57 Colonial Enfrownters And How to Survive One

Randy Garfield

Remember second grade, learning about Thanksgiving? All the pilgrims and the Native Americans had a big feast and played football and drank bud lite. The first Thanksgiving was Adam Sandler movie material at best- maybe a Jack Black flick. The sequel though? Where Metacomet (AKA King Philip) and his people say “enough is enough,” and strike back at the settlers for all their selfish injustices? The one where that Puritan lady, Mary Rowlandson spends the night with her dead child as its blood runs cold and rigor-mortis begins to make its limbs go stiff? That is territory only Disney could make digestible. With a few ambiguous hieroglyphs and some pretty, symphonic music, this scene would be right up there with the romanticism of the Pocahontas boat scene.

Too soon? Maybe.

The point is, the only colonial encounters we ought care about are the ones gone wrong. I like good news as much as the next guy, but that’s typically not what makes a good story. Conflict makes a compelling story. It’s not often that we hear about planes landing safely on the ground on the news- that’s a bad story. The same goes with literature and history. Once everything goes right, the story ends…BORING!! We want, as consumers of literature, the juicy stuff (i.e. the bit about the pearl divers in Casas excerpt). The older we get, the better the stories and thus, the more gruesome the details. We want to get our hearts broken when we read literature, and if Mary Rowlandson’s narrative didn’t break your heart, check your pulse.

This depiction of the colonial encounter relates to both Cabeza’s, Casas’ and Pocahontas’s in that they are all based on a colonial encounter gone sour. Other than that, Mary Rowlandson’s narrative has little in common with the three, thematically or otherwise. It essentially achieves the opposite aim of Casas’ essay (albeit 130 years later). Casas aimed to shed light on the egregious treatment of the Native Americans at the hands of the Spanish. When his work was published, he was accused of treason. Rowlandson’s narrative, on the other hand, sold like hotcakes and was revered for its emotional impact and insight into the savagery of the Wampanoag. It only stirred the pot of hate for Native Americans. The narrative still stirs the pot, but the spoon goes in the other direction. Times have changed.

The problematic essence of this narrative is that it conflicts with the view prominent in today’s higher-education rhetoric that the Native Americans were blameless in the many conflicts throughout the years. Now, I’m not trying to pardon what the Spanish did in the 1500s or what the settlers did in the 1600s, or what the pushers of manifest destiny did in the 1700s and 1800s. They all got what was coming to them. For all the white man’s manipulation and exploitation of them, the Native Americans usually had a justifiable cause in attacking or retaliating. But it cannot be said that the Native Americans were innocent. They, just like their white enemy, slaughtered many innocent people who were simply caught in a war while seeking a better life. We were brutal, but so were they. Mary was lucky compared to a majority of the people who came in contact with the Native Americans, as she fervently writes here: “Oh, the. . . triumphing that there was  over some Englishmen’s scalps that they had taken. . . I cannot but take notice of the wonderful mercy of God to me in those afflictions…”

Finally, this narrative is relevant to today’s culture in what it says about faith and stoicism in the face of adversity. Atheism grows more and more popular every day. In-fact, no-religion is now the world’s most popular religion, and for good reason: we have no conclusive proof of any higher power. This is not news. However, something can be said about Mary’s emotional strength will to live. Research shows that religion and spirituality typically coincide with decreased risk of suicide, which brings up the question: If Mary Rowlandson had not had such a devout faith, would she have survived? She doesn’t think so. It’s clear her reliance on God and the scripture to get her through this horrid captivity. “…I must and could lie down with my dead babe, side by side all the night after. I have thought since of the wonderful goodness of God to me in the use of my reason and senses… that I did not use wicked and violent means to end my own miserable life.” If Mary Rowlandson’s narrative remains relevant in any way, let it be as a testament to her faith and what it did for her in a time when death seemed a much easier option than to continue with her destitute existence.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Randy Garfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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