Mary Rowlandson's A Narrative of the Captivity: Summary and Analysis

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  • 0:05 Mary Rowlandson
  • 0:57 King Philip's War
  • 2:06 Captivity
  • 3:36 First American Bestseller
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

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.

Mary Rowlandson

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.

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