NENA Adaptation Part III: English Law and “Indian Justice”


Chapter III English Law and “Indian Justice”.

Despite Winslow and Tisquantum’s diplomatic efforts and their gathering of the Sachems signatures of peace, the most powerful Native American nation in Southern New England wanted no part of the agreement. The Narragansett were suspect of English intent from the start, but had thus far, only swayed Corbitant from Massasoit’s alliance.

A little time after the Fortune had set sail, a Narragansett messenger arrived in Plymouth “with a friendly Indian named Tokamahomon”. Finding that Tisquantum was absent. the messanger seemed ”rather to be glad than sorry: and leaving for him, a bundle of new arrows lapped in a rattlesnake skin, desired to depart with all speed.”

Bradford placed the messenger in the custody of Miles Standish while they questioned his companion. Tokamahomon was asked to interpret the message and told Winslow and the Governor that “He could not certainly tell, but thought that they were enemies to us.”

Later that evening, he confided to Winslow that this same messenger had also detained many of the things that Bradford had sent to the Narragansett Sachem as overtures of peace. Tokamahomen claimed that if Canonicus knew of these actions, the man would be put to death, and assured the Pilgrims of his and Massasoits’ continued friendship.

The messenger was freed and sent back with the snakeskin stuffed with gunpowderand bullets to the Narragansett. Canonicus passed the Snakeskin from one tribe to another in the surrounding country.[1]

At new Plymouth, the message had left it’s own impact as the settlement stared into the cold and unforgiving promise of a second winter in New England. The Fortune had brought little or no provisions with the thirty five persons who had come to remain in the Plantation. Bradford writes that

“when they all came ashore and found all well and saw plenty of victuals in every house, (they) were no less glad; for most of them were lusty young men, and many of them wild enough, who little considered whither or about what they went till they came into the harbor…” [2]

“Blessed be GOD!” wrote Winslow in his journal for this “new supply” of inhabitants, though they “neither brought arms, nor other provisions with them, but wholly relied on us…”.

The new men were not as devout as Winslow might have hoped, but rather, secular merchants and tradesman sent to New Plymouth by Thomas Weston, head of the company that had funded the Pilgrim’s voyage. The Mayflower, after lying idle while the settlement had languished that first winter, was sent back nearly empty, much to Weston’s displeasure. He had sent these men to establish a more lucrative trade. Winslow and Tisquantum’s efforts were unknown to him, as well as the fact that the Fortune had sailed with her hull “laden with clapboard as full as she could stow”[3], along with pelts of beaver and otter. Bradford and the others were well on their way to establishing a competitive trade with the Dutch.  With the Fortune had come a bristling letter from Weston addressed to the late Governer Carver; to which Bradford wrote an equally caustic reply.

In time these passengers were to wear out their welcome. They sapped the Colony of provisions, were often idle while others worked the fields, and used the holidays given to Plymouth inhabitants as times of meeting and prayer, to play games in the streets. Despite the growing tensions between the established Pilgrims and the new comers, the Colony muddled through a difficult winter, the threat of a Narragansett attack never far from their thoughts.

“Knowing our own weakness,” wrote Winslow, “ notwithstanding our high words and lofty looks towards them; and still lying open to all casualty…we thought it most needful to impale our town, which, with all expedition, we accomplished in the month of February and some few days.”

Restoration of the “impaled” Plantation

The men also carted cannon up what is now called “Burial Hill” and set them at stations facing out from the now enclosed settlement below. They were soon to find out however, that as much as they had protected the town, rumors and speculations of war would not cease. The Pilgrims discussed the liability of leaving Plymouth to find provisions and decided that

“…it would not now stand with our safety to mew up ourselves in our now enclosed town; partly because our store was almost empty, and therefore must seek out for our daily food, without which we could not long subsist…”

Once again, a small party departed Plymouth Harbor with Winslow and Tisquantum  and Hobomock as well, taken on at Bradford’s order with the hope of quieting do0wn the whispers of conspiracy in the Indian’s absence. The Plymouth authorities had begun to suspect Tisquantum especially of playing on their own fears. The shallop had not left the harbor long when a member of Tisquantum’s family came running to the plantation, claiming that he had barely escaped a large party of Narragansett, Corbitant’s , and even Massasoit’s warriors all banded together, and making their way to Plymouth. A salvo was fired from one of the canons, and to the relief of the town, the shallop speedily returned. A watch was placed all night, but nothing was seen or heard.

Hobbamock asserted that the alleged conspiracy was false. He was certain of Massasoit’s loyalty though he suspected the Massachusetts were aligned with the Narragansett. Bradford had Hobbamock send his wife privately into Pakonoket territory to see what she could find. When she returned after several days and reported that nothing was out of the ordinary, the party set out once more.

Plymouth leaders may have breathed a sigh of relief, but Massasoit was furious with Tisquantum’s betrayal. By June he had learned of the long fueled rumors implicating a breach of his honor,  as well as Tisquantum’s continued habit of ”putting the Indians in fear and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself, making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would.” According to Bradford, these offenses would have cost Tisquantum his life; “for after the discovery of his practices, Massasoit sought it both privately and openly, which caused him (Tisquantum) to stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he died.”[4]

In fact, Massasoit had sent emissaries from the Pakonoket with a demand that the native be handed over to be brought back to Sowams to face “Indian justice”.  Bradford seems to have hesitated in his first encounter with Native American law. Indeed, Tisquantum meant much to the Pilgrims, but Bradford also understood that the Pakonoket and other tribes who had declared peace expected a like respect their code of law, whatever their differences in punishment might be.

New Plymouth had by now built their own jail, and its occasional use reflected those vices brought into the plantation by the more secular inhabitants. On the day that Bradford kept Massasoit’s men waiting, another shallop arrived in the harbor, bearing news of two more ships, the Charity, and The Swan, which were waiting offshore to unload passengers. With the town caught up with the new arrivals, Bradford’s reluctant order to hand Tisquantum into their custody was never carried out, and the emissaries “mad with rage, impatient at delay, departed in great haste”.

These new arrivals were more of Weston’s men, and while some came ashore “to refresh themselves” before leaving on The Charity for Virginia, others came to settle in New Plymouth, and yet others set out almost immediately on their own. Bradford wrote that

“The little store of corn (growing maize) we had , was exceedingly wasted by the unjust and dishonest walking of these strangers; who though they would sometimes seem to help us in our labor about our corn; yet spared not, day and night, to steal the same it being then eatable and pleasant to taste; though green and unprofitable. And though they received much kindness (from us, yet) set light both by it and us; not sparing to requite the love we shewed them with secret backbitings, revilings, &c.”

Eventually, this host of strangers found a place suitable for their own settlement and left for a place the Native Americans called Wessagusset, very close to an encampment of Massachusetts Indians. As might be expected it,

“They had not been long from us, ere the Indians filled our ears with clamours against them; for stealing their Corn, and other abuses conceived by them.”

Crude map of Wessagusset drawn by Weston’s company

All that summer, as Plymouth built a new fence around the plantation, as much to keep the idle men busy as to reinforce or replace what had been built during the winter, word came of the continued decline of the settlement; and the demoralizing behavior of its remaining refuges.  Bradford would write:

“It may be thought strange that these people fall to these extremeties in so short a time; being left completely provided when the ship left them…besides much they got of the Indians where they lived by one means or other. It must needs be their great disorder, for they spent excessively whilst they had or could get it, and, it may be, wasted part away among the Indians…And after they began to come into wants, many sold away their clothes and bed coverings, others became servants to the Indians, and would cut them wood and fetch them water for a capful of corn, others fell to plain stealing, both night and day from the Indians.”

Plymouth leaders knew that with an increasing population, they needed stores as well, and after a somewhat disappointing harvest that September, sent Tisquantum and Miles Standish with a small party to buy corn from the Massachusetts people. The winds held their shallop from making much progress, and they were forced to return. A second attempt also failed and Standish fell ill with fever. In November Bradford set out with Tisquantum in a southward direction with a heavy breeze until they reached a harbor at Manamoyke (Chatham). They went ashore that night and after being led inland were welcomed by a host of Natives and entertained. The men feasted on venison and other victuals, and with Tisquantum’s persuasion, there was much talk of trade and commerce with the Plantation. Before they could leave however, Tisquantum became violently ill and died unexpectedly.[5]

There was little that Bradford could do but continue on. With the wind “being fair for Massachusetts (Bay)” they visited one encampment after another, only to find “a great sickness to be amongst the Indians, not unlike the plague, if not the same.”[6] It was not until Nauset (Eastham) where they met a healthy population and could barter for corn and beans. They procured more corn at Mattachiest (near Yarmouth) and Commaquid (Barnstable), but had to leave it behind, protected by mats, as they lost their shallop in a violent storm and found it at low tide on the mad flats, damaged beyond use.

Upon their return, they resolved to retrieve the corn as soon as possible and divide it, giving  a share to the Wessagusset settlement though they had helped little with the planting at Plymouth. Winslow learned on the excursion that the men of the settlement were paying the Massachusetts “as much for a quart of corn as we used to do for a beaver’s skin.” He knew that Weston’s men were placing themselves in dire straits, but there was little more that Bradford could do.

At this time, a series of events occurred that were to set the first tremors on the security that the Pilgrims had held for so short a time.

In January, Standish and Hobbamock had led a party through the choppy waters to Manomet, in order to retrieve some of the corn they’d been forced to leave behind. While in the company of Canacum, they were joined by two natives from Manamoick (Chatham) who had journeyed a long distance into the bitter night to seek the Sachem’s counsel. After they had warmed themselves by the fire and smoked a pipe of tobacco, one of the men presented Canacum with a gift from their sachem, and told him of their dilemma. It seemed that one of their pow-wow’s had engaged in a game with a warrior from another tribe, and in “in a great heat”, had killed the warrior. The pow-wow was held in great respect among his people and would surely be missed, but “yet another people, greater than themselves, threatened them with war, if they would not put him to death.”

The messengers had come to obtain Canacum’s opinion while the pow-wow was held, their Sachem waiting for their return, “resting upon him for advice and furtherance in so weighty a matter.”

After a thoughtful silence, the Sachem asked those around him in the wigwam for their counsel, among them Hobbamock, who told Canacum that “he thought it was better that one should die than many, since he had deserved it, and the rest were innocent.” Weighing these considerations, the Manomet sachem passed a sentence of death on the pow-wow.

This was likely the first time that Standish had witnessed the manifestation of what the English termed “Indian justice”, and there is no doubt that it made him ill at ease. As Hobbomock knew, and likely relayed to the English captain, Native American tribes had an almost universal code of law within their separate societies.

Since time immemorial, Tribal Councils on any matter of importance had been a form of self governance among Native Americans. These were also held in times of “tribute” from neighboring sachems of smaller tribes. One such ordeal by Massasoit seems to have contributed a great deal towards his alliance with the English. As to this type of governance, Roger Williams would explain that

“The Sachims, although they have an absolute Monarchie over the people; yet they will not conclude of ought that concernes all, either Lawes, or Subsides, or warres, unto which the people are averse, and by gentle perswaison cannot be brought.”[7]

Edward Winslow would later learn and write of the responsibilities of the Sachems “In matters of unjust and dishonest dealing”.  In cases of theft, a first offender would receive a harsh rebuke, a second crime would warrant a beating from the Sachem, while a third delivered the punishment of being “beaten with many strokes, and hath his nose slit upward, that thereby all men may know him and shun him.”[8]

Williams would add that “If any Robbery fall out in Travell, between Person of diverse States, the offending State sends for Justice. If no Justice bee granted and recompence made, they grant out a kind of Letter of Mart to make satisfaction themselves, and yet they are careful  not to exceed in taking from others, beyond the Proportion of their owne losse”[9]

Most often when a murder was committed, the Sachem was required to put the guilty party to death “ with his owne hand”, but in some cases, as we have seen with the consultation in Manomet, a larger authority within alliances was sought. In other cases, as Williams noted “the Sachim sends a secret Executioner, one of his chiefest Warriours to fetch of a head, by some unexpected blow of a Hatchet, when they have feared Mutiny by publick execution.”

The idea of justice being weighed among “savages” in a smoky wigwam no doubt brought to Standish the realization of how far he and the other Plymouth leaders were removed from the English system of courts and presiding authority, no matter how well it was represented in their own governance.

When Standish traversed the Bay to Manomet a month later, he suddenly found his visit was less than welcome.  The Captain was not long in Canacum’s wigwam, when the Sachem was visited by two Massachusetts men, one being a Penses named Wituwamet, a “notable insulting villan”, who in a long, boastful speech, informed Canacum that the Massachusetts had resolved to ruin the Colony at Wessagusset, and had strength enough to challenge Plymouth if the inhabitants chose to remain. Standish was scornful of the Penses’ arrogance and no doubt harsh words were exchanged before Standish left the Sachem’s company.  He and his men spent a fitful night by the fire, kept at bay by bad weather, and fearful of attack if they did not keep vigilant.

While Standish was away, word came to the Plymouth Colony that Massasoit had become gravely ill. Winslow immediately set out for Sowams, in the company of one John Hamdon, a “Gentleman from London” who was to be Winslow’s consort should any opportunity to negotiate with the Dutch make itself available. Hobbamock also journeyed with them and  they reached Namasket to lodge that night ”in good entertainment” before traveling on the next morning.  Winslow writes that at about one o’clock the next day the men came to a ferry in Courbitant’s country where local natives came down to meet them after they had crossed:  “they told us , That MASSASOWAT was dead, and that day buried; and that the Dutch would be gone before we could get thither, having hove off their ship already.”[10]

Despite Hobbamock’s protest, Winslow played the bluff of Courbitant’s message and told the men it would be certain that the Sachem would succeed Massasoit, and that this then was an opportune time to extend friendship. The party continued through the woods and made their way to Mattapuyst, Hobbamock maintaining “a troubled spirit” and bemoaning the death of his friend, “Continuing a long speech, with such signs of lamentation and unfeigned sorrow, it would have made the hardest heart relent.”

When they arrived in the village they found that Courbitant was not home, but were entertained by his wife and others who also believed Massasoit to be dead. Winslow paid a swift messenger among them to run the five or six miles to Sowams and inform Courbitant where they were and to bring back news of the ill Sachem. The messenger returned just before sunset with the news that Massasoit was not yet dead, but might be by the time of their arrival. Winslow and the others set out at once “much revived; and set forward with all speed, though it was late within night ere we got thither”

Massasoit, to their great relief, was still alive though attended to by a wigwam crowded with pow wows and natives “making a hellish noise “ for someone so ill. The Sachem had been ill for five days, and had lost his sight, but was still aware of his surroundings,and lamented to Winslow that he “would see me no more”. On examination, Winslow discovered that the sachem had indulged in a great feast a week earlier, and had not passed a stool in five days. Massasoit was apparently in the throes of toxic illness from severe constipation. Winslow and Hamdon concocted a broth from a fowl procured, and herbs gathered by Hobbamock, that after a few days, restored the Sachem to health.

It was not until they returned to Plymouth that Winslow heard of the threat from the Massachusetts. Standish had already attempted to make haste to warn the settlement at Wessagusset, but the weather had kept him ashore. In the mean time, another Sachem, the brother of Obtakiest, a Massachusetts Sachem, confirmed the plot to Plymouth leaders. After conferring with Bradford and now Winslow, a party of eight armed men with Standish and Hobbomack was sent to secure the safety of the settlement.

As with the incident involving Standish at Courbitant’s village, so the incident at Wessagusset receives scant attention in Bradford’s history. There is the brief mention of a rescue mission, and Standish “cutting off a few of the chief conspirators” to bring them relief, but again it is Winslow’s  writings that show clearly the extent of the hostility the Plymouth leaders felt from these threats:

“The three and twentieth day of March (1623), which is a Yearly Court Day, the Governor (having a double testimony; and many circumstances agreeing with the truth thereof) not being to undertake war without the consent of the body of the Company, made known the same in Public Court, offering it to the consideration of the Company; it being high time to come to resolution…”

At length, the assembly decided that Standish should take a party “as he thought sufficient …against all the Indians in the Massachusetts Bay. And because, as all men know that have had to do in that kind, it is impossible to deal with them upon open defiance; but to take them in such traps as they lay for others.”

Standish was to journey as in previous excursions under the guise of trade, but also to ascertain the certainty of the plot “and more fitly take opportunity to revenge the same: but should forbear, if it were possible, till such time as he could make sure WITUWAMET, that bloody and bold villain before spoken of; whose head he had order to bring (back) with him, that it might be a warning and terror to all of that disposition.”

Winslow’s account has been challenged, most early on by Thomas Morton’s diatribe against the Pilgrims, “New England Canaan”, where he purports that Standish’s murder of Wituwamet and his companion were committed to provoke the Massachusetts against the Wessagusset colony and thus eliminate a trading competitor before Weston could send more men and establish a permanent settlement. More recently, historians have used Winslow’s words to show the early Colonial conduct of justifying aggressive and antagonistic measures toward their Native American countrymen. But this would be to align the Plymouth settlement with the later Massachusetts Bay Colony, and there were decided differences in their approach to Native Americans as we shall see.

In this case, it seems clear that Standish was sent with specific orders, that he willingly took himself and his men into what was surely a cauldron, that could not but boil over.

The Massachusetts knew why he had come. A Pinese named Pecksuot, sought Hobbamock out and gave him a message for the Captain.

“Tell him, we know it: but fear him not, neither will we shun him. But let him begin, when he dare; he shall not take us at unawares.”

Standish took but eight men with him, including Hobbamock. Such a small party he felt, would not arouse suspicion. Clearly the Pilgrim leaders were not looking to wage war, but to send perhaps the only man among them who could install fear amidst those who plotted against the Plantation.

Certainly this was a different path than the Colony had taken before in negotiating peace.  When Winslow wrote that the Wampanoag “possess a feare of us”, he was writing with a meaning of respect. That fear, itself, was the remedy decided upon, reflects the cumulative effect of Winslow’s diplomacy broken down by jealousies and petty disputes between Sachems, the loss of the sometimes devious, but diplomatic Tisquantum, and the waves of illness that continued to affect Native communities.

Standish and his men returned to Plymouth with the head of Wituwamet and three wounded prisoners. One man, whom Hobbamock vouched for as “not a Masachusett, but a stranger who lived among them” was sent back with a message to the Sachem Obtakiest that “for our parts, it never entered our hearts to take such a course with them, till their own treachery enforced us thereunto; and therefore, might thank themselves for their own overthrow.” The Sachem eventually sent a woman to let Bradford know that “would fain make peace again with us.” His people were scattered, he informed the Pilgrims, and fearful of retribution. Winslow would write of the feared conspiracy that “those other people that intended to join the Massachusetts against us, though we never went against any of them…forsook their houses, running to and fro like men distracted, living in swamps and other desert places; and so brought manifold diseases amongst themselves, whereof many of them are dead”.

Among those who died in this latest plague were Canacum, Aspinet, and Iyanough, three of the Sachems that Winslow had so carefully cultivated friendships, or at least the bond of trade.  Winslow recalled that the Sachem Iyanough in “the midst of these distractions” had told him that the God of the English was offended with them, and would destroy them in anger, and he reflected near the end of “Good News from New England” that it was “certainly strange to hear how many of late have and still daily die amongst them. Neither is there any likelihood it will easily cease: because, through fear, they set little or no corn, which is the staff of life; and without which, they cannot long preserve health and strength.”

Winslow saved his harshest words for those who he viewed in retrospect, as “that disorderly Colony that are dispersed, and most of them returned…” having been

“…a stain to Old England that bred them, in respect of their lives and manners amongst the Indians: so, it is to be feared, will be no less to New England, in their vile and clamorous  reports; because she would not foster them in their desired idle courses.”

While Winslow may have been complicit in the Plantations undertakings against the threatening tribes, at least one minister voiced regret that the Pilgrims had seemed to abandon the devout mission they’d set out upon, leaving Leiden. From the harbor town in Holland, Pastor John Robinson wrote to those in New England concerning the news he’d heard of the killing of Indians: “Oh how happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you killed any! Besides, where blood is once begun to be shed, it is seldom staunched of a long time after.”

The minister ended his long, sermonizing letter with a dire warning of the as yet unseen consequences of their actions:

“It is…a thing more glorious in men’s eyes, than pleasing in God’s or convenient for Christians, to be a terror to poor barbarous people. And indeed, I am afraid lest, by these occasions, others should be drawn to affect a kind of ruffling course in the world.”

Indeed, there would be those who would follow the same course with Native Americans but those would do so beyond Winslow’s influence. In the months that followed, the leader with whom the Pilgrims first made peace, and whose life Winslow had saved, would become the most prestigious Native American leader in the region. When Massasoit again visited Plymouth for the nuptials of William Bradford and the new bride he’d chosen among recent arrivals from England, the Plantation unfurled the bloody linen that had cradled the dead Witawamut’s head as a flag to honor the visiting king.

As much as those at Plymouth had given Standish a hero’s welcome, Winslow refused to abandon his diplomatic efforts. He used the peace that the now powerful Massasoit imposed to depart from the Plantation and negotiate a charter for a colony at Cape Ann, which would expedite salted fish and other products to investors in London. Winslow’s plan upon his return was to expand the Plymouth Colony’s trading base to include posts on the Kennebuc River, at Aptuxet (now Bourne), as well as Sowamsitt, near the Wampanoag encampment of Montop, as well as at Penobscot, and along the Connecticut River. As Jeremy D. Bangs explains in his biography of Winslow:

“Strategically, these all represented efforts to produce increased profits quickly for the colony’s investors, through shipping the three major New England commodities (fish, fur, and timber) directly from the trading posts. They were also clearly intended to extend the reach of Plymouth along the coast in such a way as to offset any competition from new settlements…”  When John Winslow and his followers established their Puritan “City on a Hill” above Boston harbor in 1630, they found that Plymouth had already established trade along much of the Atlantic coast.

Winslow was selected Governor of the plantation in 1632, and notwithstanding Bradford’s early efforts, immediately brought a much needed organization, and careful detail to the Colony’s records. As Governor, Winslow presided over court proceedings nearly every month, adjudicating over matters both civil and personal. General bylaws were passed for the first time “for the benefit of the commnwealth”. These included militia service, repair of roads, the maintenance of fields, and the sale or inheritance of property. As Bangs explains, “the concern to organize inheritance (including the settlement of debts owed to and by estates) arose in 1633 because, for the first time since the terrible winter of 1620-21, numerous people had died that year in Plymouth”.

John Winthrop also took note that there was “muche Sicknesse at Plymouthe & aboue 20: died of pestilent fevers”. In that same winter, more Native Americans also died, including Chickatabut, a leading Sachem of the Massachusetts.

It was also during this time that Winslow found a friend and ally in Diplomacy with Native Americans. Roger Williams had come to Plymouth to preach, and for a time “was friendly entertained…and exercised his gifts among them, & after some time was admitted a member of ye church; and his teaching well approved…”[11]

In 1630, Charles I had granted a new patent to Plymouth where by right of discovery and by virtue of their Christianity, exempted the Pilgrims or the King from paying for any lands acquired as the settlement expanded. Williams openly condemned the charter, and penned a treatise asserting that a proper title to Indian lands could only be obtained through the fair sale of land or compensation for what was rightly their property. He presented copies to both Winslow, and Winthrop in Boston, the latter chaffing at the “strange opinions” presented.

Winthrop saw nothing wrong with an English charter for these “empty lands”, and considered the illnesses that swept the land of Native Americans as God clearing the way for their purpose. In 1634, a few months after a recent plague had once again ravaged the remnants of Massachusetts tribes, Winthrop wrote of the Native Americans that “they are all neere dead of the small Poxe, so the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.” This dark veined branch of English Anglicanism would become known as Puritanism and presented through many histories as a necessary discipline among the people who would survive, prosper, and lead New England into the Revolutionary era.

While at Plymouth, Williams continued his mission work with local Native Americans, learning their tongue, their customs, and religion as he would with the Narragansett some years later. In his biography of the minister, James Ernst wrote that “the people of Plymouth liked him and his zealous preaching, but the leading men feared his vagaries and advanced ideas”. Who these “leading men” might have been is uncertain, as both Bradford and Winslow wrote of him in friendship and admiration. His work certainly influenced the government of Winslow and the courts well into the 18th century. As noted by Jeremy Bangs, the leading historian of Indian deeds in Southeastern Massachusetts, from this time on, “the concept of the legitimacy of Native land tenure is expressed repeatedly in Plymouth Court records”.[12]

Williams eventually left Plymouth for Salem, and then to the “Narragansett Country” where he established his practices, and Providence Plantations. Rhode Island for a time became a lone and isolated harbor of fair treatment to Native Americans. Even though eventually these lofty ideals would succumb to political pressures and outside interference, even the harshest of William’s critics had to concede that minister “was the first of several in the American story who placed themselves between the Indians, resentful and bewildered, and the white man, relentlessly pushed forward by the economic pressure behind him. His protest against the impropriety of a European sovereignty presuming to divide and a lot the lands of the Indians went to the roots of a generally accepted principle of International Law, bringing into question the moral validity of the Bull of Demarcation (1493) …denying in the name of humanity itself the hacten us unculta concept by which European sovereigns asserted the theory that lands never occupied by Christian men were empty lands…”[13]

Williams’ “errand in the wilderness” proved to be less of a wilderness than he had anticipated. “ In the Nariganset Countrey “ he wrote, “a man shall come to many Townes, some bigger, some lesser, it may be a dozen in 20. miles Travell.”

When after seven years with the tribe, on his way to England to obtain a charter for his new colony, Williams recalled a meeting with Canonicus, “the old High Sachem of the Nariganset Bay (a wise and peaceable prince), “ when they were gathered with others in a “soleme assembly” where the Sachem had used the word Wunnaumwayean, which Williams was told, meant “If he say true”

Modern tablet commemorating the meeting of Canonicus and Roger Williams in Newport, R.I. Canonicus had given a solemn oration during which he told the missionary that

“I have never suffered any wrong to be offered to the English since they landed; nor never will. Wunnaumwayean, Englishman; if the Englishman speake true. if he meane truly, then shall I goe to my grave in peace, and hope that the English and my posteritie shall live in love and peace together.”[14]

Williams responded that he hoped the Sachem had no cause to question Englishman’s faithfulness, as he had long experience of their friendliness and trust. To this, Canonicus “tooke a sticke and broke it into ten pieces, and related ten instances (laying down a sticke to every instance) which gave him cause thus to feare and say…”

Gathering these from the Sachem, Williams presented some to “the Governors of the English “ with the fervent hope that they would “be far from giving just cause”, for the Narragansett to question, that the English would keep their word.

January-May 2011


[1] It is curious to note that while widely accepted that this message was as Tisquantum relayed, a “challenge” to Plymouth leaders, and the gunpowder in kind to the Narragansett leader; what seems overlooked is the simple fact that, as Winslow records, the “gift” from Canonicus might have been meant as a warning to Tisquantum. The reply might therefore have been interpreted as a Pilgrim response that they would protect the

Native American no matter the cost. This relay of the snakeskin to neighboring tribes, takes on a new light with this interpretation.

[2] Bradford, “Of Plymouth Plantation” SEM ed. p. 92

[3] Ibid p. 94

[4] Bradford. p. 99

[5] His death has been under speculation of poisoning since Morison (1952) and the subject was recently raised again in Philbrick’s “The Mayflower”. Recalling Bradford’s words about Massasoit’s intentions, and Winslow’s account of the violent sudden illness, the theory has credence.

[6] Winslow, “Good Newes from New England”

[7] “A Key…” p. 142

[8] Winslow, Edward “The Religion and Customs of the Indians near New Plymouth”

[9] “A Key…” p. 76 Such disputes were often the cause of “Indian Warres” noted by early historians. It is only recently that we have come to know them as small skirmishes that exacted compensation for an earlier misdeed.

[10] Ibid p. 54

[11] Bradford “Of Plimoth Plantation”

[12] Bangs, Jeremy D. “ Pilgrim Edward Winslow” p. 13

[13] Roth Lawrence C. “Roger Williams” Marshall Woods lecture at Brown University 1936

[14] Williams, Roger “A Key to the Language of America p. 58

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
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2 Responses to NENA Adaptation Part III: English Law and “Indian Justice”

  1. P.W. Langston says:

    As a direct descendant of Sachem Canacum and his grandson Sachem Quachatasett Kesepett (quichatasett). I am constantly searching for historical information on our families ancestry. – found the info very enlightening. My great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother being the last to hold the Sepitt name. So nice to meet Canacum!!

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