On a drizzly fall morning earlier this week, on my way back to Vermont from Providence, Rhode Island, I stopped at Redemption Rock, the site where Mary Rowlandson was ransomed back to the English by her Native American captors. The rock is located just off a narrow, wooded stretch of Route 140 in Princeton, Massachusetts, and it’s easy to miss. It’s been awhile since I’ve visited, and like all outdoor places, its mood varies with the weather. Even though it’s just a few yards from the road, the huge rock feels private, oddly safe. Perhaps it’s the huge size of the rock. It’s really a ledge outcropping, not a boulder, and it rises out of the ground gradually, as if emerging from the earth. It reminds me of the prow of a ship cresting the waves.
The last time I was there, I was in the middle of writing Flight of the Sparrow, and I spent my time trying to visualize what it must have looked like in the spring of 1676, the ledge at the top of a rise overlooking a large clearing filled with wetus. This time, I breathed in the perfumes of wet autumn leaves and evergreens, and relished the soft cushion of pine needles under my shoes. I noticed how the bright colors of the fallen leaves is enhanced, not diminished, by the rain.
I thought of Mary coming to this place, near-starving and weary after weeks of walking. I wondered if she actually stood on the rock while she was being ransomed. The inscription carved into the south side of the rock in the 19th century reads:
Upon this rock May 2, 1676 was made the agreement for the ransom of Mrs Mary Rowlandson of Lancaster between the Indians and John Hoar of Concord. King Philip was with the Indians but refused his consent.
It’s certainly possible that the actual transfer took place on top of the rock. It’s a suitable setting for what must have been an important ceremony. But what struck me is that the outcropping is such an easily identifiable landmark.
In a time long before GPS tracking and in a population lacking detailed maps of the area, natural features, especially ones unlikely to change over the years, were godsends. A large rock outcropping on high land in the shadow of Mount Wachusett would have been easy to find – for both natives and English. And it would also have been easy to remember. As the years passed and Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative was read and reread by succeeding generations, the site of her ransom became a concrete connection to an increasingly murky past. There’s something that grounds you when you stand on the site of a momentous event in human history.