Roots of the Liberty Tree


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Roots of the Liberty Tree

Native American influence on Colonial Symbolism and Rebellion

by Robert A. Geake

The story of the Liberty Tree is the story of a people’s search for a symbol and an icon of unity during a period of crisis, and the resulting ritual whose accumulated powers became a turning point in the propelling of events that led to the American Revolution.

As David Kertzer writes:

“The use of ritual forms for organizational purposes, to communicate common allegiances and common political antagonisms, was especially important in a polity divided into separate colonies, each directly overseen from Britain…In the years preceding revolution, Liberty trees provided the focus for acts of rebellion that spread anti-British sentiment and encouraged rebel solidarity.”[1]

In our generation, the story has shifted to focus on the incidents in Boston that presaged the naming of Liberty Trees around the colonies, and the subsequent actions associated with the Sons of Liberty in communities throughout the era of pre and post revolutionary conflict. Alfred F. Young, in his collection of essays “ Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution” acknowledges that

“the liberty tree was the principle symbol of popular opposition to British measures and at the same time the site of the efforts of the Sons of Liberty leaders to control popular resistance. During the war it became a major symbol of the Revolution, and it became a metaphor for later generations, especially African Americans, seeking to fulfill the unfilled promise of the revolution.”

Such is the legacy of the trees that shouldered the patriotism of the colonies in this monumental moment in history, but what of their origin?

Joel Barlow, compatriot of the gifted Thomas Paine, tied the mythic origins of the symbol to those phallic representations in the mythologies of Arabic, Persia, Phoenicia, ancient Egypt, and other places far flung from the American forests.

Paine himself, mused in verse within the Pennsylvania Gazette that the Goddess of Liberty herself had taken the tree “ from  “gardens above” and planted it to flourish “on this peaceful shore”

Paine’s poetics aside, the shift of memory in our generation has turned back to the events surrounding the “original” liberty tree, and those acts of rebellion that return us to the historical recollection of Boston as a “ mobbish” town.

Titles such as “ The Tree of Liberty: A Documentary History of Rebellion and Political Crime in America”, and Russell Bourne’s “Cradle of Violence”, as well as Professor Young’s pioneering efforts in looking at the Revolution “ from the ground up”,  provide  a long overdue justice in painting a more exact picture of the tension between classes at the time, and the efforts of the “common man” to finally turn the tide toward rebellion; but lose hold of the symbolism and the community that liberty trees inspired and supported throughout the conflict, as well as their significance to later generations.

In this paper, I want to examine the origins of the symbol and how the significance of the tree in pre-colonial America made it a natural selection for revolutionaries and accompanied a further imbedding of American ideals adapted from Native American examples.

Trees have held significance for man before the times of the Prose Edda, in whose creation story trees play an integral role; so also in the Algonquin creation story. Many historians have speculated that Edda stories over time became embedded in Algonquin mythology. Charles G. Leland, in his “Myths of the American Indian” seems convinced that the similarities are too many to dismiss. The creation story has several variations as translated by 18th century anthropologists.  Here is Leland’s version as transcribed from the oral history of an elder.

“First born were the Mikumwess, Oonabgemessuk, the small elves, little men, dwellers in rocks. And in this way he made man: He took his bow and arrows and shot at trees, the basket tree, and the ash. Then Indians came out of the bark of the ash trees…”

The stories, whether inspired or partly taken from the Edda stories, conjure indelibly an Algonquin association of trees with life and death, rituals and events. Their cultural expressions and the maintenance of their land profess to a sense of sacredness. Native American teachings often refer to trees as the “standing people” with each species offering their “gifts” to man.

Attributed to Bacqueville de Potherie (1723) Original from the John Carter Brown Library digital archive.

As the continent came to be explored, and the life of indigenous peoples revealed in illustrations for the European world, the image and symbolism of the tree was transformed into often-powerful images.

Eyewitness descriptions and illustrations published in Germany and France, in particular, portrayed realistic images of native life, with the tree often figuring in prominently within the composition.  The three volume America series published in Frankfurt in 1591, portrayed Native American life extensively.[2] Perhaps the most famous illustrator and publisher from this period came to be Theodor de Bry, a Belgian born engraver who settled in London in 1585, and after meeting the geographer Hakluyt, began collecting tales of European explorations and illustrations already published, most notably, those of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgyes. In Frankfurt on Main some years later, he published Les Grande Voyages, as well as the India Orientalis series.

Example of 17th century depiction of Native American activities. Original from the John Carter Brown library digital archives.

These were published originally in Latin, but also translated into German, English, and French and had wide distribution. His later edition of Harriot’s Brief and True Report of the new found Land of Virginia, featured de Bry’s illustrations based on the earlier watercolor paintings of John White.

This was often the case, with publishers using illustrations from a variety of sources to “flesh out” the accounts of the New World. The colored illustration above comes from an original of de Bry, in his Les Voyages Petit, but was reproduced a century later along with original illustrations in the Dutch publisher Van der Aa’s forty plus volume collection of European voyages and travels.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, who has written extensively during her career on early Native American and European encounters, describes how this thirst for knowledge about America and its native inhabitants drew many to the continent and continued to brew a heady fascination back home.

“ Not only did the English colonists make every effort to describe accurately the Indian culture they saw, but the number of books published and re-published in several editions testifies to the fact that the English public demanded information about those aspects of social organization among the natives of America.

Far from characterizing the Indians as sub-human brutes who lacked government, eyewitness writers did not have the least doubt that the Indians were organized in a civil society.”

Those early writers as noted in Kupperman’s “ Settling with the Indians”, chronicled daily life, and Indian technology, from the swift river running birch canoes, to the clearing of brush from land so that their forests were “park like”, to an open admiration for their crafts of weaving and pottery.  Much was also made of the simplicity of Indian life, and their generosity as an inherent part of their being.

As Kupperman writes,

“The most important characteristic of Indian life was its contentedness and freedom from envy. English writers thought this accounted for their long, and healthy lives…Indians are not covetous because they want only useful things and no more of those than are necessary to them. Not only are they content with little, but they also share all they have with their fellows.”

Attributed to Du Creux (1664) Original from the John Carter Brown Library digital archives.

In the words of William Wood, writing in 1634

“so much the more perspicuous is their love, in that they are willing to part with their mite in poverty, as treasure in plenty.”[3]

Some settlers even left the villages altogether to live among the Indians, especially when learning that French trappers and other Europeans had lived among them and come to know their ways for a long time.

Kupperman tells us that

“There were people in every colony for whom Indian life was enormously attractive. During the early period of colonization more Englishmen chose to live with Indians than natives adopted English civilization. As with some of the runaways from Jamestown, English people who were “delivered” from Indian captivity often chose to run away with the Indians again.”[4]

Historian Gary Nash also notes that “Over several centuries, probably three-quarters of all fur traders and trappers, whatever their origins in Europe, married Indian women…”[5]

This seemed a natural inclination for many traveling through Indian territories, some bearing dog-eared copies of Roger Williams A Key To the Language of America so that they might better communicate with natives they encountered. Taking an Indian wife was often borne not only from their attractiveness to many woodsmen, but also because of their knowledge of the surrounding territories, their skills at planting, cooking, and natural remedies for illness which made native women a welcome companion. Those who married Native Americans often blended in with the Native community as it ensured a stable and relatively peaceful existence in this foreign and deeply forested land.

As Colin Calloway writes in the introduction to The World Turned Upside Down,

“Indian protocol governed forest diplomacy and frontier trade…European colonists who entered Indian country to hunt, negotiate, or escape the confines of their own society adhered to the customs of the country if they hoped to be successful.”[6]

During these early periods of settlement within Native lands, European encounters were underscored by the desire to understand the link between natives and themselves. There existed a cautious respect and a rampant curiosity about the indigent peoples of America.

Roger Williams, who in the aforementioned A Key into The Language of America, published in 1643, introduced the Narragansett’s to readers in London and elsewhere, describes a peaceful, religious, and even learned population:

“By occasion of their frequent lying in the fields and woods, they much observe the Starrs, and their very children can give Names to many of them, and observe their Motions…”

and of “Keesaqunnamun, Another kind of solemne publike meeting, wherein they lie under the trees, in a kinde of Religious observation, and have a mixture of Devotions and sports…”[7]

The reader may compare this to the German writer’s description fifty odd years before.

The main threat to this idyll existence for the Narragansett’s were a distant tribe called the Mihtukmecha kick or “tree-eaters”, but also “men’ eaters”, for

“they set no corne, but live on the bark of Chesnut and walnut and other fine trees: they dry and eat this bark with the fat of beasts, and sometimes of men: these people are the terrour of the neghbor Natives; and yet these Rebells, the Sonne of God may in time subdue.” [8]

Many English writers and thinkers held the belief that these signs of intelligence and their mostly civil societies meant that Native Americans would swiftly embrace European culture and belief. When Indians resisted, it was the beginning of tensions that would turn opinion and lead to the efforts to displace native tribes and then, to war.

The imprint of this earlier, peaceful period of colonization cannot be forgotten

however, for the influence of Native Americans had been woven into the fabric of the Colonies before the conflicts began, and they remained when they came to an end. Indeed, colonists by the time of rebellion had long lived with Native Americans, many of whom, with the plague of diseases and the fog of war in the distant past, had assimilated themselves as best they could within colonial cities and towns. Native Americans also appeared frequently in the literature of British Americana. The historian Richard Simmons writes that:

“…encounters, friendly or otherwise, with Native Americans were… commonplace occurrences in such works. In John Dennis’ play published in 1704, Liberty Asserted, Indians occupied the stage for the first thirty two pages of dialogue, while many fictional or published individual accounts of America included pages of description of various Indian communities and the writer’s personal experience with native Americans.” This was also a prolific time of journal writing, and many observations and accounts of individual encounters, as well as the intermingling within communities with Native Americans would have been duly recorded and read perhaps by several generations within the journalists’ families.

It was not until the 1750s that a genre now known as “captivity narratives” that tales of Native American violence and “savage” behavior became standard fodder.  Simmons points out that the word simply does not exist in the index of European Americana, but the word and the idea of these long peaceful natives as “savages” came from the backlash of frustrated clergy and missionaries who were helpless to the stoic Indian resistance at adapting European faith.

Lately, the young historian Linford Fisher has begun to elaborate on this subject that earlier historians have merely touched upon. The adoption of those principles most closely related to their own faith, but rarely formally “converting”, left the legions of European and Canadian missionaries helpless. For the common man however, religious faith was a complex matter; the faith professed often interwoven with old home remedies and even adaptation of Indian beliefs. Fisher writes of the “open-endedness” of faith in the colonies:

“even the religious culture of the most biblically literate, pietistic of all the American colonies was infused with a surprising amount of so-called “popular religion” and unorthodox belief and practice…The Puritans, no less than the Indians, relied upon extra biblical explanations, home-cures, and rituals to make meaning in their universe.”[9]

He cites David Hall’s earlier discovery of the “magic” that circulated through the New England colonies:

“The magic of murder will out, prophetic dreams and visions, pins hammered into buildings, shape-shifting dogs and much more besides.”

Fisher points out that ultimately

‘Examples of second and third generation Christian Indians …confirm the degree to which Christianity “went Native” – how it was adapted and adopted by the Indians to the point that the rituals of the faith not only allowed them to deal with the present in a meaningful way, but also allowed them to preserve the future of their own traditions and community.”, and concludes that these “Christian” Indians, so touted by the zealous missionaries

“no matter how Christianized and Anglicized they became, rightfully still remained Indian, and the Christianity they fashioned contained as many traces of their indigenous culture as the Protestant version of Christianity did of the English culture brought to the New world by the Puritan missionaries.”[10]

In his essay “The Unyielding Indian”, Edmund Morgan assesses this as well, and muses upon what I hope to cultivate in this essay:

“Indian ways of life in North America …all produced men who attached the highest possible value to the Individual…and it may help us to understand not only why the Indian refused to join us but also why we have admired and hated him for his refusal. The Indian in his individualism displayed virtues to which Americans, and indeed, all Christians have traditionally paid homage.”[11]

In this same essay, Morgan points out that as late as 1765, the American militiaman Robert Rogers had written of his experience with the Indians that

”the great and fundamental principles of their policy are, that every man is naturally free and independent; that no one … on earth has any right to deprive him of his freedom and independency, and that nothing can be compensation for the loss of it.”

Is it small wonder then that the image of Native Americans would later be resurrected and used in a secular wave of rebellion?

But let us return to symbolism, rituals, and ceremony. Trees had long been a place of ceremony and polity when it came to interactions between early European visitors and the native peoples.

At the close of King Philips War, Governor Andros of New York planted an oak with great ceremony in 1676, calling it

“ A tree of peace…for the purpose of strengthening the friendship between the Hoosac and Mohawk Indians, and between the militia of Fort Albany, and the Indian river scouts; and in honor of the occasion, called a meeting of the conference known as the Wi-ten-a ge-mot, or assemblage of the wise…About one thousand warriors, representatives of the Iriquois, Hoosacs, Pequot’s, Narragansett’s, Penacook’s, Delaware’s, Mohawks, and other natives obeyed the summons to the conference…The ceremony and the compact of friendship, symbolized by the planting of the tiny oak were long and lovingly remembered by the Indian nations, and they held the tree of peace in deep regard”[12]

Popular 18th century print of the Penn Treaty Tree

On the banks of The Delaware River in 1683, William Penn and his delegation met with a council of Indians and signed the Treaty of Amity beneath a great elm that was from then on known as “ The Treaty Tree”.

When the first white settlers came into what is now Hartford, Connecticut they took note of a great oak growing near the trail. Their first contact with Native Americans told them of the significance of the tree. The Indians beseeched the settlers that whatever clearing of the forest took place, to leave the tree in place as

“It has been the guide of our ancestors for hundreds of years.”

The significance of the tree for meetings, the change of seasons, and planting time was firmly rooted in the local tribe’s traditions.

artist’s rendition of the “Charter Tree”

This particular tree would also play an historic role in the liberties secured by the state, when the Crown threatened to impose a new charter. The old charter disappeared from a nearby tavern where “negotiations” with the King’s representatives were taking place. Hid, in a crevice in the trunk of the ancient oak, the thief waited out until the representatives left the tavern in frustration, the old charter remained in place and the new destroyed in a joyful fire.

picture of a “trail tree” courtesy of LCDM

Early settlers, and certainly their children, would learn of the numerous Indian “trail trees” found in the woods along old trails. Trees that had been shaped by tying with sinew, or placing large boulders on the limbs of young saplings, in order to show the way in a place of uncertainty.

Despite this evidence and the longstanding veneration of trees by Native Americans, historians have had a difficult time in recognizing these influences. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger acknowledges the significance of these “outstanding historical incidents” centered around great trees, but speculates further that

“The old English practice of the Maypole-a sort of denuded tree-may also have had an influence on the colonies” [13]

Other historians have cited the religious association with trees that was also prevalent during his period. Certainly the “Tree of Life” resuscitated a long used Protestant symbol of Christianity, although this was also an Iroquois tradition

The iconic “family tree” was also introduced during the Colonial period within embroidery or drawings in journals of individual Americans.

John Nagerty’s “Tree of Life” Baltimore 1791

In an essay on the Liberty Tree, Alfred F. Young returns to the secular interpretation of the May pole as an influence, citing the uniqueness of Boston within the colonies of “appropriating English traditions and turning them upside down.,” as well as the likelihood of colonists drawing upon the Oak as a long standing symbol from their homeland.

More importantly to this work, Young debunks the earlier association with trees and historical events, citing his and others assertions that these legends did not appear until after the revolution, when the symbolic fervor of the liberty tree had the colonies in its hold. But to do so, and state so off-handedly that

“Although there were no special trees with political associations, trees in general were much veneered by the colonists”,

is to sweep aside the traditions of oral history that existed before these legends appeared in print and the importance such oral traditions held within Native American communities as well as those communities of early settlers before the Revolution.  M. Scott Momaday writes of this tradition most eloquently:

“Language was their element. Words, spoken words, were the manifestations of their deepest belief, of their deepest feelings, of their deepest life. When Europeans first came to America, having had writing for hundreds of years, and lately the printing press, they could not conceive of the spoken word as sacred, could not understand the American Indian’s profound belief in the efficacy of language.”

Written accounts of treaties throughout the Colonial period testify to the importance of oral history and the ceremony of recounting that history amid important agreements that would shape future history, with speeches and arguments before witnesses in council.  This tradition became a focal point for negotiations and was accepted, sometimes grudgingly, by Colonial Governors.

Henry De Puy’s A Bibliography of the English Colonial Treaties leads us to several examples. In a letter preparing his envoys for negotiations with the six nations, Robert Dinwiddle instructs the men to read his letter to the tribal representatives, but that “ as they are tedious in their councils they probably will require some time to answer it…”

And when they did answer, it was often with a frankness that came to typify an attitude of resistance to European ambitions. In fact, it was a defensive posture against continued encroachment, and increasing poverty. At the aforementioned council, the response was particularly pointed:

“We have had frequent promises from the Governor of South Carolina, to build us a fort, and it was stipulated at a treaty held…last summer, when we signed a release for our lands to the great King George; but we do not find, that the Governor has made the least preparations for performing this engagement. Wherefore, we are sorry to tell you, that we don’t much rely on him.”

The chief continues to complain about the lack of trade with Virginia, and that

“The trade we have with Carolina is not sufficient to supply us with necessaries, which you may judge from our nakedness”.

The Cherokee chief Ocanastosa complained to Indian superintendent John Stewart in 1767 that

“The lands we gave you will last long, but the clothe and other necessaries with which you supply us, soon wear out”.

Native Americans attached a singular importance to councils and meetings and the resulting treaties with the encroaching Europeans. Often, they preferred to meet in a natural setting, as with the early negotiations with the tribes of the six nations when the Governor of New York was asked to convene in “Mont Real”, or the council held at the fork of the Delaware River with the Minisink in 1758. When facing a grave situation however, the Indians often relented to meeting in the Town Halls or Meetinghouses.

In her volume of “American Historical Trees”, Katharine Stanley Nicholson identifies more than a dozen trees with native historical events tied to them before the Revolution. Surely these legends were not all created after the popularity of the Liberty Tree had taken hold in the American imagination?

Let me return again to the argument that trees as a symbol in American culture were a natural adaptation of veneration already in place, and that their adaptation was made unique to themselves and their efforts at commerce, industry, and ultimately, rebellion.

Perhaps the first sign of the “settlers” adaptation of the symbol of the tree came as early as 1650 with the minting of coins for the Colonies commercial trade.

Early Colonial coin.

The “Pine-Tree” shilling as it became known, bore a unique symbol of the colonies- an American pine, and by stamping its image on the coin celebrated the richness of New England forests and the men who made the masts and planks that became a major export as well as the homegrown industry of shipbuilding. The very symbol of the American pine was a mark of independence. English ships in need of repair during the distant struggles with Spain and France exceedingly prized the same tall timber favored by the Algonquin’s for their longhouses. This timber eventually was adapted into colonial architecture and became known as the “Summer tree”, a long beam that ran lengthwise of the structure.

Trees were depicted upon other colonial coins as well, almost all having some symbolic ties to the region or historical correlation.

Late Pine Tree shilling.

Some fourteen years after the appearance of these coins, flags also adapted the tree as symbolic icons of their sovereignty.

South Fort flag.

The significant symbolism of these flags attests to their ability to unify the colonies in a singular cause, while remaining both symbolically and figuratively, separate and independent.

All bear “the New England symbol for freedom” – the pine tree as it evolved in stature from the earlier coins and banners. The most famous of these (below), is the flag known as the ”Pine Tree Ensign” which was the flag of the Continental Navy, and flown on the masts of her contingent of ships since 1776, when first flown by Commander Ezak Hopkins’ of Rhode Island.

Replica of the fabled Pine Tree Flag flown by Hopkins

Trees also came to serve a manner of ceremony to colonial religious meetings. As early as 1750, the Quaker Fox was preaching to local Indians beneath a pair of great trees that remained standing long after his outdoor “meetings” and bore his name long after. Methodists also came to the woods and meadows to preach to the Native Americans.

Whitefield preaching an outdoor sermon in the Great Awakening.

More significantly, Americans fully adapted this ceremony beneath the trees in the wave of the first “awakening” of religious fervor in the 1740’s. Much has been written about this period of unloosening from the stiff collared Anglican restraints upon its parishioners. I also, have written about Jonathan Mayhew and the roving “black regiments” of ministers who traveled the Colonies to preach in meetinghouses and great outdoor meetings. Granted, not all evangelical meetings were held outdoors. Often the cause initially, was the overflow of people gathered from the church or meeting house. But as the meetings swept over New England, and in the subsequent tide of years became more popular, the necessity of outdoor gatherings brought many to these same historical sites beneath the trees.

As I mentioned, this marked a significant break from the hold of the church and its rules and restrictions, its rank of citizens, As Peter Charles Hoffer writes:

“The traditional site of preaching was the meetinghouse, now it was the fields. The scale of preaching had exploded, from the congregation to the crowd, sometimes numbering in the thousands. For the churched, it must have been an overwhelming experience. Rank dissolved, for there were no pews and hence, no seating privileges.  Family name and contributions meant little, as worshippers stood side by side…”[14]

Evangelists like the popular George Whitefield, Eleazor Wheelock, and Jonathan Edwards, as well as a host of other “vagrant, strolling preachers” hosted revival meetings in towns large and small. The great outdoor meetings became noted as well for the acceptance of women and slaves into their gatherings. Women were sometimes participants in leading services and often-vocal participants in gatherings of emotional fervor.

Slave owners noted too, that curiosity drew their slaves to these meetings, in order to witness what Mechal Sobel has noted was

“the first time slaves saw whites responding to a religious demand with the totality of their being, and participating in religious trances, shouts, mourning, and rebirth.”

Owners worried that the outbursts of Whitefield and other preachers who believed religion and civil rights to be branches of the same great tree, would encourage rebellion among the black population. While the awakening eventually quieted down, the impact of this great loosening had taken hold, and emboldened those among the lower classes, who never forgot the semblance of equality that those meetings had created. As Gary Nash succinctly explains:

“Such forays into political activism, first nurtured during the Great Awakening,

had a cumulative effect. A sense of their own power grew as their trust in those above them diminished and as their own experience expanded in making decisions,

exercising leadership roles, and refuting those who were supposed to be wiser because they were wealthier. Hence, factional politics intensified in the late colonial period, As never before, members of the lower ranks began to act for and of themselves…”[15]

As the impact of the French and Indian war was felt in New England, and the subsequent depression of the 1760’s was exacerbated by actions of the Crown, this population of laborers, shoemakers, and itinerant workers became an often violent and unruly force in the fight for liberty.

When Samuel Adams and his “loyal nine” chose the tree on which to post their proclamations against the King and hang their effigies, they doubtless chose the already ancient elm along a stretch of busy highway, as it was certain to be viewed by merchants and other travelers entering and leaving Boston. What these men, who later proclaimed themselves the “Sons of Liberty” could not have foreseen, was the power with which the symbolism took hold of the public imagination. As Young

notes in his essay,

“The actions around the tree in 1765-66 brought into play the social classes that contended with each other in the resistance to Britain in the decade that followed: the “better sort” (some 150 to 200 export-import merchants at the apex of Boston’s economy and society); the “middling” sort (master artisans, shopkeepers, and professionals); and the “lower sort” (artisans in the “inferior” trades, journeymen, apprentices, day laborers, seamen and sometimes Negroes).”[16]

Though the Merchants who made up the “Loyal Nine” made alliances and every effort to control “the rabble”, the effort was complicated by the diversity of groups involved. Leadership for acts of protest and mob affairs “flowed from different centers which had to be coordinated, but central control under a single person or group was unlikely.” This sometimes led to unsanctioned actions such as

the destructive mob that gathered outside the mansion of Thomas Hutchinson on August 26th of that feverish summer.

The mob, mostly the South Boston gang led by shoe cobbler Ebenezer Mackintosh, began their destructive route on King Street, breaking windows of houses and then proceeding to Hutchinson’s mansion, where they tore down the garden fence and managed to break in, searching the house for the Governor to demand his declaration against the Stamp Tax. Hutchinson had quite naturally fled the scene, and returned to find the house stripped of its fine wainscoting and wall hangings, and in his words, destroyed

‘ Manuscripts…I had been collecting for 30 years and a great number of public papers in my property”

The mob, unlike the “well dressed gentleman” who’d paraded weeks before in a mostly civil protest, was a mix of Mackintosh’s band, and the usual “rabble” gathered into the organized event: day laborers who’d joined the mob on their way home from work, free blacks and sometime slaves, and, as Peter Charles Hoffer has written,

“There must have been Algonquin’s among the mob that pulled down Hutchinson’s house.”

One inhabitant recalled later the hours of war whoops and Indian like cries that she endured before the mob invaded. This was, perhaps, the first instance of our adaptation of the Native American as a symbol of independence, resistance and protest.

In an effort to gain control of the escalating events, the Sons of Liberty held an official dedication of the Liberty Tree at the end of that summer on September 12th,

and thereafter the grounds were a gathering place for protest and oratory, a town

meeting for those excluded by lack of property from Boston’s civic code that prohibited the labor classes from attending government assemblies or voting.

Within the year, communities around Boston such as Braintree, Dedham,

and further away in Newport, Rhode Island and Charleton, New York, had designated ‘Liberty Trees” or poles, as was the “tree” in Dedham, and the pine mast erected in New York opposite the British barracks on the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Tax.  In the years that followed, more communities adapted this symbol either by designating already historical tees as meeting sites, or erecting “flagstaffs” in a central location. These trees became the focal point in communities for protest and other assemblies.

These included events organized by the local “chapters” of the Sons of Liberty, and those acts which historians have used to associate the trees with crime and bloodshed. The resultant tug of war continued through the decade leading to the famous “tea party”, and culminated in Samuel Adams and his follower’s adaptation of the Native American to carry out the deed of protest.

Young asserts in his essay that the disguises were “merely meant to frighten”. though the last real Indian conflict in New England was already a century past. The French and Indian war’s impact was not in the burning of houses or raids that terrified residents, rather it had been in the loss of men on what then seemed distant battlegrounds, and the loss of incomes at home. No one was fooled or frightened by the “Mohawks” or “Indians from Narragansett” as another eyewitness called them.

This was not only an adaptation of that symbol of Independence first raised by those early protestors, but, as Hoffer explains

“their costumes were not meant to hide, but to send a message…. a message of American liberty…for who were the paradigmatic symbols of liberty in the new world? British cartoonists had long depicted America as an Indian”[17]

and James Loewen who has criticized the absence of Native American influence in textbooks declares simply

“When colonists took action to oppose unjust authority, as in the Boston Tea Party…they chose to dress as American Indians, not to blame Indians for the demonstrations, but to appropriate a symbol identified with liberty.”[18]

This signifies that the “rabble” had won over those Sons of Liberty who had tried to contain them for so long. Samuel Adams’ grudging acceptance of those unruly patriots who had propagated “crimes” against tax collectors and loyalist merchants, was not without purpose, for who better to carry out an act of sabotage, and further deeds if needed? The adaptation of their symbol was not lost on him either, the days of dressing as civil gentleman and leading parades was long past.  The movement to advance liberty had to be united, above all else.

As events unfolded from rebellion into Revolution, the symbol of the Native American continued to play a role in the conflict. American cartoonists adapted the British “savage” and transformed the icon into a proud symbol standing tall against the Empire. Virginia militiamen adapted Indian dress in breeches and moccasins and the method of fighting that Native Americans had chosen long

before the Redcoats marched through the fields.

Some historians in the last thirty years have begun to explore the contribution

of Native Americans to what later became the United States of America. Most acknowledge the important agricultural, forestry, hunting, and fighting skills that enabled early colonists who learned from the Indians to survive. Others, like Gary Nash have explored the integration of white Europeans with Native Americans, and black slaves as well, and the resulting mélange of race that is the true American. Still others have gone further and stated that the Native American form of government was a direct influence upon the founders. Others speculate that early

writings of the councils and civil society Native Americans had established inspired philosophers like Rousseau and Montaigne, and that these writings impressed

those ideals upon Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Adams.

Native historian John Mohawk, perhaps one of the most proficient writers and editors on Native American history, states

“Those who deny that American Indian cultures influenced and even inspired

the colonist’s ideas about democracy and the way in which they structured their government are arguing that these developments were the product of independent invention. Independent invention is at least as difficult to prove as cultural diffusion, and is quite rare in human history.”

To those, like the victorious American generals who immediately attempted to link our new nation with the examples of Rome or Greek democracy, Mohawk simply writes: “it was not necessary to look abroad”.

This symbol of the Native American as fiercely independent, and thus, American, has remained and resurfaced even in modern times with the same resonance as it once held on that night in Boston’s Harbor.

Liberty Trees were to be remembered as well, though their impermanence was often a liability. Boston’s liberty tree was cut down when British troops occupied the city in 1775, but trees in outlying colonies had by then become iconic symbols of their own. Local Sons of Liberty chapters had become  “Committees of Safety” by this time, a sophisticated network of farmers, merchants, itinerant workers, seamen and others who formed local militia’s, spied on British movements, and passed communications frequently along the length of the colonies. Their most trusted horseman was Paul Revere of Boston, who had made five successful rides to New York and Pennsylvania before his legendary “midnight ride” to the neighboring town of Lexington.

The trees themselves remained revered meeting places long after the colonies had won the “liberty” they desired, and they remained an iconic political symbol after the war as well.  In 1798, during the height of the Sedition Act, a “ commoner and itinerant political agitator” named David Brown travelled throughout Massachusetts lecturing against the act, and the continuing struggle for farmers, merchants and laborers to have their voice heard in the fledgling democracy. In Dedham, Brown’s lectures incited the gathered citizens to raise a liberty pole in protest of “the sins and enormities of the Government”.  But less than two decades after the efforts of those original patriots, the elites had taken control once again, and were already raising the first curtain of myth draped upon the story of the Revolution. The local government responded by taking down the liberty pole, and admonishing the act as a “rallying point of insurrection and civil war”.

In time these Federalists would realize that there was little good to come of slander, cajoling, or attempt to tamp down the factions that continued to push America toward a more fair democracy. These descendants of the “rebels, ruffians, and Jack-Tar boys” in John Adams description had leveled the boundaries once drawn by class, and would not be subservient, or left without the liberties of freedom of speech and representation again.

August- October 2009


[1] Kertzer, David “ Rituals of Revolution” pp162

[2] A rough translation of the Old German text below the illustration and provided by Dennis Landry of the JCB reads: They exercise their young men with running and give them a certain bauble, which is secured by the one who can run the longest. They are also well trained in shooting with a bow, Thereafter they play with a ball in the following way: in a broad field, a tree is set up 8 or 9 cubits high; on it is placed a four sided object woven from rushes. The one who hits it with balls receives a special reward. Beyond that they have much enjoyment with hunting and fishing.

[4] Kupperman, Karen Ordahl “ Settling with the Indians” pp 156

[5] Nash, Gary “Forbidden Love: The Secret History of Mixed-Race America” pp27

[6] Calloway, Colin G. “ The World Turned Upside Down” pp 10

[7] Williams, Roger “a Key into the Language of America” Applewood edition pp180

[8] Ibid pp13 Of Eating and Feasting

[9] Fisher, Linford D. “Native Americans, Conversion, and Christian Practice in Colonial New England 1640-1730

[10] Ibid pp124

[11] Morgan, Edmund “The Unyielding Indian” from “American Heroes” pp52-53

[12] Nicholson, Katharine Stanley “ American Historical Trees” 1922

[13] Schlesinger, Arthur M. “ The Liberty Tree: A Genealogy” The New England Quarterly, Dec 1952

[14] Hoffer, Peter Charles “Sensory worlds in Early America” pp177

[15] Nash, Gary “Red, White, and Black” pp 269

[16] Young, Alfred F. “The Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution” pp 331

[17] Hoffer, Charles Peter “ The Revolution of the Senses: Sensory Worlds in Early America” pp 233

[18] Loewen, James “ Lies My Teacher told Me” pp 111

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
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