One of the little-known secrets of American history is the popularity of kidnapping as a fund-raiser for native tribes, particularly in New England. About 1,500 people were taken captive in the years between 1675 and 1750. Most of them vanished, but about 300 were ransomed, often for goods that included arms and ammunition. Talk about counterproductive.
Kidnapping highlights another of the huge cultural differences between the natives and the colonists. Taking civilian prisoners was a common practice among American tribes. In addition to other advantages, it kept the gene pool from getting too stagnant. It replenished the tribal numbers that dropped because of frequent skirmishes. It even served as a kind of economy, because captives became slaves who did the scut-work of their captors.
The colonists, on the other hand, came from a culture that never took civilian captives and regarded the practice as ungentlemanly, to say the least. It was one more example of the barbarous nature of the natives. All of a sudden, though, they found themselves bartering for their wives and children, and when those negotiations failed, the natives had no qualms about killing the captives or selling them into slavery to the French. Having your family kidnapped was a serious problem; the odds were good that you'd never see them again.
Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, a link to which can be found at the bottom of this post, was the first in a long genre of captivity narratives -- stories of the people who survived their kidnapping and returned to tell the story. These were the 17th Century equivalents of popular novels. People read them for entertainment, and they were widely disseminated. Note the date on the first page of this copy of Mrs. Rowlandson's story -- it's almost 100 years after she was captured.
The account of the brutality she suffered fueled anti-tribal sentiment for two hundred years. It reinforced the stereotypes of native Americans as vicious, savage, inhumane brutes who would kill innocent women and children without mercy. And, to be fair, they did kill, and torture, their captives without mercy. We shouldn't fall into the currently popular trap of imagining that the natives were gentle tree-huggers, pushed off the land by ruthless colonists. The natives gave as good as they got, for quite a while.
In Mary Rowlandson's case, the grievance was part of King Phillip's war -- a brief, bloody confrontation between the scattered colonial outposts and the Narrgahanset tribes whose corn they stole. (Apparently stealing from savages isn't a sin.) In retaliation for theft and the burning of crops, the Narrgahanset attacked Lancaster, MA, in the winter of 1676, killing people and burning their houses. Some twenty-four were taken captive, and among these were Rowlandson and her children.
In the course of her captivity, she suffered the death of her youngest daughter (and the wrenching abandonment of the same), malnutrition, forced marches, servitude, and torture that included everything from ashes in her eyes to being told (untruthfully) that her captors had eaten her son. On the other hand, in true Puritan fashion, she experienced this as God's just sentence on her for her sins, and felt His hand sustaining her. She sometimes experienced kindness from her captors, and was eventually restored to her husband, along with her two surviving children. (Forgive the spoiler.)
Her narrative is important to American literature because she's the first American writer to actually be considered a prose stylist. Her organization of the narrative, her reflections on the meaning of her struggle, and her unstinting portrayal of the whole eleven weeks are all done with a sophisticated sense of rhetorical purpose. No wonder she was popular long after her own time.