Mary Rowlandson’s “Removes”

Earlier this week, I visited my son in central Massachusetts. Though the day was sunny, they’d accumulated about a foot of snow, which made the thought of walking through the woods (without snowshoes) distinctly unappealing. Yet it brought to my mind Mary Rowlandson and the eleven weeks she spent as captive to hostile natives.  I knew that we were in the general area where Mary Rowlandson’s captivity took place, but I didn’t realize how close my son lived to one of the important locations until I looked at an old map.

IMG_5455The map was the attempt by one author, based on Rowland’s descriptions in her captivity narrative, to locate all of her twenty “removes.”  After attacking Lancaster in February of 1676, the natives marched their captives through central and western Massachusetts, and north into Vermont, and New Hampshire, before returning to release Rowlandson and others near Mount Wachusett.  Each “remove” was a place they stopped and stayed one or more nights.  Rowlandson used the removes as a device to organize her narrative.  The third remove – not far from my son’s home – was the Nipmuc winter encampment at Menameset – two large villages about a mile apart on what is now the Ware River.

English accounts of the time estimated that there were over 2,000 natives gathered at Menameset when Rowlandson and the other captives arrived.  Winter storms had provided the extra security of deep snow.  Rowlandson, who had been carrying her mortally wounded daughter, Sarah, on the forced march through the snow since the attack three days before, was overwhelmed and close to fainting at the sight of the great number of natives.  She was sold by her captor to a Narragansett sachem and given shelter, where she desperately struggled to care for her dying child without the customary support of friends and family or the herbs and medicines she was used to.  Instead, she was repeatedly threatened.  She describes her experience in Menameset in her narrative: “I sat much alone with a poor wounded Child in my lap, which moaned night and day, having nothing to revive the body, or cheer the spirits of her, but in stead of that, sometimes one Indian would come and tell me in one hour, that your Master will knock your Child in the head, and then a second, and then a third, your Master will quickly knock your Child in the head.”  Sarah died of her wounds eight days after the attack, and was buried by the natives in an unmarked grave.

Rowlandson stayed in Menameset for about two weeks, until the natives divided into small groups and fled west, eluding the English soldier who pursued them. It was a harrowing experience – not just for the English captives, but for the native Nipmucs as well.  They had welcomed their allies, the Narragansett and Wampanoag, into their midst, doubling or tripling their population.  But they didn’t have the food or space to adequately support such numbers.  On top of that, much of their winter foodstores had been stolen or destroyed by English soldiers.  They were on the move at a time of year when they normally remained in winter camp.

cropped-oct16.jpgFebruary turned into March and then April and the ice broke up in the rivers, sending torrents of icy water downstream.  But they kept moving.

Although the snow wasn’t as deep in central Massachusetts this week as it was 338 years ago, there was still plenty of it.  And as my husband and I drove along the wooded back roads, I imagined what it must have been like for Mary Rowlandson – physically wounded, and psychologically traumatized, yet having no choice but to walk for days through snow and ice, up and down hills, through swamps, and across rivers in spring flood.  It would have been an extraordinary accomplishment even without the snow.

Imagined Encounters I: Entering the Experience

One of the pleasures of writing historical fiction is vividly imagining what it must have been like to live in another time and place.  As I’m shaping a novel, I usually do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book.  Here’s a sample, describing the experience of a young Nipmuc boy when he first encounters John Eliot, the 17th century Puritan missionary to the Indians.  This boy will grow up to become James Printer, who became a printer’s apprentice in Boston and helped Eliot translate and print his “Indian Bible.”

I was five when I first saw a coat man.  It was summer and my family had traveled east, following the fish and deer.  My mother built her wetu near a river and planted corn in the flat field behind.  There were other wetus, filled with aunts and cousins.  The camp was laid out in a circle, like a great hoop, protecting all the people.  In the center of the circle was a smaller circle of big stones the men placed there.

I thought the coat men very odd.  They covered their bodies covered in stiff black material, though it was summer when the sun made the earth warm and people did not wear skins.  The village dogs thought them odd, too; they swarmed them in excited circles, barking.

There were two coat men.  My cousin told me they were English, a word that I had never heard, an empty word that had no meaning inside it.

I soon learned that the coat men had other names – Ell-ye-yot and Goo-kin  – and I found comfort in this, even though they were also empty words that had no meaning I could fathom.  But they were proof that these two English were not alone in the world, that they had kin and friends somewhere.

The coat men gave gifts to my father: two knives, a blanket and a string of wampum.  I noticed that Eliot and Gookin were both shorter than my father and brothers.  The one called Eliot had hair the color of a muskrat pelt, not only on his head, but beneath his nose and chin.  He did not dress his hair, but let it fall untended in waves that reminded me of water after a storm.  The other man was younger and sadder.  All afternoon my father and my oldest brother sat with them under a big chestnut tree outside the circle of wetus.

I sat with my mother and helped her shell beans.  I asked her about the men.  They did not look friendly or happy in their strange black clothes.  My mother stroked my hair, which rose in black spikes at the crown.  “Do not worry, Anequsemes, my little chipmunk.  They live far away by the sea.  They are not our enemies.”

I did not ask how she knew.  My mother was wise and understood many things.  She had seen the sea once when she journeyed with her people – the Qunnipieuck – to a  feast hosted by the Pocasset sachem, Corbitant.  She had told me about the short, crooked pine trees of the forest in that place.  She had described the shore of brown sand and the pink and white shells she had collected there.  She explained how the sea was a great lake, a lake so large no one could see the other shore.  It had its own spirit, Paumpagussit.  I tried to imagine the sea but could not.

When I tired of shelling beans, I played with the dog, then wandered up the hill and lay in the grass near the talking men.  I listened to the strange words of the coat men and whispered them to myself.  They were sharp, spiky words.  They sat on my tongue like porcupine quills.  I whispered them slowly and carefully so that they would not cut my lips.

Eliot and Gookin talked with my father and brother late into the afternoon and even though it was not the people’s custom to eat together, all the men gathered around the stewpot and ate as one.  I watched them use pieces of baked noohkik to scoop the lumpy paste from the pot.  Once Eliot looked at me and smiled.   That night everyone slept in the wetu; I curled like a young rabbit against my mother’s back.

On the second day, Eliot began to tell tales of heroes and spirits.  He gathered all the people who would listen and I sat all afternoon with the other children, carving the figures of two small deer into a stick as I listened.  Eliot did not know many words of Nipmuc but made himself understood by signs and the words of the Massachuset and Wampangoag peoples.  He told of Jesus, a strong ahtuskou who lived many years ago in a distant land.  This ahtuskou would come, he said, and the people must be ready for him when he did.  He talked of Keihtan and a god named Jehovah and he said there was only one spirit, not many as we had been told.

The elders listened politely but I saw that most of them did not like the stories because their own were better.

Eliot and Gookin left on the third day and life went back to normal except the people did not stop talking about the two strangers.  The powauws dreamed of snakes and hawks and smoked many pipes of tobacco to cleanse the air.

But it was too late.  The strangers had infected the people.  Sokanonaske, Tuckapewillin’s wife, saw a white porcupine when she was hoeing squash, and Konkontusenump encountered a fire spirit when he walked at night by the river.  The people gathered around the fire and told their own stories to strengthen their hearts.  But they knew the strangers would return.

The Praying Towns, Part II

john_elliot_praying_indians3It seemed obvious to English Puritans that Christian natives would need to be “civilized.” Conversion would require them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and commit to living in permanent villages. They would have to cut their hair in the English manner, and wear English-style clothes. They would be obliged to divide labor along the established English gender lines – men would have to give up hunting and farm the land. The women, who had previously done the bulk of the agricultural work, would be “freed” to practice English housewifery.

The General Court enacted laws to regulate native behavior. They stated that, while it was improper to “compel either by force or by poenall [penal] laws” the Indians to profess Christianity, they couldn’t in good conscience, allow Indians to continue to exhibit certain behaviors they deemed offensive and/or pagan.

Blasphemy was number one on their list – they declared that it would not be tolerated and that any offense would be considered a capital crime, punishable by death. They also outlawed “powwowing” which they saw as the worship of false gods. This was the same as heresy, and subject to severe fines. Natives were required (like the English) to attend public worship on the Lord’s Day, as well as public thanksgiving and fasting days. (There were a lot of fasting days.)

They required that the laws must be read by a court appointee (helped by an interpreter) to all Indians at least once a year. “One or more” magistrates were appointed as circuit court judges whose job it would be to travel from town to town to hear civil and criminal cases and to :carefully endeavor to make the Indians understand our most usefull laws, and those principles of reason, justice, and equity whereupon they are grounded.”

The third praying town, Hassanamesit, was established in 1660, under the following laws:
1. If any man be idle a week, or at most a fortnight, he shall pay five shillings.
2. If any unmarried man shall lie with a young woman unmarried, he shall pay five shillings.
3. If any man shall beat his wife, his hands shall be tied behind him and he shall be carried to the place of justice to be severely punished.
4. Every young man, if not another’s servant, and if unmarried, shall be compelled to set up a wigwam, and plant for himself, and not shift up and down in other wigwams.
5. If any woman shall not have her hair tied up, but hang loose, or be cut as men’s hair, she shall pay five shillings.
6. If any woman shall go with naked breasts, she shall pay two shillings.
7. All men that wear long locks shall pay five shillings.
8. If any shall kill their lice between their teeth, they shall pay five shillings.
These laws likely reflect the behaviors that the English found most repugnant. It’s worth noting how many of them focus on personal grooming.

Of course there’s no way of knowing how many of these laws were actually enforced. The law designated that power to the village sachems, along with the power to make judgments, impose and collect fines.

Could it be that the Puritans were more concerned with how the laws looked “on the books” than how faithfully they were followed?