Native Americans and Europeans in the Captivity Narratives of John Smith and Mary Rowlandson

Both, John Smith and Mary Rowlandson, wrote down their experiences of being hold captive by Native Americans. Smith published The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles in 1624 and Rowlandson published A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson in 1682. Rowlandson, a devout Puritan colonist, was a mother who was torn away from her family, whereas Captain John Smith was a soldier acquainted with war and violence. Compared to Smith, that may be one reason why Rowlandson appears more helpless as a woman in her “grievous captivity” (238). Furthermore, both make use of different narrative techniques. Rowlandson writes from the first-person point of view in a highly subjective way about her thoughts and feelings, thereby highlighting her sufferings and triggering the reader’s sympathy. In contrast, Smith writes in the third person about his captivity experience. Consequently, his narrative differs in tone as his account seems more objective. However, at second sight one realizes that it is not neutral at all as I will show here. This technique rather enables Smith to depict himself in a positive light as a powerful person despite the fact of being a captive without appearing too narcissistic. Concerning the context of the captivity, Rowlandson was captured when the Native Americans attacked her settlement in Lancaster during King Philip’s War in 1675, while Smith was captured on one of his expeditions of discovery in the woods by Opechancanough, the King of Pamunkey. However, in spite of all these contextual differences mentioned above, Smith and Rowlandson depict the Native Americans in their captivity narratives to a great extent in a similar way. In the following I will show in what way Smith and Rowlandson focus on similar issues in describing their captivity and ague that both make use of the strategy of othering in representing the Indians as the evil Other. Thus, I will firstly define briefly the concept of othering before comparing Rowlandson’s and Smith’s language focusing on how they refer to the Natives. Secondly, I will compare their depiction of the Native’s behavior, their cruelty on the one hand, and their humanity on the other. Finally, I will emphasize the role of religion and God in both narratives.


The European colonists and the Native Americans are each other’s Other. The concept of othering implies that the Other is a constructed category and that otherness is created in discourse involving power relations. During the process of othering someone different to the self is made into an Other by coding it as alien, strange, or deviating from the norm, in order to distance oneself from the Other, exclude it from the personal self and marginalize it in society. Thus, othering by making value judgements and constructing the Other in a negative way may be compared to racist stereotyping (cf. Woodward 35f.). For example, according to Edward Said’s work Orientalism (1978) within the framework of post-colonial studies, Europeans do not define the true “`oriental´ identity” by ascribing typical features to the Orient as, for example, “irrational, uncivilized, etc.”; thereby, they rather construct the Orientals as their Other so as to define their own “`rational´” European identity in contrast to the Other (Edgar, Andrew and Sedgwick 266). So, “the Other may be designated as a form of cultural projection of concepts. This projection constructs the identities of cultural   subjects through a relationship of power in which the Other is the subjugated element. […] The construction of the Other […] is a matter of asserting self-identity” (ibid. 266).


Writing about the Native Americans Rowlandson’s word choice is very similar to Smith’s wording as both use images of savagery in naming their capturers. Smith refers to the Indians as “savages” (58, 61), “barbarians” (61), “fiends” (63), and “devils” (63, 65). Rowlandson uses the same rhetoric with negative connotations by calling the Natives “murderous wretches” (236), “merciless heathen” (236), “wolves” (237) , “ravenous beasts” (238), “black creatures” (238), “inhumane creatures” (239), “pagans”, “merciless enemies” (239), “strangers”, and “barbarous heathens” (250). Using these terms Smith and Rowlandson represent the Native Americans as irrational, uncivilized, animalistic, evil, criminal, and diabolical beings. In both narratives the Natives are othered as Smith and Rowlandson contrast themselves and their European culture (I/ we) from the Native Americans (you/ they), thus representing the Natives as fundamentally alien. By calling the Natives “savage”, “inhuman”, and “heathen” they intend to imply that being European they are civilized human beings and pious Christians. For example, Smith describes Powhatan “more like a devil than a man” (65) and Rowlandson uses the diabolical imagery as well in saying “This was the dolefulest night that ever my eyes saw. Oh the roaring, and singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell” (238). She presents the Natives as satanic in order to point out that they are not God’s people when she writes that the Indians are “so wicked and cruel” (257) and that “there [is] a vast difference between the lovely faces of Christians, and foul looks of those heathens” (254) who enjoy killing the English:

They mourned (with their black faces) for their own losses, yet triumphed and rejoiced in their inhumane, and many times devilish cruelty to the English. They would boast much of their victories; saying that in two hours time they had destroyed such a captain and his company at such a place; and boast how many towns they had destroyed (262).

When the Natives bring Smith “to the King’s habitation at Pamunkey [where] they entertaine[d] him with most strange and fearful conjurations” (63), they do a ceremony for three days to see whether Smith wants to harm them or not. The following quote shows again how Smith depicts them as the satanic Other:

As if near led to hell / Amongst the devils to dwell […] a hellish voice, and a rattle in his hand. With most strange gestures and passions be began his invocation and environed the fire with a circle of meal; […] three more such like devils came rushing in with the like antic tricks […]. Round about him those fiends danced a pretty while, and then came in three more as ugly as the rest, with red eyes and white strokes over their black faces (63).

Rowlandson’s and Smith’s rhetoric suggests that they judge their culture to be superior even though, being hold captive, they are overmastered by the Native Americans. From the Native American perspective, which Smith includes in his text briefly, it is he who is their unfamiliar Other. When they bring Smith to Powhatan, the Emperor, he writes: “Here more than two hundred of those grim courtiers stood wondering at him, as [if] he had been a monster” (64). Again his wording suggests that the way he sees it, the Native Americans are the true monsters that have killed his people and keep him imprisoned.

During their captivity Smith and Rowlandson perceive Native American culture as different from the European culture that they know concerning for example dietary habits1, style of clothing, make-up (war paint), and jewelry, housing (wigwams), and religion (not Christian). They do not just consider the Natives as foreign Others, but moreover construct them as evil Others by demonizing them in the way they describe their inhuman and irrational behavior. In depicting the Indians, Smith and Rowlandson both focus on their cruelty towards the colonists. Smith describes their first contact in the following way: The Indians mock him and his men by giving them just “a handful of corn, a piece of bread for their swords and muskets, and such like proportions also for their apparel” (59). This seems cruel given the fact that the colonists suffered “extreme weakness and sickness” and hunger (57). The Natives laugh at Rowlandson as well when she and her baby fall from the horse: “like inhumane creatures, [they] laughed, and rejoiced to see it” (239). Besides, Rowlandson complaints about the Indians’ habit to tell lies which Rowlandson would interpret as a violation of God’s commandment not to lie:

their horrible addictiveness to lying, and that there is not one of them that makes the least conscience of speaking of truth” (250)

whatsoever the Indians told me respecting him was vanity and lies. Some of them told me he [her husband] was dead, and they had killed him; some said he was married again, and that the Governor wished him to marry (251).

In addition to the Indians’s unkindness because of mocking and lying to their captives, Rowlandson points out the Native American’s barbarism by giving a graphic depiction of their violence when attacking Lancaster. They slay most of Rowlandson’s family and friends and according to her, only she survives to tell us about these scenes of cruelty:

hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven. There were five persons taken in one house; […] they knocked on the head; the other two they took and carried away alive. […] the Indians getting up upon the roof of the barn, had advantage to shoot down upon them over their fortification. Thus these murderous wretches went on, burning, and destroying before them. […] the Indians gaping before us with their guns, spears, and hatchets to devour us […] Thus were we butchered by those merciless heathen, standing amazed, with the blood running down to our heels […] There was one who was chopped into the head with a hatchet, and stripped naked, and yet was crawling up and down. It is a solemn sight to see so many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of sheep torn by wolves, all of them stripped naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out; (236f.)

Oh! the outrageous roaring and hooping that there was. […] Oh, the hideous insulting and triumphing that there was over some Englishmen’s scalps that they had taken (as their manner is) and brought with them (241).

[They] gathered a great company together about [a woman] and stripped her naked, and set her in the midst of them, and when they had sung and danced about her (in their hellish manner) as long as they pleased they knocked her on head, and the child in her arms with her. When they had done that they made a fire and put them both into it, and told the other children that were with them that if they attempted to go home, they would serve them in like manner (242).

In addition to the Native Americans’ cruel bahavior, Smith and Rowlandson imply that they are highly irrational as well, which should make them appear less human and less civilized compared to the Europeans. Smith writes that the colonists await “each hour […] the fury of the savages” (58) and once he is captured he fears that they might just kill him anytime without any reason (cf. 65). Besides these threats, Smith feels superior at the same time because of his world knowledge and rationality. According to Smith, the fact that the Indians “imagined the world to be flat and round, like a trencher, and they in the midst” shows that the Indians are intellectually inferior (63). When Smith gives them a compass and explains to them the globe they are “amazed with admiration” (61). However, one hour later they tie him to a tree and want to shoot him and stop threatening Smith when the King shows the compass again. So they take him to Orapaks “where he was after their manner kindly feasted” (61). Because they threaten him again after having admired him emphasizes that they act arbitrarily. Rowlandson tries to present the Indians as unreasoning people as well as they seem to attack Lancaster without any cause. She starts her narrative in medias res, without giving any background information concerning previous contact that must have led to this war between the Indians and the Europeans. The effect is that the reader is rather shocked in the beginning because of the Indians’s savagery. The following quote supports the Indian’s capriciousness (248):

I went again back to the place we were before at, to get something to eat, being encouraged by the squaw’s kindness, who bade me come again. When I was there, there came an Indian to look after me, who when he had found me, kicked me all along. I went home and found venison roasting that night, but they would not give me one bit of it. Sometimes I met with favor, and sometimes with nothing but frowns.

As Rowlandson is not able to relate to the Native Americans she finally deems them insane (257):

Hang him rogue (says he) I will knock out his brains, if he comes here. And then again, in the same breath they would say that if there should come an hundred without guns, they would do them no hurt. So unstable and like madmen they were.

Nonetheless, in addition to the Native American’s barbarism described above, the readers of Rowlandson’s and Smith’s captivity narratives also become aware of the captors’ humanity towards their captives. Firstly, the Native American warfare differs from European warfare as they do not kill all their enemies, but take captives, that they will eventually release again or adopt into their community: “there were twenty-four of us taken alive and carried captive” (237) Besides, they often promise their captives that they will not kill them: “they answered, if I were willing to go along with them, they would not hurt me” (237). Later when on Rowlandson cries in front of them for the first time because she is afraid that they will kill her, her captors try to console her: “Then came one of them and gave me two spoonfuls of meal to comfort me, and another gave me half a pint of peas; which was more worth than many bushels at another time” (246). Secondly, apart from sudden cruelties like punching her head, slapping her face, or threatening her, the Indians treat her in a kind manner actually and not at all as a slave. For example, they let her ride on a horse as they go into the wild and carry her wounded child (cf. 239). They do not exploit her, but the captors and their captive develop a closer relationship as time passes by and they allow her to trade with them, as the following two quotes show:

Philip spake to me to make a shirt for his boy, which I did, for which he gave me a shilling. I offered the money to my master, but he bade me keep it; and with it I bought a piece of horse flesh. Afterwards he asked me to make a cap for his boy, for which he invited me to dinner. […] Another asked me to knit a pair of stockings, for which she gave me a quart of peas (246).

Then came an Indian, and asked me to knit him three pair of stockings, for which I had a hat, and a silk handkerchief. Then another asked me to make her a shift, for which she gave me an apron (256).

They allow her to move about freely and to visit her daughter. She “went to see how she did” and comes to the conclusion that just as herself “she was well, considering her captive condition” (255). Thirdly, the Natives give Rowlandson and Smith food even though their own people are starving as well. For example, she says:

[I] found a squaw who showed herself very kind to me, and gave me a piece of bear. […] One bitter cold day I could find no room to sit down before the fire. I went out, and could not tell what to do, but I went in to another wigwam, where they were also sitting round the fire, but the squaw laid a skin for me, and bid me sit down, and gave me some ground nuts, and bade me come again; and told me they would buy me, if they were able, and yet these were strangers to me that I never saw before (248).

They care for her almost as one of their own even if they do not know each other: “Sometimes one of them would give me a pipe, another a little tobacco, another a little salt: which I would change for a little victuals” (254). Smith’s captors provide for him as well as “[o]ne of Maocassater gives him a gown to protect him from the cold” (62). Like Rowlandson, Smith trades with the Indians and gets food that will save his people’s lives. Smith describes the following agreement: The Indians give them “venison, turkeys, wild fowl, bread, and what they had” and the English promise to be “their friend” and “restore them their Okee and give them beads, copper, and hatchets” (59). To express  their kindness and friendship the Indians sing and dance. There is a happy ending in Smith’s narrative as Pocahontas and her people bring the colonists food that saves the colony. Besides, he states that Pocahontas’s affection for them “revived their dead spirits” in order to promote a good relationship between the Natives and the colonists (65). Fourth, Rowlandson is given a Bible by her captors which she values as a great gesture of kindness as her faith plays an important role in her life (“Bible, which was my guide by day, and my pillow by night”, 252) and given the fact that she considers them pagan (241):

I cannot but take notice of the wonderful mercy of God to me in those afflictions, in sending me a Bible. One of the Indians that came from Medfield fight, had brought some plunder, came to me, and asked me, if I would have a Bible, he had got one in his basket. I was glad of it, and asked him, whether he thought the Indians would let me read? He answered, yes.

Finally, the fact that she knows her captors by name and that she calls her master “the best friend that [she] had of an Indian” (249) prove that the Natives are human beings just as the colonists and not inhuman radical Others of the devil. This makes her narrative more complex as thereby her characterization of the Native Americans gets more ambiguous. However, both Smith and Rowlandson keep on othering the Natives as they do not accept them as fellow human beings, in spite of their humanity.


So how do both writers rationalize their captors’ kindness next to the cruelty that they accentuate in their narratives? As the last quote implies, Rowlandson believes that it was God’s will and mercy that made the Natives act kindly. “[T]he Lord brought that precious Scripture to [her]” (243). It has been “His almighty power [that] preserved a number of [them] from death” (237). Smith sees it the same way saying: “But almighty God (by His divine providence) had mollified the hearts of those stern barbarians with compassion” (65). Writing that “each hour expecting the fury of the savages, when God, the patron of all good endeavors, in that desperate extremity so changed the hearts of the savages that they brought such plenty of their fruits and provisions as no man wanted” (58), he explains the Native’s behavior, their hostility on the one hand and hospitality on the other, as an act of God. Especially for Rowlandson, the Bible she reads and shares with others gives her the strength to hold on to her faith and hope to survive and be restored in the end:

“but God was with me in a wonderful manner, carrying me along, and bearing up my spirit, that it did not quite fail” (23).

“But the Lord renewed my strength still, and carried me along, that I might see more of His power” (239)

“Yet the Lord still showed mercy to me, and upheld me; and as He wounded me with one hand, so he healed me with the other” (240)

His wonderful power in carrying us along, preserving us in the wilderness, while under the enemy’s hand, and returning of us in safety again. And His goodness in bringing to my hand so many comfortable and suitable scriptures in my distress (245 f.).

Thus hath the Lord brought me and mine out of that horrible pit, and hath set us in the midst of tender-hearted and compassionate Christians (265).

Reading both documents I have learned that Rowlandson and Smith consider themselves pious Christians who trust in God and believe that their captivity was according to his plan and that he will save them in the end after they have learned their lessons in their captivity (cf. 254).


Concluding one can say, the way Smith and Rowlandson have dealt with captivity differs naturally because of their differing personalities, their gender, occupation, and the different circumstances of their captivity. Furthermore, they make use of dissimilar narrative techniques. In spite of this, comparing both narratives has shown that they represent the Native Americans in a similar manner. On the one hand, both writers practice othering. They use a language of savagery in the way they name the Natives. Rowlandson and Smith present the Natives as irrational creatures when they describe their cruel behavior in attacking the colonists and of how they treat their captives. The way both writers present Native Americans as their Others is telling about the way they see themselves and their European culture, namely human, civilized, rational, and pious. Smith feels superior to the Natives because of his world knowledge and Rowlandson feels exceptional believing that God is on her side protecting her. On the other hand, if one reads closely, there are moments when the Native Americans are not depicted as only cruel savages anymore, but as caring fellow beings. However, Rowlandson and Smith rationalize the Indian’s humanity by interpreting it as God’s grace and not goodness coming from the Native Americans themselves. Thus, they keep on othering them even when they depict the Indians’ kindness towards them.


Works Cited

Woodward, Kathryn. Identity and Difference. London, California, New Delhi: Sage Publication Ldt, 1997.

Edgar, Andrew and Peter Sedgwick. Key Concepts in Cultural Theory. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

About Lay A.

a long-term student of English and American Literary and Cultural Studies / lover of literature (Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Rice, Emily Dickinson, Tolkien, Bram Stoker, Shakespeare, Rowling, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron...) / a closet would-be writer and pseudo poet coming out of the coffin / into music (metal & movie scores), ballet dancing, photography, art, baking, and traveling View all posts by Lay A.

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