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.