First of its Kind

MR book5Mary Rowlandson’s book, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, was the inspiration and foundation for my novel, Flight of the Sparrow. First published in 1682, the book was Rowlandson’s account of her captivity by Native Americans in 1676 during what has come to be called King Philip’s War. The first publication in North America by a living woman, it became an immediate bestseller and for years remained one of the most popular books by a Puritan writer.

More importantly, it established a popular genre of “captivity narratives” that continues to this day. Rowlandson had hundreds of imitators who followed her basic structure – a surprise attack, descriptions of the captive’s journey, and his or her eventual release – and reinforced the moral and religious significance of the events. Among them are The Captivity of Hannah Dustin (1697), set during King William’s War, The Redeemed Captive (1707), describing the raid on Deerfield, MA during Queen Anne’s War, A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson, (1796) set during the French and Indian War, and A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824).

The captivity narrative eventually spread to other cultural forms, including stage and film. We still respond to captivity narratives today in reports of hostages or prisoners of war held by terrorists or kidnappers.

One reason for the popularity of these narratives is the unspoken sexual subtext. The Puritans of Mary Rowlandson’s day expected women captives would be raped. In their ignorance of native customs, they assumed natives would find English women sexually irresistible. Rowlandson went to great lengths to point out that she was never sexually threatened in any way. In her narrative she wrote, “not one of them ever offered me the least abuse of unchastity to me in word or action.”

Hubbard book1Apparently that didn’t convince Nathaniel Saltonstall. In his narrative of the war he claimed that native warriors often raped their captives and forced the women “to satisfy their filthy lusts and then murdered them.” Benjamin Tomson even claimed that lust for colonial women had been motivated the native attacks. Even those Puritans who affirmed that natives had not assaulted captive women, such as Reverend William Hubbard, insisted that God had “restrained” them from sexual defilement.

Though no careful reader can find any hint of sexual violation in Rowlandson’s narrative, it’s not unlikely that prurient curiosity was at least partly responsible for the book’s popularity – and the popularity for the many captivity narratives that followed.

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Upon This Rock

RR2On 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 RR3spent 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.

Inscription – Click to enlarge

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.

IRR4n 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.

For me, it was both humbling and haunting.trees RR

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.