Appetite for Destruction

Indigenous Americans knew how to avoid starvation. Colonists were too hungry to notice.

By Carla Cevasco

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Still Life with Cake, by Raphaelle Peale, 1818. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Maria DeWitt Jesup Fund, 1959.

In 1676 an English minister’s wife named Mary Rowlandson was taken captive from her home in Lancaster, Massachusetts, in a raid by the Nashaway war leader Monoco. As a prisoner, Rowlandson would travel across what is now Massachusetts in a party of Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Narragansett people led by Weetamoo, the Pocasset Wampanoag saunkskwa, or female leader. On the day of the raid, one member of the party gave Rowlandson a piece of cake. Rowlandson put the cake in her pocket, where it remained for weeks, molding, crumbling, and finally desiccating into shards. Over her eleven-week journey, Rowlandson would reach into her pocket for those dry crumbs. Whenever she ate one, she thought that if she ever returned from captivity, she “would tell the world what a blessing the Lord gave to such mean food.”

From a modern, secular viewpoint, Rowlandson’s story is a strange one, strangely told. Yet in the late seventeenth century, it was consumed with voracious appetite by English-reading audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1682 Rowlandson published a narrative of her experiences; the title, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, reflected her relief at her deliverance from captivity. The book became a best seller, so much so that few first editions of the text survive because people read it until it disintegrated. It remains a central source in early American studies to this day.

Rowlandson was caught up in King Philip or Metacom’s War, named for the Wampanoag sachem who used both names and was one of the war’s Indigenous leaders. Metacom and others recognized that colonists’ hunger for land would never be sated and united the Native peoples of the Northeast in an attempt to push out the invading English once and for all. In the bloody conflict that followed in 1675 and 1676, between one-fifth and one-third of the colonial New England population died. The war took a horrific toll on Native populations as well. Colonists turned on Native communities who had adapted to Christianity, exiling them to the Boston Harbor Islands in the middle of the winter, where many of them died of disease or exposure; colonial authorities sold the survivors into slavery in the Caribbean. By the end of the war, Weetamoo drowned in the Taunton River while fleeing English troops, and the English mounted Metacom’s head on a pole in Plymouth. Yet while the invaders outlasted the war, so too did Native people in the Northeast, with a resilience that Rowlandson described in detail.

Philip King of Mount Hope, by Paul Revere Jr., 1772.

Rowlandson’s narrative has many themes: her belief that her captivity was a spiritual trial to test her Calvinist faith; her indignation at becoming the servant of a Native woman, Weetamoo, when she herself had had Native servants; her fear for the lives of her three children, one of whom died in her arms from wounds sustained in the raid; her front-row seat to the unfolding of King Philip’s War, including her own encounter with Metacom (she sewed some shirts for his son); her profound ineptitude at adapting to Native ways.

But the most glaring preoccupation of Rowlandson’s narrative is hunger, specifically her own, and her desperate attempts to satiate it. Her hunger is the thrumming undercurrent of her journey. Rowlandson is not alone among insatiable colonists—greed is of course central to colonization. But her hunger helps us to understand why colonial attitudes toward hunger still predominate in the United States, three and a half centuries later, and how Indigenous foodways continue to offer powerful alternatives to colonial rapaciousness.


As a captive, Rowlandson struggled to adjust to Native foods. “The first week of my being among them, I hardly ate anything,” she would recall. “The second week…it was very hard to get down their filthy trash.” But by the third week of her captivity, she found Indigenous foods “sweet and savory to my taste.”

These “sweet and savory” tastes were foods that, in her past life, Rowlandson would have found revolting. In her time as a captive, she ate a partially cooked horse liver, quickly chewed “with the blood about my mouth”; a piece of bear meat that “lay all…day and night in my stinking pocket” before being cooked; and those crumbs of moldy cake. If these foods were repugnant, so too were the depths of Rowlandson’s hunger: upon witnessing a captive English toddler struggling to eat a piece of boiled horse hoof, she yanked the morsel out of the child’s hand “and ate it myself.”

At the end of her narrative, Rowlandson shifted from cataloguing the foods she ate herself to the foods the Indigenous people around her consumed. It was a long, varied list:

The chiefest and commonest food was ground nuts: they ate also nuts and acorns, artichokes [sunchokes], lily roots, ground beans, and several other weeds and roots…They would eat horse’s guts, and ears, and all sorts of wild birds which they could catch: also bear, venison, beaver, tortoise, frogs, squirrels, dogs, skunks, rattlesnakes; yea, the very bark of trees; besides all sorts of creatures, and provision which they plundered from the English.

The English were trying to starve out their enemies by looting or destroying Native farm fields and food storage caches. The Abenaki historian Lisa Brooks notes that the raid that captured Rowlandson came partly in reaction to this effort, with Native leaders seeking food from the agricultural region Rowlandson’s family had colonized as well as seizing captives for ransom. Yet in spite of the potential food scarcity menacing Weetamoo’s party, Rowlandson observed, “I did not see (all the time I was among them) one man, woman, or child, die with hunger.”

How could this be? As always, the minister’s wife turned to her faith for answers. The only possible explanation, she reasoned, was that God was using Native people as a tool of punishment against the English. Rather than letting Indigenous people feel the effects of the British onslaught on their food resources, “the Lord feeds and nourishes them up.”

But there is another explanation to be found in the same evidence that Rowlandson cites. Indigenous peoples were better prepared to face hunger than their colonial counterparts. As the original peoples of their homelands, they had spent many generations subsisting and thriving in their environments, producing expansive bodies of knowledge about how to survive scarcity, what I call “hunger knowledges.”

These knowledges took many forms. Brooks describes how Weetamoo mobilized alliances and reciprocal relationships to secure food, sending agents off on a dangerous mission to transport corn from Narragansett allies. These reciprocal relationships entailed relations not just with other humans but with nonhuman creatures. As Rowlandson’s lengthy lists of Native foods illustrate, Indigenous peoples ate a much broader range of foods than did colonists. Where colonists restricted themselves to a handful of domesticated plants and animals, Indigenous peoples consumed a variety of foods beyond their staples of corn, beans, squash, nuts, tubers, berries, game, and fish. Where colonists like Rowlandson disdained Indigenous foodways, Native people had no such reservations about requisitioning English grains and livestock to feed their war effort.

Brooks also mentions that Weetamoo was leading her party through the Connecticut River valley, a region that the Pocumtuck and Sokoki peoples, among others, had long prized for its rich alluvial land and agricultural bounty. Rather than the biblical “wilderness” Rowlandson invoked, this was a fertile landscape that supported a large Indigenous population. Camping near present-day Orange, Massachusetts, Rowlandson wrote that the Native party became so numerous that “the Indians were as thick as the trees.”

Looking at the evidence, from the timing of Rowlandson’s journey in late winter and early spring, when winter food stores tended to run low, to English attacks on Native food supplies and the deadly mission dispatched to Narragansett allies, there is no doubt that Weetamoo’s party risked hunger in the midst of total war. Nevertheless, Weetamoo and her allies marshaled their hunger knowledges to survive scarcity.

Rather than credit their survival to Indigenous hunger knowledges, Rowlandson ascribed it to God’s will: “I can but stand in admiration to see the wonderful power of God, in providing for such a vast number of our enemies in the wilderness, where there was nothing to be seen, but from hand to mouth.” Even as she herself failed to recognize or wanted to obscure Native peoples’ prowess at eluding food scarcity, her descriptions of their actions provide a record of just that.


Rowlandson’s narrative was part of a larger colonial pattern: the belief that Indigenous peoples could not feed themselves. Colonists argued that Native people were starving, incompetent, and undeserving of their own land. They critiqued Native land-use patterns as inefficient, against all the evidence that Three Sisters agriculture—the practice of growing corn, beans, and squash in the same plots—produces more food per acre than colonial monoculture, according to the agricultural scientist Jane Mt. Pleasant. Historians including William Cronon and Jennifer Anderson have identified colonists’ obsession with so-called Native poverty as a pillar of settler-colonial justifications for land theft, dispossession, and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

This effort extended into the making of the historical record itself. As Jill Lepore has argued, King Philip’s War was also a contest of narrative, with colonists intent upon writing their own stories of the war and destroying Native ones. The fame of Rowlandson’s captivity has overshadowed the captivity, death, and enslavement of thousands of Native people during the war. So, too, did colonists like Rowlandson create a colonial archive that misinterpreted or elided Native strategies against hunger.

Colonists’ descriptions of Native abundance argued that such bounty was unearned. In the early seventeenth century, for example, the French Jesuit missionary Pierre Biard complained that the Wabanaki did not have to work hard enough to feed themselves, “a condition he felt, that should only be found in paradise,” writes the Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau in her 2006 poem “Algonkian Paradise.” She asks whether Biard had ever participated in the labor of Wabanaki foodways: “Had he ever gone fishing…? Gathered nuts, or berries deep in thorns and mosquitoes? Ever tracked a deer through snow, skinned a rabbit…?” With these questions, Savageau suggests that Biard could not see Wabanaki hunger knowledges in action all around him.

Vase (ear of corn), American, c. 1847.

Even as they impugned or glossed over Native hunger knowledges, colonists like Biard and Rowlandson demonstrated their own inability to feed themselves. From the Wampanoag man Tisquantum teaching the Plymouth colonists to grow corn, beans, and squash to the Powhatan food stores that sustained the Jamestown colonists in their early days in Virginia (and the deteriorating relations with the Powhatan that left the starving colonists resorting to cannibalism), it is clear that without Indigenous hunger knowledges—whether willingly shared or forcibly taken—the first English colonies would not have survived. Put differently, without Indigenous food, there would be no United States.

The colonizers repaid this knowledge with violence. The United States has attacked Indigenous food sovereignty throughout history: killing buffalo, damming rivers, forcing Native people onto reservations, and robbing Native children of their traditional knowledges by imprisoning them in deadly residential schools. The land colonizers stole has in turn rebelled against them, as colonial land-management practices have led to the Dust Bowl in the twentieth century and the apocalyptic forest fires and floods of our own time.

Yet against these obstacles Native peoples have maintained their hunger knowledges across the generations. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has in the past few years fought the federal government’s attempts to revoke their reservation in Mashpee and Taunton, Massachusetts, where they continue to fish and hunt on their ancestral lands and recently built a greenhouse to grow traditional vegetables and medicinal plants for tribal elders. Indigenous survival methods have persisted, like their keepers, for hundreds of years against invasion, disease, and ecological catastrophe. Colonizers could learn a great deal from Indigenous resilience, as we all confront a twenty-first century that feels hauntingly like the seventeenth: beset by violence, disease, hatred.

Colonial hungers have long threatened to obscure the traditional knowledges of Native peoples. To call for greater appreciation of Indigenous hunger knowledges is not to advocate for appropriation of them. Instead we should read Rowlandson’s narrative as a warning from the past—of the dangers of insatiable hunger and of the knowledges that can keep hunger at bay.