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.

Advertisements

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.

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

 

On the Record

old bookReading early town and church records can often be tedious, but worth the effort when it turns up interesting incidents that undermine our common ideas about Puritans.  There’s a contentious vitality just under the surface of daily life, a tension that sometimes even leaks into the official records.  If nothing else, these records prove that living in a community was no easier in the 17th century than it is today.

The early records of the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, contain references to some ideas and behavior that may challenge our preconceptions about the Puritans.  Here are just three:

  1. In 1651 there was a controversy between groups in Lancaster over what should be held in common. As good Puritans, they looked to their Bibles for guidance in all things, and some  focused particular attention on the early church practice of holding all things in common (as described in the New Testament book of Acts).  One George Whaley reported that Goodwife Hall had asserted that all things should be held in common, “men’s wives also.”  Later, Whaley was charged with slander, though the case was never tried.
  2. In the original town covenant, there was a clause prohibiting distribution of land to any people who had been excommunicated, or “otherwise prophane and scandalus,” or any known to err against the “Doctrin and Discipline of the Churches.” This was for the “better preserving of the puritie of Religion.”
  3. On a Sunday in 1656, after worship, a woman named Mary Gates was “called forth to give satisfaction for some offense done against Master Rowlandson,” the town’s minister. Goodwife Gates defended herself, insisting that she had already given him satisfaction.  Mr. Rowlandson then replied “by sum arguments” proving that she had not done so, at which point Gates’s daughter, Marie, stood up and without permission and “very boldly in the public assembly” contradicted the minister and said she would swear an oath to it.  The case went to court and, not surprisingly, Mary Gates lost her case, was fined and ordered to pay the court costs for both sides.

 

.

Naming the Children

BibleYou can often find them in old family Bibles – names of generations of children, often entered proudly soon after a birth. The Bible seems an appropriate place for such a record, especially when it comes to looking at the names of early New Englanders..

In my research for Flight of the Sparrow, I looked into how New England Puritans named their children. We commonly think of Puritans as giving their children strange “hortatory” names, such as “Experience,” “Increase,” “Thankful,” and “Mindwell.” But in Massachusetts Bay Colony in Mary Rowlandson’s time, the children were given traditional English names, such as “John,” “Elizabeth,” “Samuel,” and “Ann.”

I was not surprised when I discovered that oldest boys were often named after their fathers, but what did surprise me was that the oldest daughters were frequently named after their mothers. In fact, in Mary’s generation, between 50% and 75% of firstborn daughters were named after their mothers. Surprisingly, it was actually more common than naming oldest sons after fathers.  childrenMary’s mother, Joan (or Joane) White, followed this custom, as did Mary herself.

It was also common to name children after an older sibling who had died. (This practice continued well into the 18th century.) Mary Rowlandson did this.  Her oldest daughter, (named Mary), died at the age of two. When her second daughter was born, eight years later, she was given the same name.

Interestingly enough, this was not a pattern that was common in England, or in other English colonies, such as Virginia, where firstborn children were usually named for their grandparents and/or godparents. (In fact, in England it was considered inappropriate for a mother to name her first daughter after herself.) This parent-centered naming – especially daughters – seems to have been unique to New England Puritans.

Why this change?

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to worship as they chose but they weren’t trying to invent a new society. They brought most of their English customs with them to the New World. They wore English clothes, built English houses, and even considered themselves members of the Church of England (albeit “purified” members).

One scholar has pointed out that mothers who named their daughters after themselves were breaking a cultural “taboo,” and that something in their religion allowed them to defy the cultural norms. This may have been the importance of “covenant theology” in the Puritan colony, with its emphasis on the spiritual role of parents in the family. Or it may have arisen because the Puritans banished godparents from the baptismal ceremony. They connected godparenting with Catholicism, labeling it “popish” superstition. With no godparents to honor, a mother naming a daughter for herself at baptism was using one way to claim God’s protection.

One thing that became clear as I researched the first few generations of New England Puritans: social changes were almost always carved out of their religious understanding. Whenever they were in doubt about how they should act, individually or as a society, they turned to the Bible. We might frown at some of their practices, but it’s hard not to admire the fact that they always tried to stay true to their faith as they understood it.  And occasionally that faith took them in new and liberating directions that affirmed the power and importance of mothers.

Imagined Encounters III: A Puritan Childhood

One of the things I like best about 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.  Here’s a sample in which I explored Mary Rowlandson’s childhood, combining the limited biographical information about her with research I did on the experience of Massachusetts Bay Puritans.

shipShe remembered the crossing as a haze of bright sunshine and black water, dirty white sails slapping at the sky, and darkness.  The images hung on the walls of her mind like portraits in a great hall.  She was not certain they were memories – perhaps she had been told of light and bright square sails and a black sea and lying beside her mother below decks, encased in the creaking, rocking hull.  Perhaps she dreamt it.  She was two years old.

In Salem, her father’s land was six miles from the harbor, surrounded by fields and woods through which their cattle wandered.  The house was a sturdy two-room box wrapped in fresh-milled clapboards, large enough to shelter all the family and servants.  At night Mary slept in the loft on a pallet between her older sisters, listening to the forest sounds.  Owl screams and wolf howls made her shiver and burrow against her sisters’ warm bodies.  Sometimes the wind shrieked and rain beat on the roof but her father had built the house well and she felt safe.

Once Mary, pulling weeds in the kitchen garden at her mother’s direction, was struck in the shoulder by the hoof of a stray cow, and the wound festered so she lay fevered in her parents’ great bed for a week.  She remembered watching morning light trickle through the oiled paper of the room’s single window.  She remembered her mother stroking her brow with a wet rag.  She remembered thinking that illness was a luxury to be savored.  Later she learned that such thoughts were sinful.  Indolence was a particular evil, a devil’s trap she must work hard to avoid.

On her fourth birthday, as she stood in the great fireplace tending a roasting fowl, repeatedly twisting the cords so that the goose spun slowly, its fat splattered up onto her face instead of into the chipped dish she’d carefully set beneath it.  Her mother made a poultice of cooling herbs that eased the pain, but Mary would not go near the fire again for weeks.  Her mother set her to other tasks.  Her chin and left cheek carried three dark red scars that slowly faded to white.

Saturdays were a flurry of flour and heat; her mother opened and shut the wooden oven door again and again, as she waited for the fire to make it hot enough for baking.  Finally, when black soot flaked away from the ceiling bricks and the whole interior shone with pale brown light, it was time.  Mary would watch her mother scrape coal chips out with the long oven peel.  They fell gently as snow into the bucket.  Then it was Mary’s task to pass the food to her mother: loaves of brown rye bread, wheat flour drop cakes, meat pies, fat brown potatoes, and great crocks of beans sweetened with maple sugar.

Mary was seven when her father moved the family north to help incorporate the town of Wenham.  The children huddled together under blankets in a rocking wagon drawn by the family’s two oxen. Mary tended her infant sister, Sarah, between feedings.  It was not until they settled into the new house that she apprehended that her mother’s sadness was not a part of her nature, but a consequence of the loneliness she had experienced in Salem.  Physical isolation from other women was too heavy a burden to bear.

05__3Wenham was all mud and half-built houses, swine and fowl and goats clotting the streets.   But living there, close to neighbors, her mother became bright and strong.  Like a plant; responding to the summer light, she seemed to grow taller and more vigorous. “This be civilization,” she declared on a rainy Sabbath morning as the family joined others picking their way through deep muck to the meeting house.  She was smiling, though her skirts dripped with mud to her knees.

Mary remembered sitting on the hard family pew on a Sabbath morning in February while her mother wept beside her.  Wept over the power of God’s grace, which she told Mary later had touched her heart like a burning coal.  “Sin flayed me like a knife,” she said that evening, the words trembling on her tongue as the firelight glimmered.   Mary’s feet and hands were still numb with cold.  She leaned into her mother’s skirts, seeking warmth, but her mother pushed her gently away.  Mary saw that her mother was devoted utterly to God, that she loved Him more than husband or children.  She understood that God demanded she do the same, that she must model herself after her mother.  But her mother’s godliness was a mountain she could not climb.  Mary heard the story of her mother’s conversion so many times that it became a gospel of its own, a sacred if unwritten scripture, as familiar as the psalms.

From the moment she joined the church, Mary’s mother mounted a vigilant watch over her children’s souls.  Her daughters especially, for it was well established that females were easily drawn to pagan ways.  Their graceful habits often hid untamed passions.  They must be guided with particular severity lest they stumble on the path of Christian virtue.  Thus, she endeavored to break their wills, that her children might cleave to God.

Mary knew that her mother considered her particularly wild, cursed with a spirit of independence and determination.  Sometimes she said it was because of Mary’s flame-bright hair; sometimes she whispered that some corruption that had overtaken her while Mary was still in the womb.  Mary knew that she often taxed her mother beyond patience.  Yet gradually she came to understand that the challenges she presented created the very paste that bound them.

There had been a particular moment of humiliation when, at eleven, Mary had presented her mother with a collar she had worked.  “This is monstrous!” Her mother had held the collar at arm’s length, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger as if the linen were covered in offal and not her daughter’s painstaking stitches.  “Did I not set you at your sewing when you were four, just as I did your sisters?  Did I not show you with my own fingers how to make neat and regular stitches?  Did I not tell you to make more care in your stitching than in anything you do?  Have I not made it plain that a sturdy-made seam is the chief sign of a diligent woman?  And a well-proportioned embroidery her crown?”

Mary bowed her head, though a rebellious flush crept up her neck to her cheeks and she had to clench the stool seat with her fingers, lest she fly off like an infuriated hawk, all wings and feathers and sharp cries.

“This is slovenly work.”  Her mother peered more closely at the offending scrap, before tossing it back into Mary’s lap.  “Slovenly.  I want you to tear it out – every stitch – and begin again.”

Mary snatched the cloth before it slid to the floor and stared down at her work.  As if she could see anything through the burning blur in her eyes.  “Every stitch?”

“Mary.”  Her mother placed a firm hand under Mary’s chin and forced it upward so Mary had no choice but to look into her eyes.  They were the same soft gray they had always been, deceptively gentle.  But Mary knew that her mother reserved her tenderness for infants and young animals.  When it came to everyone else, she was the Lord’s task mistress.

“Mary, you are a woman near grown.  There is no excuse for slovenliness.  You shame me.”  Shame.  Her mother used the word again, surely knowing that it was as cruel as a knife plunged into the flesh, that it reduced her to a trembling, fear-struck babe.

“I’m sorry,” Mary whispered.  “I had not the time.”

“There is always time, Mary.  God provides for what needs be done.”  Her mother finally released her, and Mary’s head dropped to her chest.  Anger battled regret.  She did not look at her mother, though she was aware of her movements at the hearth, heard her fussing with the porridge, stirring up the fire, checking the corn cakes in the oven.

“Does God need embroidery, Mother?”  Mary regretted her words as soon as they were out.  She had been whipped for less.

Need embroidery?”  Her mother turned in a swish of apron and skirts and petticoats.  “Now you would blaspheme His word?  Is it not written that the good wife sews fine cloth without destroying it?  That a woman must be a crown to her husband?”

Mary longed to stop her ears.  She had heard the lecture so many times she could recite it.  It took all her willpower to stay on the stool and let her mother’s voice wash over her, like a sea in flood.  Mary set her teeth and tongue so that she would not respond again in haste and anger.  Yet even as she waited for the tirade to end, she was forming objections in her mind, promising herself that when she was married and mistress of her own house she would never sew, except from necessity.  She would hire a girl to do the fancy work; she would barter clothes-making with her sisters and friends, exchange food for mending tasks.  And she would never ask a daughter of her own to embroider anything.

“Look ye, daughter.”  Mary raised her head and saw her mother reach into her pocket and draw out her scissors.  The small silver pair that Mary’s father had brought from England after his journey to settle their financial affairs.  They were her mother’s most treasured possession; she never lent them to anyone, yet now she was holding them out to Mary.   “Take them.  Take out your stitches and start again.”

When Mary didn’t move, her mother reached down, pried opened her hand and firmly placed the scissors in her palm. Mary’s throat clenched.  She saw something in her mother’s face that she’d never seen before, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what it was.  Sorrow?  Regret?  Some dark and nameless need?  Mary looked down at her hand.  The scissors glinted in the firelight.  She picked them up and cut away her careful stitches, one by one.

That night, Mary lay on her pallet in the loft between her sisters, pretending that she was her mother’s favorite.  She imagined that some bright morning her mother would tell her to put aside her churning and they would walk down to the river, just the two of them, alone.  Her mother would confide that she had struggled against her feeling for years, but could no longer deny her preference, that she was helplessly captive in her bond to Mary, that they were two souls so attuned to each other that it was impossible to know where one left off and the other began.

 

A Puritan Hero

Orchard House snowAbout a decade ago, I worked for a few years at the Orchard House Museum in Concord, Massachusetts.  Best known as the home of Louisa May Alcott and the place where she wrote the classic novel, Little Women, the house has an impressive history of its own.  When I was there the 300-year-old building, renovated by Bronson Alcott in the 1850’s, was in the midst of a massive preservation project, so I had the opportunity to see, up-close, some of the details of the colonial construction.  Ever since, I’ve been fascinated not just by how historical houses are decorated, but how they’re constructed.

At that time, I was finishing work on my novel, Mr. Emerson’s Wife, about the Transcendental circle in19th century Concord.  Little did I know that a few years later, I’d encounter the house again, as I researched a 17th-century Concord lawyer for my new novel, Flight of the Sparrow.

John Hoar, the man who built the home that the Alcotts purchased, was the colonial negotiator in the ransom of Mary Rowlandson.  He was the man who escorted her back to the English towns after her release.  Rowlandson writes about him in her narrative, and describes visiting his house on her return to Boston.

Despite his prominence in his own tumultuous time, Squire Hoar remains an obscure figure to us, hidden in the shadows of history. I had learned about some of his remarkable descendants when I was studying the Concord Transcendentalists, but there was little about the man himself – just the tantalizing suggestion he didn’t fit neatly into the Puritan mold.

When I began digging, I discovered a hero.

John Hoar was a principled and independent-minded man, who spoke his mind regardless of the consequences.  He began having trouble with the authorities in the mid-1660s when he tried to expose the judicial corruption of Massachusetts Bay magistrates.  He petitioned the governor for justice and received a hearing in October of 1665.  It probably did not surprise him when his complaints were ruled “groundless and unjust,” since some of the judges he accused were sitting on the court.  But even Hoar was surprised when they fined him and sentenced him to prison—to set an example for any who dared to challenge their authority.

Furious, Hoar stormed out of court.  When he was arrested and hauled back in, his bond was set at 100 pounds (an extraordinarily high fee for that time), and he was disbarred.

The next spring, Hoar petitioned the court for relief and he was released and his fine was reduced, but his lawyer’s standing was not restored.  Though he returned to Concord and his family, Hoar was not a man to remain silent.  He told his neighbors exactly what he thought about the authorities.  He was soon back in court, subjected to more fines, and the demand for a formal apology.  When he was released with a warning, he went back to practicing law – and criticizing the authorities.

In 1675, when King Philip’s War broke out, Hoar offered to protect a group of friendly

Possible site of palisade to protect natives.

Possible site of palisade to protect natives.

Nipmucs who lived near Concord.  He set aside some of his own property and, at his own expense, built a workshop and palisade for their defense, and helped them harvest their food.

Some of Hoar’s Concord neighbors, frightened by the close proximity of natives, even though they were friendly, secretly contacted the army captain, Samuel Mosely, a man known for his brutality.

On a Sunday morning in February, Mosely and his soldiers marched into the meeting house. After worship he addressed the congregation.  He announced that he’d heard there were “some heathen in the town” that he believed were distressing people, and that if they wanted, he would remove them.  Most people said nothing, though “two or three” encouraged him.  So, over Hoar’s vigorous objections, he ordered his soldiers to break down the door and take the Indians.  They followed his orders, destroying Hoar’s property, seizing the Indians and plundering their food and clothing.  The Indians were then marched to Charlestown and sent to Deer Island.

But Hoar was not a man to be defeated.  In late April, he volunteered to negotiate with the Indians over Rowlandson’s ransom.  This was a remarkable act of courage, especially given the tenor of the times.  Even though Hoar was known to the natives, there was no guarantee that he would succeed in his efforts to secure Rowlandson’s release.  In fact, when he reached the Indian encampment at what is now Redemption Rock, shots were fired in his direction (over and under his horse), he was threatened with hanging, and was confined to a wetu for days before an agreement was reached.

But John Hoar had never let fear rule him, and he successfully negotiated Rowlandson’s release.  He returned to Concord and continued to be a thorn in the side of the Puritan authorities.

The next time you’re in Concord, Massachusetts, I urge you to visit Orchard House.  Not only to see the place where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote, but also to honor the memory of a man of persistence and principle—a Puritan hero.

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.