After the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620, relations between the newly arrived British settlers and long-established native peoples were uneasy at best. A major source of tension between the two groups was their differing approaches to the land. The Native Americans who lived in what is now New England hunted and gathered nuts to eat, but they also farmed, with corn as their principal crop. When the settlers arrived, the Native Americans focused on the land’s resources, assuming the resources would still be at their disposal even if the new settlers used the land as well. The colonists, in contrast, came from Britain, where plots of land separate from common land were individually fenced off as areas for livestock to graze. Livestock suddenly appeared on land the Native Americans had planned to use for resources, a conflict that became one of the causes of King Philip’s War (also called Metacom’s War), named for the leader of the Wampanoag Indians.
The Native Americans and the colonists had lived peacefully together for nearly fifty years before the war broke out in 1675, but their calm coexistence ended as the colonists demanded more land from the Native Americans, who felt their culture was being threatened. Deep-seated resentment bubbled to the surface, and neighbors became enemies. The war, marked by Native American raids on the colonists’ settlements and the colonists’ retaliation, didn’t end until Philip’s death in 1676. Chaos and violence characterized the raids on British towns: in Lancaster, for example, a number of Native Americans arrived at sunrise and opened fire on the town, using guns they had acquired in trade or in warfare with other settlers.
In addition to killing some colonists, the attackers took captives, not only in Lancaster but elsewhere. By taking settlers captive, King Philip (also known as Metacom, though not mentioned by that name in The Sovereignty and Goodness of God) and his tribesmen gained an effective bargaining tool: the Native Americans could trade their captives for ransom in the form of money, weapons, or provisions. The attack on Lancaster in 1675 was one of the earliest raids, but it did not come entirely without warning. Prior to the attack, rumors had circulated that the Wampanoag tribes were planning violent raids on the frontier settlements of what is now western Massachusetts, with Lancaster named as the first target. Some settlers, including the Reverend Joseph Rowlandson, took these rumors and warnings seriously and traveled to Boston to ask the government there for military aid. Help did not come soon enough, however, and the attack was devastating. Many settlers in the town were killed or wounded, and others, including Mary Rowlandson and several of her family members, were taken captive.
Though born in England, Mary Rowlandson, whose maiden name was White, moved with her parents to the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime before 1638. Fifteen years later, the family moved to Lancaster, where they were considered wealthy. Though Lancaster was then on the far western frontier of British settlements, life was relatively peaceful. In 1656, Mary married the Reverend Joseph Rowlandson. By 1675, she had had four children, the eldest of whom had died as a young boy. Lancaster was a close-knit community. Members of Rowlandson’s extended family, including her sisters and their husbands and children, lived nearby, and neighbors were friends and acquaintances. This closeness no doubt made the attack all the more devastating: what had been a happy and comfortable extended family was torn apart, with some family members dead and others taken captive and then separated from one another in the wilderness. Such was the situation for Rowlandson’s family and for other families in the village.
Faced with the chaos of the attack and the trials of an experience in captivity, Rowlandson turned to Puritan theology to make sense of it all. Her devotion was not surprising, since her husband was a minister and Christian thought and practice were central in Puritans’ lives. The Puritans were known for their piety, and they saw themselves as a “community of saints.” At the same time, however, their society felt scared and guilty. They worried they were not pious enough and feared, perhaps unconsciously, that leaving England had been the wrong choice. Their worldview, meanwhile, was marked by a belief that everything happened for a reason, which suggested that a lesson could be learned from every experience. Rowlandson did not, therefore, see her captivity as an act of random or undeserved violence. Rather, she struggled to come to terms with her experiences and to understand why God had chosen to punish and then save her. She documented her struggle in her narrative, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, the true story of her captivity and return to civilization.
Rowlandson’s book, first printed in 1682, is the first of a genre that then began to flourish: the captivity narrative. Some of these narratives, such as Rowlandson’s, were told from the first-person point of view. Other narratives, such as that of Mary Jemison (who was taken captive in the 1750s, three-quarters of a century after Rowlandson’s captivity), were told in the first person but were written down by writers or interviewers rather than by the captives themselves. Still others were delivered as sermons, such as the 1697 sermon by the famous Boston preacher Cotton Mather, which concerns the separate captivities of two young women, Hannah Swarton and Hannah Dustan. Significantly, while both men and women were taken captive by Native Americans, the captivity narrative as a genre consists primarily of the captivity experiences of women, perhaps because of their perceived helplessness and innocence. The narratives also share a common religious framework: they use the same vocabulary of suffering, exile in the wilderness, and ultimate redemption. Rowlandson’s narrative served as an example for later imitators, but later narratives were not mere mimicry. Rather, the persistence of the genre for well over a century suggests that the captivity narrative was a way to express some of the deepest tensions present in colonial and early American society.