Sunday, January 3, 2010

"The dolefulest day": Mary Rowlandson's kidnapping, Lancaster

If Hollywood ever was looking for a quaint New England town, they would look no further than Lancaster, Massachusetts. One of the prettiest towns in the Commonwealth, it is also the oldest community in Worcester County.

As one of the older communities in the region, Lancaster was the site of a large native American raid in February 1675, - one of the many attacks that constituted the King Phillip's War. (UPDATE: The difference of the date on the monument is the 1752 change in calendar. Mary Rowlandson says "1675" in her book, so I'm sticking with "1675". Nobody from that time is around to complain so I think it will work.) During the attack, the Lancaster settlement was destroyed and Mary Rowlandson - the daughter of one of the founders of the community and wife of the Harvard-educated minister, John Rowlandson, was taken hostage. Later, she authored a history of her captivity and release, now commonly titled as A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.

Her text is fascinating reading. During the attack, she describes settlers as being "knocked on the head" by the attackers. It is likely that they were "knocked" by the butt of a musket or an Indian war club - a large stick holding a sharpened stone or blade. The result of a "knock" was likely to be a cracked skull and a mortal wound.

Rowlandson describes the life of her captors with the eye of an early Margaret Mead and the memory of John Dean. She discusses the life in the villages (she is moved - or "removed" - several times around present day Massachusetts and New Hampshire) and the food that the Indians prepared. The "ground-nuts" which was a staple of her diet may still be grown by home gardeners. During the captivity, she met Metacom - King Phillip - the Indian leader who led the uprising against the English settlers.

She also discusses watching one of her children die in her care in captivity. Even with the very formal writing of her time, her pain still come through.

Mary Rowlandson was eventually rescued by John Hoar of Concord, who was held in high esteem by the area Indians and was allowed to negotiate a ransom for Rowlandson. She was freed at Redemption Rock in Princeton, Massachusetts, and reunited with her husband and surviving children.

Throughout her ordeal, Mary Rowlandson also kept her faith and found greater wisdom through her suffering. As she closed her text, she wrote:
Yet I see, when God calls a person to anything, and through never so many difficulties, yet He is fully able to carry them through and make them see, and say they have been gainers thereby. And I hope I can say in some measure, as David did, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted." The Lord hath showed me the vanity of these outward things. That they are the vanity of vanities, and vexation of spirit, that they are but a shadow, a blast, a bubble, and things of no continuance. That we must rely on God Himself, and our whole dependance must be upon Him. If trouble from smaller matters begin to arise in me, I have something at hand to check myself with, and say, why am I troubled? It was but the other day that if I had had the world, I would have given it for my freedom, or to have been a servant to a Christian. I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles, and to be quieted under them. As Moses said, "Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord" (Exodus 14.13).
Mary Rowlandson's book was a best seller in that time - and one of the first women authors of the New World. It is still available for purchase but may also be found on Google books and elsewhere.

The site of Reverend John Rowlandson's home isn't terribly well marked (I did not find any signs directing me to the area) but is easily found. Following Main Street, past the school, the town hall and across a small bridge, the site is on the right. There isn't any parking available here but - according to a Lancaster police officer - one can pull off the road right next to the marker.

The local elementary school is now named after Mary Rowlandson.

A "thank you" to the librarian at the Lancaster public library for helping me find this site. And a second "thank you" to the Lancaster police officer for not citing me for blocking the road while taking these pictures and directing me to a more appropriate stopping place.


  1. Great post! I'm going to have to check out Mary Rowlandson's book. By the way, here is a link to arguably the best newspaper account of King Philip's War -

  2. Wonderful to reminisce about my ancestors. Visited here in 07 on a "genealogy trip." Mary Rowlandson was my 8th-great aunt.