On February 10, 1676, English colonist Mary Rowlandson was captured in what is now Lancaster, Massachusetts, in a raid led by the Nashaway Sachem, Monoco. Rowlandson was held by the Native Americans for eleven weeks, and when she returned she was encouraged to write a (heavily edited) narrative of her experience. The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson gives an insight into Rowlandson’s experience and is considered to be the first bestseller of the new world. However, like nearly all publications of 17th century New England, Rowlandson’s narrative is not without its flaws.
Much to Rowlandson’s surprise, given the rhetoric she had been fed about the Native Americans being godless savages, she was never sexually assaulted during her time in captivity. Instead, she was given as a gift from Monoco to Weetamoo, one of the greatest and most powerful sachems in the northeast and, to Mary’s confusion, a woman. According to Lisa Brooks, author of Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, Weetamoo and Rowlandson “read each other’s behavior through culturally specific frameworks”, and each found the other wanting by her own culture’s definition of womanhood (263). Rowlandson found Weetamoo, “too ‘proud’ for an Indian and a woman, requiring a stronger male hand to put her in her place.” (Brooks 264) Likewise, Weetamoo had little patience for Rowlandson’s “weak or selfish behavior.” (Brooks 265) Algonquian women were expected to be “strong and self-sufficient”, which the Puritans viewed as out of line with God’s plan for them (Brooks 265).
Rowlandson is unable or unwilling to see beyond her own cultural biases and recognize Weetamoo as a fellow woman. When she is first captured, Rowlandson must survive the “cold winter night upon the cold snowy ground, with my sick child in my arms, looking that every hour would be the last of its life.” (Rowlandson) Her six year old daughter dies an agonizing death, caused entirely by the atrocities of war. When Weetamoo’s child also dies, however, Rowlandson can not bring herself to feel sympathy for the Pocasset leader. Rather, she focuses on her own losses and expresses relief that now there will be more room in the Wigwam and more food for her. “Both women lost children to the violence of colonization. However, the same ideology that justified the violence of the colonial mission also prevented Rowlandson from seeing the space of motherhood where the two women’s lives intersected.” (Brooks 281)
Rowlandson’s narrative tells one woman’s story from one woman’s biased perspective. Countless others, mostly Native American men, women, and children, were also captured and enslaved during the same time period, but sadly their stories are lost to history. Therefore we must read between the lines of Rowlandson’s narrative to see what she could not – that cultural biases often prevent people from seeing what we have in common with one another. Loss, grief, fear, hunger, joy, and a desire to protect our own are feelings common to all humans, regardless of culture. Motherhood, and the joys and griefs that come with it, is an experience that can be shared and understood by women across time, miles, and cultural divides. This is a theme I explore in Iron & Fire, and I’ll be the first to admit that it is a difficult one to delve into without being anachronistic. However, I have to believe that human beings are, at our core, far more alike than we are different. As Verity realizes in Iron & Fire, “The problem is man’s unwillingness to recognize himself in another.”
Brooks, Lisa Tanya. Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War. Yale University Press, 2018.
Rowlandson, Mary White, and Horace Kephart. The Account of Mary Rowlandson and Other Indian Captivity Narratives. Dover Publications, 2005.