American Literature is rife with captivity narratives; they are present in every time period of American history. Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson is perhaps the oldest of these; published in 1862, it can objectively be named the first American captivity narrative. The narrative details the capture of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson and the time (estimated to be about eleven weeks) she spent as a prisoner of the Wampanoag Indians. Rowlandson’s capture by the Wampanoag was part of a larger cultural conflict; her capture itself came about as a result of King Philip’s War but the larger cultural conflict between Native Americans and European colonists had been continuous since the Virginia Company first came into contact with the Powhatan Confederacy when founding Jamestown in 1607 (Osborn 17). The end of King Philip’s War (and Rowlandson’s restoration) mark the end of the cultural conflict in New England as one side completely obliterated the other.
The nature of the conflict that spawned the events of Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson can be traced to several different roots. Most generally, Rowlandson was a British colonist occupying what was previously Native American territory in New England; Native Americans have been in conflict with British colonists occupying their lands since the first British settlement Jamestown was established by the London company many years prior. In the area of New England, where Rowlandson’s captivity took place, the Native Americans were suffering economically and struggling to feed themselves; they were thus desperate to reclaim their lands. In some ways, King Philip’s War can be seen as a last attempt by the Native American chiefs to reclaim what had been taken from them. This leads to the more specific conflict that led to Rowlandson’s captivity (and eventual restoration): King Philip’s War.
King Philip’s War (sometimes referred to as the First Indian War) was an armed and often incredibly violent conflict between the Native Americans in New England (most notably the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Nashaway tribes) and the British colonists in New England. The conflict was initiated after officials in Plymouth Colony hanged three Wampanoag tribesmen; upon receiving word of this event, the Wampanoag chief King Philip (born Metacomet, King Philip adopted a European name as an early sign of friendship with the Europeans) immediately began attacking settlements across New England. Despite initially trying to establish friendly relations, the Native Americans and the English colonists turned on each other fairly quickly.
The two groups involved in the conflict were thus the English colonists on one side and the Native Americans on the other. The colonists in New England were largely Puritan; they had come from England seeking more religious freedom and were a very religious people. Rowlandson was no exception; during her captivity, she was able to find solace in a Bible. The colonists in New England had been further expanding their settlements to the West and seizing more territory from the Native Americans at the time the conflict started. The Native Americans by this time were suffering from a huge population decrease as a result of diseases and epidemics contracted from the European colonists; most notable among these were smallpox, typhoid, measles, and spotted fever (Lepore 9). However, diseases were not the only things they gained from contact with the Europeans; many of the Native Americans in New England had also adopted the use of steel knives and muskets, which were used in the attacks staged as part of King Philip’s War.
As a resident of a New England settlement, it is no surprise that Mary Rowlandson was affected by King Philip’s War. She lived in Lancaster, which was located on the Massachusetts “front;” that is, the town of Lancaster was one of the furthest pushes the colonists had made into Native American territory at that time. As such, it was a prime target for a Native American attack. The attackers utilized their adapted colonial technologies; Rowlandson states in her narrative that bullets “seemed to fly like hail” (Norton 119). Rowlandson (as well as three of her children) were captured and taken prisoner as a result of the attack on Lancaster; Rowlandson remained in captivity for approximately eleven weeks. Her time as a captive of the Native Americans led to the first captivity narrative to be published on the North American continent.
Rowlandson’s description of the Native Americans throughout her text is not kind. This is, of course, unsurprising due to the hardships she watched and endured at their hands. Besides this, it is likely that she was already predisposed to loathe the Native Americans as result of the ongoing cultural conflict between the two peoples. In her narrative, Rowlandson refers to the Native Americans as “murderous wretches,” “bloody heathens,” and “infidels” (Norton 119). Though influenced by the attack on her family and town, Rowlandson very likely already possessed this attitude towards the Native Americans. She views them as being less than herself and her people; during her time as a captive she frequently remarks on the savagery and animalistic tendencies she witnesses. Though one of the Native Americans provides her with a Bible, she does not thank them or attribute their actions to any sort of compassion; she instead thanks God for delivering a Bible to her. Rowlandson’s views are influenced by the cultural conflict that has been shaping North America since the first colonists landed; she believes the Native Americans to be savage, uneducated, and beneath her.
The narrative ends with Rowlandson’s restoration; she was ransomed back to civilization and returned to her husband. King Philip’s War ended with the decimation of the Wampanoag people; though the colonists suffered some losses of building and properties, they were quick to rebuild and claim the land left vacant by the decimation of the Native American population. There was no rebuilding for the Native Americans; their population had been completely decimated, their leaders had been killed, and those that were left struggled with starvation. Though the cultural conflict between European settlers and Native American peoples would continue for much of American history, for the time being it was put to rest in this corner of New England because one of the sides had become non-existent. The British colonists took great pride in having defeated their enemies (the Native Americans) on their own without any assistance from the British crown and began to form from this their own national identity; it would soon grow into the American identity that will lead to the birth of a new nation.
Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. New York, Random House, 1999.
Osborn, William M. The Wild Frontier: Atrocities during the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee. New York, Random House, 2002.