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  • "Beyond My Skil":Mary Rowlandson's Counting
  • Molly Farrell (bio)

In her 1682 narrative of King Philip's War, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Mary Rowlandson remains certain of at least one thing regarding the Indians who hold her captive: there are a lot of them. They come in "great numbers" (68), even a "vast number" (106), or perhaps "many hundreds" (79); they stand "as thick as the trees" (80) and seem to wield "a thousand hatchets" (80). Though when Rowlandson looks for food "there was nothing to be seen" (106), the Lord "strangely" (79, 105) provides for the Indians, and even while carrying their "old decrepit mothers" they are able to "[hold] the English army in play" (78). She cannot help "but be amazed at the numerous crew of Pagans that were on the Bank" (82) of a river opposite her, and arriving finally at an Indian settlement, Rowlandson is dumbfounded: "Oh the number of Pagans . . . that there came about me, that I may say as David, Psal 27. 13, I had fainted, unless I had believed, &c" (74). Rowlandson remembers only one time when the English army appeared "so numerous" (104) but they quickly retreated to search for food. Though she can never pinpoint exactly how many Indians there are, it is not for lack of trying. Rowlandson likes to enumerate her experiences: her narrative is divided into sequentially numbered removes; she takes updated body counts of the English around her; she makes careful note of important days or lengths of traveling time; and she finally redeems herself by her deft determination of exactly how much she is worth for ransom. However, when she tries to count the Indians, she admits, it was "beyond my skil" (79).

Just as Rowlandson the prisoner of war literally wanders along the frontier beyond English colonial settlement, so her narrative figuratively takes place on the frontier of developing discourses in which people become countable numbers. When she writes of her experience, Rowlandson relies on quantification of various kinds to lend a sense of order to the chaos around her. Colonialism required this kind of population counting, a need [End Page 59] to map both bodies and territory with measurable systems. Rowlandson attempts, on the ground, to apply this strategy of counting bodies to ensure her own survival: numeracy helps create a mental border between enemy and friend; it helps her find her children when they are taken from her; and when she negotiates her ransom, it ultimately sets her free. Her narrative is a sustained dramatization of an individual attempting to see the world through the colonial lens of population numbers—numbers that offer the promise of drawing clear borders between peoples even as they mask the permeability of those boundaries.1 Testing out these ideas about countable bodies, Rowlandson's narrative offers a window into the inconsistencies within a perfectly enumerated colonial worldview. Even as Rowlandson tries to render her environment familiar by numbering the people she encounters, she reveals the inability of numerical categories to serve as a means of separating kin from enemies. Numbers cannot freeze bodies into a stable count: they can only induce the act of counting, and this tension between the desire to enumerate and the mutability of bodies arises especially around the appearance of the reproductive bodies of women and children. By contrast, official histories of the colonists' encounters with the Indians, such as Increase Mather's history of King Phillip's War and Cotton Mather's narrative of Hannah Dustan's captivity, insist on the ability of both friend and foe to remain quantified and separate in the midst of conflict. Even when women and children are on the front lines of battle, the Mathers can always keep count of them.

By tracing the sustained focus in Rowlandson's narrative on the bodies of children—both her own and those of the English and Indians around her—we can see the persistent problems reproduction poses to separating people into quantifiable groups in the midst of conflict. First, children might switch categories and alter the count, especially white captive children encountering the highly successful adoptive practices of New England Indians.2 But also, pregnant...