Imagined Encounters IV: Mary Rowlandson in Old Age

Mary Rowlandson died in 1711, in her early seventies.  In an early draft of Flight of the Sparrow I imagined her sitting in her dooryard near the end of her life, looking back on her captivity and pondering how it shaped her life:

I sit in the doorway of the house in the chair my stepson set out for me this morning.  I have taken my scissors out of my pocket and they lie in my lap.  I like to look upon them, though my fingers have so stiffened that I can no longer hold them properly.  They glint in the sunlight, mocking me with their reminder that my days of usefulness and duty have passed.  Yet I take them with me everywhere.  I cannot be separated from them, for they once saved my life.

My second husband built this house.  Samuel Talcott was an upright man, a captain in the militia, a man of boldness and daring.  When he asked me to wed, he promised to provide for me well, and so he has.  In his will he left me a room with a bed and a chest, use of the oven and cellar, land for a garden, and a cow for my own.  His son has honored his word.  I have meat and bread and beer.

Yet I am restive.  It is as if those months of captivity traveling up and down the wilderness, so many years ago, left me with a hunger for adventure that could not be slaked by a pious and civilized life.  As if I once discovered something that filled and gladdened me, but then lost it forever.

My book was my passage back to civilization, the price of my acceptance.  If I had imagined that the good people of Boston would receive me with open arms, I was soon rid of the illusion.  I became the chief subject of the Boston gossips; even my own husband feared that I had been contaminated by the savages.  When Reverend Mather asked that I write an account of my ordeal, it opened a door to my restoration.

Yet I have wondered since if it was too high a price to pay.  If the necessary twisting of the truth corrupted me even more than my reluctant sojourn among the Indians.

I am old now, nearly seventy years.  I did not expect to live so long.  My back is bent like that of the old Pequot woman I oftimes see on the streets of Wethersfield.  She walks with her head bowed as if studying the ground in quest of a place to lie down for her final rest.  She has no doubt borne heavy burdens on her back all her life, whereas I carried them only during my time of captivity.  Yet we are bent the same.

I am troubled with thoughts of my son, Joss, who was recently arrested, and even now lies in the Hartford goal, awaiting trial.  I will post bond for him, though I secretly doubt that he is innocent of the charges against him.  He has nursed a troubled spirit ever since that terrible winter morning when our home in Lancaster was assaulted by Indians and we were carried off into the wilderness.  He was not yet grown, still possessed of a boy’s liveliness and curiosity, and though he only spent a few months with the Indians, he was corrupted forever.

He is accused of the crime of selling his wife’s brother into Virginia as an indentured servant.  This is purported to have happened five years ago.  I do not want to credit it, yet I have long understood that Joss possesses some malevolent darkness within, and I suspect he is capable of this.  And more.

Still, he is my only son.  I must do what I can to save him.  I will use the scissors of my reputation to cut him free from this new captivity.

Life is not what we expect it to be when we are young.  The world is transformed, even as we move through it.  The ground heaves beneath our feet.  The sky darkens suddenly and thunder crashes down.  Whole villages are laid waste; strong houses are consumed in flame.  We are assaulted by our enemies.  We are crushed and betrayed by those we believed were our friends.  We are corrupted by our own iniquity.

And yet we are redeemed, again and again.


Mary Rowlandson’s Cupboard

Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA

Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA

It stands about seven feet tall against a wall in the special collections room of the Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, Massachusetts: the heavy wooden cupboard that Mary Rowlandson inherited when her husband, Joseph, died in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  I had the privilege of seeing it when I was in Lancaster early in May to talk about my novel Flight of the Sparrow. It’s both exciting and a little eerie when I see a real-life artifact belonging to one of the historical people I’ve written about.  I stood there, studying it, imagining Mary’s hands opening the bottom cupboard door to put away a carefully folded tablecloth, or pulling out one of the drawers to retrieve her embroidery scissors.  In her time, the upper part of the cupboard was probably draped in a piece of fine cloth, possibly lace-trimmed linen.

It is the work of Peter Blin, the French Huguenot joiner whose work was renowned in Wethersfield.  Built of solid English oak, the joined “court cupboard” is held together with mortise and tenon joints instead of nails.  Nearly indestructible, such chests were a symbol of permanence, stability and power.

Mary Rowlandson's Cupboard

Mary Rowlandson’s Cupboard

The Rowlandson cupboard is carved with tulips and gillyflowers and decorated with trimmings painted black to resemble the ebony trim used on high-fashion pieces in England. The shelf is supported by turned columns and provides a flat space on top for displaying valuable containers and plates.  Below, three doors and two drawers give access to the storage spaces.  The overhanging shelf is supported by pilasters and provides a flat space for displaying silver or ceramic vessels.

The cupboard, though almost certainly the Rowlandsons’ prize furniture piece, was less valuable than the linens it held.  Cloth was one of the most expensive commodities in the early colonies.  The eight tablecloths, twenty-eight towels and napkins were valued at five pounds, while the cupboard itself was valued at two.

When I was visiting Salem, Massachusetts, several years ago, I took a tour of an early 18th century home.  The guide mentioned that researchers had found a list of instructions the homeowner had written for his servants, detailing what to do if the house caught fire.  I was shocked to learn that the bed hangings were to be rescued before the children.

In her narrative, Mary Rowlandson claimed that her time in the wilderness had taught her “the extreme vanity” of the world.  While she no doubt found pleasure in the beauty and utility of her cupboard, I suspect that her own harrowing experiences had given her the wisdom to the perceive the limitations of material things.

Display shelf in Plimoth Plantation home

Display shelf in Plimoth Plantation home


War and Terror

Pequot WarWe live in a time when terrorism is in the news every day. The word has become synonymous with evil. We have lived with a declared “Global War on Terror” for twelve years. Yet it seems to me we are no less fearful, and no less terrified. When we hear the word “terrorism” we think of suicide bombings and airplanes flying into buildings. But “terrorism” is as old as human conflict; it’s the way tribes fight their wars.

Before the arrival of the European colonists in New England, war between native tribes was limited in scope and intensity because the warriors exercised deliberate restraint. They prided themselves on their accuracy in battle. The English, however, brought with them the new technology of muskets, weapons which were customarily discharged in volleys, making them impractical in New England forests. They also brought the practice of unrestrained, total war.

In 1675, when Wampanoag warriors went to war against the colonists of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, they used tactics they had used for generations, tactics that the Puritans regarded as “uncivilized” and that we would probably label “terrorist” today. Natives didn’t line up on broad, open battlefields and march toward the enemy, as the Europeans did at that time.  Instead, they attacked individual farms, looting barns and houses and killing livestock. They struck without warning, often just before dawn when the colonists couldn’t see them coming. They killed settlers in their fields and dooryards, sometimes stripping them naked and hacking off their heads. When they captured enemies, they sometimes tortured them in grisly ceremonies. The Puritans called their strategies “a skulking way of war.”

Natives also used a war strategy that was new to them, one they had learned from the English: burning homes and sometimes whole villages. This strange deviation was a replication of what the English had done to the Pequot people in 1637.

The Pequots were  based in what is now southern Connecticut; they had long controlled the supply of wampum in New England.  In the early 1600’s they aggressively expanded their control of the fur trade, fighting with their traditional enemies, the Mohegan, and pushing into Wampanoag and Narragansett territory. Meanwhile the English and the Dutch were struggling for trade dominance in the same area. After a period of escalating tensions a trader was attacked in July of 1636. He and several members of his crew were killed and his ship was looted by Narragansetts. When the Narragansetts convinced the English colonists that the Pequots were sheltering the murderers, the English sailed to Block Island, attacked two native villages, and later attacked and burned a Pequot village. The Pequot persuaded some of their allies to join them and that fall and winter they laid siege to the English soldiers in Fort Saybrook. In April they attacked Wethersfield, killing settlers and taking captives – about 30 casualties in all.

The English, with their Narragansett and Mohegan allies, marched on Fort Mystic, where the Pequot were based, and assaulted the palisade. But the warriors had gone to attack Hartford, leaving 600 to 700 Pequots – mostly women and children – inside the fort. When they didn’t surrender, the English set fire to the palisade.

The resulting massacre horrified the Narragansett and Mohegan warriors so badly that they left and went home. They commented that the English manner of warfare was “too furious and slays too many men.”  But within a generation, they would use that manner themselves.

Like the Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Nimuc people after King Philip’s War, the surviving Pequots were enslaved and shipped to Bermuda or forced into servitude in English homes. The Connecticut and Massachusetts colonists seized Pequot lands, claiming them as their reward for a “just war.” They banned the use of the word “Pequot,” and attributed English success to God’s providence.

Terror is the chief weapon of any war, whether we label it “civilized” or “skulking.” What seems a morally justifiable attack from the aggressor’s point of view, is almost certainly terrifying to the recipient. A person is just as terrified when faced with a musket as with a war club, when engulfed in flames as when felled by a rain of arrows. It’s as terrifying to be blown to pieces by a drone as it is to be asphyxiated with poison gas.

We are fooling ourselves when we equate “terror” with a particular tactic. Or when we ascribe it only to our enemies but not to ourselves.  Terror has always been war’s common currency.