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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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.

Reading Mary Rowlandson

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On the tenth of February 1675, came the Indians in great numbers upon Lancaster: Their first coming was about sun-rising; hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to Heaven.

So begins Mary Rowland’s memoir of her captivity among the Indians.  She and twelve friends and relatives, including her three children, were seized in a raid on the frontier town of Lancaster, Massachusetts – a raid that wounded Mary and her six-year-old daughter, Sarah, and left twenty-two people dead.  For eleven weeks, Mary and the other captives were marched around what is now western Massachusetts, evading the English soldiers who pursued them.  In early May, Mary was ransomed back to the English colonists and reunited with her husband in Boston.  Her two oldest children survived their captivity, but Sarah died of her wounds only eight days after the attack.

In the three months of Mary’s captivity, King Philip’s War reached its apex.  By the time she was released, starvation and disease had so overwhelmed the Indians that Philip’s alliance had fallen apart.  Their people had been devastated; approximately 40% of natives had lost their lives.  And though English losses were not as severe, the war had been a blow to their population and economy.  Both sides were weary of the blood-letting and ready for the hostilities to end.

Mary’s memoir was first published in 1682 under the cumbersome title The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed.  Her harrowing experience is told in a blunt, fast-paced style.  It was an instant bestseller and is now widely regarded as one of the most valuable primary-source documents for researchers of 17th century American Indian woodlands culture.  However, the author – or someone working with her – has overlaid the straightforward details of her story with scriptural references, Puritan generalizations and pieties and narrow-minded self-righteousness that can bog down a 21st century reader.

Yet Mary Rowlandson’s memoir gives us a rare window into the events of King Philip’s War and, with careful reading, may help us to dispel some of our own misconceptions about the two cultures that clashed in that war.  We can learn from Mary’s limitations and use her book to enlarge our own ability to be more understanding of unfamiliar and unpopular cultures.  There has never been a time in our history when such understanding is more necessary than it is today.

The Forgotten War

ImageWe Americans like to remember our wars, especially the wars we win.  We celebrate Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and label those who came of age during World War II as our “greatest generation.”  References to those who sacrificed their lives in our many wars are a part of every political speech.  It’s sometimes said that every generation of Americans has its own war.  But one of our earliest and most transformative wars is left out of our history books.  And even though it is, to this day, the bloodiest war per capita that’s ever been waged on American soil, most of us have never even heard of it.

King Philip’s War began in June of 1675, fifty-five years after the Pilgrims landed on the shores of New England.  A lot had happened in that half century, most significantly the Great Migration of Puritans from England.  They came by the thousands, fleeing the hostile political and religious climate in England. Whole families boarded ships setting sail for New England and the West Indies.  Between 1630 and 1640, 20,000 settled in towns along the New England coast.  They were literate, educated, and pious people who risked their lives and health to make the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to pursue religious freedom.  They wanted to be free of English religious restrictions and to worship in the way they chose.  And they wanted land.

It’s estimated that there were about 7,000 natives living in New England at the time the Pilgrims landed.  Not long before 1620 there had been tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands more.  The population had recently been devastated by European diseases, carried by fishermen who’d been visiting the New England coast for nearly a hundred years.

The Puritans saw the unused (“unimproved”) land – the remnants of native fields and villages – and believed that God had “opened” the way for them. They quickly settled in.  As their families expanded and more and more people flooded in from England, they sought to expand their land holdings through barter, trade, and the English King’s charters.

The natives who had occupied this land for millennia were not a unified group, but an assortment of tribes loosely linked by a family of similar languages usually labeled “Algonquian.” These tribes had a long history of shifting alliances and political tensions.  When the Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit, befriended the Pilgrims, he was acting strategically.  He viewed the English as allies who would help strengthen his people against their Narragansett enemies.  With his death in 1661, and the passing of the sachem role to his son, Wamsutta, the era of peace between the colonists and natives drew to a close.

Metacomet (a.k.a. Philip) was Massasoit’s second son; he took over as sachem when Wamsutta died suddenly after a brief imprisonment in Plymouth.  His warriors blamed the colonists and pressured Metacomet to go to war against the English.  When the body of one of his advisors was later found under the ice in a pond, three Wampanoag men were arrested, tried, and executed.

Soon after, a group of Wampanoag warriors – probably without Metacomet’s approval – raided several English homes in Swansea, set two of them on fire, and killed nine colonists in retribution. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, which were separate colonies at the time, quickly united and dispatched several companies to destroy Montaup, Metacomet’s base of operation.  Metacomet made a daring escape north, and eventually united with the Pocasset, Nipmuc and even the Narragansett, (who had long been the Wampanoags’ traditional enemies) to drive back the colonists.

Though the war lasted until the spring of 1678, the worst hostilities were over by August, 1676, when Metacomet was killed .  The toll in human life was high on both sides; it’s estimated that the English lost about 800 people out of a population of 52,000.  The natives, however, fared far worse.  One source estimates that about 3,000 natives were killed in battle, out of a total population of 20,000.  More were sold into slavery or “relocated” in widely scattered places throughout New England.

After the war the English colonists were no longer motivated to continue pursuing peaceful coexistence with native tribes.  They firmly established themselves as the dominant culture in the region.  It was a pattern that would be repeated many times in the years to come as Americans confronted indigenous people.

They say that those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it.  It’s past time that we remember King Philip’s War.  Though it’s too late to restore the Wampanoag and other native people to their full strength and power, it’s still appropriate for us to learn and take to heart the lessons of this forgotten war.