“The bloody heathen ready to knock us on the head”: Reflection on Mary Rowlandson’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s responses to captivity

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Relevance of Rowlandson’s Account for Puritan Society

3. Rowlandson’s Implementation of Puritan Principles

4. Similarities between Puritans and Indians

5. Short Excursion: Rowlandson vs. Cabeza de Vaca

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Inspired by medieval accounts about the City of Gold and the opportunity to tie on the famous Spanish conquerors, Cabeza de Vaca enthusiastically embarks to the Americas in 1527. However, the so-called Narváez Expedition develops different than expected and turns into a total disaster: during their expedition along the west-coast of Florida, Cabeza and his crew get lost, the majority of his comrades dies and Cabeza falls into the hands of the Indians. Exactly one century later, the Puritan goodwife Mary Rowlandson meets a similar fate and – after her town Lancaster has been raided by the Indians – becomes an Indian captive as well. This paper will extrapolate the different approaches of Vaca and Rowlandson to their Indian captivity, exemplifying through them the diverging intentions and strategies of the major colonizers of the New World, namely the English and Spanish. Therefore, I will mainly concentrate on Mary Rowlandson’s account, accentuating her Puritan creed and the ambivalent success of her adaption of those principles on her life during captivity. In doing so, this paper will provide the reader with a brief historic overview about the Puritans’ religious agenda in New England and explain why Rowlandson’s text was met with such an exorbitant approval. In a short excursion, the main differences and similarities between Rowlandson’s and Vaca’s narration will be highlighted, only to point out that both Rowlandson and Vaca were figures bound to the social, cultural and religious conventions of their time.

2. The Relevance of Rowlandson’s Account for Puritan Society

With her account, Mary Rowlandson did not only give voice to the women in Puritan society and therefore, broke with the classic patriarchic structure of society and its dichotomous role-definition – the man acts in the public sphere, writing and working, whereas the woman rests in the private sphere as goodwife, mother and housekeeper – but also laid down the fundament for the American captivity genre. The Norton Anthology of American Literature specifies Rowlandson’s narration as an account which “combined high adventure, heroism, and exemplary piety and is the first and, in its narrative skill and delineation of character, the best of what have become popularly known as ‘Indian captivity’” (Norton 309). However, it is important to acknowledge that Mary herself did not aim to provide the reader with a story of entertaining value, a genuine portrayal of Indian culture or to convey historical knowledge about King Philip’s War, but rather intended to reinforce, if not even to restore, the crumbling Puritan creed. Thus, the full title of Rowlandson’s narrative in the American edition reveals her original intention: “The sovereignty and goodness of GOD, together with the faithfulness of his promise displayed; being a narrative of the captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, commenced by her, to all that desires to know the Lord’s doing to, and dealings with her. Especially to her dear children and relations. The second Addition Corrected and amended. Written by her own hand for her private use, and now made public at the earnest desire of some friends, and for the benefit of the afflicted” (1).

Consequently, her narrative was primarily targeted at an afflicted audience to show them the sovereignty and goodness of God – without much room for contemplation; the audience in question is her coreligionist: the Puritan. To understand why Rowlandson decided to concentrate on “the illustration of God’s workings” (Weckenmann 2) and why her delineations were so eagerly devoured by New England’s readership, we have to take a closer look at the historic developments and the predicament the Puritan colonists found themselves in. As McNeil suggests, “the answer lies almost entirely in Puritan perceptions, attitudes, and responses to the conditions of their lives” (95):

While certain events and situations were highly influential, such as King Philip’s War, it was the Puritans’ opinions of and feeling about their emigration and colonization, and the perceived relative success of these endeavors that made possible the intense and enduring integration of Rowlandson’s text into early American culture (95).

To put in another way, the Puritans arrived to the New World with a cathartic agenda: They wanted to “rework” (96) and purify Christianity in order to reintroduce it to their native England. Furthermore, they wished “to prove they truly belonged to their place [New England], that their bringing of Christian civilization to the wilderness represented the fulfillment of their own destiny as children of Jehovah […] and of the land’s destiny as the creation of God” (Slotkin 269). However, “things were not going as smoothly as they had planned” (McNeil 103). McNeil underlines:

Their efforts to live in the New World seemed to be failing physically and spiritually. They were becoming increasingly convinced that they were failing at their task. They needed solutions to surviving emotionally and spiritually in the New World, in addition to maintaining their physical survival (103).

As consequence, the second and third generation feared of being unable to fulfill the covenant of grace, and hence, living up to the expectations of their forefathers. Confusion and discomfort spread among the Puritans, “since they perceived themselves as individual failures, and corporate, since they perceived themselves as a group as failing as a result of the ‘myth of the declining generation’” (McNeil 102).

Therefore, Rowlandson’s narration, biblical typology and usage of symbolic language perfectly met the Puritans’ desperate need for a plausible explanation of their situation which could be easily brought in harmony with their creed (cf. McNeil 102). Elliot stresses:

Because of the intimate nature of the Puritan family, the patterns of child-rearing and education, and the deep desires of young adults to live up to the demanding, often perplexing expectations of their illustrious fathers and grandfathers, the young adults of this period interpreted external events inwardly as personal failures. Some suffered severe psychological illnesses while many were possessed by a confused sense of guilt, melancholy, shame, and nostalgia that they had no way of understanding except as it could be translated into symbolic language” (7-8).


Excerpt out of 13 pages


“The bloody heathen ready to knock us on the head”: Reflection on Mary Rowlandson’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s responses to captivity
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department of English and Linguistics)
Frontier Lives
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1367 KB
City of Gold, Cabeza de Vaca, Frontier, Frontier Literature, Puritan Indians, Mary Rowlandson, Narvaez Expedition, Colonial Literature, Frontier Lives
Quote paper
Mario Nsonga (Author), 2012, “The bloody heathen ready to knock us on the head”: Reflection on Mary Rowlandson’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s responses to captivity, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/207837


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