Feasting and Fasting in Puritan New England

thanksgivingThe familiar story of the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony was created in the 19th century and the myth is so charming we cling to it even though we know it’s a distortion of the historical facts. While the New England colonists occasionally celebrated days of thanksgiving, fast days were more common.

These days, we often think of fasting – if we think of it at all – as a way of shedding pounds gained through too much feasting. But for the Puritans, fasting was always a religious observance, with the focus was on God, not their own waistlines.

Puritans held fasts or “solemn days of humiliation” to pray for God’s mercy and help. They prayed about everything from bad weather, poor harvests and sickness, to military img_0936defeats and international tensions. On fast days no food was eaten from sundown to sundown. Daily work was set aside and people gathered at the meetinghouse to hear a jeremiad, a sermon lamenting the reasons for God’s displeasure such as greed, pride, laziness, or sensuality. After worship they were expected to spend the rest of the day in sober reflection on the problem. Sometimes, such as after King Philip’s War, a day of fasting was followed by a day of thanksgiving.

The notebook of the Reverend John Fiske of Wenham in Massachusetts Bay Colony provides a window into some Puritan fasts in the 1600s:

Oct. 19, 1644 – A solemn day of humiliation kept regarding the dominance of the Presbyterian faction in England.

Jan. 2, 1645 – A solemn day of humiliation kept because of “the extremity of the season,” and concern for the church and town.

Jan. 1, 1647 – A fast due to “the affliction of sickness and death of some in this town,” that God’s would stay his hand from “this day hence.”

Feb. 20, 1648 – A colony-wide fast by order of the General Court [the governing body of the Colony] for England, the West Indies and Massachusetts Bay Colony.

April 15, 1648 – A day of humiliation for a member who had resisted the church’s discipline.

Feb. 28, 1661 – A “day of humiliation before the scriptures” to seek reconciliation with everyone in the church.

Not many of us want to go back to Puritan days. We’d have a hard time dealing with the restrictions and rigidity of their lifestyle. But maybe we’ve discarded some of their practices at a cost. In this time of national division and material excess, maybe it’s worth considering ways we could incorporate a few periods of sober reflection into our lives.

Aftermaths

Wars have aftermaths, and King Philip’s War was no exception.  Few families in Massachusetts Bay Colony were untouched by King Philip’s War and its aftermath.  Although the English colonists considered the war over with the death of Metacomet in August of 1676, hostilities continued for years and bled into the French and Indian War.  Recently, when I was researching my family history, I discovered that one of my own ancestors was a victim of the war’s aftermath.

Indians_Attacking_a_Garrison_HouseAt eleven o’clock on the bright fall morning of September 19th, 1677, a group of about fifty natives attacked the north end of the frontier town of Hatfield, Massachusetts.  Even though the colonists had built a defensive stockade the year before, they were caught off guard.  The men were helping to frame a new house or working in the fields south of the palisade.  The natives never even tried to enter the stockade, instead attacking the houses outside the twelve-foot walls.  Some men standing on top of the new house were shot and fell; others were captured and bound.  Thirteen homes were invaded; seven were burned.  Women and children were killed or captured. The men in the fields saw the smoke and rushed back to the village, but by the time they got there, the Indians had marched their seventeen captives across the fields and turned north on the Poctumtuck path toward Deerfield.  They were bound for Canada.

Among the twelve dead was my ancestor, Mary Meekins, wife of the selectman Samuel Belding.  She left behind seven children, ranging in age from eight to twenty-two.

I imagine that Samuel was shattered.  He no doubt mourned the death of his wife and probably considered her innocent.  Chances are this reinforced the belief he likely shared with many of his fellow colonists – that the Indians were savages.

But there’s always more to the story.

A year and a half before Mary was killed, Samuel had participated in a savage and brutal attack on natives at the falls above Deerfield (now Turner’s Falls).  About one hundred and sixty men launched a surprise assault at dawn which left the natives reeling.  Rushing the sleeping camp, the men fired indiscriminately into their homes, and killed those who tried to escape.  Between 130 to 180 natives were slaughtered – men, women, and children, young and old.  Others drowned in the river as they tried to flee. The native village was then set on fire and all their food stores destroyed.

Even when victory is declared and a people or a nation are encouraged to think a war is over, there are always tensions simmering just under the surface – tensions that may erupt in new violence.  It takes years – often generations – to heal from war’s horrors.  As wise people have often said, it’s easy to start a war; it’s difficult to end one.  Even when it seems to be over, it probably isn’t.

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.

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.

Dismantling Hassanamesit

3One of the most important “praying Indian” towns established by John Eliot was Hassanamesit, a Nipmuc village located in central Massachusetts.  Approved by the English authorities in 1654, it was a large square of land, four miles wide and four miles long and served as a buffer between the colonists and aggressive and powerful native tribes to the west and south.  Eliot chose the village as a focus for his missionary efforts west of Natick and it was one of only two praying towns that reported building a church in which converted Nipmucs could worship.

Eliot regarded Hassanamesit as a showcase village, and wrote enthusiastically about its adoption of English farming practices and future potential.  His aide, Daniel Gookin, reported that the village “produceth plenty of corn, grain and fruit; for there are several good orchards in the place . . . Their way of living is by husbandry and keeping cattle and swine . . .”

But Hassanamesit’s location made it a prime target for both native and English raiders, and in September, 1675, as the hostilities of King Philip’s War escalated, much of the village was destroyed by English troops.  Two months later, two hundred Christian natives who had gathered there to harvest what crops were left, were surprised by Philip’s warriors.  The warriors presented a choice: join them or be left vulnerable to English raiders, who would enslave or incarcerate them on Deer Island. The harvesters made the obvious decision – to go with the warriors.

Hassanamesit was empty.

King Philip’s War devastated the native population.  By November of 1676, when the remaining Nipmucs were counted so each could be assigned to English “supervisors,” there were only 42 men and 150 women and children left.  The Hassanamesit people were grouped with the Natick residents, where they were “continually inspected” and restricted from going outside the borders of the town.  Hassanamesit still existed on paper, but it was not occupied by natives for the next twenty years.

Instead, the Massachusetts Bay colonists partitioned the “empty” land for settlement, even though the Hassanamesit men still retained their claim to the village.  In 1682 a deed was executed, selling large portions of Nipmuc land to the English.  It was signed by 22 Nipmuc representatives, but only two were names associated with Hassanamesit.  Though some Nipmuc protested the sale as an illegal transfer, the English began to build farms in the former praying town.

It was not until the mid-1690s that the native people were allowed to leave their “plantation of confinement.”   Only five of the original families returned to Hassanamesit.  Among them was the remarkable Nipmuc, James Printer.

 

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

Imagined Encounters II: On the Trail

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 do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book. This passage imagines the experience of Wowaus (James Printer) as he accompanies other Nipmucs through their territory in the late winter of 1676, fleeing the English soldiers. (See Chapter Eleven in Flight of the Sparrow for Mary Rowlandson’s perspective on these events.)

He is hungry; they are all hungry. There are only scraps to eat; no one has had time to hunt, and they can carry only some of the few winter stores that are left. He knows this hunger well; it is familiar to him, familiar to all Nipmuc. That is the way of things – the great cycles of the seasons bring warmth and plenty and then famine and cold. He has learned – they have all learned – how to endure.

But the English are soft. They do not live according to the seasons but spend their days building up stores of grain for the winter. This is a way the Hassanamesit try to follow, a way that Mr. Eliot and his friend Mr. Gookin praise them for, but Wowaus and others worry that it will make them soft like the English.

Even as they walk, he feels his body grow hard like the trunk of a walnut tree that has lost its summer leaves and stands fast against the wind and snow. He helps to carry some of the old ones, who have become yet more feeble because of hunger. A grandmother rides on his back up a long hill through thick trees. At last they come to the Bacquag which is a tumble of ice and white water. He had hoped that it would be frozen, but should have known better. The past three days have been warm enough to melt snow and the river is often in a rage, even in winter.

He, along with other men, fells trees for rafts. There are hundreds who must be carried to the far side of the river, and their time is short. Though he knows Monoco has sent a party of warriors to cover their tracks, it is no assurance that the English will not stumble upon them by accident. He works in a fury, stopping only to drink from the icy river. The cold is a good thing, he knows. It fortifies him, makes him strong. He realizes as he sinks his hatchet deep into the trunk of a small maple, that he is very much enjoying being a Nipmuc again.

It takes them two days to ferry everyone over. The women build wigwams on the far shore and they rest warm for three days and nights. On the second morning, as he walks about the makeshift village he sees the captive woman sitting outside a wigwam, wrapped in a blanket, knitting stockings. Her eyes are red, as if she has been crying or is ill, and there is a bright bruise on her cheek – a slap mark. She has apparently raised the ire of Weetamoo. He smiles. She is a woman of spirit, perhaps too much spirit for her own good. He wonders what she has done.

He watches her from the far side of a wigwam; he sees her sense that she is being watched, sees her head come up and her eyes skitter over the people nearby, but she does not see him, he is certain.

He considers approaching her and decides not to. There is something very sweet in watching over her this way. As if he is like one of Mr. Eliot’s guardian spirits.
A gray dog comes up to him and sniffs his heel. He wonders when they will start eating the dogs. Food is very scarce. The day before, he watched his uncle butcher a horse taken from the English, the same horse he had arranged for the red haired captive to ride. It would be a starving winter, thanks to this war with the English.

The sun drops into the trough of trees on the far side of the ridge and he leaves his watch for another day. The captive Mary sits outside the wigwam, knitting and knitting.

On the fifth morning, just after dawn, the warriors fire the wigwams and flee north. For hours the air is thick with smoke and from the ridges, Wowaus can see flames licking up into the trees. By mid-day, scouts report that the English army has reached the Bacquag and it has stopped them, at least for a time. Apparently they cannot decide how best to cross. Monoco directs his warriors to take the people down out of the hills to a swamp.

Swamps have always been a place of safety; all tribes retreat to them when threatened. The boggy ground is dangerous, and it’s difficult to track people in the thick vines and thickets that run along the ground and reach out to grab a man’s leg or ankle.

They travel as quickly as possible but the trail is narrow and steep and there are hundreds of people, all weary and weak from lack of food. As they descend into a valley the trees open up to reveal a landscape of abandoned English fields. The yellow spikes of old corn stalks poke through the snow. They halt and Monoco sends scouts out over the fields and into the woods beyond. They soon return with the report that there are no English in the area.

The women fan out across the fields to glean what corn and wheat has been left from a long-ago harvest. Wowaus sees the red haired captive pick up a broken ear of corn and drop it into her pocket. She looks around, furtively, then – miraculously – finds another. He sees how tempted she is to eat it on the spot, but something stays her. She has an uncommon resolve for a woman. Later, he sees a young woman steal one of the ears and watches Mary’s outraged accusation. He knows she will not get it back. The young woman is as hungry as Mary, and has two children to feed as well. The other women gather around the captive, mocking her and laughing.

That night there is an expansive joy in camp, as the stewpots are augmented with grain and maize. For the first time since the Medfield attack, Wowaus feels satisfied after eating. He walks through camp, stopping to talk with friends. He does not acknowledge, even to himself, that part of his reason for walking is to locate the red haired captive. Yet when he comes on her, sitting with Weetamoo’s family by a cook fire, he feels a rush of excitement, a small thrill that begins deep in his belly and rises like sap up through his abdomen and chest.

Mary’s face is smeared red with grease and blood from the half-cooked piece of horse liver she is eating. She holds it, dripping, in both hands and tears at it with her teeth. Blood runs from the sides of her mouth and falls onto her apron. She is entirely absorbed in eating, and does not realize he’s watching. If it were not for her copper hair and the paleness of her skin, she could pass as a Nipmuc. He wonders if she realizes how quickly she has become an Indian.

He is certain she does not. The news would no doubt distress her. It has not escaped his notice that the English fear becoming an Indian even more than they fear being killed by one.

He walks on. He is aware of cold bubbles of happiness rising through his chest. He is glad she is becoming an Indian. She will make a good wife; she is strong and resilient and clever.

Blood on the Snow

Indians_Attacking_a_Garrison_HouseMary Rowlandson’s bestselling captivity narrative begins with the words: “On the tenth of February 1675, came the Indians with great numbers upon Lancaster.”  Her book then goes on to tell the chilling story of the devastating attack on her home and family and her ensuing captivity.

In my research for Flight of the Sparrow, I came across a 19th century source listing what happened to the people who were in the Rowlandson garrison when it was attacked.  Reading the names and ages of those killed and captured – not just numbers – brings the scene, and the individuals, more vividly to life.

Here’s what I was able to find out about those people. (Note: the ages are approximate.  There are several people whose fates I was not able to find.)

Killed in the Attack:

  • Ensign John Divoll, husband to Hannah, brother-in-law to Mary Rowlandson
  • Josiah Divoll, age 7, son of John and Hannah Divoll
  • Daniel Gains
  • Abraham Joslin, age 26
  • Thomas Rowlandson, age 19, nephew of Joseph and Mary Rowlandson
  • John Kettle, age 36
  • John Kettle, Jr., son of John and Elizabeth Kettle
  • Joseph Kettle, age 10, son of John and Elizabeth Kettle
  • Elizabeth Kerley, age 41, wife of Lieutenant Henry Kerley and older sister to Mary Rowlandson
  • William Kerley, age 17, son of Henry and Elizabeth Kerley
  • Joseph Kerley, age 7, son of Henry and Elizabeth Kerley
  • Priscilla Roper, wife of Ephriam Roper
  • Priscilla Roper, age 3, daughter of Ephriam and Priscilla Roper

Taken Captive in the Attack:

  • Mary Rowlandson, age about 39, wife of town minister, Joseph Rowlandson, ransomed May 2, 1676
  • Mary Rowlandson, age 10, daughter of Joseph and Mary Rowlandson, ransomed
  • Joseph Rowlandson, Jr., age 12, son of Joseph and Mary Rowlandson, ransomed
  • Sarah Rowlandson, age 6, daughter of Joseph and Mary Rowlandson, died of wounds, February 18th
  • Hannah Divoll, wife of Ensign John Divoll, younger sister of Mary Rowlandson, ransomed
  • John Divoll, age 12, son of John and Hannah Divoll, died in captivity
  • William Divoll, age 4, son of John and Hannah Divoll, ransomed
  • Ann Joslin, wife of Abraham Joslin, killed in captivity
  • Beatrice Joslin, age 2, daughter of Abraham and Ann Joslin, killed in captivity
  • Henry Kerley, age 16, son of Henry and Elizabeth Kerley
  • Hannah Kerley, age 13, daughter of Henry and Elizabeth Kerley
  • Mary Kerley, age 10, daughter of Henry and Elizabeth Kerley
  • Martha Kerley, age 4, daughter of Henry and Elizabeth Kerley
  • Infant, child of Henry and Elizabeth Kerley
  • Elizabeth Kettle, wife of John Kettle, ransomed
  • Sarah Kettle, age 14, daughter of John and Elizabeth Kettle, escaped from captivity
  • Jonathan Kettle, son of John and Elizabeth Kettle
  • Ephriam Roper, escaped during attack

There were also at least eight people killed and two people captured during the attack on Lancaster who were not in the Rowlandson garrison.  A soldier from Watertown was killed a few days after the attack.  And a John Roper was killed on March 26, 1676, the same day the town was abandoned by all the remaining inhabitants.

Letter at the Bridge

Indians Attacking a Garrison House

Indians Attacking a Garrison House

At dawn on February 21, 1676, some three hundred native warriors under the leadership of the Nashaway Nipmuc sachem Monoco, attacked and burned the town of Medfield in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Medfield was a”frontier town,” about twenty-miles from Boston, established to buffer the more populous towns on the coast from the “Indian-infested wilderness.” According to contemporary sources, the natives had infiltrated the town at night, quietly making their way through woodlots and bushes and taking cover overnight. As the Reverend William Hubbard wrote in 1677:  “some getting under the Sides of the Barns and Fences of their Orchards … where they lay hid under that Covert, till break of Day, when they suddenly set upon sundry Houses, especially those houses where the Inhabitants were repaired to Garrisons…some were killed as they attempted to fly to their Neighbors for Shelter: some were only wounded, and some taken alive and carried Captive.”

Seventeen people were killed. One woman was killed while fleeing with her infant. The baby was left for dead, but survived. Another woman, Elizabeth Paine Adams, survived the attack but was killed that night in the minister’s home when a firearm accidently discharged from the floor below. Increase Mather found the incident instructional: “It is a sign that God is angry,” he wrote, “when he turns our weapons against ourselves.”
Forty or fifty buildings were destroyed, although all the garrison houses survived. After plundering the town, the natives withdrew, crossing bridges over the Charles River. It was on one of these bridges that a letter was posted, a letter expertly designed to terrify its English readers:

Know by this paper, that the Indians that thou hast provoked to wrath and anger, will war this twenty one years if you will; there are many Indians yet, we come three hundred at this time. You must consider the Indians lost nothing but their life; you must lose your fair houses and cattle.

Scholars believe that this remarkable letter was written by James Printer, a Hassanamesitt Nipmuc who was apprenticed to the printer Samuel Green in Cambridge. A brilliant and educated “praying Indian,” he fled his apprenticeship when hostilities broke out, and joined Metacomet’s massed forces in what is now central Massachusetts. His letter points to one of the most distinctive differences between the English and native cultures—the value placed on property. While the Indians lived semi-nomadic lives, quickly erecting shelters and discarding them when they were no longer useful, the English spent many of their resources constructing permanent buildings in which to live and house their animals, which they depended on to supply labor and food.

The letter must have sent a chill through its English readers. It signaled a resilience and determination to resist further English incursion. And—more importantly—it revealed an astute and contemptuous grasp of material English values. If the English did not know before this letter, they certainly knew after reading it that their enemy was not the primitive society of barbarians they’d assumed. It appeared their enemy had an uncanny ability to see into their souls.

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.