The Preface to the Reader
On February 1, 1675, the Narragansets in Nipmuc country were attacked for a second time by the United Colonies of New England - an association of Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Plymouth. The Narragansets took flight, pursued by the English. On February 3, the English were low on provisions after six days of marching, so the Council of War declared the colonial forces should retire from pursuit. Driven away from their food supplies and having used up those of their Nimpmuc hosts, the Narraganset "Barbarians" attacked the small, remote town of Lancaster. Despite the efforts of the Army and the inhabitants, most of the buildings of Lancaster were burned to ashes, many people were killed, and others were taken captive. Reverend Joseph Rowlandson, Lancaster's "Pastor of Christ," was seeking defense aid for Lancaster from the Council of Massachusetts during the attack. When he returned, he discovered his wife, Mary Rowlandson, and their children, had been taken captive.
The Preface's author frames Mrs. Rowlandson's narrative of her time in captivity as an example of divine providence worthy of pious study. He says it is strange that the Lord afflicted the Rowlandsons, bore up their spirits during the captivity, and ultimately restored Mr. and Mrs. Rowlandson and their surviving children. He draws parallels between the Rowlandsons' experience and that of biblical figures who were delivered by divine providence.
The author makes explicit that Mrs. Rowlandson wrote the narrative herself and takes precautions to protect Mrs. Rowlandson, the second female author published in North America, from criticism by emphasizing her narrative's publication as an appropriate act of pious gratitude and praise to God. He also frequently references her in relation to her husband, a public employee in the house of God. The author explains that the narrative was published despite Mrs. Rowlandson's modesty because of her gratitude to God and because "some friends" thought her evidence of divine providence would benefit the public. The author states that any "Friend of divine Providence" will judge the narrative worth reading many times over. He restates that this work is evidence of divine providence, that God has power over human events, that he grants mercy to "his People," and that the afflictions Mrs. Rowlandson suffered were in fact for her good. He closes the preface, "TER AMICAM," understood to mean "by a friend."
The authorship and point of view transfers over to Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, who vividly narrates in the first person and recounts the attack of the Native Americans on Lancaster on February 10, 1675. They arrive at sunrise. They kill men, women, and children by knocking them on the head, disemboweling them, and shooting them, and they take some captives, burning houses along the way. Eventually they reach the Rowlandson garrison, which holds 37 people. From the barn and the hill they hail bullets and, after two hours, prevail in setting the house on fire.
Mrs. Rowlandson attempts to leave the house with her children and one of her sister's children. She is met by bullets at the door but pushes on in flight from the fire. The Indians shout and strip her brother-in-law after he dies from a throat injury. Mrs. Rowlandson is shot in the side, and her youngest daughter Sarah is shot in the bowels and hand as Mrs. Rowlandson holds her in her arms. Her eldest sister's child William is killed by a blow to the head when the Native Americans notice his broken leg. His mother then too is shot dead. Twelve of the thirty-seven in the garrison are killed, one escapes, and twelve, including Mrs. Rowlandson and her children, are taken captive. Mrs. Rowlandson is taken one way and, with the exception of the wounded Sarah she carries, her children another way.
The First Remove
Mrs. Rowlandson and her daughter Sarah spend the first night with the Native Americans by a deserted house on a hill a mile away from the town. When Mrs. Rowlandson asks if she could stay in the house for the night, the Native Americans reply, "What will you love English men still?" The Native Americans' lively, joyful singing, dancing, shouting, and cooking of plundered animals appears like hell to Mrs. Rowlandson. She thinks about all her losses: her husband, children, relatives, and friends are all gone by separation or death, and the Native Americans have told her they will kill her husband on his return to Lancaster. Her life may be taken at any moment. Her daughter Sarah is in a pitiful condition, and she can do nothing to help her.
Rowlandson insults the "savageness and brutishness" of Native Americans once they have the English in their grip, including those who have converted to Christianity. She blames "Praying Indians" from Marlborough for an August 1675 attack on Lancaster. Historical records, however, show that those Native Americans had already been exonerated for the same in court.
The Preface to the Reader, thought to be written by a clergyman, is a testament to the singularity of Mrs. Rowlandson's publication of her personal spiritual experience. The author hopes "by this time none will cast any reflection upon this Gentlewoman," and he requests, "Excuse her then if she come thus into public, to pay those vows [of God]" which are upon her by dint of her unique and extreme experience. He mitigates the potential threat of Mrs. Rowlandson's publication of her experiences and opinions, some of which were in conflict with respected clergymen, by referring to her in reference to God, her husband, or both. He calls her "the dear consort of the said Mr. Rowlandson" and refers to her as Reverend Rowlandson's "Hand Maid" in service to God. He emphasizes Mrs. Rowlandson's modesty and her gratitude and piety towards God. Through these references, the author deflects focus away from Mrs. Rowlandson. The book is published because of the spiritual benefit it can perform for the public, and the person who experienced these unique experiences of captivity and divine providence just happened to be a woman. Mrs. Rowlandson's gender is further downplayed and her narrative afforded perhaps greater legitimacy by having a preface written by a male clergyman. In the original publication, her narrative was also followed by the last sermon delivered by her husband before his death.
There is an interesting tension between the author downplaying Mrs. Rowlandson's individuality and gender and holding her up as a religious role model for Puritans. He writes, "Read therefore, [...] that so thou also through patience and consolation of the Scripture mayest have hope." He draws parallels between her experience and that of biblical figures, and notes "how evident is it that the Lord hath made this Gentlewoman a gainer by all this affliction." Many readers were Puritan men, and they are instructed to aspire to be more like Mrs. Rowlandson, who the author characterizes as having a special relationship with God. This gives Mrs. Rowlandson's perspective unusual weight for a woman and also speaks to the anonymous preface author's view of Mrs. Rowlandson as an ideal poster child for his views on divine providence. It is debatable to what degree this clergyman and others influenced her presentation of her experiences.
The author's presentation of Mrs. Rowlandson as a religious role model is part of a larger theme in the preface and the work as a whole of spiritual superiority and inferiority. He refers to the Rowlandsons as God's "dear ones, that are as the Apple of his Eye [...] and the Object of his tenderest Care." In this and other passages, the author makes a value judgment not only between Puritans and non-Puritans, but also ranks some Puritans as more precious to God than others. The theme of religious superiority can also be seen in the composition of the United Colonies of New England, which included the Puritan-dominated Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Plymouth, and excluded tolerant Rhode Island. The strongest contrasts the author draws, unsurprisingly, are between the English and the Native Americans, whom he refers to as "revengeful [...] atheistical, proud, wild, cruel, barbarous (in one word) diabolical creatures [...] the worst of the heathen." His strong prejudice can be read as an indicator of many Puritan settlers' opinions, as part of the context in which Mrs. Rowlandson experienced captivity, and, as the author of the preface was probably a key player in the narrative's publication, as a potential direct influence that acted on Mrs. Rowlandson as she wrote her narrative.
Rowlandson's description of the Native Americans' attack on Lancaster heavily employs vivid, violent imagery, uses emotional diction, and includes minute details of the event, all of which not only maker her narrative more engaging but also emphasize the horror of the acts perpetrated by the attackers. While it may be sensible for Rowlandson to start her captivity narrative with the day of her capture, this entails that she start her account of the war with a violent attack by Native Americans. She does not give background on previous relations between Lancaster and the neighboring Native Americans or make any references to the Native Americans in the past, except to recount an attack in August 1675. She introduces the Native Americans only as diabolical attackers and presents the Puritan English purely as their victims. She reinforces this dichotomy by equating Native Americans and their cultural world with devils and hell, and referring to Christians as sheep.
Rowlandson also, at this point in her narrative, describes Native Americans as a monolith. In any conversations she has with Native Americans, only "the Indians" or "they" speak. She does not mention any specific individuals. She describes and insults them as an entire group, only using "the Indians" as the subject. In the attack, for example, she makes no tribal distinctions and describes no individuals. She says, "They [...] knocked him on the head," although probably only one person dealt the fatal blow. She also equates the brutality of non-Christian Native Americans and Christian Native Americans. She blames a group of Christian Native Americans for an earlier attack on Lancaster, even though they had already been exonerated in court. Her repetition of this false account of history strongly calls into question her reliability as a narrator.