Mary (White) Rowlandson was probably born in the early 1630s, probably in England, and settled with her family first in Salem and then about 1655 in the raw frontier town of Lancaster, where her father was for some time the largest property holder. About 1656 she married Joseph Rowlandson, the first minister of the town, who had graduated from Harvard College in 1652 and had begun to preach in Lancaster about 1654. There were four recorded children: Joseph, who died in infancy; a second Joseph, born 1662; Mary, born 1666; and Sarah, born 1669, who is presumably the child who died of wounds suffered in the attack. In 1675 war broke out between the English settlers of New England and the native Indians. The Indian leader was King Philip of the Wampanoags, son, and successor of Massasoit, the great friend of the Plymouth Pilgrims. (Philip, whose real name was Metacom, and his brother Alexander, whose real name was Wamsutta, were so called by the English, after Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great, in order to suitably dignify Indian “royalty” without committing the “sacrilege” of giving Christian names to heathen Indians.)
Metacom had grown increasingly resentful of the endless encroachments and cultural arrogance of the English and had formed a loose alliance with the powerful Narragansett tribe, and with several smaller Indian groups. In a series of raids, the Indians devastated outlying towns, pushing the English frontier back into what are now the Boston suburbs. In response, the English drove Philip from his home territory, and in December inflicted a crushing defeat on the Narragansett’s at the Great Swamp Fight, near Kingston, Rhode Island. Philip fled to western Massachusetts, attracted new allies, and attacked English towns in central Massachusetts. It was during this phase that Lancaster was destroyed and Mary Rowlandson captured. (Seventeenth-century English custom reckoned the New Year to begin in March, so their February 1675 is our February 1676.)
Despite the stunning losses that demoralized the English, the Indian situation became increasingly desperate. Major Indian groups had been unable to harvest their crops in the fall of 1675. Since the Indians and the English had been living in interspersed settlements, the war had much the character of a civil war, with individual Indians torn between ties to English neighbors and allegiance to Indian leaders, who increasingly might be distant strangers. The burden was particularly heavy for the Christian, or “Praying” Indians, who were viewed with suspicion by both sides. When the Indians found themselves unable to plant in the spring of 1676, their cause disintegrated. Each band maneuvered to buy its own peace, while Philip fled to his native territory, where he was finally killed, ironically by an Indian who had fought with the English. After the return of Mary and her surviving children, the Rowlandson did not return to the devastated Lancaster. Instead, Joseph accepted a pastorate in Wethersfield, Connecticut.
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