Mary Rowlandson’s narrative recounts her three months of captivity among Native Americans during King Phillip’s War. As Rowlandon’s account is a historical document, it is crucial to understand the historical context in which she wrote to identify biases, historical inaccuracies, and social relations.
King Phillip’s War (1675-1676) was a war between Native Americans and English settlers for control of southern New England. It is named after Wampanoag leader King Phillip, also referred to as Metacom, who rallied Native American groups against the English and who was perceived as instigating the war. It is important, though, to understand the context in which the war began in order to avoid oversimplification.
The English and Native Americans had been trading, socializing, occasionally fighting, and occasionally cohabitating for about 50 years when the war broke out. The first English settlers had arrived more than 30 years before the war. At the time of the war, there were more settlers born in New England than born in England. As such, the war was between well-known neighbors as opposed to between alien enemies.
During the 50 years preceding the war, Native Americans often bought commodities from the English, worked as their laborers and servants, and learned at least a little English. Native Americans were subject to colonial laws when dealing with non-Native Americans. One thousand to two thousand Native Americans converted to Christianity during this time. The English made no such accommodations for Native Americans and their culture, viewing Native Americans as uncivilized savages with a culture inferior to their own.
In 1661, Wampanoag leader and King Phillip’s father, Massasoit, passed away. King Phillip decided to fight back against further English expansion, and he garnered the support of most tribes in New England. Through the 1660s, English expansion led the English to pressure the Native Americans to relinquish land and political control.
In June 1675, the English executed three Wampanoag Native Americans for killing a fellow Native American who informed the English of the Native Americans’ bellicose plans. Following the execution, war began in Swansea, Massachusetts. Native American groups, sometimes in coordination and sometimes not, perpetuated a series of attacks on more than half of the 92 towns in New England. Colonial militia attacked Native American villages in retaliation.
In spring 1676, the Native Americans lost their previous advantage in the war. They were starving, and the English were using Christian Native Americans (the so-called "Praying Indians") as scouts. In August 1676, King Phillip was slain, and the Native American forces fell apart. Peace articles were signed two years later. Many Native American captives, including King Phillip’s family, were sold into slavery, while others found refuge in western and northern tribes.
Native American villages, twelve English settlements, and whole Native American tribes were destroyed. Sources vary, but about 3,000-5,000 Native Americans and 600-2,500 English died in King Phillip’s War. It was the most fatal war in American history by proportion of the population killed, with some sources stating it killed 40 percent of Native Americans and 5 percent of English. King Phillip’s War was decisive in the English’s obtaining power over southern New England and freely continuing their expansion there.