An Unsettled Land


Chapter 1. An Unsettled Land

New England was a haunted land before the first European settlers arrived in the early 1600’s. Native American trading relations with the Norse along the Charles and Taunton Rivers, as well as Mount Hope Bay, and Narragansett Bay had occurred as far back as the 14th century. Trading with the Dutch, French, and the English had occurred for nearly a century before those religious refuges from England rowed ashore. Some early traders had stayed and integrated themselves, even married into some of the Algonquian tribes that lived along the New England coastlines and inland along the rivers.

remnants of a nordic fort along the Charles River near Waltham, Massachusetts

remnants of a nordic fort along the Charles River near Waltham, Massachusetts

By the time of the pilgrims arrival in 1620, many tribes were already acquainted with household wares, the pots and pans, and utensils brought by European traders along with tools, even clothing; exchanged for wampum (for better exchange with other tribes up north), pottery, and clay pipes of easy manufacture by Narragansett, Massachusett and Wampanoag craftswomen. These tribes adopted these goods into their culture for both practical and spiritual purposes.

An early western depiction of Algonquian people in the 17th century.

An early western depiction of Algonquian people in the 17th century.

On a coasting journey in the dead of winter, a band of pilgrims hoping to trade for provisions from whatever Indians they found, walked inland some distance and circled back again, to come upon

“a place like a grave, but it was much bigger and longer than any we had yet seen. It was also covered with boards, so we mused what it should be, and resolved to dig it up…”

The men, in their slow dismantling of the grave found between the mats placed above the body, “…bowls, trays, dishes, and such like trinkets”. [i]

Roger Williams would write of the Narragansett ritual of  Nickommo, a great feast and dance where

“they give I say a great quantity of money, and all sort of their goods…to one person: and that person that receives this Gift, upon the receiving of it goes out, and hollowes thrice for the health and prosperity of the Party that gave it…”[ii]

Edward Winslow, 1621 courtesy of Wickimedia

Edward Winslow, 1621
courtesy of Wickimedia

     Edward Winslow would write in astonishment of the ceremony he witnessed, where a great fire was lit, and those in the gathering, including visitors from neighboring tribes would come forward and throw pots, bowls, dishes, and silverware into the cauldron. During the early attacks on white settlements in Maine and Vermont during King George’s war, almost all of the English goods that filled the house were left behind for archeologists to unearth three hundred and some years later.

What Europeans brought most to the native Americans on New England’s shores were diseases unfathomable to the native healers. Narragansett oral historians speak of a great plague among their people in the late 16th century. The first recorded incident of what 17th century historians have called a plague, occurred between 1616-1619. Elderly survivors described the symptom of yellowed skin and the remaining scars, to the Reverend Daniel Gookin. While the cause of the plague has long been debated, there is no doubt as to the toll it took upon the native American population. As historian Karen Bragdon would write

“This terrible epidemic reduced populations among the Ninnimissinuok of the northern and central Massachusetts Bay by as much as 90 percent”[iii].

Indeed, when the pilgrims came to realize the full measure of the Wampanoag, they were astonished that there were but sixty men under Massasoit’s command.

William Bradford would write of the “sad spectacle” of bones left above ground and unburied. The pilgrims found in their coasting journeys, abandoned fields and villages along the Massachusetts shore. Edward Winslow pondered the empty fields and thought of  the “thousands of men… which  died in a great plague not long since, and pity it was, and is, to see so many goodly fields, and so well seated, without men to dress and manure the same”.

Roger Conant would write some years later, as he reached Cape Ann, that “Though all the countrey bee as it were a thicke wood for the generall, yet in divers places there is much ground cleared by the Indians…I am told that about three miles from us a man may stand on a little hilly place and see divers thousands of acres of ground as good as need to be, and not a Tree in the same”[iv].

What native Americans the pilgrims did meet were remnants of once thriving communities, or transitional native Americans like Squanto who vacillated  between the remnants of his own tribe on the Weir river, and the larger Pokanoket(Wampanoag) tribe.

Conant would write of his native American neighbors in 1628:

“Upon the River of Mistick is seated sagamore John, and upon the River Saugus sagamore James…The elder brother, John, is a handsome young man…conversant with us, affecting English apparel and houses, and speaking well of our God. His brother James is of a far worse disposition, yet repaireth often to us. Both these brothers command not above thirty to forty men”.

By a decade later, the sachem Chickataubot, living near what became Quincy, Massachusetts, was said to have only fifty to sixty subjects, and the great empire of Nanepashmet which extended from Chelsea to Marblehead was now controlled by his sons, Wonouaham and Montowomsate, who between them “commanded not above thirty or forty men”. In 1633-1634 small pox ravaged the tribes along the Rhode Island, and Connecticut coastlines; as well as inland, along the riverside communities.

Samuel Drake would write that illness began that year, among Native Americans in Plymouth:

“During the autumn of this year the small pox destroyed great numbers of the Indians…about Pascataqua River nearly all perish… About Plymouth too, many are carried off by a malignant distemper; with which about twenty of the pilgrims die also…In January of 1634 it was reported that the small pox had swept over the Narragansett country, destroying in its course seven hundred of that nation, and that it was extending among the westward of them”.

Indeed, some native communities along the lower and middle Connecticut River were wiped out entirely. It was a plague that the sachem Canonicus never forgot.

Years later, in rebuking the overtures of John Winthrop, he would complain to Roger Williams that the English had brought the disease to his people, and that the Narragansett had mistrusted the English from the beginning. This mistrust began to grow among neighboring tribes, a fact not lost on Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, who, to frighten Massasoit and his leaders, told them that the English at Plymouth harbored a great plague that they could unleash with a volley of their cannon upon the Natives.

The suspicion that white settlers were capable of poisoning the native populations  did not deter trade, but neither was it ever discounted, and was ultimately at the heart of events which led to the outbreak of King Philip’s War.

Little wonder then, that by the late 17th century, the white man was to take the form of Hobbomock in Algonquian culture, and in dreams, was almost always a harbinger of death.

But disease was not all that came with the Europeans. The vices of greed, and the consumption of alcohol, while certainly not unknown to the native Americans, reached a new level once settlements sprang up along the coast. As early as 1626, Conant had recorded the incident of a Native American found frozen to death on Cape Ann, “reared up against a tree and his bottle….at his head”.  Often, to the native leaders alarm, the two were bound together. The resultant mix of drunkenness and violence presented before colonial courts is succinctly summarized by Samuel Drake and bears reprinting here:

Although from 1623-1675 there was no general War with the Indians in New England, yet there were often and frequent Disturbances…There were also frequent Quarrels and Murders among the Indians themselves, with which the white People had Nothing to do; though after such Occurrences, they sometimes espoused the Cause of the Party they considered injured, and used their Endeavors to bring the Offender to Punishment. So when any Wrong was done to an Indian by any of the Settlers, Justice was speedily extended to the injured Party. Of course Cases would often arise wherein, from conflicting Evidence, the Ends of Justice were frustrated. This was oftenest the Case when the English interfered with the Indians’ private Quarrels, or Quarrels among themselves”[v].

Native Americans scarcely understood the English protocols of law. While they often presented their arguments in an elegant and persuasive manner, they resented the delays and  further inquiries by the court.

“Hence the Party suffering by it often determined on taking the first Opportunity to be revenged; or as it used to be said, ‘to right themselves’. In this way Feuds and Jelousies were perpetuated”.

In numerous cases, both native and new Americans took the law into their own hands. There were attacks on white settlers in Massachusetts, as well as fighting brought to Ipswich by hostile Tarratine warriors. These were the Abenaki, whose lands stretched into the territory now known as Maine. Long hated among the Algonquian tribes, the Abenaki were not an agricultural or manufacturing people. Almost all they owned came from plunder, as they raided storehouses along the coast of Massachusetts, and randomly attacked villages in the course of their travels.

In the fall of 1631, trader Walter Bagnal was murdered at his trading post on the Saco river. As Bagnal was known to overcharge the natives for goods, and had engaged in many an argument in trade, it was believed that had been his undoing.

In the winter of 1631-1632, these warriors came upon Henry Way’s boat in the waters off Dorchester. Way, three friends, and his son were all murdered, and the boat sunk with stones to “hide the Evidence of their Barbarity”. According to Drake, in the aftermath of the hunt for these Indians and subsequent hanging , of at least some of the perpetrators; soldiers were sent to Ipswich, and from shore the next spring, watched as “twenty canoes full of them” paddled past Ipswich, though “they did not dare to land”[vi].

Fighting also broke out between the Narragansett and the Pequots. Canonicus, the Narragansett sachem, enlisted the help of Massachusetts tribes in Neponset and Winnisemmet. Though the skirmishes were largely confined to the swamps and woodlands of Rhode Island and Connecticut, some of the Massachusetts warriors attacked homes in Dorchester in August, and were soon “set in the Bilboes at Boston”.

In September, another trader from Dorchester was killed, and the sachem Passaconay reportedly “pursued and captured the Murderer”, as well as meted out a punishment that satisfied the authorities. At the same time, courts in Boston came down hard on those convicted of selling gun powder and shot to the native Americans. The Court even considered the death penalty for this offense, and were equally harsh with those settlers who commited acts that might provoke neighboring tribes. One Nicholas Frost, was branded and banished from the colony after ”stealing from the Indians at Damerill’s Cove”.

In January of 1633, a group of Englishmen seized the former Nahant sachem Poquanam  at his home on Richmond’s Island. Known as “Black Will” among the white settlers, he had long been suspected in the murder of the trader Bagnel. The whites lynched him and left, in pursuit of pirates. There is no record to indicate that these men ever met justice for their crime.

Such was not the case in 1638 for one Arthur Peach, and two unfortunate men he enticed into his murderous scheme. Peach, who was described as “A young desperado, who had been a Soldier in the Pequot War, and done notable Service…,”[vii]  seems  after his time as a soldier to have deigned work and headed to the Dutch settlement on the Hudson River, where he met Thomas Jackson and Richard Slinnings. He soon enticed the men to leave their masters and join with him in traveling the eastern seaboard. Three men joined Peach and traveled south through the woods.

At some point, they met up with Penowanyanquis, a Narragansett man who was traveling with a significant amount of wampum. After proposing the deed to his fellow travelers, Peach invited Penowanyanquis to sit and smoke with them; an invitation that was accepted. When the opportunity came, Peach ran through the Narragansett courier with his sword, and the men robbed him of his wampum, leaving the Indian for dead. Though mortally wounded, Penowanyanquis managed to make it back to his homeland and give details to the Narragansett about the men who had robbed him before he died. Narragansett sachems immediately sent men in pursuit of Peach and the others. They captured him as well as Jackson and Slinnings, who were marched to Rhode Island where the whites were thrown in prison.

With the Narragansett sachems demanding justice over the incident, the authorities of Plymouth County where the murder had taken place took hold of the matter, and the three men were executed in Plymouth on September 4, 1638.

Ironically, during these same years that this tension and resultant events were taking place, those logging journals and writing books to be consumed back home in Great Britain, were portraying native Americans in a positive light.

In the chapter of Mourt’s Relation entitled “A Journey to Pokanoket, the Habitation of the Great King Massasoit”,  the writer recounts the days in June of 1621, when a band of the pilgrims spent several days in the company of the sachem:

“…he lighted tobacco for us and fell to discoursing of England, and of the King’s Majesty, marveling that he would live without a wife. Also he talked of the Frenchmen, bidding us not to suffer them to come to Narraganset, for it was King James his country, and he also was King James his man. Late it grew…So we desired to go to rest. He laid us on the bed with himself and his wife, they at one end and we at the other…”

In his New England’s Prospect (1634), William Wood wrote of the tribes that populated southern New England:

“The Pequots be a stately, warlike people, of whom I never heard of any misdemeanor, but that they were just and equal in their dealings, not treacherous either to their countrymen or English, requiters of courtesies, affable towards the English.

Their next neighbors, The Narragansets, be at this present the most numerous people in those parts, the most rich also,  and the most industrious, being the storehouse of all such kind of wild merchandise as is among them…”

The Narragansett fished, hunted and trapped beaver, muskrat, and otters for the English and traded them for commodities which they sold to inland tribes at a profit. They also manufactured  “great stone pipes, which will hold a quarter ounce of tobacco”,  as well as bowls and utensils for trade.  The tribe is estimated to have numbered about 4,000 during this period, but as Wood wrote: “although these be populous, yet I never heard they were desirous to take in hand any martial enterprise or expose themselves to the uncertain events of war…they rest secure under the conceit of their popularity and seek rather to grow rich by industry than famous by deeds of chivalry”.

Puritan minister and trader Roger Williams came to know the Narragansett better than any European visitor.  He would remark, in his A Key into the Language of America (1643) “I have acknowledged amongst them an heart sensible of kindnesses, and have reaped kindnesses against from many, seven yeares after, when I myselfe had forgotten…”[viii]

Yet while these visitors were writing warmly of their interactions with native Americans, many settlers arrived with a predestined sense of conquest, of New England as a God-given gift of resources nearly rid of savages that would impede the steady growth of profits such resources would provide.

In Edward Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Savior in New England(1654), the first general history published of the region, the puritan justification of establishing a “new eden” in the wake of these devastating plagues is articulated for the first time. Writing of the smallpox epidemic of 1619,

“as the ancient Indians report,  there befell a great mortality among them, the greatest that ever the memory of Father to Sonne took notice of, chiefly desolating those places where the English afterward planted…by this means Christ…not only made room for his people to plant; but also tamed the hard and cruell hearts of these barbarous Indians”.[ix]

Johnson referred to the uneasy peace between the Massachusetts colonies and the tribes that had signed an alliance in Plymouth. The Narragansett in Rhode Island kept the colonists at arms length, using Roger Williams as an intermediary between John Winthrop, and later his son and namesake in Connecticut, but were always mistrustful of English intentions.  Colonial authorities were also mistrustful of the Indians, especially as carefully laid out English-style court systems had failed to corral tensions between settlers and native Americans.

Authorities were assuaged for a time, by efforts to moralize the native Americans, first by the writings of  European religious thinkers that envisioned the native Americans as part of the “lost tribes of Israel”, and then by those who sought to evangelize among the Indians. These efforts largely began with minister John Eliot in 1640 when he began to learn the Massachusetts language in order to preach to the natives in their own tongue, and began to conceive his greatest work, the translation of the King James Bible into the Algonquian language.

He preached his first sermon to Roxbury natives at a gathering just outside of town in 1646, and began as well to establish separate communities for those Indians who had converted. According to historian Linford Fisher, “Between 1646 and 1675 Eliot founded fourteen “praying towns” throughout Massachusetts, in which he gathered Christianized Indians into highly organized towns designed to inculcate European cultural, religious, and agricultural values”.[x][xi]

Eliot sent pamphlets on a regular basis to wealthy backers in England, a group that would come to call itself the “Company for the Propigation of the Gospel in New England”, and would eventually fund other ministers throughout the region.

The Reverend Thomas Mayhew Jr. established a similar community on Martha’s Vineyard, and the Reverends James Thompson and James Fitch were sent to preach to the Pequots and Mohegans in 1657.  Eliot’s Gospel was published in 1660, and seemed to establish a hope for increased evangelization, but these efforts and the communities established were always controversial among the native populations.

While some Massachusetts indians saw these “towns” as a way of stabilizing the large losses of land they had suffered, the Massachusetts court in negotiating the land grants with Eliot, required local natives who moved into the towns to sign away all current and future rights to vast tracts of land.[xii]

After the death of Ousamequin (Massasoit) in 1661, the peace that he had brokered with Massachusetts authorities began to unravel. The mysterious death of his eldest son and heir apparent Wamsutta (Alexander), while in English hands exacerbated Wampanoag mistrust of the English, and with the succession of his younger brother Metacom(Phillip) as sachem of the tribe, this mistrust became more vocal. According to John Easton, Phillip and his counselors told Rhode Island authorities that “that had a great fear to have ani of their indians…called or forsed to be Christian indians. Thay saied that such wer in everi thing more mischivous, only disemblers, and then the English made them not subject to their kings, and by ther lying to rong their kings”.[xiii]

Portrait of "King Philip" Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

Portrait of “King Philip”
Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

Tensions were also exacerbated as speculators and second-generation settlers continued to take land or settle away from townships where authority and spiritual guidance were far removed from their doorstep. As historian Jill Lepore would note,

“By the 1670’s in the years before King Philip’s War broke out, there were many signs that the English had degenerated. Church membership and church attendance had declined. People were settling farther and farther from the coast, nearer to the Indians, and farther from the civilizing influence of English neighbors. Trade and contact with the Indians were increasing, though little of this contact involved sharing the good news of the gospel”[xiv]

Puritan minister Increase Mather cautioned New Englanders in a series of jeremiads,  most notably, in The Day of Trouble is Near, with which he decried the “great decay as to the power of godliness amongst us”.  Other ministers in similar jeremiads, or sermons, spoke to the rise in violence, drunkenness, and lewd behavior that “turnith man into a bruit beast”.

The suspected murder of Christian Indian John Sassamon has long been pointed to by historians as the turning point that led to war, but as we have seen, the disputes over the taking of land, the attempted and mostly failed Europeanization of native Americans, and the subsequent threats upon their own beliefs and culture would breed these ill suspicions of both English and Indians against each other, and often of one another, and would inextricably draw them into armed conflict.  When war finally erupted in the spring of 1675, historian Linford Fisher writes that the fighting

“ …pitted Indian against Indian and Christian against Christian…while Wampanoags, Massachusetts, Narragansetts, Nipmucks, Pocomtucks, and Abenakis all fought against the Euroamericans, the Mohegans, Pequots, Mohawks, Christian Wampanoags, and a smattering of other Christian Indians from a variety of native groups fought alongside the New England colonists and aided them in countless ways as spies, interpreters, messengers, and assassins.[xv]

The war exposed the skepticism and hostility that the second generation of settlers held for native Americans living among them. Where those indigenous people had once been seen in English eyes as being contrary and inferior, the early colonists had mostly held them kindred spirits, not yet civilized. “There is a day coming”, Cotton Mather had declared, “when God will receive them into favor again”.

But the conflict turned the narrative into one of biblical and metaphorical rhetoric, portraying the native Americans as heathen savages, Ameleks against those saintly new Americans who would bring forth a new Israel in the wilderness. In this vein, the New England Confederation declared war upon the Narragansett in 1675, whose sheltering of Wampanoag elders and women were seen as complicity and evidence of the greater conspiracy to drive the whites from the land:

“So Satthan may combine, and stir up many of his instruments” in the same way that the “Amalek and the Philistines did confederate against Israel”.

The diary of Samuel Sewall, who would later become a judge during the Salem witch trials, casts light on the violence of the times:

“Friday about 3 in the afternoon, April 21, 1676, Capt. Wadsworth and Capt.

Brocklebank fall. Almost an hundred since, I hear, about fifty men, slain three miles

off Sudbury: the said Town burned, Garrison houses except.

…Friday May 5, 16 Indians killed: no English hurt: near Mendham, 19 May. Capt.

Turner, 200 Indians. 22 May, about 12 Indians killed by Troop

.…June 22. Two Indians, Capt. Tom and another, executed after lecture …Note. This week Troopers, a party killed two men, and took an Indian Boy alive. Just between the Thanksgiving, June 29, and Sab. day, July, 2, Capt. Bradfords expedition 20 killed and taken, almost 100 came in: Squaw Sachem

.…Saturday, July 1, 1676. Mr Hezekiah Willet slain by Naragansets, a little more than Gun-shot off from his house, his head taken off, body stript. Jethro, his Niger was then taken: retaken by Capt. Bradford the Thorsday following.”

Willet’s slave had seen the English in the woods and run up to them. He told Bradford’s party that Philip had about a thousand native Americans of “all sorts” with him, but that many were sickly. Three had died while he was in captivity.

Later that summer, even as Indians came into Plymouth to “prove themselves faithful”, Sewall heard of  “one hundred twenty one Indians killed and taken” and then of the English victory in Medfield where Canonicus II was captured. He also heard the ominous report of “One Englishman lost in the woods taken and tortured to death”[xvi]

Whites were equally brutal at the close of the war. In Taunton, Massachusetts in August 1676, a group of twenty men led by a turncoat Indian, surprised a band led by Queen Weetamoe. In the ensuing skirmish, Weetamoe attempted to escape by crossing the Taunton river “upon a raft, or some pieces of broken Wood”. She was later found, naked and drowned on the Swansea side of the river. Those that found the Queen mutilated her corpse., paraded it through the town of Taunton and placed her for public display on the village green.[xvii]

The very brutality of King Philip’s War was to cast a long shadow over New England, and like the grisly remains of the sachems head, placed in a cage and hung before the Plymouth Courthouse, the memories of the savagery on both sides, were slow to decay, and transposed the war into a darker metaphor. The Puritans especially, seemed vexed by the native Americans rejection of the gospel, even among those Christian Indians, many of whom had been secreted away from their communities, there were some who fought with their people against the whites and their native allies. Eliot’s bibles printed in the Massachusetts language, were gathered up by marauding Indians and destroyed.

Portrait of Cotton Mather Courtesy of Wickimedia

Portrait of Cotton Mather
Courtesy of Wickimedia

Cotton Mather, though but a toddler when the war erupted, would, by his own account; ride his horse as an adult to Plymouth and pluck the jawbone from Philip’s skull as a souvenir. Though his Father had taken a milder approach to the Native Americans in his history of the war, Cotton had no doubt that what had begun in the spring of 1675, was a holy war that would likely last his lifetime. In his biography of minister John Eliot, he summarized what the Puritans faced on their arrival:

“The natives of the country now possessed by the (New Englanders) had been forlorn and wretched (heathens) ever since their first herding here; and tho we know not when or how these Indians first became inhabitants of this mighty continent, yet we may guess that probably, the divil decoy’d those miserable savages hither, in Hopes that the Gospel of the Lord Jesus would never come here to destroy or disturb his absolute empire over them.” [xviii]

In the throes of the conflicts that occurred for nearly three decades after King Philip’s War, Mather would exhort those joining the fight against “these Amaleks now annoying this new Israel in the wilderness”:

“Turn not back till they are consumed…tho they cry, let there be none to save them; but beat them small as the dust before the wind…”

But underlying this hatred of the native Americans and these efforts at their elimination, was the fear that the hoped for “new Israel” was not going to be.

The isolation and relative numbers of men compared to women had begat violence from the beginning in the form of fistfights and skirmishes among neighbors. But in rural areas in particular, isolated cases of odd and disarming behavior began to emerge with greater regularity. Worse still, those who came to the colonies in the generations after the Puritans establishing their religious communities, were a decidedly secular wave of immigrants.  John Winthrop had complained as early as 1641 in his diary that ”as people increased, so sin abounded”.

In the aftermath of the Indian wars nearly forty years later, Increase Mather would bemoan those settlers who were “all ready to run wild into the woods again, and be as heathenish as ever.”

But it would be Cotton Mather who would  attempt to turn the mirror on those he saw as being little more than those savages that the survivors of the war had feared for so long. In an irony that surely could not have been lost upon the Boston minister, the younger Mather now blamed the remaining Native Americans and their vices of drinking, gaming, and carefree wandering as an evil influence on these later generations of settlers.

“We have become shamefully inhumanized in all those abominable things…our Indian wars are not over yet.”

Indeed, Mather’s war to exterminate the last shred of nobility of Indian belief and culture was to last far longer than Metacom’s desperate effort to rid the land of the whites.

Though in the first histories of New England, the Native American leaders would come to be eulogized as heroic  defenders of their land, their descendants became vilified for their ongoing struggle with the European borne disease of alcoholism, their abject poverty after the war, and their continued resistance to adapt to the English style of living.

As these, and later popular histories were written, they often included colorful stories from local communities. These “indian tales” all held some moral invective and reflect the vice and shifty behavior that became associated with native Americans, underscoring the prejudice that white Americans displayed toward their race.  These tales of wandering Indians, itinerant and lazy, sure to be drunk at any given time of day, reduced a once proud race to individuals who were hapless, overindulgent,  and essentially lost in the afterlife.

One of the earliest stories from Rhode Island involves the ghost of an itinerant Indian who haunted a room of the Black Horse tavern in North Scituate. The tavern had been in the family for several generations by the time that Ruben Jenks was the keeper, and the hauntings began. Guests in the room complained of being woken at night after the terrible vision of a fully dressed warrior, yielding a tomahawk above their heads.

This occurred frequently over a period of time, so that the place soon had a reputation far and wide for its “Indian Room”. Friends told him that the ghost was that of an indigent Indian who had frequently loitered at the Pine Tree tavern up the road, and was doubtless determined to scare his customers away. When Mrs Jenks took the room for her own, the visitations took a different turn.

The Black Horse Tavern today.

The Black Horse Tavern today.

According to the story, the Indian gestured to Mrs Jenks, and led her outside to a large cedar by the front gate and pointed to the base repeatedly, and muttering in broken English about needing to revenge an insult to his race. When Mrs Jenks relayed the visitation to her husband, he determined that the place where the Indian had pointed must contain some treasure he had kept secret, and dug furiously, but in vain around the base of the tree. Later visitations brought Mrs Jenks outside to other trees on the property, all of which her husband dutifully dug around, including the orchard which was nearly destroyed in the search for treasure. Eventually Jenks decided as did his friends, that the ghost was merely bent on destroying his livelihood.

One night the Indian spirit came to Jenks’ daughter and led her to the old barn behind the tavern. Leader the girl inside, he gestured and spoke in broken English to the girl, but made her to understand that an old blackened trunk in the loft of the barn held the key to his disgruntled spirit. Though her mother were skeptical, she unearthed the trunk and opened it. Inside was a mannequin head and materials for making wigs. It seems that Jenks grandfather had doubled as a wig-maker in his time of owning the tavern and that this Indian, on attempting one night to scalp a visitor to the Inn, walked away in his anger and shame, with a bloodless wig in his hand. Thus he laid his revenge upon the present visitors.

The tale was purportedly first written down by one Parson Pillsbury, who had been witness to Rueben Jenks attempts to find the “treasure”, and recorded the “indian speak” as told by Jenks’ daughter. It was republished several times in popular titles at the turn of the 19th century, including Edward Field’s “Colonial Taverns” and most expansively in Alice Morse Earl’s “Stagecoach and Tavern Days”.

In her summary of the tale, Mrs Earle concluded that the Itinerant Indian “simply belonged to a class of ghosts …that…have a passion for pointing out places and saying treasure or skeletons are buried therein; wheras it always proves that nothing of the sort is ever found”.

While a whimsical ending for white readers, the caricature of a poverty-stricken Indian lurking about a tavern in the afterlife is a purely white reflection of those “wandering indians” in the aftermath of King Philip’s War.. Parson Pillsbury may have persuaded himself that attaching a moral lesson as from those biblical texts he used as inspiration for his sermons, was an appropriate use of poetic license,  but he was not alone in this respect.

Anthropologist William S. Simmons writes that these treasure-hunting dreams are quite common in both European and American mythology. There were many tales about the greed and the ills brought on by the pursuit of riches. They are not however, indigenous to New England’s Native Americans.  In Spirit of the New England Tribes, his seminal book on the folklore of the indigenous peoples of the region, we learn that

“Early historic New England Indians often buried their most valuable possessions with the dead and did not excavate graves to obtain their contents…New England Indians would rather see archeological sites and burial grounds left undisturbed.Thus, not only was the treasure story alien to the aboriginal tradition, but Indians disapproved of attempts to recover whatever treasures their ancestors might have buried”.

By the late 19th century, such tales had been incorporated into Native American mythology, but in the Indian mythology, it is nearly always the Europeans lured to the treasure, often by the devil himself, as in the Mashpee tale of  the Frenchman who sold his soul for a pot of gold.[xix]

In this new colonial mythology, spirits that deceived gullible people like Jenks were not tethered to this earth of their own free will, but were often associated with the devil or his “imps”.  In this respect, Native American places of history often became the haven of these spirits.

In Charlestown, Rhode Island, the site known as “Coronation Rock”, the place where the Sachems of the Narragansett people were received, became a lonely and desolate place with the tribes reduced numbers. In this period, the site became woven into New England folklore with the tale of one Tom Rodgers, most popularly recorded by Edward R. Snow.

Rogers it is said, was originally from Nantucket, and perhaps that upheaval, with the “wilderness” suddenly outside his own door, gave him the certainty that the region in which he now lived was haunted, and he had heard such stories about spirits gathering at Coronation rock.  One night after drinking a good quantity of spirits to fortify his courage, he set off for home and wandered close to the woods where the rock lay.  Snow writes that

“…as he approached the rock he saw a glow through the trees and heard the sound of a fiddle playing like mad, and when he reached the rock he saw that a wild dance was in progress. Finding a mischievous looking maid alone on a mossy hummock, Tom quickly took her by the waist and took her to the clearing- as they danced, he had the sensation of soaring above the clearing and noticed that the crowd were now seated watching them dance. As they separated and came back again, Tom noticed his partner’s features were changing from the rosy-cheeked girl he first noticed, to that of a lank and withered hag whose eyes now glowed green with evil, and whose sharp teeth now projected from the once delicate mouth. He flung off his coat, hat, and vest, and then fled for his life, tumbling once in the woods

and hearing growling, hissing, and a strange language about him. He had the sensation of a hideous form hovering over him”.[xx]

When Rogers woke in the woods the following morning, he noticed that his jackknife bore two portraits of the witch he’d met the night before. When he reached home he fell ill for a time, but recovered. In the coming months he would eschew alcohol, get married, and became a member of the church, eventually becoming “a deacon in good standing”.

The moral lesson is clear in this story, no doubt originating with the backlash against the looseness of morals and the frivolity that had become prevalent in the taverns by this time. Such religion-based morality tales also mingled with Native American mythology.

One such tale, which has prevailed into the twenty-first century is the story associated with “Devil’s Rock” in North Kingston, which before European arrival, had long been a gathering place for the Narragansett.

Photo of "Devil's Rock" footprint Courtesy of lostnewengland.com

Photo of “Devil’s Rock” footprint
Courtesy of lostnewengland.com

By 1671, the rock had become a boundary marker for the settlers of “Fones Purchase”, and thus out of Narragansett hands. Situated just north of Wickford, in the town of North Kingston, Rhode Island, the “Devil’s Rock” is part of a long, granite ledge that had once been hidden deep in the woods, and then exposed as a railway, and then a road were built near the site in the twentieth century. The tale has a few variations, but has remained largely intact in modern folklore. The legend of “Devil’s Rock” is an intermingling of Native American and White belief, an acknowledgement of a shared uncertainty about the afterlife, which takes the form of each culture’s entity. The story’s first appearance in print seems to be in 1850, though by then the tale had been told for generations.

An Indian woman had murdered a white man (either in Boston, or Wickford, depending upon the version).  She had made her way to the ledge and there knelt and prayed to Hobomoken, the Algonquian god who was both a benevolent and cruel deity, often called upon when a Native American faced  an insurmountable uncertainty over an event or the fate of a loved one.[xxi]

As she prayed, a stern-faced Englishman appeared beside her. Believing herself to be discovered by the white authorities, she attempted to escape, but was seized by the arm. She again called out to Hobomoken to save her, but the black-frocked Englishman told her “I am Hobomoken”, and grabbing her by the waist, stomped his feet on the rock and took her in flight to Purgatory Chasm, from which he flung her into the turbulent waters below.

In his version of the story, historian Edward R. Field concludes the tale by telling readers that

“…to this day may be seen near Wickford, the footprints of Satan on the surface of the ledge near the road. One has the form of a cloven hoof, and the other has the shape and size of a human foot, even to the mark of the great toe”.

In other versions of the story, the last mark of the devil can be found on a ledge on Block Island, said to be where Satan landed before diving into Block Island Sound.

Other tales from the east coast concern similar impressions that have been interpreted in folklore as “the Devil’s footprints”. In Monteville Connecticut, a similar impression on the rocky ledges of Shelter Island  is said to be the stepping off point for the legend that

“…when the Evil Spirit left the island he took three long strides, the first on Shelter Island, the second on Orient Point, and the third on Montauk, whence he plunged into the sea”.

The Rhode Island tale however, is more firmly rooted in moral tradition. In the popular version that appears predominantly in white folklore, the Indian woman, fleeing from a crime, is brought to justice by the Devil, the very deity she prayed to for mercy. Conversely, the Native American interpretation of the stern Englishman in the “devil’s disguise” has precedent in 17th century evocations of Hobomoken,

also called “Cheepie” in other Algonquian tales. The minister Daniel Gookin in his Two Voyages to New England (1673), recounts the experience of being woken by two natives and told that they had fled from a vision of Hobomoken:

“Two Indians and an Indess came running into our house, crying they should all die. Cheepie was gone over the field gliding in the air with a long rope hanging from one of his legs: we asked what he was like, and they said all wone English clothed with a hat and coat, shoos and stockings…”

Many of these “Indian tales” survive in print and on the web today as anecdotal expressions of an earlier time that pre-dates our own fascination with rural and urban legends, and the paranormal investigations that have become popular on television. We should not lose sight however, of how these tales came from, and continued to shape an unflattering perception of our indigenous peoples for generations of readers.


[i] Mourt’s Relation, p. 27 A much later unearthing of a Narragansett woman by various hands overseen by Dr. Usher Parsons in 1862, set off a debate as to her identity, based largely upon the great number of Dutch trinkets found in her grave.

[ii] Williams, Roger “A Key Into the Language of America” Applewood ed. p. 128

[iii] Bragdon, Kathleen

[iv] See Shipton,C. “Roger Conant A Founder of Massachusetts” Harvard, 1944 p. 59

[v] Drake, Samuel “Old Indian Chronicles” Boston, 1867 p. 24

[vi] Ibid. p. 25

[vii] Ibid. p. 28

[viii] Williams, Roger “A Key Into the Language of America” p. 7.

[ix] Johnson, Edward “Wonder-Working Providence” p. 17

[x] Fisher, Linford “The Indian Great Awakening” p. 24

[xi] Ibid. p. 24

[xii] Ibid. p. 29

[xiii] Easton, John “A Relaycion of the Indyan Warre, by Mr. Easton, of Road Isld.” (1675)

[xiv] Lepore, Jill “the Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity” p. 6

[xv] Fisher, Linford TIGA p. 27

[xvi] Wish, Harvey ed. “The Diary of Samuel Sewall” pp 24-25

[xvii] Schultz, Eric B. & Tougias, Michael J. “King Philip’s War” see pp. 129-130

[xviii] Mather, Cotton “Life of the Reverend John Eliot” Boston, 1691

[xix] Simmons, William Spirit of the New England Tribes p. 163

[xx] Snow, Edward R. “

[xxi] Edward Winslow would record a white translation of this deity and “ceremonies” in his journals. Hios interpretation of Hobomok or Hobbomoken as “the devil” would lead generations of historians into a one-sided view of this complex god.

About rag57

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