Mary Rowlandson wrote a book about her time as a captive during King Philip’s War. That book was the first American bestseller and the start of the popular genre of captivity narratives. In this lesson, we’ll look closer at Rowlandson’s narrative and its influence on American literature.
Note: Mary Rowlandson’s book has two titles: A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson or The Sovereignty and Goodness of God.
Life in early America was fraught with peril. Just ask Mary Rowlandson. Born in England, Mary and her parents moved to present-day New England when she was a kid.
Her father helped found the town of Lancaster (in what is now Massachusetts) and was one of the wealthiest men in the town. In 1656, a young Mary married Reverend Joseph Rowlandson and settled into married life.But the dangers of early America were ever-present, and when war broke out between the Native Americans and the English settlers, Mary and her children were captured and taken as prisoner. After her release, Mary wrote a book about her experiences, titled The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. Let’s look closer at the situation that led to Mary’s capture, her experiences, and the impact her book had on American literature.
King Philip’s War
In New England in the late 1600s, war broke out between the English settlers and the American Indians.
Native American nations, like the Wampanoag Indians, grew corn and other crops for food. When the English settled nearby (in what is today Massachusetts), the Wampanoag and other Native Americans were accustomed to sharing the land with each other.The English, though, had different customs. They fenced the land to raise livestock. They saw a distinct difference between community and individual property. At first, the Native Americans believed that it would be fine to share with the English. But when the English took over the land and began to raise livestock, destroying Native American crops and preventing new ones from being planted, the leader of the Wampanoag (known as King Philip to the English) led several American Indian nations to war against the English and some of their allies.
The war broke out in 1675 and officially lasted until 1678, though the last two years of fighting were far north of Massachusetts, in what is today Maine. But in that first year of the war, many lives were lost on both sides.
In the midst of the war, the Wampanoag employed a shrewd strategy. They raided settlements and took captives, which they could then trade for money, weapons, or provisions. The town of Lancaster, Massachusetts was on the frontier and very close to Indian land. Mary Rowlandson’s husband, Reverend Joseph Rowlandson, traveled with some other men to ask the governor of the colony to send protection to keep the town from being raided by the Wampanoag and their allies.
While the men were gone, Native Americans laid siege on the town of Lancaster. Among those wounded and captured were Mary and her children. The Indians took Mary and the other captives far west, into the wilderness and towards Indian settlements.Along the way, Mary’s youngest daughter, Sarah, who was wounded in the attack on Lancaster, died. Meanwhile, Mary herself was sold to a neighboring Indian nation and was separated from her remaining children.
Her captors gave her a Bible that they retrieved on a raid, and she turned to her faith to see her through her ordeal.Through a long and arduous journey, Mary was eventually taken to the village where King Philip lived, and there she stayed for several weeks while the tribe negotiated for her ransom. After 11 weeks in captivity, Mary was released and reunited with her husband.
Her son and one of her daughters were also released, and the family moved to Boston to start a new life.
First American Best Seller
Mary Rowlandson’s book about her captivity became a huge hit and is seen as the first American best seller because of its popularity. It sparked a new genre of book, the captivity narrative, which became very popular in the ensuing years. A captivity narrative is a nonfiction account of what happened to someone while in captivity.In early America, captivity narratives were one of the most popular genres of writing. They usually described the captivity of women, since women were seen as innocent and vulnerable.
However, even though captivity narratives were mostly about women and were usually written in first person, they were actually written mostly by men. Mary Rowlandson’s book is unique in that it was actually written by her.Many captivity narratives had religious overtones and discussed how faith carried the captives through their ordeal. Rowlandson set the standard here; much of her book is about her faith and how she finds comfort in the Bible her captors gave her in order to survive the wilderness.The captivity narratives also painted a picture of Native American life to the settlers, though their accounts were often skewed and outright wrong.
Politics, racially motivated fear, and European biases all affected the way the captives viewed the American Indians, and, in turn, how their readers did.
Mary Rowlandson was taken as captive by Native Americans during King Philip’s War in 17th century America. Her faith and a Bible given to her by her captors got her through her 11-week captivity, and afterwards she wrote her story in a book titled The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. Her book, the first American best seller, sparked a genre of captivity narratives in American literature.
After seeing this video, students should recognize that Mary Rowlandson’s true life story of her capture and ransom during the 17th century was the first best seller in America and created a new genre: the captivity narrative.