Ever since the discovery of America by Europeans, the nations of Indians and whites have clashed over and over again in bloody battles of human brutality. This conflict would continue until the late 1800s. Many books have been written about the struggles between the Indians and the colonists, but one of the most gripping accounts is that of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity, which started after her house was attacked by Narraganset Indians on January 20, 1676. After her rescue, Rowlandson wrote a detailed account of her captivity in order that her friends might be able to see how good God was in sparing her life. Not only does she thank God for His many provisions in the narrative, but she also blames the Indians for their savage nature. During the eleven weeks that she spent as an Indian captive, Mary Rowlandson observed Indian life and agreed with her original prejudice that Indians were indeed barbarians.
Mary Rowlandson notes many observations throughout her account. One of her first observations is how Indians normally had a reason for attacking an English settlement. The narrative discusses how Rowlandson’s abduction was not a specific premeditated attack, but rather one that was part of a much larger campaign against white settlers (3). In the case of Rowlandson’s capture, the Narragansett chief Metacomet started a battle with the colonists “in order to revenge the execution of three of his tribesmen and halt the encroaching spread of colonists” (3). Like Metacomet’s fight, other Indians attacked merely for revenge or as an attempt to harass the English with hope that the colonists would leave.
Another observation that Mary Rowlandson makes in her narrative is that instability of Indian settlements. Rowlandson discusses how Indians lived in wigwams which could easily be dismantled in a short time and carried by horseback only to be set back up quickly in a new location. Also, Indians rode their horses with no saddles or even blankets so when Rowlandson was first placed on a horse’s back she immediately fell off (13). These concepts were foreign to her mind which remained set on how English ways of living were better.
Mary Rowlandson believes Indians were barbarians as evidenced by her accounts of their brutality. She assumed that Indians were savages because they killed people brutally. Rowlandson documents carefully how she and her family were attacked and how the Indians took one man and “knock’d him on the head, stripped him naked, and slit open his [bowels]” (10). Other accounts of people being shot to pieces, burned alive, or tomahawked are also written in the narrative. The horror of such sights would immediately build a barrier in one’s heart against the Indians. While this discrimination precedent is somewhat understandable, Rowlandson forgot that Indians viewed British hanging as the worst form of death.
Mary Rowlandson often compared the fact that she came from a stable, prosperous community while Indians did not have a steady society at all because they were at war. She was accustomed to comfort and shelter so the poverty of the Indians was close to animal level in her eyes. Indians traveled in small bands consisting of intimate family members who would occasionally meet together with their chiefs as was the case when Rowlandson traveled to Metacomet’s village (20-21). However, the people living in each wigwam consisted of just the nuclear family, who sometimes traveled by themselves. Rowlandson often mentions how she was kicked out of her master’s wigwam for not being family, and had to beg for shelter in a stranger’s place. Since she was a captive, there was no guarantee of the Indians providing her with food and shelter.
Mary Rowlandson also believes Indians are barbarians because of their hard way of life. Throughout the entire tale, Rowlandson talks about how the Indians to not have enough healthful resources so they are forced to eat uncommon foods. Before her capture, Rowlandson would never have eaten horse feet and legs, tree bark, or groundnut mush, but because of the hunger which the wilderness made common, she was forced to partake of the Indian’s food which she called “filthy trash” (19). During one account, Rowlandson mentions how she was given a gift of pears and bear meat which was extremely expensive in Indian culture, and she felt honored by such a present and gratefully ate it.
Another insight into Indian culture that Rowlandson documents is how Indians would contract diseases from white people and often die because they lacked any immunity against the diseases. Many old people and young children would die because of exposure to the harsh elements as well. Towards the end of her story, Rowlandson writes that her mistress’s papoose finally died after being sick during the winter (30). Even Rowlandson herself became sick with fever during her captivity. The journal of Mary Rowlandson supports history’s findings that European diseases like smallpox could wipe out whole villages and tribes.
By the end of Mary Rowlandson’s journey and after all of her observations about Indian culture and way of life, she still believed in her heart that Indians were barbarians. When she finally was returned home in safety to her husband, she wept tears of joy. The last section of her narrative sums up the observations which Mary Rowlandson made on her incredible journey through the Indian wilderness. Not only does Rowlandson thank God multiple times for His sovereign care of her, especially concerning the fact that she was never molested, but she also remarks how strange it is that God takes care of the Indians in the wilderness by providing food for them, even if it is in her mind the worst food of all (42-43). One of the reasons Rowlandson can give for God’s provision for the Indians is that maybe they were meant to be a scourge upon the English in order to keep the English close to God (41). Yet to her shame, when Mary Rowlandson was given a Bible which would have helped her witness, she refused to give the gospel. Rowlandson’s final conclusion which sums up the essence of her story is that while she did suffer at the hands of the savage Indians, she learned that she should always be thankful for what she has been given by God.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Rowlandson, Mary. A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson in Colonial American Travel Narratives, Wendy Martin, editor. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.