The Indian Captivity Narrative


Mary Rowlandson's Indian captivity narrative is the most widely known and read of this genre, which got its start with her account of her 1675 captivity after the attack on Lancaster, Massachusetts. Republished throughout the colonial years, it became a testament describing God's challenges and deliverances for the Puritans. These narratives, in turn, influenced the coming fiction of the frontier, which often presented fictionalized captivity narratives such as those in the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Catharine Maria Sedgewick's Hope Leslie. The full title of Rowlandson's work was The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.

Although the Indians and the Puritans had enjoyed several decades of comparative peace, squabbles over land rights between the whites and the Indians and among different groups of settlers were heating up by the 1670s. These were exacerbated by the deaths of John Bradford and Chief Massasoit. When the settlers captured the new Wampanoag chief Wamsutta in order to pressure him into giving up more land, the chief fell ill and died while in captivity. Although Wamsutta's brother, the new chief Metacom (Philip), agreed to the demands, fighting broke out after the Indians were accused of murdering a converted Indian, John Sassamon.

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It was unusual for the Pilgrims to encourage or publish the writings of a woman; however, Rowlandson's narrative was a strong testament to the importance of strong faith in God at a time when many were leaving the Congregational church. Increase Mather, a prominent minister at the time, aided in its publication and used Rowlandson's story to illustrate his sermons. Rowlandson is thought to have curtailed her story particularly to fit into the Puritan narrative of deliverance through piety. In addition, the account also strengthened the growing tendency of the Puritans to demonize the Indians and portray them as instruments of Satan. Rather than individuals or fellow children of God, the Natives were now being used as stand-ins for the devil and evil, pawns for the furtherance of religious teaching.

Rowlandson's narrative became very popular and was reprinted many times. Although she was cooperative in its issuance, Rowlandson remarried after her husband died and had little to do with the story in her later life.

Another captivity narrative was the story of Hannah Dustin, who was taken captive about 10 years after Mary Rowlandson. After being taken captive along with her nurse, Mary Neff, Dustin and Neff took hatchets and bludgeoned their captors to death in the night, stopping long enough to take some of their scalps before escaping. Dustin's account was dictated to the minister Cotton Mather, who recorded it with many religious additions and interpretations, likening Dustin's story to that of Jael from the book of Judges. Jael, while captive of a Canaanite, escaped by driving a tent peg through her captor's skull. This comparison perpetuated the Puritan belief that they were the "elect" of God in the New World and was used by Mather to generate a renewed awakening to a church that had grown somewhat comfortable.

A third captivity narrative is that of Mary Ingles Draper. In contrast to the Dustin and Rowlandson narratives, Draper's account was taken down by her grandson and was not commercially spread in her lifetime. Draper was captured with two of her sons, taken along the New and Kanahwa Rivers into Ohio, and eventually escaped along with another woman. The women traveled back along the rivers in the winter, nearly starving along the way. Finally, as the "old Dutch woman" became delirious and attacked Draper, Draper separated from her and continued alone, finally coming upon some former neighbors on the Palisades near present-day Eggleston. Draper reunited with her husband, and they moved to the area in west Radford near I-81 and ran Ingles Ferry for many years. Draper's story is secular in nature and was kept somewhat within the community.

(see also Elizabeth Meader Hanson)

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