A Group Project by ENGL 261: Pirates, Pequots, and Puritans: Literatures of the Renaissance Atlantic at Wesleyan University, Fall 2016

A History of Mary Rowlandson in Seven Objects

In 1676, an Englishwoman named Mary Rowlandson was taken captive in Massachusetts during the internecine, region-ravaging conflict known as King Philip’s War. The conflict, which pitted English settlers in New England and their Mohegan and Pequot allies against an indigenous alliance of Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Nipmuc tribes led by Metacomet, alias King Philip, is known today as the bloodiest episode in the colonial history of English North America. Rowlandson survived her captivity and, six years later, produced an account of her trials entitled The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. The text, remarkable as the most substantial English prose work written by a woman in the early colonial period, details Rowlandson’s journey westward with her captors across Massachusetts until her eventual ransom and rescue. Rowlandson’s narrative marks her time in captivity by dwelling, almost obsessively, on objects: the horse meat she unwillingly eats, the stockings she knits to barter for food, the oak leaves with which she bandages her wounds, the tobacco she refuses to smoke, the wampum she observes being thrown to onlookers during a festive dance.

These seven essays, written collaboratively by Wesleyan undergraduates in Fall 2016, take up Rowlandson’s signifying objects, detailing their complex histories in the early modern Atlantic world and analyzing how Rowlandson deploys them. The seventeenth-century Massachusetts that emerges from these essays, far from being an isolated, insular outpost, appears instead as a one node in a global network of trade and intercultural knowledge transfer. This history is perhaps best demonstrated by the silver buttons that are the focus of one of the essays: their silver was probably mined by enslaved indigenous hands in South America, absorbed into Spanish transatlantic trade networks, purchased by English settlers and brought to the Massachusetts borderlands, where they passed into Algonquian hands. The transatlantic contrails of this seemingly insignificant object reveal to us a seventeenth-century Atlantic world that did not consist of static, changeless cultures colliding, but rather one in which the porous boundaries between cultures enabled trade, appropriation, adaptation, and reinvention by both indigenous and European actors, even in the midst of incredible violence.  


Bailey Softness, Daniel Gordon, Andrew Cannard, Jack Reibstein, Ella Lindholm-Uzzi, Zach Bloom, Michael Sheldon, Althea Turner, Spencer Arnold, Jordan Jancze, Alexander Donald, Hannah Thompson, Noah Mertz, Luis Garcia


John Kuhn

 Headnote written by John Kuhn; all other material on this site researched, written, and edited by the above fourteen students.