Clubs, Hatchets, Knives, and Beams, Part 2

Part two in a seven-part series on European American/Native American War Artifacts and the Ethics of Display by Zabelle Stodola, professor of literature and cultural studies at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. The series begins here.

Part II: Mary Rowlandson, “King Philip’s War Club,” and Other Ritual Objects

The artifact known as “King Philip’s War Club,” held by the Fruitlands Museum, in Harvard, Massachusetts.

I’m not alone in putting together hostage accounts and material objects. David Watters, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire, has constructed lesson plans showing how “ritual artifacts” can illuminate the teaching of literature, and he takes as his main case study Puritan grave markers and Mary Rowlandson’s seventeenth-century captivity narrative.[i]

But what exactly are ritual artifacts? Watters explains that they fall into two categories, the religious and the social, “People perform rituals to create a sense of order or meaning in their lives. Just as a religious ritual artifact—such as a Catholic rosary or a Jewish prayer shawl—might be used to express and enforce an individual’s religious beliefs, a social ritual artifact can express and enforce the social beliefs that permeate and organize the secular world. The program for a municipality’s annual Fourth of July parade and fireworks display, for example, may reveal a ritual emphasizing how patriotism, civic pride, and community involvement provide meaning and order for residents.”[ii] These examples suggest that societies imbue their chosen artifacts with symbolism and significance. Now let’s look at some of these ritual artifacts and try to unpack their meanings.[iii]

A 1720 imprint of Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 captivity narrative, marketed: “Written by her own Hand, for her private Life, now made Publick at the earnest Desire of some Friends for the benefit of the Afflicted…. Second Edition Carefully corrected and Purged from Abundance of Errors which escaped in the former Impression.”

The most famous of all American captivity narratives is by Mary Rowlandson, a Puritan minister’s wife. In 1675-76, during King Philip’s (Metacomet’s) War, a confederation of Nipmucs, Narragansetts, and Wampanoags captured her and her three children in Lancaster, Massachusetts. One child died as a result of being wounded in the initial attack, but the other two and Mary herself returned to their own culture several months later (Mary and one child were ransomed, the other child escaped).

Her narrative, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God . . ., was a Puritan bestseller and came out in four editions in 1682: three in New England and one, under the title A True Narrative . . ., in London.[iv] It has been regularly republished ever since, especially during turbulent times when mainstream American society needed a renewed sense of order and identity.

Rowlandson’s immediate captors were two native sachems, Quinnapin and one of his wives, Weetamoo, but she met the powerful King Philip (Metacomet) while she was a hostage, and he was responsible for allowing her to be ransomed for twenty pounds. The “war club” is presently housed at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts. [v] But Michael Volmer, the museum curator, admits “When and where the club, presently assumed to be Philip’s, came from is something of a mystery.” Although some oral and written provenance exists, all he can conclude is that in his “estimation the club was manufactured during the seventeenth century, in all likelihood by a Native American.”[vi]

Yet despite the club’s unconfirmed authenticity and iffy provenance, it figures in one part of the museum’s public program about its collections. That part is titled “Native American” and is described as being an “Introduction to New England ethnohistory. Several of the early accounts describing southern New England before 1650 will be presented and discussed. Object examination will include King Phillip’s [sic] war club, the James the Printer deed and Mary Rowlandson pamphlet.”[vii]

But not only don’t we know if the object belonged to King Philip (Metacomet), we don’t know if it really is Native American or, for that matter, if it’s even a war (as opposed to a ceremonial) club. Further, Rowlandson’s narrative never refers to Metacomet holding such a club. Nevertheless, the program links an artifact that likely reinforces negative stereotypes of Native Americans as savage and violent with Rowlandson’s seventeenth-century publication describing many of them in similar terms, as “Barbarous Creatures,” “bloody Heathen,” “Crew of Pagans,” and “hell-hounds.” [viii]

The “Native American” program at Fruitlands is on a small scale, but it raises some of the same questions that the Minnesota Historical Society faces as it puts together a commemorative US-Dakota War exhibit set to open at the end of June, 2012. What to do with “highly sensitive” and “highly emotional” objects?[ix] How to strike a balanced and ethical approach involving a range of constituents and perspectives?


Photo credits: “King Philip’s War Club” Fruitlands Museum, Inc., Google Images; Rowlandson Second Edition, Encyclopedia Britannica, Google Images.

Notes to Part 2

[i] See Artifacts and Fiction, Workshop 7, “Ritual Artifacts,” at

[ii] Quoted from the “Ritual Artifacts” website.

[iii] Art historian Ruth B. Phillips also touches on the links between captivity narratives and collections of native artifacts in “Reading and Writing Between the Lines: Soldiers, Curiosities, and Indigenous Art Histories,” Winterthur Portfolio 45.2/3 (Summer/Autumn 2011): 107-24.

[iv] For fuller information on publication history see Derounian-Stodola, Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives, 3-6; and Neal Salisbury, ed., The Sovereignty and Goodness of God with Related Documents ([Bedford Series in History and Culture] Boston: Bedford, 1997).

[v] In the mid nineteenth century Fruitlands was the site of a utopian experiment in communal living by the Transcendental educator Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May, of Little Women fame) and his family. But the experiment was short lived. Idealism gave way to the realities of a freezing winter in the middle of nowhere and after some months Alcott’s disciples and family left. Soon even he conceded  defeat, not of his ideas but of their implementation. See for more information.

[vii] See James the Printer (Wowaus) was a Nipmuc Indian who assimilated to Puritan culture and who probably typeset or helped to typeset the second edition of Rowlandson’s narrative in 1682.

[viii] These phrases come from the introduction and the parts of the narrative that Rowlandson labels the First and Second Removes, but she scatters similar racist tags throughout.

[ix] The phrases are taken from Gregory J. Scott’s excellent article “The No-Win War” in the May 2012 issue of Minnesota Monthly which you can access at See also Tim Krohn, “US-Dakota War Exhibit Raises Issues,” in Native American Times (10 February 2012), available at

This entry was posted in Captivity, Commemorating Controversy, Zabelle Stodola. Bookmark the permalink.

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