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After Escaping Native American Captivity, A 17th-Century Woman Wrote A Best-Seller

It was the book everyone was talking about in colonial America — a harrowing memoir of a reverend's wife who had been dragged from her home by "bloody heathens" and forced her to march 150 miles. Separated from her children, the woman had only prayers to sustain her... which they did, as she eventually survived and escaped. The Mary Rowlandson captivity narrative tells the horrific story in excruciating detail, from a man "chopped into the head with a hatchet" to others "stabbed with their spears."

Unlike the girl with the Mohave tattoo, who wanted to stay with her captors, Mary Rowlandson vowed to escape. And unlike the Puritan axe murderer who slaughtered her captors, Mary Rowlandson's revenge didn't come from an axe — it came through the writing of her book. Mary Rowlandson's tale recounted her bloody story to other English settlers, warning them that the Indians had been sent by God to scourge them.

A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson became an instant best-seller when it was published in 1682. But Mary completely left out the context of King Philip's War and the reason Native Americans were at war with the white settlers in the first place. Mary portrays herself as a sympathetic victim, but were the Native Americans really "hell-hounds" and "ravenous beasts"?

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  • The Raid Was Bloody And Brief, With The Native Americans Taking Captives
    Photo: The Sutro Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Raid Was Bloody And Brief, With The Native Americans Taking Captives

    The Indians came at dawn, according to Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative. It was February 10, 1676, and the English settlers of Massachusetts had been at war with a group of allied Native American tribes since 1675. The colonists called it King Philip's War. The tribes saw it as a fight for their very survival. 

    On that fateful morning, "hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out," Rowlandson wrote. "Several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven." The raiders weren't just burning houses. They were also taking captives. In one house alone, five people were murdered, and others were shot or knocked in the head. Native Americans climbed on the roof of the barn where they could shoot into the garrison where white settlers ran for cover. "Thus these murderous wretches went on, burning, and destroying before them."

  • Mary Rowlandson And Her Three Children Were Taken Captive
    Photo: Coverly/Rowlandson / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mary Rowlandson And Her Three Children Were Taken Captive

    After burning the village and shooting at the villagers, the raiders burst into Mary Rowlandson's house. "It was the dolefulest day that ever mine eyes saw," Mary later wrote. For two hours the raiders shot at the house, wounding the only men inside, and then they lit it on fire with flax and hemp. Outside the door, "the bloody heathen [was] ready to knock us on the head." Mothers and children cried out, "Lord, what shall we do?"

    Mary decided to flee with her children, but as soon as she reached the door she was shot through her side, and the child in her arms was also wounded. "Thus were we butchered by those merciless heathen, standing amazed, with the blood running down to our heels." Mary's sister was shot dead, her son was knocked unconscious, and Mary was left to fend for herself. Suddenly she was seized by one of the invaders — who promised not to hurt Mary if she came with him.

  • Mary Watched Her Friends And Neighbors Get Murdered
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mary Watched Her Friends And Neighbors Get Murdered

    The attack on Lancaster was brutal, according to Mary. There were 37 people barricaded into one house with Mary and her children, and every person was either killed or captured except for one. The dead, "some shot, some stabbed with their spears, some knocked down with their hatchets," covered the ground. Mary was shocked to see "our dear friends, and relations lie bleeding out their heart-blood upon the ground."

    Even more shocking where the victims who still lived. "There was one who was chopped into the head with a hatchet, and stripped naked, and yet was crawling up and down." Mary, a devout Puritan, compared the dead Christians with the "hell-hounds" surrounding her, "roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting." But she lived –– Mary was among 24 women and children taken captive by the raiders.

  • At The Last Minute, Mary Decided She'd Rather Be Taken Captive Than Killed
    Photo: John Boyle / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    At The Last Minute, Mary Decided She'd Rather Be Taken Captive Than Killed

    Mary Rowlandson wasn't the first English settler to face an Indian raid. As she explained in her captivity narrative, Mary had wondered what she should do if their village was attacked. Before the raid, she said, "I should choose rather to be killed by them than taken alive." But as the bullets rained down and she saw her friends and family wounded, "my mind changed." Mary related, "their glittering weapons so daunted my spirit, that I chose rather to go along with those (as I may say) ravenous beasts." 

    Mary's husband was a reverend: Joseph Rowlandson was away in Boston when the attack struck his village, trying to raise troops to help protect Lancaster. By the time he returned, Mary and the children were gone. 

  • Mary Carried Her Wounded Child And Watched Her Die
    Photo: Henry Davenport Northrop / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mary Carried Her Wounded Child And Watched Her Die

    Mary spent her first week in captivity carrying her wounded six-year-old daughter, Sarah. At times, Mary described her captors as unimaginably cruel, laughing and even rejoicing "like inhumane creatures" when once Mary fell off a horse. At other times, the captors seemed to help: one carried the injured child on a horse, and another offered to let Mary ride with her daughter to ease their journey. 

    Young Sarah didn't survive long. Rowlandson's grief and shock overcame her as she watched her child die and she described how she held her daughter for the last time:

    "I cannot but take notice how at another time I could not bear to be in the room where any dead person was, but now the case is changed; I must and could lie down by my dead babe, side by side all the night after."

    The next morning, Mary's captors helped her bury her daughter.

  • Mary Was Separated From Two Of Her Children And Called Her Captors Demons
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mary Was Separated From Two Of Her Children And Called Her Captors Demons

    Mary Rowlandson understood her captivity through a Biblical lens. She professed to be a good Christian, fighting against evil forces, thus, her captors were clearly agents of Satan. The very night she was captured, Mary described the "roaring, and singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell."

    Rowlandson described her captors as barely human. "Now away we must go with those barbarous creatures, with our bodies wounded and bleeding, and our hearts no less than our bodies." Her captors separated Mary from her two older children, leaving her to carry her wounded six-year-old into the woods.