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.
The 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.
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.