several members of his crew were killed and his ship was looted by Narragansetts. When the Narragansetts convinced the English colonists that the Pequots were sheltering the murderers, the English sailed to Block Island, attacked two native villages, and later attacked and burned a Pequot village. The Pequot persuaded some of their allies to join them and that fall and winter they laid siege to the English soldiers in Fort Saybrook. In April they attacked Wethersfield, killing settlers and taking captives – about 30 casualties in all.

The English, with their Narragansett and Mohegan allies, marched on Fort Mystic, where the Pequot were based, and assaulted the palisade. But the warriors had gone to attack Hartford, leaving 600 to 700 Pequots – mostly women and children – inside the fort. When they didn’t surrender, the English set fire to the palisade.

The resulting massacre horrified the Narragansett and Mohegan warriors so badly that they left and went home. They commented that the English manner of warfare was “too furious and slays too many men.”  But within a generation, they would use that manner themselves.

Like the Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Nimuc people after King Philip’s War, the surviving Pequots were enslaved and shipped to Bermuda or forced into servitude in English homes. The Connecticut and Massachusetts colonists seized Pequot lands, claiming them as their reward for a “just war.” They banned the use of the word “Pequot,” and attributed English success to God’s providence.

Terror is the chief weapon of any war, whether we label it “civilized” or “skulking.” What seems a morally justifiable attack from the aggressor’s point of view, is almost certainly terrifying to the recipient. A person is just as terrified when faced with a musket as with a war club, when engulfed in flames as when felled by a rain of arrows. It’s as terrifying to be blown to pieces by a drone as it is to be asphyxiated with poison gas.

We are fooling ourselves when we equate “terror” with a particular tactic. Or when we ascribe it only to our enemies but not to ourselves.  Terror has always been war’s common currency.

The Forgotten War

ImageWe Americans like to remember our wars, especially the wars we win.  We celebrate Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and label those who came of age during World War II as our “greatest generation.”  References to those who sacrificed their lives in our many wars are a part of every political speech.  It’s sometimes said that every generation of Americans has its own war.  But one of our earliest and most transformative wars is left out of our history books.  And even though it is, to this day, the bloodiest war per capita that’s ever been waged on American soil, most of us have never even heard of it.

King Philip’s War began in June of 1675, fifty-five years after the Pilgrims landed on the shores of New England.  A lot had happened in that half century, most significantly the Great Migration of Puritans from England.  They came by the thousands, fleeing the hostile political and religious climate in England. Whole families boarded ships setting sail for New England and the West Indies.  Between 1630 and 1640, 20,000 settled in towns along the New England coast.  They were literate, educated, and pious people who risked their lives and health to make the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to pursue religious freedom.  They wanted to be free of English religious restrictions and to worship in the way they chose.  And they wanted land.

It’s estimated that there were about 7,000 natives living in New England at the time the Pilgrims landed.  Not long before 1620 there had been tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands more.  The population had recently been devastated by European diseases, carried by fishermen who’d been visiting the New England coast for nearly a hundred years.

The Puritans saw the unused (“unimproved”) land – the remnants of native fields and villages – and believed that God had “opened” the way for them. They quickly settled in.  As their families expanded and more and more people flooded in from England, they sought to expand their land holdings through barter, trade, and the English King’s charters.

The natives who had occupied this land for millennia were not a unified group, but an assortment of tribes loosely linked by a family of similar languages usually labeled “Algonquian.” These tribes had a long history of shifting alliances and political tensions.  When the Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit, befriended the Pilgrims, he was acting strategically.  He viewed the English as allies who would help strengthen his people against their Narragansett enemies.  With his death in 1661, and the passing of the sachem role to his son, Wamsutta, the era of peace between the colonists and natives drew to a close.

Metacomet (a.k.a. Philip) was Massasoit’s second son; he took over as sachem when Wamsutta died suddenly after a brief imprisonment in Plymouth.  His warriors blamed the colonists and pressured Metacomet to go to war against the English.  When the body of one of his advisors was later found under the ice in a pond, three Wampanoag men were arrested, tried, and executed.

Soon after, a group of Wampanoag warriors – probably without Metacomet’s approval – raided several English homes in Swansea, set two of them on fire, and killed nine colonists in retribution. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, which were separate colonies at the time, quickly united and dispatched several companies to destroy Montaup, Metacomet’s base of operation.  Metacomet made a daring escape north, and eventually united with the Pocasset, Nipmuc and even the Narragansett, (who had long been the Wampanoags’ traditional enemies) to drive back the colonists.

Though the war lasted until the spring of 1678, the worst hostilities were over by August, 1676, when Metacomet was killed .  The toll in human life was high on both sides; it’s estimated that the English lost about 800 people out of a population of 52,000.  The natives, however, fared far worse.  One source estimates that about 3,000 natives were killed in battle, out of a total population of 20,000.  More were sold into slavery or “relocated” in widely scattered places throughout New England.

After the war the English colonists were no longer motivated to continue pursuing peaceful coexistence with native tribes.  They firmly established themselves as the dominant culture in the region.  It was a pattern that would be repeated many times in the years to come as Americans confronted indigenous people.

They say that those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it.  It’s past time that we remember King Philip’s War.  Though it’s too late to restore the Wampanoag and other native people to their full strength and power, it’s still appropriate for us to learn and take to heart the lessons of this forgotten war.